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Summer Opponent Preview: Michigan Wolverines

An early preseason look at what could be the last game between the Irish & Wolverines for a good while.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a preview of that pesky team to the northeast. Denard Robinson has graduated and they lost their best defender to a knee injury but the Wolverines return plenty of talent and signed a great freshmen class in February.



Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Head Coach: Brady Hoke (3rd year)

2012 Record: 8-5

2012 S&P Rating: 19

'12 S&P Offense: 9

'12 S&P Defense: 29

'12 FEI Rating: 26

Michigan experienced a lot of good fortune in 2011, but things didn't shake out that way last season. 2012 began ominously with a thrashing at the hands of Alabama in Jerry World (I wonder what that feels like?) followed by a much-too-close 6-point squeaker over Air Force in which Denard Robinson accounted for more total yards (426) than the entire Michigan offense (422). Yes, you read that right.

A laugher against Charlie Molnar's UMass team preceded Michigan's loss at Notre Dame, but the Wolverines got back on track with 2 impressive wins over Purdue and Illinois by a combined score of 89-13. By late October the Wolverines were sitting at a disappointing 4-2 but both losses came to the teams that would play in the national title game and they still had the opportunity to run the table in the Big Ten.

Michigan was held without a touchdown for the second time in 4 games against Michigan State but a field goal with 5 seconds left sealed the victory and snapped their school record 5-game losing streak to the Spartans. A huge game against Nebraska followed but once again Michigan could not score a touchdown, and worse, Denard Robinson left the game late in the 1st half with an injury that would ultimately end his career as the starting quarterback in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines gave up 16 points in the second half to the Cornhuskers, couldn't muster 200 yards of total offense without Robinson, and suffered their 3rd defeat of the season.

The Devin Gardner era got off to a rocky start at Minnesota as the quarterback-turned wide receiver-turned quarterback led the Wolverines to just 9 yards of offense on 8 plays in the 1st quarter, including an interception. Trailing 7-0 mid-way through the 2nd quarter, Gardner provided a spark:

It was Gardner doing classic Shoelaces things out there, as Michigan settled down for a 35-13 win. The next week Michigan erased a 10-point second half deficit and outlasted Northwestern in overtime before blasting Iowa by 25 and handing the Hawkeyes their 5th straight loss (they'd lose 6 in a row to end the season).

The Wolverines ended their season on a 2-game losing streak being outplayed by Ohio State and losing by 5 points, then playing well in a 33-28 loss against South Carolina in the bowl game with the Gamecocks scoring the winning touchdown with 11 seconds left.


Q&A with Zach Travis from Maize n Brew:

1. Head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison appear to have extremely safe jobs right now, but offensive coordinator Al Borges is a bit of a different story. Besides improving on offense, especially against the top teams on the schedule, what are Michigan fans looking for from Borges this year? Would you say that Borges is on the hot seat this season or is that an overreaction?

I don't think Borges is on the hot-seat for two reasons. First, the whole Hoke regime is in such good standing with the fan base that I can't imagine anyone doing anything other than grumble about playcalling under their breath for the next couple years. Michigan's offense would have to really take a couple steps back over the next two years for anyone to get up in arms.

Second, and most importantly, the last two seasons have seen Michigan's offense struggle, but that is with a roster that wasn't really built to do what Borges wanted. Denard Robinson, for all this otherworldly athletic talents, is hardly a west coast offense quarterback, or even a poor man's version of such. The offensive line had a few valuable pieces left, but there was no depth at all to build on, causing the unit to struggle at times. Finally, the skill position players were miscast. If Borges fails over the next two seasons as the roster slides completely over into his guys, then you will see the fans react. As of now, he still has somewhat of a free pass thanks to the transition between offensive styles that is still taking place.

2. There is an awful lot of hype surrounding Devin Gardner coming in to the 2013 season. One side may see a very athletic quarterback with a tremendous skill set, while another side may see a quarterback who struggled against top competition and finished the season with 2 straight losses. Obviously he has a lot of potential, but will Gardner become a top quarterback next season? Are those expectations fair?

I think Gardner has the tools to become one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten next season, and the possibility is there for him to really take off. He was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in his recruiting class, has so much athleticism that the coaches moved him to receiver for half a year (and it worked out), and showed flashes of what he can do late last season.

While he struggled against OSU, he had a good game against South Carolina in the bowl. I think the expectations for him are fair after what he showed last season, but he is going to need the rest of the team to take a step forward and improve. The running game will have to be better -- starting with the interior offensive line -- and Michigan needs someone to step up at running back and wide receiver. If he has help, this could be a very big year for him. I still think that given his talent and what he showed last year that he should be able to establish himself as one of the top three quarterbacks in the conference.

