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Posts Tagged ‘Jake Butt’

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Tight ends (part one)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This is the fourth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I have already covered who will be the best Big Ten quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. This week, I rank the last offensive skill position: tight end. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.

10. Matt LaCosse, Illinois | Senior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 237 3 11.9 45 19.8
2012 3 32 0 10.7 12 2.9
2011 1 11 0 11.0 11 1.1
Career Totals 24 280 3 11.7 45 8.5
(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

The Big Ten is a conference that has a longstanding reputation for playing football with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. It is a mentality that often involves multiple tight ends and jumbo formations. However, most of the Big Ten, like the rest of college football, is transitioning—or has transitioned already—away from this towards the spread offense, whether it is a read-option spread or a passing spread. These modern offenses want to spread out their fastest, nimblest, and best athletes and give them the ball in space to expose defenses.

Yet, most tight ends do not fit these criteria. When lined up adjacent to an offensive tackle, tight ends fail to spread out the defense horizontally, bringing more defenders inside the box. When they line up in the slot, most do not have the speed or athleticism to make plays in space, even if their size makes them desirable targets in the middle of the field. Accordingly, a residual effect of this offensive transition is the de-emphasis of the importance of most tight ends, and thus, makes filling out a top 10 of the best tight ends in the Big Ten a challenging exercise.

Nonetheless, the list will start with Illinois’ Matt LaCosse. LaCosse will be a senior in 2014 and should have his best season in what has been a relatively quiet collegiate career. LaCosse played in 33 games in his three seasons at Illinois, but did not become a factor in Illinois’ passing game until last year. And, even then, he was not much of a factor. LaCosse was targeted 29 times, recording a target rate of 6.7 percent. This was only the sixth-highest target rate on the roster. LaCosse did make the most of his opportunities, though. Although LaCosse was not explosive, and to be fair, most tight ends are not, he caught 20 passes for 237 yards, 11.85 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. It was a big step in the right direction for a tight end that had caught only four passes total the previous two seasons.

LaCosse should take another step in the right direction in 2014, although a breakout year should not be presumed. LaCosse should benefit from Wes Lunt taking the reins of Illinois’ offense at quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase was more of a pocket passer than a dual threat, but Lunt better fits the mold of quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit desires for his passing spread. This means airing it out even more. Consequently, LaCosse should be targeted more frequently this season than last, even if he still is splitting snaps with fellow senior tight end Jon Davis. The Fighting Illini lost their four most-productive wide receivers to graduation. The only returning Illinois player with more than 300 receiving yards last year is running back Josh Ferguson. There are question marks abound at wide receiver and very few answers for Illinois. Someone must replace that production. Even though tight ends rarely were featured in Cubit’s offenses at Western Michigan, LaCosse likely will have a more prominent role this season and should be one of Lunt’s favorite targets.

9. Adam Breneman, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4”, 235 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
Career Totals 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
(John Beale, AP)

(John Beale, AP)

No Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no apparent perimeter threats at outside receiver. They said goodbye to arguably the best wide receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who declared early for the NFL Draft after leading the conference in targets (150), receptions (97), and receiving yards (1,432). Wideout Brandon Felder departed, too, after recording 28 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. Unfortunately, for Penn State, there is very little experience remaining at wide receiver. No other Nittany Lion wide receiver had more than 20 catches or 250 receiving yards last year. There may be some talented freshmen waiting in the wings, but it seems unlikely they will make an immediate impact. However, Penn State has three very talented players returning at tight end and will need them to replace the production that Robinson and Felder provided.

Two of those tight ends will be competing for the second spot on the depth chart. Those players are Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. Breneman was considered a top-50 prospect nationally and one of the two best tight ends in the 2013 class. He actually had loftier rankings until he suffered an ACL injury entering his senior season of high school. Nonetheless, Breneman was expected to recover and contribute as soon as he arrived on campus in State College. Although he had a slow start as a true freshman, he began to impress by the end of the year. Breneman caught a touchdown in each of his of final three contests and finished the season with 15 receptions for 186 yards.

