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2012 season preview: M&GB staff roundtable

August 28th, 2012 by Justin Potts


With a few days remaining before Michigan opens up against Alabama, the excitement is building. We decided to take some time to have a little roundtable discussion about how we think the season will play out. You already know myself, Chris, Josh, and Matt from last season, but please welcome our newcomers, Katie and Sam. Visit our Meet the Staff page to get to know them. Below we discuss who we think will be the breakout players on each side of the ball, which games will give Michigan the most trouble, where we expect the most progression or regression, and our predictions for how the season will play out.

Who will be the breakout player on offense and why?

With uncertainty surrounding Fitz Toussaint's status, Thomas Rawls will need to break out

Justin: This is kind of a shot in the dark, but I’m going to go with freshman tight end Devin Funchess. We already know what receivers like Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon can do, and same with running back Fitz Toussaint. The offensive line is pretty well established, but tight end is a position that needs someone to step up following the graduation of Kevin Koger.

While Funchess doesn’t yet have the frame to be an in-line blocking tight end, he’s extremely well built from a pass catching standpoint. The biggest trend in football over the past couple of years is athletic tight ends such as Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski that can create matchup problems for a defense. Funchess has a chance to be just that. He’ll be a weapon in the red zone and will challenge the five touchdown catches that were posted by Benny Joppru in 2002, the most by a Michigan tight end since then.

Chris: Sophomore wide receiver Jerald Robinson. Robinson played in 11 games last year, primarily on special teams. He is a 6’1”, 206-pound prototype receiver more akin to the type of player Michigan fans are used to seeing out on the edge. He also has 4.5 speed in the 40 and is the second tallest receiver on the roster. With the departure of Daryl Stonum (who was dismissed), Robinson will likely be the third receiver, at a minimum, and I expect him to be a favorite target of Denard Robinson.

Josh: I think Thomas Rawls is primed to be the breakout player on offense. This is based on several factors and one major assumption. The assumption being Fitz Toussaint will be out at least a couple of games – I’m predicting three. In that case, Rawls is the “next guy” and will get the bulk of carries against Alabama, Air Force and UMass, and probably Notre Dame (or whomever Toussaint’s first game back is against).

We may not know much about Rawls on the field, but according to a friend of a friend who covered him while he was in high school in Flint, Rawls is a hard-working, humble kid who does not seem like the type to miss opportunities when given the chance. Fred Jackson has given high praise and Rawls has even drawn positive comparisons to another former Flint running back, Mark Ingram.

He is the type of back that Al Borges wants in this system – a powerful downhill runner who loves to dish out punishment as much as he relishes taking it from defenders. I think given the chance to be the number one guy, Rawls will make the most of it and not give it back once Toussaint returns. This quote by Borges sums it up for me and my case for Thomas Rawls:

“He’s reckless. He runs with a demeanor that’s aggressive,” Borges said. “That would probably be the best word. He looks like he’s mad when he runs sometimes. He’s a tough guy. You hit him, you’re going to feel him. I promise you that. You are going to feel him. There are times he is just simply not interested in avoiding you.”

Sounds like a true Michigan running back to me.

Matt: I think the offensive breakout star is going to be wide receiver Drew Dileo. With his speed and his ability to be able to pull in passes, watch him snag some great ones this year.

Katie: I’m going to go with receiver Drew Dileo.  He is the third returning wide receiver on the depth chart, and while he does not have the height, Gallon is smaller and had three times as many yards receiving last season. Denard will be on the lookout for sure hands, and I think that Dileo will provide some peace of mind for our veteran quarterback. Robinson can’t favor one receiver – he doesn’t have the arm to thread the needle to a favorite. So I’m hoping Drew will become a key component to the offense this season.

Sam: For this team to be successful, or rather to be great, one of our receivers is going to need to show some consistency. Roundtree is probably the biggest name and Devin Gardner is receiving a lot of hype before he has ever lined up out wide, but I’m going in a different direction. Jeremy Gallon has always struck me as being very reliable despite not seeing a ton of targets and catching only 35 balls in his two seasons of seeing the field. He’s also very small, listed generously at 5’8″, 187 pounds, earning him the “Tiny Gallon” nickname I have bestowed upon him. Yes, I know Keith “Tiny” Gallon, formerly of Oklahoma, already stole that nickname, but it REALLY fits Jeremy well. Having said that, coaches have pointed out before that he plays bigger than what he is and usually catches the ball if it’s anywhere near his hands. He’s not a burner but he has plenty of speed and should be a terror if Denard can find him often. Bonus: He sometimes returns punts and you never know what can happen there.

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Who will be the breakout player on defense and why?