3. It seems like no one has the same opinion on the depth chart at running back this fall for Michigan. How do you see the carries being dished out this fall at this position?

It is hard to come to a consensus with so many variables at play. Michigan's best returning back, Fitz Toussaint, is coming off a brutal broken femur suffered late in the year. The other guys currently on the roster are all specialized types (Rawls a bruiser, Hayes and Norfleet are more third-down types).

On top of that, Michigan is bringing in two guys that could challenge for carries right away in Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith. I really don't know who takes the bulk of the carries, but I don't see Michigan having a definite answer for a few weeks of the year. I would say that some combination of Toussaint and Green split 80% of the carries,with Norfleet/Hayes/Rawls splitting the other 20%.

4. Michigan had to replace the entire interior of the offensive line this off-season but reports from spring were positive for several candidates looking for a chance to start. On a scale of 1 to 10 how worried are you about breaking in so many new starters in an offense that wants to pound the ball between the tackles?

Given the guys that seem to be slotting into those positions, I'm not very worried. Maybe a 3 out of ten. Moving two redshirt freshmen into the starting lineup is worrying, but one of those guys is Kyle Kalis who was a five star recruit and looked to be college ready last year. The other guard is Ben Braden who was a bit of a sleeper and looks to be on the coaches LG>RT track that Michael Schofield was on a couple years back. At center, Jack Miller has been in the program for a while and should at least be solid.

The biggest difference in my level of worry is the depth behind them. A couple years ago this situation would be more stressful because those guys would be starters by default. With Michigan having brought in a lot of talented young guys, at least they are all earning their spot on the field over someone else.

5. Has the loss of potential All-American linebacker Jake Ryan to knee surgery and also having to replace 3 starters on the defensive line zapped the defense's ability to be great in 2013? The Wolverine defense has been quite strong since Hoke took over and there is still a lot of talent on the roster---do you think things will get even better this fall, stay the same, or will there be a small back slide?

I don't think so. Losing Ryan is going to hurt as he was the best defensive player on the team, and in my humble opinion the best linebacker in the conference. However, Michigan looks to be set at the other two linebacker spots with returning starter Desmond Morgan at the Mike and rising sophomore James Ross at the Will. Cam Gordon should provide a serviceable replacement to Ryan at the Sam where he is a much better fit than safety -- your readers will remember Gordon as the guy that gave up that 90-something yard bomb to Kyle Rudolph in 2011 -- and Michigan has enough WDE types that it can package around the absence of Ryan to generate a pass rush and cover the flat. The nice thing about Ryan was that he could do it all, so the coaches didn't have to worry about sending out different players.

As for the defensive line I think it will actually be better in 2013. Quinton Washington returns at the nose after a very good year in 2012 and Michigan gets all three of its WDE options back. There are also quite a few guys that got playing time at the SDE and 5-tech spot, as well as a number of younger guys coming off redshirts. The big question is whether Michigan can develop some sort of pass rush especially with Ryan out for the year.

6. Many are expecting EE defensive end Taco Charlton and 5-star running back Derrick Green to both come in and contribute right away as true freshmen. Are there any other freshmen who might crack the two-deep or see significant playing time outside of special teams?

I think both of those guys will hit the field, but the other name you should watch out for is Dymonte Thomas, a borderline five star safety and early enrollee that looks to have already carved himself out a role as the nickle corner. The other early enrollees that could see time are Ross Douglas in the secondary and Jake Butt at tight end. The nice thing about this roster as it stands? Michigan is finally getting away from freshmen playing by necessity.

7. What are expectations heading in to Year 3 of the Brady Hoke era? 19 wins over his first 2 years is quite strong, but 8 wins last season was a bit of a disappointment. With the season's toughest three games (Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State) all at home are you expecting 10+ wins?

I think last year's 8 win finish was disappointing but not surprising. That schedule was brutal and Michigan was never really out of four of those games despite the ND, OSU, and Nebraska games involving complete offensive breakdowns. I think Michigan should be expected to win ten games this fall and contend for the division title. If Michigan only wins eight again this season given the schedule, then it would be a disappointment. However, I think Michigan's defense improves a little as the players have another year in the system and the level of athleticism goes up.

On top of that, the offense looks like it could be more balanced this season and that will hopefully help guard against total collapses in bigger games. We are about to the time in Brady Hoke's career where it is 10 wins or bust for the remainder of it.



BOLD denotes returning starter


Devin Gardner, RS Jr.

Shane Morris, Fr.

Remember how much panic there was in the fan base when the Irish didn't have 5 quarterbacks on scholarship after the Kiel transfer? With the major knee injury to former 3-star and current redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy the Wolverines worked with 1 quarterback on scholarship this spring.

