Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: Michigan Wolverines

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

So we meet one last time, dear enemy.

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Michigan_medium

2013 Record: 7-6

F/+ Rank: 37

Wins: Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Akron, UConn, Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern

Losses: Penn State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio State, Kansas State

~~~

Season Recap

It was a rough season for a program that is now 41-35 since 2008. The Wolverines started 5-0 on the strength of 4 home victories, including over Notre Dame in Under the Lights, Ann Arbor Part Two. Their perfect season was shattered against Penn State in overtime when their run game struggled mightily, foreshadowing the rest of the season. They bounced back with their best offensive performance of the season in a win over Indiana but had a brutal November in losses to MSU (2.85 YPP), Nebraska (2.78 YPP), and Iowa (2.77 YPP). Keeping in theme with their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde season, UM exploded offensively and nearly toppled undefeated Ohio State to finish the regular season then their run game went in the tank again in a bowl loss to K-State.

Series: 24-16-1 Michigan

We all know what is at stake in 2014. This will be the last game in the series for a while. Michigan has won 3 out of the last 4 and 6 out of the last 8 games in the series.

Coach Resume: Brady Hoke (26-13, 4th season)

Hoke's career at Michigan can be summed up in his records in and away from Ann Arbor: 19-2 at home and 7-11 on the road or at a neutral site. This is an important season for a coach who is only 10 games over .500 in his career and might be squarely on the hot seat with another mediocre season this fall.

Linemen Situation: Searching for Answers

Things are much worse on the offensive side of the ball where graduations, injuries, and a dreadful 2013 have zapped much optimism on the line. Taylor Lewan (48 career starts) and Michael Schofield (36 career starts) leave two big holes at the tackle positions. Two candidates to replace them in redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson (7 starts at both guard positions in '13) missed spring with shoulder surgery and redshirt freshman Logan Tuley-Tillman missed the first half of spring rehabbing from hand surgery. True freshman early enrollee Mason Cole started at left tackle for their spring game.

Michigan will need to find a new starter at left guard as well after they used several players there last fall. Redshirt junior Chris Bryant made 2 starts there last year but also missed spring practice. The highly touted sophomore Kyle Bosch made 3 starts at guard and should win the position. The center position looks fine with redshirt junior Graham Glasgow (9 starts) and redshirt junior Jack Miller (4 starts) both back, although Glasgow is suspended for the opener for a drunk driving arrest. Right guard is also a settled position as redshirt sophomore Kyle Kalis returns after making 9 starts there in 2013.

Michigan's defensive line is losing a couple interior players in Quinton Washington (6 starts, 19 tackles) and Jibreel Black (13 starts, 27 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) but their depth there is solid, even with Ondre Pipkins recovering from ACL surgery. Redshirt sophomore Willie Henry (6 starts, 31 tackles, 2.5 TFL), senior Frank Clark (13 starts, 43 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks), and senior Brennen Beyer (11 starts, 27 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks) all return with starting experience.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Devin Gardner returns for a 5th-year following a rocky 2013 that saw some incredible personal performances (Notre Dame, Ohio State) but a lot of frustration behind a poor offensive line. There was some thought that rising sophomore Shane Morris (started the bowl game for an injured Gardner) would push for the starting position this spring but that doesn't appear to be a reality right now.

Entering his last season Garder has totaled 4,440 passing yards on 59.7% accuracy with 34 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He's also ran for 658 yards and scoring 20 rushing touchdowns.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Stability on Offense

Michigan has been searching for an identity on offense for most of the Hoke era. They've had to fit their system to the talent of Denard Robinson and now Devin Gardner but neither are the ideal quarterback in the system they've been recruiting for over the past 3 years.

The biggest problems are on the offensive line and receiver. The line gave up 36 sacks (109th nationally) and a Division-I worst 113 tackles for loss last year. They want to establish the run to set up the pass but were terrible at rushing last fall. Michigan scored 13 of its 27 rushing touchdowns against Central Michigan and Indiana, and without those games the offense rushed for only 1,144 yards at 2.88 per carry.