Justin: I’m going to go with linebacker Desmond Morgan. Jake Ryan kind of had his coming out party last season and now it’s Morgan’s turn. Yes, he finished fifth on the team with 63 tackles, but I think this year he’s primed to dominate. Of his 63 tackles, 48 came in the final six games once he secured a starting spot. Project those over the full 13 game season and that’s 104 tackles. That’s more of what we can expect this year. Hoke had these kind words to say of Morgan in the spring:

Desmond Morgan is set to be a tackling machine

“I think he’s a very instinctive football player. As a linebacker, I think that’s critical. He’s a guy who’s got a nice burst, will be physical at the point of attack.”

In his second year, he’s more comfortable – he admitted that he was terrified last season as a true freshman – and he’s had another year in Greg Mattison’s defense. Remember, Mattison coached Ray Lewis and the Ravens’ dominant defense, and his teaching is some of the best in football. Watch out for Morgan this season.

Chris: Sophomore defensive end Brennen Beyer. Like my breakout player pick on offense, Beyer is also a sophomore who played in 11 games last season at linebacker and recorded 11 tackles. He also runs a 4.5 40, which should provide good speed off the edge for the Michigan pass rush. Senior defensive tackle William Campbell comes in at a close second place. Campbell has not yet lived up to his highly touted rating coming out of high school, but this year he seems to be more focused in offseason workouts and fall camp. The defense will need him to step after heavy losses on the defensive line due to graduation.

Josh: I was torn between Blake Countess and Ondre Pipkins (I have zero confidence Will Campbell does anything of note this year and feel strongly that Pipkins is the guy who will step in when that happens) for my breakout defensive player but I finally decided on Countess, though it was very close.

Countess plays well in space and has shown he is not afraid to mix it up and lay a hit on someone, something I love to see in my corners. He has a good work ethic and has said his struggles last season came from “bad eyes” (poor reads) and has made it a point to study more film in the offseason. The biggest knock on Countess might be his lack of “ideal” size, though at 5’10”, 180 pounds, he’s not exactly diminutive.

As a true freshman, Countess appeared in 12 games and started the last six at corner, joining the ranks of Donovan Warren, Marlin Jackson and the great Charles Woodson as freshman who started at CB for Michigan. He was second on the team with six pass breakups (most by a frosh since Jackson over a decade ago) and recorded five or more tackles six times, including a career high eight total (six solo) against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

Some games were good and some left something to be desired and he did not end the season on a high note against Ohio and Virginia Tech (despite his tackle total against VT). However, players often make large jumps from year one to year two, and I think Countess will be pushed enough by both himself and the staff to make a significant jump in his play. The fact that he got a lot of playing time and ended the season with six straight starts only fuels the fire of potential offseason improvement.

With questions abounding on the defensive line, Jibreel Black will need to make a big impact

Early in the spring, AnnArbor.com quoted Brady Hoke saying to Countess, “The dumbest guys on the team are the freshman, and the biggest problems are sophomores that played as freshman.”

Countess has taken that to heart and is using Hoke’s words as even more motivation to not become complacent.

I don’t expect him to be Charles Woodson, nor will I ever, but Countess should be much improved in year two, along with the rest of the defense, and I fully expect him to be a solid No. 1 CB for the next couple of years.

Matt: The defense is young, especially up front, and it’s going to be scary until it has gotten a couple of games under its belt, but the breakout star will be linebacker Jake Ryan. He’s a really good defensive player capable of racking up sacks and recovering fumbles. He hasn’t snagged an interception yet, but with his height, I would think it’s a good possibility that he can pull one or two in.

Katie: Defensive tackle William Campbell. He’s been a regular, but not as a starter. I think he’ll reach the potential we all saw in him when he came out of Cass Tech. We also need to bring pressure, and hopefully he will provide the burst we need in the middle.

Sam: I think Blake Countess or Desmond Morgan might be the popular choices here, and I have no qualms with that, but again I am looking at a position that should be crucial to Michigan’s defensive success – defensive line. And no, I’m not picking Craig Roh or Will Campbell. I am going with Jibreel Black. Black is big enough to take on blockers and quick enough to provide a good pass threat, but he has never really put together a string of successful games. I think that will change this year with his position move to the inside. Look for him to have a consistent impact on games this season with at least a few game-changing plays thrown in there.

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What game(s) on the schedule concern you and why?

Justin: The obvious is the opener against Alabama and the finale at Ohio State, but I think the midseason trip to Lincoln will be a pivotal game. It’s the week after a tough battle against Michigan State and it’s a night game. Nebraska is notoriously tough to beat at home, especially at night, so it will be tough for Michigan to come away with a win. Michigan State and Notre Dame certainly won’t be easy, but I do think those are two that Michigan should win. The Nebraska game could be the game that decides the Legends division title.

