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M&GB season preview roundtable

Friday, August 22nd, 2014


Roundtable-banner

It has become our tradition at the beginning of each season to preview the upcoming season via a staff roundtable. We answer several questions with our predictions and expectations for what the season will bring. Drew has moved on, but we still have Justin, Sam, Derick, and Josh. We also invited our partner at MmmGoBluBBQ, Joe, to join us for the roundtable. We also invite you to give your answers in the comments below. Tell us what you agree with or disagree with. Next week we will begin our game week coverage.

What are you most excited about this season?

Justin: I’m most excited about what should be a very good defense. With so much talent and experience returning, it should be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten and may have to carry the team, at least in the early going. The best Michigan teams in recent history have featured stifling defenses — most notably 1997 and 2006 — and I think I can speak for most Michigan fans when I say I miss the days of Michigan having a dominating defense. It’s a major stretch to say this year’s unit could be as good as the 1997 one, but anywhere close would make for a very good season.

Michigan's defense won't be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

Michigan’s defense won’t be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

With most of the big questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to need to be very good, and if it is we have two recent examples that could foreshadow the upcoming season: Notre Dame in 2012 and Michigan State in 2013. Notre Dame’s offense ranked 80th nationally in scoring, 38th in rushing, and 72nd in passing that year but still made it to the national title game thanks to its defense. Last season, Michigan State’s offense ranked 63rd in scoring, 59th in rushing, and 84th in passing but still won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl thanks to its defense. I’m excited for the possibility that Michigan’s defense, which should be more aggressive this fall, could carry the Wolverines to a special season.

Sam: I’m most excited about…football! After last year’s dreadful, seemingly never-ending season, I never thought I’d be so excited to see the Maize and Blue on the field just a season later, but I suppose hope reigns eternal right now. As far specific excitement about this team goes, I am really looking forward to seeing the whole defense working to live up to its enormous expectations. Every single position has an extremely strong two-deep, and every unit has at least one potential game-changer. With names like Frank Clark, Jake Ryan, James Ross III, and Jabrill Peppers, there’s no telling how good this defense could be. A consistent pass rush could mean a top-10 or even top-five defense nationally.

Derick: The most exciting storyline has to be the beginning of Jabrill Peppers‘ career in Ann Arbor. The No. 2 overall recruit has a chance to be a difference maker on defense and revive a kick return game that has been dormant since Steve Breaston left Michigan.

Josh: The defense and its personnel and scheme changes. I’d much rather see an aggressive, menacing defense with an average offense than an average defense with a high octane/high scoring offense. Luckily for Michigan it appears as though we just might get that menacing defense in 2014. That is something to be very excited about after we had to watch last year’s ‘bend but don’t break’ defense sit back and give up big gain after big gain.

Joe: I have a feeling that Coach Nussmeier will focus on building a strong run game with Green and Smith and help control the ball a little more than in recent years. Michigan has the horses to build an above avg. run game with these 2 and it will be fun to see if we can get back to a little smash mouth football at the big house. I’m also looking forward to some great BBQ on “Tailgate Tuesdays”.

What worries you most entering the season?

Justin: Okay, so this question is pretty rhetorical this year. The offensive line has to be the answer after last year’s meltdown and the loss of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. If it’s as bad as last season, even a high-caliber defense won’t save the team. But I really don’t think it will be. Do I expect it to be a mauling, classic Michigan offensive line? Absolutely not. But I do think it will be more cohesive than last season and more sound with a simplified playbook. Even so, until we see it in action, the worry is there.

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Sam: If anyone’s biggest concern at this point is not the offensive line, he or she may want a quick crash course in foot-ball (American style). I can say with a straight face that Michigan has some sort of chance of having a First Team All-Conference player at every single position on the field (yes, this is still optimistic, but it’s at least feasible in some universe) besides the offensive line, where Michigan may not have a single Third Team-caliber performer, feasibly. The line is replacing two senior tackles who will most likely start one day in the NFL; even with those stars, Michigan’s big uglies up front last year were atrocious. Most people have been taking the glass-half-full approach in saying that there’s no way it can get any worse; it’s hard for me to look at the names on paper and wonder how in the world it could get any better.

Derick: After watching the spring game and the ‘Under the Lights’ scrimmage, how can the offensive line not be the No. 1 concern? Michigan’s defensive line was average for much of 2013, but looked like an elite unit against their offensive teammates. If Doug Nussmeier can’t improve this group, it won’t matter how much Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith have progressed.

Josh: The entire offense. They say that on defense 10 guys can fail as long as one guy makes the play. But on offense 10 guys can be doing their job and if one fails, then the play is lost. While the o-line clearly needs to be a cohesive unit that plays well, it’s not all on them and there are too many variables to work out before they can be a solid unit. Devin Gardner needs to be consistent and the running backs (whomever they may be) need to run with vision and be decisive. I see Michigan in a similar situation as Michigan State was coming into 2013; a potentially great defense that would be enough to carry them but no identity on offense. Last year the defense played well but faded late in the season as it was completely worn down after carrying the offense all year and it really showed in losses to Ohio State and Kansas State I fear we’ll see more of the same this year.

Joe: The offensive line is a HUGE concern due to the loss of both Schofield and Lewan. It wasn’t exactly a strong point last year and now it looks even more troubling. This group needs to gel quickly and improve on the “tackles for loss” that plagued them last year. 114 is way too many!

Who will be the breakout player on offense?

