Sadly, another Michigan football season has come to an end. It ended with a tough, last-second loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. As with any game, there were areas of Michigan’s performance which can be looked at as both positives and negatives as we start looking ahead to next season.
As has been pointed out by a number of folks during the past week, the Wolverines played pretty well overall but were hurt throughout the game by the big chunk plays which South Carolina was able to get on offense. Michigan dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 15 minutes more than the other side. Also, the running game, although it didn’t look like Michigan’s traditional style, was effective in keeping the South Carolina defense off-balance. Because of this, the passing game opened up some and quarterback Devin Gardner was able to hit some big passes, including three touchdowns. Lastly, the Wolverines converted all five of their opportunities in the red zone into points.
Let’s be honest. The offense MUST find a running game next season. Michigan will not be bailed out by Denard Robinson any longer just because the running backs aren’t running the ball effectively. And using Devin Gardner as a running threat will not be part of the offensive play-calling as Al Borges moves back toward his more traditional style of offense. My first hope is that Fitz Toussaint is able to both physically and mentally recover from last season and return to the form of the 2011 season. If not, the running game could rest on the back of a true freshman (Derrick Green?!) and sophomore Justice Hayes.
While some may be worried that the loss of Denard Robinson to graduation will be a major blow to the Michigan offense, I choose to look at it in a more positive light. Yes, Denard was a force which defenses had to prepare for every week. However, the injury which he sustained to his elbow midway through the season may have been a blessing in disguise when it comes to 2013. Had he not been injured, neither the coaches nor the fans would have seen the offensive possibilities of Gardner at quarterback. Most had assumed that Gardner would continue to play wide receiver for the rest of his career with incoming freshmen quarterback Shane Morris set to arrive in Ann Arbor next season. Now, after seeing the possibilities, it would be foolish to move Gardner back to receiver. Yes, Michigan is set to be thin at that position next season. But as we saw early in the year, he wasn’t as much of a threat when he had to rely on the quarterback to get him the ball before he could do anything. And he certainly isn’t likely to be a threat when a true freshman (Morris) is lining up under center. I know Morris is good and all, but freshmen are rarely able to come into major college football and make a major impact right off the bat. Unless, of course, you are Johnny Manziel, which Morris is not. With Gardner likely to receive a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA, that means two more seasons of Gardner at QB. That also means that Morris can redshirt for a year and by the time it’s his time to play, he will still have three years of eligibility. Michigan is looking good at quarterback for the near future.
A moment ago I touched on Borges and his play-calling. Over the last two seasons, we have all been frustrated at times with his inability to use Denard in ways which would take advantage of his unique skill set. Well, with Denard not a consideration any longer, Borges won’t have to spend time building a game plan each week for Denard. Instead, Borges can use his time to game plan only one offensive style. Not multiple. Being an offensive coordinator at a major college football program is not an easy job I’m sure. But if Borges is able to spend less time on something that wasn’t really in his nature to use anyway, the Michigan offense may be better off. In no way am I advocating that the loss of Denard is a good thing, just saying that it may be better for a coordinator like Al Borges. Only time will tell.
The biggest holes that will need to be filled this offseason are at receiver and on the offensive line. Since it is often easy for young players to make an impact at receiver, the bigger worry for me is the line. This season, the line wasn’t great, even with Taylor Lewan. With his departure for the NFL, Michigan loses three starters that will likely be replaced with younger players. Guys like Kyle Kalis, Blake Bars, and any one of the five or six incoming freshmen will have to step up and play well for the Michigan offense next season.
How about the other side of the ball? For the past two seasons, the defense has been consistently good, due in large part to the schemes of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. In 2012, according to the numbers, its strength was its pass defense. They were weaker while trying to defend the run due to less talent on the defensive line. Throughout the season, I wasn’t convinced that the Michigan defense was truly a Top 5 pass defense. I think those numbers were due in large part to the competition they were playing. All but one of their opponents this season (Alabama) ran a run-first offense, and even Alabama ran a very balanced attack. The Outback Bowl proved this to be true. South Carolina gashed the Wolverines through the air, consistently getting behind the deepest level of the secondary and finding the open holes in the defense.
The bottom line is that Michigan must get faster in the secondary. Losing J.T. Floyd due to suspension because he cared more about doing drugs than being there for his team didn’t make a difference. He wasn’t that good anyway. And Jordan Kovacs, while an important leader for the team as a whole, was not a coverage guy. He thrived playing at the line of scrimmage and aiding in the run defense. More speed in the secondary, and the continued development of guys like Courtney Avery, Raymon Taylor, and the incoming group of freshmen will help. Certainly, the return of Blake Countess will be a huge plus as well.
With the loss of only William Campbell and Craig Roh, the defensive line should be as good or better next season. Guys such as Frank Clark, Quinton Washington, Ondre Pipkins, and Jibreel Black all made impacts this year. There are also a number quality defensive line recruits from the last two seasons who have been waiting for their opportunity to play, including Tom Strobel and Chris Wormley.
We all know that the linebacking corps is the strength of the defense. Jake Ryan, Joe Bolden, and Desmond Morgan are the leaders. The loss of Kenny Demens will be felt somewhat, but in comes guys like Cam Gordon, Royce Jenkins-Stone, and James Ross to earn the privilege of playing for the Michigan defense.
The prospects for 2013 are bright. Head Coach Brady Hoke has this team headed in the right direction and the Top 10 recruiting classes which he has managed to bring in will keep that momentum going. Next season should be an exciting one, as Michigan will be in a better position to play for the Big Ten title. Go Blue!