On the other hand, Kyle Carter is a tight end that has proven more on the field despite much lower recruiting accolades. Carter was a generic three-star recruit when he signed his letter of intent with Penn State in 2012. Yet, as a true freshman, he was the second-best receiver on the team with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Carter was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. However, last season, Carter did not have quite the same impact. He posted only 18 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown. This was the result of a new quarterback under center in then-freshman Christian Hackenberg, the presence of Breneman, and the emergence of Jesse James—who will be discussed later.

Ultimately, both Breneman and Carter will see significant playing time this season. It is not as if the loser of this competition will be stuck to the bench all season, especially when Penn State may need its tight ends to compensate for its deficiency at wide receiver. So, while either Breneman or Carter could be No. 9 in these rankings, the edge goes to Breneman because of his potential. Although Carter has had better numbers, Breneman has the tools to be special. In his limited playing time last season, Breneman recorded a 78.9-percent catch rate while averaging 12.40 yards per catch. These are excellent numbers and a rare combination for a tight end. They suggest that Breneman is a tight end that either can make defenders miss after catching the ball near the line of scrimmage or has superb hands down the field. Additionally, Breneman seems to have better chemistry on the field with Hackenberg, which is no surprise when the two were roommates last year. Breneman is a solid bet to be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in 2015 and 2016. However, No. 9 is a good spot for him in 2014 when he will be Penn State’s second-string tight end and have his targets cannibalized by Carter and James.

8. Justin Sinz, Purdue | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4”, 251 lbs.
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 41 340 4 8.3 28 28.3
2012 4 48 1 12.0 16 4.0
2011 3 25 0 8.3 9 2.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 48 413 5 8.6 28 11.5
(247)

(247)

Purdue’s offense was an abomination last season. There were 123 college football teams in the FBS division last year. Yet, the Boilermakers were ranked in the bottom five nationally in scoring offense (No. 119), total offense (No. 119), and rushing offense (No. 122). There were very few positives to glean from Purdue’s offensive woes. One of them, though, was the production of its tight end, Justin Sinz.

Sinz was the safety valve for Purdue’s quarterback, whether it was for then-freshman Danny Etling or then-senior Rob Henry. Purdue’s quarterbacks struggled with their accuracy all season, completing a miserable 55.2 percent of their passes. Due to their inability to throw pinpoint passes to their wide receivers, Etling and Henry often would check down to Sinz near the line of scrimmage. Accordingly, Sinz had the second-most targets on the roster and the fourth-most among Big Ten tight ends with 55. Because most of these throws were check downs, Sinz caught a high percentage of them—74.5 percent to be exact. This allowed Sinz to lead the Boilermakers with 41 receptions last season, turning them into 340 yards and four touchdowns, and be one of the more productive tight ends in the Big Ten.

Notwithstanding his productivity in 2013, Sinz was the beneficiary of a broken offense more than anything else. Purdue could neither run the football nor throw it down the field. So one of the very few options the Boilermakers had to move the football was Sinz near the line of scrimmage. And, when Sinz did catch the football, he did very little with it. He averaged only 8.29 yards per catch, which was one of the lowest such averages among Big Ten tight ends. Further, only one of his 41 receptions gained 25 yards or more. The last term anyone would use to describe Sinz’s game is playmaker.

The best case scenario for Sinz in 2014 is that Etling, who received decent praise as a high-school recruit, makes a sophomore leap with the help of an offensive line that cannot be any worse than last year. If Etling is allowed more time in the pocket, Sinz may be able to get open down field and make more plays rather than acting solely as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage. However, there is very little reason to be optimistic about Purdue’s offense next season. The outlook is similarly dreadful to last year. This means Sinz could load up on receptions again even if little excitement happens after the catch. But Sinz may split snaps with senior tight end Gabe Holmes, who was the starter before missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury. Fewer targets in the same caliber offense? Sinz very likely may see a dip in his production in 2014.