Justin: I would absolutely love to look into the crystal ball and pick a lineman that breaks out and puts together an all-conference season, and while it’s certainly possible, it’s impossible to predict. I also think Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will split the workload, keeping either from truly breaking out. Therefore, it has to be a pass-catcher, and I’m going to go with Jake Butt. He’s out for the first couple of games at least, but is progressing very well in his return form a torn ACL. We got a taste of what he’s capable of last season — 20 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns — and once he returns, he could put up some solid numbers.

We all know Devin Funchess will be the go-to receiver for Devin Gardner, but he’s going to have to find others to distribute the ball to so opposing defenses can’t simply game plan Funchess out. It’s very likely that either Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh breaks onto the scene, but as a tight end, I see Butt becoming a crutch for Gardner. Butt fits right into Nussmeier’s offensive system and could be primed for a big season as long as he fully recovers from his injury.

Sam: This one is pretty easy for me. I don’t think the offensive line is going to be good enough for Michigan to have a star running back, so I immediately look to the outside. There I find Amara Darboh, a gentlemanly sized 6’2″, 211-pound redshirt sophomore wide receiver who was held out all of last season with a foot injury. Devin Funchess is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a sure thing this year, so Darboh should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of cheating defenses, and his nice hands, solid size, and football IQ should make him a favorite of Devin Gardner.

Derick: Freddy Canteen will probably have one of the greatest impacts on the offense, but I think Devin Gardner will be the breakout player. Gardner struggled for much of the 2013 season, but pressure from the defense and a non-existent rushing attack made his job much harder. A healthy Gardner should take advantage of a deeper receiving core and become the quarterback fans saw for a few games at the end of 2012.

Josh: I’m really down on the offense heading into this season. True, I’m not in Schembechler Hall, but nothing I’ve seen or read since last season has given me any indication that this offense will be any better than last year’s. A simplified system and zone blocking schemes will help but they haven’t had much time with Nussmeier and development takes time and many reps. Plus the mere fact that a TRUE freshman is in line to start at left tackle tells me that this line is still in shambles and that could derail the entire offense, again. That said, I think Jake Butt (once he returns) is prime for a breakout season. I foresee Gardner looking for a safety valve as he runs for his life behind an inept line and Butt should be that safety valve. We saw glimpses of what Butt could do late in 2013 and I expect him to pick up where he left off.

Joe: I am hoping that an in shape and focused Derrick Green turns into the five-star tailback we recruited two years ago. If he can pound the ball and help control the clock, this offense can put up some big numbers. An effective Green would free up some young receivers and an elite Funchess down field.

Who will be the breakout player on defense?

Justin: Yeah, it’s a pretty generic answer that I’m sure others will give, but I’m going with Jourdan Lewis. The hype coming out of the spring and fall camp is too much to ignore. The coaching staff has talked about being more aggressive defensively, and Lewis fits that mold at corner. If he truly has beaten out either experienced corners like Raymon Taylor or Blake Countess, he’s earned it and it will only make the secondary better.

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Sam: Defensive breakout players are a little bit harder for me to predict, and I admittedly don’t even know who would rightfully qualify as a “breakout” player this year. Would a senior Frank Clark, who has been solid but never great, qualify? How about a junior linebacker who has been playing plenty of snaps for two full seasons? I’ll assume I’d get picked on for taking either of those guys, so let me go with Jourdan Lewis, a 5’10”, 175-pound sophomore cornerback from Cass Tech. If preseason reports and practices are to be believed, it seems that Lewis has managed to wrestle away a starting spot from either senior Raymon Taylor or redshirt junior Blake Countess, both of whom were pretty solid contributors a season ago. The coaches have been emphasizing increased physicality and aggressiveness on defense, particularly from the cornerbacks, which fits right into Lewis’s strengths. If he indeed plays the first snap on defense against Appalachian State next week, Jourdan Lewis must have something going for him.

Derick: It has to be Jabrill Peppers. If he can’t contribute in the secondary then Michigan will be vulnerable to the pass all season, since Blake Countess is the only proven cornerback that can cover Big Ten recievers.

Josh: Jourdan Lewis, and it’s not even close. Yes, I do think Jabrill Peppers will show us why he was one of the best incoming recruits in recent memory but my money is on Lewis to really make massive strides from last season. He got his feet wet last year while relying on great athletic ability but now he has the technique and mental aspect to add to it. I fully expect him to be an All-Big Ten performer, and one of the best defenders in the conference, by season’s end.

Joe: Can I say Jake Ryan as my breakout player? I know he is a team captain and a stud at linebacker, but after missing five games last year due to a torn ACL, he will shine all season if healthy. He is a must for this team to keep pace defensively.

Michigan will win the Big Ten if…

Justin: The offensive line improves to simply average and the defense is as good as advertised. The defense will have to carry the team early on while the offense finds its feet, but I truly believe this is a team that has a lot of potential. It will all rely on improvement from the offensive line, but like I said above, if the defense lives up to the hype, a 2012 Notre Dame or 2013 Michigan State season is not out of question.

Sam: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the defense doesn’t allow a single point. In all seriousness, the defense has to be elite (probably allowing 15 or fewer points a game in Big Ten play) and the offensive line has to be above-average for Michigan to compete for their first conference championship since 2004. I think the defense can be elite, but I still think the offensive line is going to struggle a little bit too much for the team to reach Pasadena or beyond.

Derick: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the quarterback pressure we saw throughout camp was actually because of the elite defensive line Greg Mattison has assembled. If the offensive line can actually protect Gardner and create holes for the running game then the rest will fall in place.

Josh: Michigan State and Ohio State completely implode and each have multiple conference losses, a miracle happens with the offensive line’s development early on, Devin Gardner finally becomes the consistently good QB we know he can be all while Jabrill Peppers exceeds the hype, plays both sides of the ball and becomes the first true freshman to win the Heisman (read: I don’t think it’s even remotely possible for Michigan to win the B1G Ten this year). I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, Michigan won’t be ready to legitimately compete for the B1G Ten until 2015.