Michigan fans are expecting big things out of Devin Gardner as well as incoming freshman Shane Morris---although they'll have to walk the tight rope with walk-ons and potential transfers to keep the redshirt on Morris for 2013.

*Running Back

Fitzgerald Toussaint, 5th Sr.

Derrick Green, Fr.

Justice Hayes, So.

Thomas Rawls, Jr.

Drake Johnson, RS Fr.

There will be a plethora of options at running back for a Michigan ground game that struggled at this position last year. Toussaint is recovering from a serious leg injury, has 1,642 career yards to his name, and was healthy enough to get close to 100% this spring. I'd expect him to start early on.

After that, as Travis notes above, the carries could be spread out. 5-star back Derrick Green has the size to grab carries right away and former Irish commit Justice Hayes had a good spring. Drake Johnson was subject to some hype this off-season but it didn't seem to materialize on the field, while I don't expect incoming freshman DeVeon Smith to fight through 5 bodies for playing time---he seems like a smart redshirt unless he's blowing people away in the summer.


Joe Kerridge, RS So.

Sione Houma, So.

Wyatt Shallman, Fr.

MANBALL in full effect. The Wolverines lost converted tailback Stephen Hopkins as a starter when he left the team in December. Walk-on Joe Kerridge moves in to the starting spot with a couple 3-stars behind him. Incoming freshman Shallman probably begins his career here but could grow in to a different position.

*Tight End:

Devin Funchess, So.

A.J. Williams, So.

Jake Butt, Fr.

Michigan lost a pair of seniors that were blocking tight ends but they had true freshman Devin Funchess ascend to the starting position last year anyway. Funchess got a ton of hype following 140 yards and 2 scores against Air Force and UMass but he only finished with 94 receiving yards the rest of the remaining 10 games. His numbers should improve with a more steady passing game in Ann Arbor but there has been some concern that he hasn't put on enough weight during the off-season to become a complete tight end.


Devin Funchess. [Rick Ostentoski, USA Today Sports]

A couple of young tight ends will back up Funchess including Jake Butt who enrolled early and had a strong spring. Michigan also has redshirt junior Jordan Paskorz and another incoming freshman Khalid Hill to provide depth.

*X Receiver:

Jeremy Gallon, 5th Sr.

Joe Reynolds, 5th Sr.

Jeremy Jackson, Sr.

*Y Receiver:

Amara Darboh, So.

Jehu Chesson, RS Fr.

*Z Receiver:

Drew Dileo, Sr.

Dennis Norfleet, So.

Depth isn't great for Michigan at receiver with 4 of the listed 12 wideouts being walk-ons. Still, 2 out of the top 3 receivers are back in Gallon and Dileo and youngsters Darboh and Chesson look like they are going to step up and have big roles in 2013.

Beyond that the offense is probably going to lean on veterans like Jackson and Reynolds and hope the unit is strong enough to redshirt incoming freshmen Da'Mario Jones, Csont'e York, and Jaron Dukes. I have the tiny speedster Dennis Norfleet in the slot because I don't know why they're trying to force him at running back with plenty of bodies there and in a system that doesn't suit his game in the least bit.

*Left Tackle:

Taylor Lewan, 5th Sr.

Erik Magnuson, RS Fr.

*Left Guard:

Ben Braden, RS Fr.

Chris Bryant, RS So.


Jack Miller, RS So.

Graham Glasgow, RS So.

*Right Guard:

Kyle Kalis, RS Fr.

Joey Burzynski, RS Jr.

*Right Tackle:

Michael Schoefield, 5th Sr.

Erik Gunderson, 5th Sr.

Quite simply, the return of Taylor Lewan was beyond huge for Michigan. Without him they'd be replacing 4 starters and that is never good news. Now it gives the Wolverines an All-American presence on the line and allows the highly touted Erik Magnuson another year of seasoning. The steady Schoefield is back at the other tackle spot as well.

On the interior it's shaping up to be a battle of 5 players for 3 spots.

I'd expect Kalis to hold down one guard spot and Braden the other, but a pair of walk-ons in Burzynski and Glasgow are fighting for minutes. Miller could start at center but there is a lot of versatility with these players so things could change by the fall. The word out of Michigan's spring camp was that this interior is more "nasty" than last years but keep in mind that outside of Kalis they are 3-star guys or walk-ons---plus Lewan and Schoefield didn't play very well against Shembo and Tuitt last year.

Similar to Nick Martin and Connor Hanratty for the Irish, they will need some non-elite linemen develop in to starters on the interior.