7. Jake Butt, Michigan | Sophomore – 6’6”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
Career Totals 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

Next on the list is Michigan’s Jake Butt—a man with a last name that could not be more fitting for his position. Similar to Penn State’s Adam Breneman, Butt is a young tight end that has the tools and potential to be a special player down the road. In fact, it initially appeared that Butt would be able to fulfill much of this potential as a sophomore in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Butt’s playing time increased once Michigan shifted starting tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Soon thereafter, Butt found his groove, catching 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the last five contests. His highlight of the season was against archrival Ohio State when he set career highs for receptions (five) and receiving yards (85) while adding a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what could be a future All-Big Ten tight end. And there was some talk that Butt could do it this year with Funchess remaining on the perimeter and no other experienced receivers returning for Michigan.

However, an unfortunate and unlucky incident eliminated that talk swiftly. In February 2014, Butt tore his ACL while participating in conditioning drills. When the injury occurred, there was speculation about whether he would heal in time for this season like Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan did last year or would need to sit out for all of 2014. As of now, according to head coach Brady Hoke, all signs point to Butt making his return in late September or early October. The best guess would be that Butt would miss Michigan’s four non-conference contests and make his season debut on September 27, 2014, in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener versus Minnesota.

While there are reports that Butt already is running and ahead of schedule in his rehab, there still are lots of questions about how effective Butt will be when he returns. Will Butt still have the same athleticism, agility, and strength in his leg to produce at a high level for Michigan? And, even if Butt’s knee is fully recovered, will he mentally have recovered from the injury? There are times when athletes are mentally conscious of their prior injury when they return, which prevents them from playing instinctively and causes them to play hesitant. The odds are that Butt will be fine, physically and mentally, when he suits up. Nevertheless, Butt still likely will play no more than nine games this season. It is difficult to rank a player high than No. 7 when it is known he will miss a portion of the season with a significant injury, even if he comes back stronger than ever.

6. Ray Hamilton, Iowa | Senior – 6’5”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 8 95 0 11.9 21 7.3
2012 2 20 0 10.0 20 1.8
2011 1 15 0 15.0 15 1.5
Career Totals 11 130 0 11.8 21 3.8
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach prior to the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes have had an influx of talent at tight end. There has been Dallas Clark, who was a consensus All-American and the John Mackey Award winner in 2003. There also has been Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, who were named to the All-Big Ten first team in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Then, there was Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler, who, in addition to the Clark, Myers, and Moeaki, were selected in the NFL Draft.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa has made tight ends a staple of its offense. Just look at C.J. Fiedorowicz last season. Fiedorowicz was an all-around tight end that not only was a solid blocker, but an above-average receiver. He earned the third-most targets on the roster with 44 and converted them into 30 receptions for 299 receiving yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Although Fiedorowicz was not an explosive tight end, which is not a trait common in many players stuck in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system, he was a beast near the end zone. All six of his touchdown receptions were in the red zone. For his performance, Fiedorowicz was handed All-Big Ten first-team honors and chosen in the NFL Draft.

Next on the list of Iowa tight ends under Ferentz to forward this legacy is senior Ray Hamilton. Despite being a four-star recruit that committed to Iowa over high-major programs, Hamilton was overshadowed the past three seasons by Fiedorowicz. While Fiedorowicz shined in the spotlight, Hamilton stuck to the dirty work in the trenches with his nasty blocking as Iowa’s backup tight end. Consequently, Hamilton was more of a sixth offensive lineman on the field than receiver. He caught only 11 passes for 130 yards in his first three seasons. But, with Fiedorowicz off to the NFL, it is finally time for Hamilton to demonstrate why he was so highly regarded in high school. Although his receiving skills may not be to the same standard as Fiedorowicz’s, as the starting tight end this season, Hamilton should be targeted much more frequently this season than he ever has. Further, there is strong potential for Hamilton to be a touchdown magnet in the red zone. All in all, Hamilton should be a key member of Iowa’s aerial attack, especially when the Hawkeyes do not have a standout wide receiver.