Joe: We can get strong and smart play up front, as well as from our quarterback position. We must eliminate the untimely sack or tackle for loss that killed us on important drives last season. C’mon O-line, make it happen!

What’s your prediction for the season? Record, who will Michigan lose to, what bowl game will Michigan play in?

Justin: Regardless of how much improvement the offensive line shows, I don’t see Michigan winning less than eight games this season. But I think they’ll win more than that and finish the regular season 10-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. I don’t think Notre Dame will be that great this year, but early on Michigan will still be trying to get its offense up to speed, and despite a valiant effort from the defense, bad things just happen in South Bend. The latter because Michigan State is still the team to beat in the Big Ten this season and, while Michigan will play closer than they have the past two years, it will be extremely tough to pull one out in East Lansing.

I do think Michigan will go into Columbus at season’s end and pull off a big win, leaving a three-way tie atop the East Division, but Michigan State will get the nod into the Big Ten Championship game. Michigan will go to the Capital One Bowl. I never predict the outcome of bowl games before the season because so many variables come into play about who the opponent will be.

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

I’m optimistic about this season and think this team will be very close to having a really special season that will surprise some people, but in the end it will come up just short, setting up big expectations for 2015.

Sam: My final prediction for the 2014 Michigan football season is as follows:

Record: 10-2, losses at Michigan State and at Ohio State
Bowl game: Wherever generic 10-2 Big Ten teams end up this season (too many to keep track of).

I think it will be a successful season overall that falls just short of the ultimate goals of conference and national championships. Michigan State’s defense should be able to wreak havoc on the offensive line yet again, and though Ohio State will be without Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller all season, their backup will have enough time to gel by the end of the season that the Buckeyes will edge the Wolverines once again at home.

Derick: I think Michigan’s season should be pretty straightforward. The Maize and Blue are great in Ann Arbor, so an easy home schedule should translate into seven wins. But tough road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State make me shudder, and Brady Hoke’s resume on the road should turn all three games into losses. Michigan should take care of Northwestern and Rutgers on the road, giving it a 9-3 record for the season. Two Big Ten losses isn’t going to cut it for a trip to Indy, so Michigan will end up in the Capital One Bowl. Could Michigan win every single game on its schedule? Absolutely. But until fans see this team play solid football, there’s little reason to believe that more than nine wins are on tap.

Josh: My heart wants to be optimistic but my gut says this team’s lack of sufficient development spells doom in 2014. The offense has too many question marks for me to feel comfortable about having anything but very low expectations for them, which in turn puts more pressure on the defense to carry the team, again. The schedule does not set up in Michigan’s favor, with both MSU and OSU on the road (both of which are all but guaranteed losses in my mind). And as we’ve seen in the past Hoke’s teams consistently lose games they shouldn’t, mostly on the road (at Iowa in ’11, at ND and Nebraska in ’12 and atPSU, Nebraska and Iowa last year). They’ve gotten incredibly lucky against Northwestern the past two seasons and something tells me that luck may run out in 2014. Notre Dame, while losing several key players, is still on the road and that tilts the odds slightly in favor of the Irish. Utah could be a very dangerous trap game, sandwiched Miami (Ohio) and perennial bottom feeder Minnesota. Throw in the perennial inexplicable loss we’ve come to expect from Hoke’s Michigan teams and we’re sitting at 4 or 5 losses.

Right now I don’t see this team being better than 8-4, and not in the hunt for the East division. I see losses to MSU, OSU and then two more out of Notre Dame, Utah, Penn St. and Northwestern. They’ll still end up in a decent bowl because they’re Michigan, so something along the lines of the BWW Bowl like last year. Of course, I hope I’m completely wrong and the offense can come together and prove me horribly wrong but I won’t hold my breath.

Joe: I am predicting a 9-3 record for the Maize and Blue with losses at MSU, Northwestern and Ohio. Don’t ask me to explain the Northwestern loss, I just have a bad feeling. This will put them in the Outback bowl on Jan 1. 

M&GB Roundtable talks freshmen, but not THAT freshman

Friday, August 1st, 2014


Roundtable-Freshmen

Canteen

So far this offseason we have discussed the status of Hoke’s hot seat (we pretty much all agreed this is not a make or break season for him) and the Michigan Football Legends jerseys program (we’re all in agreement that we like them, but they need a few guidelines). As we continue our offseason staff roundtable series today, we’re providing our thoughts on freshmen. You may have heard about this incoming defensive back named Jabrill Peppers, but we’re not talking about him. Here’s the question:

Which freshman — true or redshirt — are you most excited about this season, not named Jabrill Peppers? Who, other than Peppers, do you think will have the biggest impact this fall, and why?

Justin-banner

Jabrill Peppers is undoubtedly the freshman everyone is excited about. At Big Ten Media Days, it seemed that every other question for Brady Hoke, Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, and Frank Clark was about Peppers. The amount of hype for an 18-year-old kid that hasn’t played a down of college football yet is unreal, and while we all hope it’s warranted, it was clear that Hoke and Michigan’s player representatives were tired of talking about it.

The only other freshman that has received a good amount of hype is receiver Freddy Canteen, and he’s who I’m most excited about. He was the talk of spring practice, showing off great speed, agility, and explosiveness — a combination Michigan has lacked at receiver for years. Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree, and Junior Hemingway have been very good receivers the past few years, but they were all different types of receivers than Canteen. Michigan hasn’t had the Mario Manningham or Steve Breaston type of receiver (yes, I know Manningham played outside) that can complement the bigger possession receivers. And with the 6’5″, 230-pound Devin Funchess out wide, a speedy Canteen in the slot would be the perfect complement.