*Weak-side Defensive End:

Frank Clark, Jr.

Mario Ojemudia, So.

Taco Charlton, Fr.

*Nose Guard:

Quinton Washington, 5th Sr.

Ondre Pipkins, So.

Richard Ash, RS Jr.

*Defensive Tackle:

Jibreel Black, Sr.

Willie Henry, RS Fr.

Chris Wormley, RS Fr.

*Strong-side Defensive End:

Keith Heitzman, RS So.

Matthew Godin, RS Fr.

Tom Strobel, RS Fr.

Michigan has to replace some bodies up front but there is pretty solid depth heading in to 2013. The strong-side is probably the weakest area where a trio of young and mostly inexperienced players will fight for playing time and tackle Chris Wormley may see some time as well. The weak-side rush end looks much stronger with Frank Clark (9 tackles for loss in 2012) coming on strong last year and a pair of talented youngsters behind him---including early enrollee Taco Charlton who had a nice spring.

The interior should be strong with the return of Quinton Washington at nose guard backed up by the highly touted Ondre Pipkins. At tackle Jibreel Black looks like the new starter with a pair of backups looking for playing time behind him. Also, incoming freshman Henry Poggi will probably redshirt but is talented enough to crack the rotation on the inside as well.

*Weak-side Linebacker:

James Ross, So.

Mike Jones, 5th Sr.

Antonio Poole, RS So.

*Middle Linebacker:

Desmond Morgan, Jr.

Joe Bolden, So.

Royce Jenkins-Stone, So.

*Strong-side Linebacker:

Cam Gordon, 5th Sr.

Brennan Beyer, Jr.

Losing Jake Ryan (88 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 PBU, 5 FF <---damn!!) was a big blow to the Michigan linebacker corps. The good thing is that they have an experienced 5th-year senior in Cam Gordon to move in to a starting role and they've also moved defensive end Brennan Beyer to the strong-side too.


Ryan tore up his knee. [Kim Klement, USA Today Sports]

With the emergence of highly talented James Ross (not a huge freshman season, but likely a top 'backer in the Big Ten this upcoming season if you are willing to accept the Wolverines POV) that allowed Michigan to move Desmond Morgan to the middle. There are a lot of bodies at the weak-side but don't expect Ross to come off the field much. In the middle a pair of highly touted sophomores in Bolden and Jenkins-Stone might make some noise in 2013.


Blake Countess, RS So.

Delonte Hollowell, Jr.

Terry Richardson, So.


Raymon Taylor, Jr.

Courtney Avery, Sr.

*Free Safety:

Thomas Gordon, 5th Sr.

Jarrod Wilson, So.

*Strong Safety:

Marvin Robinson, Sr.

Allen Gant, RS Fr.

The Wolverines lose J.T. Floyd at corner and Jordan Kovacs at safety but the return of Blake Countess from a redshirt (he blew out his knee against Alabama last year) will give UM 3 returning starters in the secondary. Taylor is the other likely starter at corner while Avery is the third corner off the bench in nickle situations.

Michigan is waiting to see if Jarrod Wilson can take the free safety spot and if he does they'll likely move Thomas Gordon over to strong safety.


Final Thoughts

My sense this early before the season is that this will be the most difficult game of the season for Notre Dame to win. I'd agree that Stanford is a little tougher in some other ways, but with this being the second game of the season and that tilt in Palo Alto not until the end of the season, it makes life more difficult for the Irish. Even though Notre Dame has lost 2 in a row at Stanford they've lost 3 straight and 6 of the last 7 games at the Big House.

Playing Michigan on the road is always tough for Notre Dame no matter what.

This should be a transitional season for the Wolverines but that doesn't mean they'll struggle on the field. The absence of Denard Robinson will provide a stark contrast to the Rich Rod era and furthermore this should be the first season where Hoke's recruits begin to take over the roster and enter leadership roles. All in all, that's probably going to be a winning proposition for Michigan.

I think Irish fans have a right to be pretty skeptical of Michigan's offense with a new QB, new interior on the offense line, and a collection of skill position players that really aren't that scary. Especially with an early-season game UM might not have worked out many kinks with a bunch of new players and a more Borges and less Nard-y offense.

Still, Hoke has recruited lights out the past 2 seasons and he's got a lot of people to buy in to his program. I expect some struggles next year offensively but odds are players like Darboh, Gardner, Funchess, and others take a big step forward and create a strong offense.

Defensively this team will be very good. Mattison has done a great job resurrecting this side of the ball at Michigan and even with the injury to Jake Ryan he has more toys to work with due to improved recruiting in the post-Rich Rod era.

Predicted Game Day Spread- Michigan (-1.5)