However, there is one wild card in this picture. His name is Jake Duzey. Unlike Hamilton, Duzey does not fit the mold of the traditional Iowa tight end. Duzey has shown more ability as a receiver, but struggles with the blocking element of the position. It remains to be seen just how much Iowa will try to utilize Duzey’s skill set this season. Duzey could be a dynamic threat in the passing game for the Hawkeyes, which would cut into Hamilton’s targets and relegate Hamilton back into a blocking tight end. But, in the past, Ferentz has shied away from relying on tight ends that cannot block because his offense emphasizes the power running game. This is even the case for his No. 2 tight end, which is used almost exclusively for blocking in Iowa’s scheme. Will Ferentz and Davis add some creativity to their offense to get Duzey more involved? Or will Duzey struggle to get on the field because he cannot block effectively? These are questions to keep an eye on as Iowa’s season progresses. But, either way, expect one of Hamilton or Duzey to make a sizeable contribution for the Hawkeyes this season, just like every other Iowa tight end before them.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with where the foregoing players have been ranked? What about Michigan’s Jake Butt? Do you believe he is ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think will the best tight end in the Big Ten in 2014? Please let us know in the comments below because, tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five top tight ends in the conference.

Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

Monday, June 23rd, 2014


Predicting Michigan-TightEnds

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan

Michigan football made a few announcements this offseason that gutted the tight end depth for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The team’s top option throughout much of the last two seasons was Devin Funchess, who will be moved permanently to wide receiver for his junior season. Transitioning Funchess was much easier after the emergence of freshman Jake Butt, but a torn ACL sidelined the young star and left the Wolverines without their top two options at tight end, at least for the first few games of the season.

Brady Hoke opted against moving Funchess back to tight end, and will instead choose from a number of veteran options that have made smaller impacts during their Michigan careers.

The Starters

With the offense under construction after the hiring of Nussmeier, it remains to be seen what type of role the tight ends will play in 2014. During the spring game, the majority of Michigan’s sets featured one tight end, often junior A.J. Williams.

Williams played a very limited role in his sophomore campaign, catching just one pass for a two-yard touchdown in the loss at Iowa. The 6’6″ tight end started six games, but was rarely featured as an integral part of the offense. The junior will be asked to play a much bigger role in 2014, as he holds the No. 1 tight end spot on the depth chart and received the most reps during the spring game.

Fellow junior Keith Heitzman lineup up with Williams on the first team during double tight end sets at the spring game, revealing Nussmeier’s willingness to at least experiment with more than one tight end on the field.

Heitzman has played 23 games for the Wolverines in his career, but all of them have come on the defensive line. The 271-pound junior separated himself from the rest of the pack as the No. 2 tight end, but will likely be featured as a blocker and less of a receiving threat.

Butt, meanwhile, is expected to be out until Big Ten play, but when he returns, will slide back into a starting role. The 6’6″, 250-pound sophomore impressed as a true freshman in 2013, catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. That’s five more catches and one more yard than Funchess had in his freshman campaign. Butt saved his best performance of the season for the matchup against his hometown Buckeyes, recording five catches for 85 yards and a score. Butt won’t match Funchess’ 2013 numbers, but will play a major role in the offense once he returns.

Projected Stats – Williams
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
9 100 11.1 1 7.7
Career Stats
2013 1 2 2.0 2 1 0.2
2012 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 1 2 2.0 2 1 0.2
Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
21 250 11.9 4 27.8
Career Stats
2013 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Totals 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Projected Stats – Heitzman
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
16 200 12.5 2 15.4
Career Stats
2013 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
2012 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
2011 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A

Veteran Depth

Tight end remains one of the thinnest positions on the Michigan roster leading into the 2014 season, but quality recruits over the past two seasons have provided the Wolverines with some talented options. The struggle for Nussmeier in 2014 will be finding a tight end that can both protect the quarterback and hurt defenses in the passing game.