The big question mark for the receiving corps is redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh, who was the offseason hype machine and in line to start last season before breaking his foot in fall camp. That allowed Jehu Chesson, who was behind Darboh at the time, to work his way into the lineup. Chesson had an okay season (15 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown), but didn’t show the consistent playmaking ability. He flashed it — a catch-and-run across the middle touchdown against Akron and a jump ball in double coverage at Michigan State — but averaged barely over one catch a game. His blocking ability — a very important trait for a receiver, especially in Michigan’s offense — will keep him in the rotation, but he’ll likely battle with Darboh for the second outside spot opposite Funchess.

Canteen will likely battle with Dennis Norfleet for the slot job, and if they spring hype is accurate, has the leg up. Norfleet is just 5’7″, 169-pounds, and although shifty, has yet to fulfill the hype many expected of him. He was used sparingly on offense last season, and to mild success, because when he was on the field, it was a tell-tale sign that he was getting the ball on a trick play. Canteen’s size and game-breaking ability will allow him to stay on the field and be available for those trick plays without giving them away.

With Funchess playing the Gallon, Roundtree, and Hemingway role as The Man, Darboh and Chesson providing consistency and reliability on the other side, and Canteen giving big-play potential in the slot, this could be a very good receiving corps. There are a lot of ‘ifs’ but the potential is there, and for the first time in several years, there doesn’t appear to be a weak link in the group. The ideal situation would be for Darboh to return to the level he was pre-injury and start opposite Funchess with Canteen in the slot and Chesson rotating in for Darboh. Of course, the possibility exists that Canteen grabs the No. 2 receiver job on the outside — opposite Funchess — but that would leave Norfleet in the slot and both Darboh and Chesson coming off the bench, so that’s not ideal.

Drew-banner

There really are only a few legitimate candidates that can be considered. For the first time in a few seasons, Michigan finally will have experienced depth at most positions this fall thanks mostly to Brady Hoke’s work on the recruiting trail. In 2012 and 2013, the years he brought in his first two full recruiting classes, Hoke received commitments from 53 prospects. Currently, 52 of them still are on scholarship at Michigan, with only linebacker Kaleb Ringer transferring after he suffered a significant knee injury. The superb retention rate and lack of attrition in the 2012 and 2013 classes have allowed talented juniors and sophomores to flood Michigan’s depth chart. Accordingly, there are very few spots where Michigan needs freshmen—true or redshirt—to contribute immediately.

The only freshmen—other than Jabrill Peppers—that have an opportunity to start or see extensive playing time on either offense or defense are wide receiver Freddy Canteen and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. There are a few other freshmen that could make notable contributions, though. Tight ends Khalid Hill and Ian Bunting may be valuable assets early in the season while Jake Butt completes his recovery from an ACL tear. Defensive tackle Bryan Mone, an early enrollee, may work his way into the defensive-line rotation by season’s end. And there are multiple offensive linemen with freshman eligibility that may be promoted to first string if the presumed starters—four sophomores and a junior—cannot improve upon what was arguably the nation’s worst offensive line last season, but Michigan fans are hoping this development does not come to fruition. Nevertheless, no freshman other than Peppers will have the impact that Canteen or Hurst, Jr. will have.

Although Hurst, Jr. may have a bigger impact as a plausible starter on the defensive line, the freshman not named Peppers that I am most excited about undoubtedly is Canteen. Canteen was a complete unknown when he committed to the Wolverines shortly after participating in Michigan’s summer camp in 2013. However, it was clear that he was unheralded only because his high school team played just three games his junior season. Once Michigan fans saw his game film and Vines of his terrific footwork, they started buzzing. Then, after he enrolled early last January, the coaching staff and his teammates began buzzing, too. Canteen provided a small taste of what he is capable of in the “spring game” when he flashed his swift speed and brisk footwork for what should have been two long completions, including one where he burned All-Big Ten first-team cornerback Blake Countess deep. With his crisp routes, he has the ability to be a playmaker immediately.

Canteen may not start, but he will play many snaps as a true freshman. Michigan lost four wide receivers, including record-setter Jeremy Gallon, to graduation in the offseason. Although the Wolverines still have arguably the Big Ten’s best wideout in Devin Funchess, they will need the younger guys to step up as the No. 2 and No. 3 options. Canteen will compete with sophomores Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson for those spots and already may have the edge on both. Plus, Michigan always could slide him in at slot receiver ahead of Dennis Norfleet. Either way, few freshmen will earn as much playing time in 2014 as Canteen, and he should dazzle all of us with his moves.

Josh-banner

In a perfect world we wouldn’t be asking this question. Personally, I would like to see ALL first year players get redshirted, sit and learn and pack on some weight without any pressure to perform. Sadly we don’t live in that world and so here we are. At first I wanted to say Freddy Canteen after his spring game showing. I mean c’mon it makes perfect sense, with Jeremy Gallon in the NFL and Jake Butt sidelined, someone has to catch the balls not thrown to Funchess. But after I thought about it a while a certain press conference came to mind, and to paraphrase of one of the greatest sports rants ever; “We talkin’ bout practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game, we talkin’ about practice.”

I’m going to head to the other side of the ball and go with Bryan Mone. The defensive line struggles, as with all of Michigan’s struggles in ’13, were well documented. They didn’t generate sufficient pass pressure, didn’t stop the run (to put it lightly) and overall were just, well not that good. Mone is a big boy, a very big boy, and by all accounts the kid can move quite well. A guy who can eat up space and occupy more than one blocker can be devastating, and if he can get into the backfield all the better. Now I won’t go so far as to say I think he’ll be Vince Wilfork, he’s a once in a lifetime player, but I do think given the chance Mone can make some noise and help get Michigan’s defense back to being a Michigan defense.