Now, the Wolverines have to find some new targets for Gardner in the pass game too. Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, and Joe Reynolds are all gone. Gallon alone nearly accounted for half the receiving production a year ago. There is some talent to fall back on but it is young. That hasn't stopped some from pumping the sunshine on the new crop of wideouts:

During the spring game, Freddy Canteen--or Freddy Footwork, if you prefer--looked like he's been here before. For a true frosh, and an early enrollee at that, he was off the charts. Anything less than"impressive" just wouldn't be appropriate when describing what he did this past Saturday.

It was a practice, sure. No real need to go pedal-to-the-metal with Canteen predictions right now. But he was good. Really good. Probably the best offensive player of the day.

Canteen had one catch in the spring game.

Michigan does have tight end Devin Funchess basically working at receiver now and he brings 64 career receptions to the table. Still, their other top tight end Jake Butt (third on the team in receptions in 2013) tore his ACL and probably won't be available for the Notre Dame game. Only 2 of the other 9 receivers on the roster have caught passes in their career for a total of 21 receptions.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Cornerback

Sophomore Jourdan Lewis was the talk of spring intercepting two passes in their scrimmage and impressing the coaching staff throughout practices. He's teaming up with redshirt junior Blake Countess (13 starts, 46 tackles, 6 INT), senior Ramon Taylor (12 starts, 86 tackles, 4 INT), and sophomore Channing Stribling (1 start, 16 tackles) to form a nice nucleus of strong defenders.

Don't forget true freshman Jabrill Peppers (No. 3 national recruit) also enters the discussion this fall and is expected to battle for a starting spot as well.

Offensive Scheme: Pretend ManBall™

Michigan fired offensive coordinator Al Borges at the start of 2014 and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama in a bit of a surprise move. As mentioned above, Michigan has been searching for a pro-style offensive identity and they hope this new hire moves them closer in that direction.

However, the early returns following spring are not positive. Major questions on the offensive line tend not to build a new offense. Nussmeier incorporated plenty of spread elements within Alabama's pro-style attack so I expect Michigan's offense to look a lot like it did last year with a few new wrinkles.

Special Teams: 2/4

Michigan returns senior punter Matt Wile but has to replace plackicker Brendan Gibbons. It is expected that Wile will be pulling double duty this fall. Dileo and Gallon split reps at punter return in 2013 and now they are both gone. Tiny junior slot receiver Dennis Norfleet is back as the kick returner. Norfleet and Jourdan Lewis have been working at punt return but keep in mind Jabrill Peppers might take over when he arrives.

Famous Alum: Arnold Gingrich

Born in 1903 in Grand Rapids he graduated from Michigan in 1925. Gingrich founded the men's magazine Esquire in 1933 and was the editor there until 1945. He was close friends with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and was one of the best fly fisherman of his era.

Random Stat: 25 for 86

That was Michigan's 3rd down success rate in their 6 losses last year. They also went 3 for 17 in an overtime win against Northwestern. This has to be a major target for improvement this off-season.

Summary

Is there a bigger game for Notre Dame in 2014? I could make the case this is the most important game of the Brian Kelly era. A win could bring a hot start, possibly set up a 10+ win season, and completely put Notre Dame back on the map as a worthy Top 15 program. Not to mention winning the last game of a suspended series.

I think Michigan's going to be pretty good on defense. They lose very little from 2013, star linebacker Jake Ryan gets to start this year healthy, and Mattison knows what he's doing. Sure, they weren't very good last year at times--they gave up at least 30 points in 5 games--but I expect some significant improvement with a bunch of seniors and quality young recruits developing behind them.


Offensively, I just don't know. I wouldn't be very optimistic if I was a Michigan supporter. Of course, Devin Gardner can take over a game like he did at times last year against the Irish. They have a pretty talented but really inexperienced receiver corps which is about where Notre Dame is right now too.

That offensive line and run game, though? How can you be happy with that situation? De'Veon Smith (223 lbs.) and Derrick Green (227 lbs.) are two jumbo-sized running backs who don't have the speed to make a difference without a strong offensive line, so I don't know how Michigan plans to build their offense around the run game.

With Hoke's record on the road and the game being early in the season this favors Notre Dame a lot. Unless the Irish really bomb on offense (Golson, don't start out against UM like you did in 2012, okay?) it's probably going to hinge on whether Devin Gardner balls out again. That's pretty much been the scouting report on Michigan since 2009: Live and die by a crazy athletic quarterback making plays.

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