Chris: October 27 at Nebraska. Michigan will be coming off a highly emotional game against Michigan State (who it has lost to four times in a row) and the game is in Lincoln, which is always a tough place to play. Nebraska returns 14 starters from last year, including all of their primary skill position players, and, as is the standard at Nebraska in most seasons, their defense should be stout. September 22 at Notre Dame will also be tough as ND will be looking for revenge. November 24 at Ohio State is always a tough game no matter which year The Game is being played, but this will be OSU’s bowl game.

The road trip to Nebraska following the Michigan State game will be a tough one

Josh: Alabama is the obvious concern on the schedule so I won’t pick it. A loss wouldn’t particularly hurt Michigan’s season too much, if at all. We have Sparty at home this year and they will be tough, but I think these seniors will refuse to leave Michigan 0-4 against MSU. The game at Nebraska will be tough but I have little faith in Taylor Martinez and according to the Internet chatter, even Husker Nation is chalking this one up as a loss, for them!

At Ohio is my pick for game that concerns me the most. Not because they are a better team and definitely not because of Urban Meyer. I mean, the “greatest college recruiter” has been seriously lacking in his 2013 class while Michigan has completely raided all the best players in Ohio.

With no postseason in site because of “TatGate,” this will be Ohio’s bowl game. Both teams hate the other and always play hard, and no one wants to say they lost to their rival two years in a row. The ‘Shoe is a tough place to play for anyone and it is going to be a loud, raucous place come the end of November. I fully expect Ohio to come out and leave it all on the field. A win for Ohio could mean no Big Ten title game and BCS appearance for Michigan. Nothing would make Ohio fans happier than to dash Michigan’s hopes and leave Denard with no Big Ten titles in his four years.

This is Urban Meyer’s first Michigan game as head coach and he definitely understands the importance of The Game. I’m sure he will have his guys jacked up to beat Michigan at all costs, and that is what really scares me. This is a team with nothing to lose, against a hated rival who beat them last year. I’m not saying Ohio will play dirty, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Hoke will have his kids ready to play each and every week and more against Ohio, but playing a tough team in their house when they have nothing to lose worries me more than a little.

Matt: There are quite a few games of concern this season. Obviously, Alabama is a concern. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame will always be concerns. I also am a little worried about Iowa.

Katie: Ohio State and Michigan State. Ohio State is an away game and both teams have a long list of returning starters on defense. And, of course, both are huge rivalry games. Pride is on the line as well as a win or loss. I’m concerned also about the Meyer vs. Hoke culmination in The Game; will this be the start of another ten year war?

Sam: Obviously the schedule is quite a bit tougher this season than last, so this question isn’t too hard. Alabama scares me immensely right out of the gate, even though they did lose a ton of talent. Saban’s third string is probably good enough to win the Big East, and his first string will be faster, stronger, and tougher than just about any team out there. I just don’t know if we have the girth in the trenches or the talent everywhere else to play with them, but we shall see. Notre Dame will also be a tough game in South Bend, but it’s Notre Dame. Michigan State has beaten us four times in a row, but I expect us to have plenty of fire to put them back in their place. And Ohio State in Columbus will be no gimme.

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Where do you expect to see the most improvement or regression from last year?

Justin: I certainly don’t expect much regression, except in the win-loss column. An 11-2 season is too much to expect from a team with questions on the defensive line and one of the toughest schedules in the nation. As for improvements, I think the offense will be more crisp. It’s the second year in Al Borges’ system, so Denard Robinson and company will have more ability to make plays as opposed to thinking about the offense. There will be more room for expanding the playbook as well.

The consensus seems to be that the passing game should improve

Chris: I expect to see the most improvement on offense this season. This will be the second year in offensive coordinator Al Borges’ system and the players should be used to the terminology and play-calling. I also expect the running game to be even better and more developed as the running backs and linemen have had a year to better their skills in the power running game.

Josh: I think the offense will see the most progression over last year. Denard is not Tom Brady or Chad Henne and he will never be – he’s just not that type of quarterback and that’s fine. But the good thing is he doesn’t need to be. All he really needs to do is make better reads, not throw off his back foot, and just tuck and run when no one is open instead of waiting around. Better decision making and play recognition will do wonders for his passing game, and those will most assuredly come in year two under this system.

Denard Robinson is a smart young man, and he is not oblivious to the criticism about his passing game. He knows what areas need improvement. By all accounts, Denard has worked on those areas diligently. Much like I knew Michigan could only get better from 2010 to 2011, I am expecting the same from Denard and the offense. More experience in the system and an offseason to learn from your mistakes in year one bodes well for the Maize and Blue.