Derick-banner

I’m hoping I don’t jinx him by choosing another wide receiver this year (Darboh didn’t exactly break out last season), but how can fans not be excited about Freddy Canteen? The freshman wide receiver stormed onto the stage during the Spring Game, offering one of the few bright spots in what turned out to be a sloppy performance.

Canteen separated himself from a loaded group of young wide receivers and should line up with the starters along with captain Devin Funchess. His speed will give the offense another dimension that it badly needed after the loss of both Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation.

Canteen isn’t the most talented freshman receiver in Ann Arbor, but unlike classmates Drake Harris and Maurice Ways, the youngster has the offensive coaching staff buzzing about his ability as the calendar turns to August. Look for Canteen to give quarterback Devin Gardner a second option to Funchess early in the nonconference season.

_________________________________________________________________________________

So what do you think? Is Canteen your guy as well, or are you more excited about another freshman? Do you think any other freshmen will make a big contribution to the team this fall? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

M&GB Roundtable discusses Michigan Football Legends jerseys

Friday, July 11th, 2014


Roundtable-Legends jerseys

Gardner legends jersey(USATSI)

Two weeks ago we debuted our M&GB Roundtable series that will run every couple weeks throughout the summer. Each of these roundtables will discuss a hot topic related to the upcoming season. Last time, we discussed the status of Brady Hoke’s hot seat and the consensus seemed to be that unless Michigan goes downhill once again this season, Hoke is safe heading into 2015. Today, we continue the series, this time giving our thoughts on the “Michigan Football Legends” jerseys. Here’s the question:

What’s your take on the “Michigan Football Legends” jerseys? Do you like or dislike them? Are they a good way to tie in tradition or are they too gimicky? Do you think they should be given out every year? If so, who should get numbers 11 and 21 this season? Finally, are there any other numbers you feel should be given legends status?

Justin banner

I really like the Legends jersey program because, even though it was started just a few years ago, it is unique to Michigan and it is a great way to tie in the glorious history of Michigan football. The majority of the numbers that have been given legends status thus far are great players from long ago that most Michigan fans today weren’t alive to see play. Sure, we have read about them and have maybe seen a few photos or video clips, but by and large, Tom Harmon, the Wistert brothers, and Gerald Ford were relics locked away in a time capsule. By bringing their numbers out of retirement, giving their families a pre-game ceremony, and designating the jerseys with their numbers on them with a patch, it’s a great way to both honor those legends and educate the younger generation of Michigan fans.

In addition to honoring the legends and their families and educating Michigan fans that weren’t around to see them play, the program is special and unique for current and future Michigan football players.

“It was an amazing feeling when I was awarded this number,” said Jeremy Gallon when he was given Desmond Howard’s No.21.

“I got it when I was a redshirt sophomore,” recalled Jake Ryan, who wears Bennie Oosterbaan’s No.47. “It was after the Alabama game and coach Hoke brought me in and it was a huge honor knowing that I was wearing the same jerseys as one of the legends who played for Michigan. I had to study up on him, to see what he did to represent this university. It was cool. I learned a lot.”

The current and future players that earn the numbers see it as an honor to get to wear a number that was made famous by a legend before them. Desmond Morgan got to meet Gerald Ford’s family and learn more about him when he was awarded No.48.

That said, I’m conflicted about when each number should be awarded. On one hand, it seems silly to switch a player’s number after he’s already made a name for himself in his current number. For example, Jordan Kovacs, who was No.32 for more than three seasons before switching to 11 for a handful of games. But then again, I like the way No.21 has been given to a top receiver each of the past three seasons, first Junior Hemingway, then Roy Roundtree, then Gallon. I feel like all three guys earned it and looked great in it. Unfortunately, the only receiver who fits that mold this season is Devin Funchess, but he already has Ron Kramer’s No.87. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I would switch Funchess to 21 and award 87 to Jake Butt. Funchess is a star receiver who could very well make the jump to the NFL following this season, which would open up 21 again next season for another star receiver should Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh or Freddy Canteen break out this fall.

No.11 is a tough one. Since the Wistert brothers were offensive tackles, but the number can’t be used for offensive linemen in modern college football, I like the idea of awarding it to a player on the defensive line. But so far it has been given to a safety (Kovacs) and a linebacker (Courtney Avery). I would bring it to the line this fall and give it to Frank Clark. Yes, he has an off-the-field issue from a couple years ago that could keep him from being awarded a legends number, but if Brady Hoke feels Clark has learned and grown from it, I’d be okay with him getting it. If he can’t get No.11 because of that, the only other player I’d give it to this fall would be linebacker James Ross.

Finally, I would give Charles Woodson’s No.2 legends status, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that happened this fall. The staff already gave Blake Countess the number, and Woodson is in likely his final season of an outstanding NFL career. He has always given back to Michigan and represented himself and the university well. As Michigan’s latest Heisman Trophy winner, he would be a great player to honor.

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When it was announced prior to the 2011 season that Michigan planned to implement the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Most college football programs honor their legends by retiring their numbers in perpetuity. This is a grand gesture, but then fans are unable to see the numbers of their favorite players on the field. Over time, the stories and memories of these legends become lost. Heck, in some cases, even the names are forgotten. According to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, “99 percent of [Michigan] fans couldn’t name the jerseys that were retired—either the numbers of the people.”

With the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, you get the best of both worlds. The legends still are honored. Each Michigan legend is the subject of a pre-game ceremony that commemorates their time at Michigan and showcases the debut of their Legends patch, which will forever be stitched upon the jersey of the number they wore so long ago. And the numbers those legends wore are reinserted into circulation for current and future players to don. For many Michigan fans that have been alive for decades, they had never seen a Wolverine wear Tom Harmon’s No. 98 or President Gerald Ford’s No. 48. Now? They can see those legendary numbers each week in the fall  and recall what made No. 98 and No. 48 so special. It is a great tie to Michigan football’s tradition and to the players that made the program so prestigious.

However, rarely is anything—no matter how great—flawless. I still have a positive view towards the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, but it has problems that must be addressed. The biggest problem I have is when Michigan’s best players switch to a Legends jersey when they are juniors or seniors. By then, those players have begun creating a legacy for the number they first wore as freshmen. But, by switching, their legacy instantly becomes overshadowed by the legend whose number they now wear. It prevents current players from establishing their own legacy. How can a player who wears a Legends jersey become a Michigan Football Legend on his own in the future? The answer: he cannot.

A great example is former safety Jordan Kovacs. In all likelihood, Kovacs will never be honored as a Michigan Football Legend. And that is okay. But I was frustrated when Kovacs switched from No. 32 to No. 11—one of the Legends jerseys—for the final three games of the 2012 season and his career. Before then, Kovacs had blazed his own trail as the unheralded walk-on everyone initially scoffed at that became one of Michigan’s most beloved players and its best safety in over a decade. And he did all of this as No. 32. This is the number with which he should have finished his career, not No. 11—no disrespect to the Wistert brothers. No. 32 was Kovacs’ legacy. He never should have worn another number.

Therefore, I propose that Legends jerseys only be offered to players prior to their freshman and sophomore seasons. Then those players can decide what number with which they want their legacy to be associated. It does not matter to me if the Legends jerseys are handed out every year. If they are, great. It would be a tribute to those Michigan Football Legends each season. If they are not, that works for me, too. It would make the offering of a Legends jersey more special in the eyes of the players and the fans. The only other number that deserves Legends status is No. 2. All three of Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winners then would be represented. I also would like No. 1 to receive Legends status, but, alas, that number essentially has gone into retirement thanks to Braylon Edwards. And it does not matter to me which players are offered available Legends jerseys this season. As long as they are freshmen or sophomores.

Josh banner

I really like the concept of the legends jerseys. It is not realistic to retire numbers in college and this allows the legends to still be honored without taking away all the numbers. However, I have not been a fan of how they’ve been given out. I’d like to see guys ‘earn’ these jerseys, the same way Hoke said Jabrill Peppers needs to ‘earn’ the coveted No.2 (even though it’s not a legends jersey). Jake Ryan earned his No.47 but other than that I haven’t seen much rhyme or reason with handing them out.

While I feel they deserve their legends jerseys now, Gardner and Funchess got them without making much noise in the previous season. If the Devin’s got their legends jerseys AFTER the 2013 season, rather than before, I’d have no problems with it. The fact that Courtney Avery got one upset me a bit, he was an average player at best and even that is being generous.

That said, I’m sure you can guess that I don’t think No.11 or No.21 should be given out this year. There are too many young and unproven guys on this roster to do so. This is not to say there isn’t anyone who could earn them, but no one has done anything to ‘earn’ the right yet. I’d like to see No.1 and No.2 be brought into legends status as well. No.1 for Anthony Carter and No.2 for Charles Woodson, as soon as he retires.

If we’re going to honor the legends of the past I’d prefer to see their numbers bestowed upon guys who have ‘earned’ it on and off the field, but mostly on it. If it has little to do with on-field performance, and middle of the road guys like Courtney Avery can get them, then I’d rather see the players vote on who gets them.

Derick banner
The legends jerseys have a chance to be a great tradition, but only if the players are forced to earn the honor of wearing them. If Michigan insists on giving out the numbers each year and the players wearing them aren’t stars, then the value of the legends jersey is lost. So far Michigan has given the jerseys to some players with lesser roles, and it has tainted the idea behind honoring these football legends.

With a young team taking the field in 2014, and a group of returning starters that largely underachieved in last year’s 7-6 effort, the Nos. 11 and 21 should be kept off the field until players earn them. If a wide receiver or cornerback steps up and leads the team to a great first half of the season, then a jersey should be awarded to that player.

If the program makes it clear that the numbers are earned, not given, then the legends jerseys will be a great tradition for Michigan football. If not, then it will represent just another gimmick put on by the athletic department.

Sam banner
While the NCAA is in turmoil right now and the future of college sports paints a somewhat murky picture, I think everyone can still rest assured that America loves watching our college athletes play far too much for these games to disappear completely. And in these beloved college sports, tradition reigns supreme. Every university tries to hold up their own traditions higher than any other institution’s. Alumni of the University of Michigan will be quick to defend the Maize and Blue in any battle, pointing out that we are the most winningest college football program in history, that Ann Arbor is the best college town God has ever created, that the Victors is the best fight song known to man, and that, quite simply, Michigan is unlike any other school out there.

One of the many ways Michigan has now decided to honor this glorious history is by assigning Legends numbers to a select few football players each year. I, for one, am a big fan. I don’t know of any other program in the country that reminisces over star players of the past in such a way, and though a small patch and a special plaque in the locker room might not seem like much, I really do think these legendary players and their families take great pride in seeing their legacies live on in the Big House. I also think it can’t hurt on the recruiting trail.