I don’t expect 50 points a game, but with an improvement in the passing game defenses will no longer be able to focus on stopping Denard’s running ability. And that my friends will open up the floodgates for Borges and his play calling.

Matt: I think the offense is going to only get better. As far as defense, we’ll really need the young guys to step up.

Katie: The passing game should improve with a senior Denard Robinson. I hope that Denard will finally show us that he is as capable a passer as a runner. Well, almost as capable, since comparing his scrambling and dashing skills to anything makes the order a tall one.

Sam: Probably another cookie-cutter answer from me here, but I think we will see the most improvement in Denard’s pass game and the biggest regression in the turnover battle. In his second year under Al Borges and his fourth season overall, Robinson is going to make better decisions and smarter throws. Or the other way around. Expect to see his interception totals dip just below double digits. Speaking of turnovers though, I just don’t see any way our plus-seven from last year holds up. And yes, I did just say I think our interception numbers will drop significantly. We recovered 20 fumbles and lost six fumbles in 13 games. While the former number probably had something to do with a better defense in general, I do not believe we will see more than 12 fumbles recovered this season. And, as much as it hurts to say, we could easily cough the ball up four or five more times than last season.

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What is your prediction for the season (record, finish in the Big Ten, bowl game)?

Justin: Although I certainly hope for the better, I think Michigan will finish 9-3 in the regular season with losses to Alabama, Nebraska, and Ohio State. Nebraska will lose at Michigan State, Ohio State, and one more – perhaps the season ending game against Iowa. Michigan State will lose to Michigan and either Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Iowa. That will set up a tie for the Legends division title between Michigan and Michigan State, sending Michigan to the title game thanks to a head-to-head win over the Spartans to face Wisconsin. With three losses, Michigan likely won’t wind up in a BCS game unless it wins the Big Ten title game, so either the Rose Bowl or the Capital One Bowl are the likely destinations.

Can Michigan reach the Big Ten Championship game?

Chris: Michigan certainly has a chance to win the Big Ten this year, but they face a tough conference slate of games (at Nebraska, at OSU, vs MSU). They also face the defending national champions Alabama (in Dallas) and must play Notre Dame in South Bend under the lights in a revenge game. I see the Wolverines losing to Alabama in the opener, but in a closer game than most people expect. I like Michigan at home against MSU, but if UM does win this game, they will need to re-focus quickly for a tough test at Nebraska. Playing in Columbus against OSU will also be extremely tough in what I already mentioned will be OSU’s bowl game.

Josh: Predicting this season is quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve done in a long time – sports-wise anyway. I think any number of things could happen and without knowing how much Denard has progressed and how the defensive line is going to look and play, I’m not sure I can give you anything more than a couple shots in the dark. But here goes…

IF Denard improves enough to make the defense respect his passing ability AND the defense picks up where it left off last season, I think this is an 11-1 team heading to the Big Ten title game and most likely the Rose Bowl.

If neither of those two happen or if just one happens, I think this is more of a 9-3 team, with no shot at the Big Ten title game.

No one in the out-of-conference schedule scares me other than Alabama, and I would honestly be shocked if Michigan returned to A2 from the Jerry Dome 1-0. Sparty, Nebraska and Ohio will all be tough games and if Michigan is not at the top of their game for all three then losing two out of three is entirely possible, though I think it is unlikely they lose more than one of them.

Given what I know and how I feel about Team 133, I’d have to say 10-2, with losses to Alabama and, please forgive me, Ohio, still going to the Big Ten title game but no Rose Bowl. Ever the pessimist, I just don’t think they’ll be quite stout enough on defense to stop Wisconsin’s running game.

But hey, this team defied the odds last year and played with some incredible passion and pride that hadn’t been seen since Mike Hart and Chad Henne were in the backfield. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong about the Ohio and Big Ten title games and they’re 12-1 headed to the Rose Bowl to dash Matt Barkley’s dreams.

Matt: I’m predicting a 10-2 record. Who will the two losses be? I’m not sure yet, but I can definitely see Michigan going to the Big Ten Championship and taking on defending champion Wisconsin.

Katie11-1 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten. Hopefully a run for the Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

Sam: I hate predicting football records. Period. I go through the games one at a time and have a hard time thinking Michigan will ever lose no matter how good our team is and how good the other team is. But if I must, I must. Without even looking at the schedule (or else the prediction would be 13-0), I am going to say 9-3 regular season with wins in the Big Ten Championship game and a win in a New Year’s Day bowl that is not also a BCS bowl. I just don’t see how we can get through a top-five SOS without a few chinks in the armor by season’s end. Whether we will have two losses in-conference or out-of-conference is anyone’s guess right now, but I think we will have at least one loss in Big Ten play and a loss to Alabama as well. Let’s all hope I’m wrong.