With that being said, there are a few “rules and regulations” that I would put into play if I oversaw the program. First, there needs to be some cap on the number of Legends numbers issued. There is no problem with designating a few players with the status every single year, but if the number of Legends jerseys continues to grow to 15, 20, 25 different players, it will lose its luster. I would cap the total number of jerseys in circulation at 10. In order to honor future Legends, however, there needs to be some room to make more though, right? Right. So every 50 years, every Legends number is officially put in the vault (or Schembechler Hall) and is available for re-circulation as a “regular” number. After those 50 years have passed, up to 10 more Legends, preferably representing as many different positions as possible, can be selected and issued with patches, plaques, and pictures and the cycle repeats. This way every Michigan football player will have the chance to earn this incredible honor; if it so happens that a player wearing a Legends jersey becomes a legend himself, that number will remain in issue but the patch will be replaced to honor the more recent standout.

I also think there needs to be some sort of regulation on when the jerseys are issued in relation to a player’s career. As it stands now, it seems that any player can earn the right to wear a Legends number at any point during his four years. Devin Gardner changed from No.12 to No.98 (Tom Harmon) early in his junior year. Jordan Kovacs mysteriously changed from No.32 to No.11 (Francis, Albert, and Alvin Wistert) well into his senior year. Going forward, I think the Legends jerseys should be designated to rising sophomores or redshirt freshmen. With this policy in place, the coaches have a full year to decide who is worthy of the honor based on their play on the field and their actions off it and the player will not have already established himself fully while wearing another number.

As far as the current available Legends jerseys go, I would like to see No.11 stay on the defensive side of the field and No.21 as a wide receiver for at least the near future. Sticking to my own rules, I will give No.11 to either Henry Poggi or Maurice Hurst, Jr., who apparently both impressed on the practice squad last year and will look to make an impact as redshirt freshmen this season, and No.21 to Jaron Dukes, an Ohioan just like Desmond Howard with great potential. When thinking of other potential Legends going forward, I can only think of one obvious one – No.2 for Charles Woodson.
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Now that we’ve all given our answers, we’d like to hear from you. Do you like the legends jerseys? Do you agree or disagree with us? Give us your answer to the question in the comments below.

M&GB Roundtable debates the status of Hoke’s hot seat

Friday, June 27th, 2014


Roundtable-Hoke hot seat

Hoke(Christian Peterson, Getty Images)

As we continue our 2014 season preview series, the time has come for our first M&GB Roundtable. These roundtables will be posted on Fridays a few times throughout the summer and will discuss a hot topic relating to the upcoming season. Given the way last season went and the overall pessimism throughout the fan base at the moment, the first topic is certainly a hot one:

Is Brady Hoke on the hot seat? If not now, what kind of season does Michigan have to have to avoid the hot seat heading into next season? If so, is there a scenario in which you would want him fired after this season?

Justin banner

In my opinion, Hoke isn’t on the hot seat right now, and I don’t say that because of how I feel Dave Brandon views it. I don’t think Hoke should be on the hot seat right now. Of course we’re all disappointed with a 7-6 season. No one wants that. I’ve heard all the “Michigan shouldn’t accept mediocrity” arguments, and I agree. But we have to face the reality of the situation Michigan is in. The program has to be built back up to where it once was, and that process takes time.

I don’t fully blame Rich Rodriguez, though he is partially to blame, mostly for things like not focusing enough on defense and failing to recruit certain positions each year. The main blame should fall on Bill Martin for hiring Rodriguez in the first place back in 2008. The hiring took a traditional, pro-style offense, hard-nosed defense team and forced it to turn into a new-age, spread offense, smaller and faster defense team. We can debate all day long whether Rodriguez would have eventually succeeded if he had been given enough time to fully transition the roster. But when he wasn’t — he was fired after three seasons — and when Brandon handed the reigns back to a more traditional Michigan coach, it stunted the process even more. I’m not saying that was the wrong decision, but the reality is that Brandon did so for long-term, not short-term success. The roster was somewhere between 60-80 percent transitioned to Rodriguez’s style and now it would need to be turned back into the old style.

Hoke going 11-2 in his first season was more of a mirage than what should have been expected. For his part, he solidified the defense, and that combined with the already potent offense, allowed for the great season. Had he kept recruiting and coaching towards Rodriguez’s philosophies, 2012 and 2013 would have been better. But that’s not who Hoke is or what he was brought in for. With only about 25 roster spots able to change over each year, transitioning back to the Michigan of old will take time. And that’s what we, as Michigan fans, need to give Hoke.

Recruiting is going well and there is plenty of young talent on the team. This season, Michigan will still be one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten, and in 2015 the vast majority of the roster will be Hoke’s guys. Hoke needs to be given through 2015 to turn things around. Michigan should at least be within striking distance of the Big Ten championship in 2015. If, at that point, Michigan is still having 7-6 or 8-5 seasons, we can start to seriously discuss how hot Hoke’s seat is.

Drew banner

No, Brady Hoke is not on the hot seat. To be on the hot seat, a coach must be in a position where he must win a substantial number of games the following season or else he will be fired. Hoke is not in such a position, even if his seat is a bit warmer than it was prior to 2013. Fans forget just how toxic things were in Ann Arbor prior to Hoke’s arrival. Not only did Michigan collapse down the stretch in Rich Rodriguez’s final two seasons, his recruiting classes experienced mass defections. The attrition rate was astronomical and left craters in various areas of Michigan’s depth chart that were bound to rear their ugly head down the road.

Hoke has been trying to rebuild Michigan into what it was prior to Rodriguez’s tenure, but it is not an overnight job. Yes, Michigan’s record has worsened each of Hoke’s first three seasons, but do not let the 2011 campaign fool you. That was a magical run. Michigan benefited from some of the best karma and luck the Wolverines have seen in quite some time en route to an 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl victory. But it did not rectify Michigan’s underlying problem that it would have little depth and experience at multiple positions the following seasons. Hoke has tried to plug the holes in the depth chart quickly, bringing in the No. 6 and No. 4 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013, respectively, according to 247 Sports, but those recruits have been only sophomores or freshmen. How much of an immediate impact can be expected from them? This lack of depth and inexperience, combined with puzzling offensive game plans from Al Borges and unfortunate injuries, is why Michigan was 15-11 the past two years.

So Hoke is not on the hot seat yet. He still needs more time to balance the depth chart and develop his talented recruits. Just look at Michigan’s offensive line for the upcoming season. The raw talent is there, but it likely needs one more season to become a cohesive unit. Plus, Michigan will be trying to break in a new offense under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, while being saddled with road games against all three of its major rivals—Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame—for the first time ever. Hoke has two more years to right the ship with big expectations for 2015. He could help alleviate some of that pressure with nine or more wins, especially if they are against a rival or two, in 2014, yet a seven- or eight-win season would make his seat burn a bit more in 2015. And the only scenario where Michigan would consider firing Hoke after this season is one where Michigan has a losing record and fails to make a bowl game. Otherwise, expect Hoke and his staff to be back in 2015.

Josh banner

As far as Dave Brandon is concerned Brady Hoke is not on the hot seat. Whether the university has Brandon/Hoke on the hot seat is another question. I’ve long held the opinion that it would take Hoke until 2015 before he fielded a championship caliber team (conference, not national) and I stick by it. Rome was not built in a day, nor will the Maize and Blue be rebuilt in three-to-four years.

We were spoiled in 2011, but I truly think that was an aberration, an aligning of the stars, so to speak. OSU was down for once and Sparty was, well Sparty. It takes several years to revamp a program from one style into basically the complete opposite. That simply does not happen overnight. Heading into year four Hoke has shown he is a monster on the recruiting trail, which helps me keep my cool. That he has managed to haul in some really good players and classes that fit his ‘Michigan Man’ mold perfectly, in spite of sub-par on-field results is truly a testament to the man’s character and recruiting skill.

The player development, however, has been less than what most of us would have expected but we need to keep in mind that this is a VERY YOUNG team. While it is not uncommon for a first or second year player to be great (Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson*, Johnny Football), it is not the norm. To expect a roster almost fully loaded with first and second year players to play at a high level was just ridiculous.

*Adrian Peterson played with a Heisman winning quarterback, a future first round wide receiver in Mark Clayton, ran behind a line that featured two future NFL players (Jammal Brown and Davin Joseph), and three senior linemen (the other two were juniors), for a team that had a 36-5 record coming in.

No, we haven’t had the seasons we expect from Michigan, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen great seasons back to back (10-plus wins). There haven’t been back to back 10-win seasons in over a decade, 2002-2003 and you have to go back to 1997-1999 to see three straight. Or if you want to be more generous and count 9-plus win seasons, we still go back over a decade to 2002-2004 for three straight and 2006-2007 for back-to-back.

Long story short, Hoke is not on the hot seat nor should he be. One needs at least five seasons to retool a program. I think he gets that and nothing more. That said, I was also of the opinion Rich Rodriguez needed at least five seasons. Although I was happy to see him go, I think he would have turned the corner by his fifth season.

Will the ‘heat’ get turned up if Hoke turns in another seven- or eight-win season? I don’t think so. The fans may be impatient and restless but they don’t call the shots. Dave Brandon played for Bo and he knows what Hoke is dealing with and the time and effort it takes to basically rebuild from the ground up. The temperature stays the same heading into 2015 — which is still very warm — unless of course Hoke goes 3-9. Then all bets are off. I think Brandon is just looking for marked improvement, not necessarily in the win-loss column, but something that shows what this staff is doing is working and taking enough steps forward.

I can think of only one scenario under which I’d like to see Brady Hoke fired after this season. Bill Belichick takes over the program (AD and head coach) and brings Nick Saban along with him. That said, it seems logical that Doug Nussmeier would take over should Hoke be given the boot, after either this season or the next.

Derick banner

Is Hoke on the hot seat? It certainly seems like he should be, but the atmosphere around the program lacks the sense of urgency that usually surrounds a desperate coach. He’s at least feeling pressure, and that’s not only because of the team’s overall performance, but also the individual performances of important players.

Hoke’s similarity to Rich Rodriguez after three years in Ann Arbor has been well documented around the college football world. Both finished 7-6 in their third season, and both struggled in Big Ten play despite hot starts during the non-conference schedule. The major difference between the two? While Rodriguez’s teams at least improved record wise, each year has shown a steady decline under Hoke. If that trend continues in 2014, especially with such a weak home schedule, then Hoke should be shown the door without a doubt.

The overall struggles are largely due to slow improvement from talented players like Derrick Green. Hoke has proven he can lure some of the most highly regarded recruits in the country to Ann Arbor, but those players simply haven’t performed on the field in many cases. In 2013 the offensive line was loaded with former stud recruits, but as a unit it left Devin Gardner on his back more often than any other group in the Big Ten. Some recruits clearly don’t live up to the hype, but Hoke needs more from five-star guys like Green.

Team 135 is immensely important for Hoke and his future at Michigan. In his fourth season fans expect that the talent he needs is at his disposal and the program needs to take a step in the right direction. With Jabrill Peppers and company on campus, Michigan is primed to compete in the Big Ten. Hoke’s job is to make sure that happens.

2012 season preview: M&GB staff roundtable

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012


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.