Redshirt freshman Khalid Hill figures to be an option if Williams and Heitzman struggle, as the former consensus three-star offers Michigan more of a receiving weapon. Hill is smaller than the other tight ends, but makes up for it with quickness and essential receiving skills like strong hands and great route running. Hill is more likely to be a difference-maker in the future, but a strong spring could put him on the radar for 2014.

Projected Stats – Hill
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
13 150 11.5 1 11.5
Career Stats
2013 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A
Totals 0 0 N/A N/A 0 N/A

Newcomers

Michigan welcomed one key tight end prospect in the 2014 recruiting class in Ian Bunting. Bunting is a tall, but athletic tight end that should evolve into Michigan’s top receiving threat from his position. The freshman played wide receiver throughout much of his high school career, which molded him into the offensive threat that Hoke recruited.

Bunting figures to compete for playing time as a true freshman, since the Wolverines could really use a receiving threat from the tight end position. His versatility can only improve his chances to crack the lineup, as Nussmeier owns the option to line him up in the slot or out wide.

If a largely unproven wide receiver unit struggles during the non-conference season, expect the coaching staff to consider awarding Bunting more time at tight end to give the offense more options. The freshman fits the mold of Funchess and Butt as a pseudo-receiver at tight end.

Projected Stats – Bunting
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
10 150 15.0 1 11.5

New in Blue: Tight end Chris Clark

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Chris Clark(247 Sports)

Chris Clark – TE | 6-6, 247 | Avon, Conn. – Avon Old Farms
ESPN: 4-star, #3 TE Rivals: 4-star, #4 TE 247: 4-star, #2 TE Scout: 5-star, #1 TE
Other top offers: Alabama, Auburn, FSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Miami, South Carolina

Michigan seems to be gaining momentum on the recruiting trail, as just a day after picking up a commitment from 2016 quarterback Messiah deWeaver, the Wolverines got the nod from one of the top tight ends in the country, Chris Clark. After visiting Ohio State on Tuesday and Michigan State on Wednesday, the Avon, Conn. star pledged his commitment to Michigan on his visit this afternoon and announced it on Twitter.

Clark is rated four stars by Rivals, 247, and ESPN and five stars by Scout. Scout considers him the top tight end and 26th-best overall prospect in the 2015 class. 247 ranks him the second-best tight end and 101st overall prospect. ESPN has him as their third tight end and 108th-best overall prospect, while Rivals ranks him fourth and 146th, respectively. All but Rivals are in agreement about his height (6’6″) and weight (247-pounds). Rivals lists him six pounds heavier.

Scout lists Clarks’s strengths as blocking ability, hands, concentration, and size, and his weaknesses as downfield threat and elusiveness. Scout’s Brian Dohn had high praise for Clark.

“Clark is a complete tight end who can block, get out and catch the ball and also be a factor in the red zone,” said Dohn. “He has very good hands and is a red-zone threat. He does a nice job running routes and he is a big, physical player. He also embraces the blocking portion of the game, and does a good job getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly. All around, Clark is a complete tight end who should havea big impact quickly in college.”

Make no mistake about it, this is a big pick up for Hoke and staff. Clark held offers from nearly every major program in the country, including Alabama, and Michigan’s three main rivals, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame. He originally committed to North Carolina on March 16, but decommitted less than a month later and promptly visited Michigan and Ohio State.

On May 4, Clark tweeted that he would make his announcement at The Opening on July 8, but his visit to Michigan today, during which he met with quarterback commitment Alex Malzone, was enough to get him to end his recruitment a few weeks earlier. He’s the only current commit that will participate in The Opening, an invite-only competition for elite prospects at the Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, but he will join a pair of former commits — George Campbell and Shaun Crawford — as well as several targets.

Clark is the eighth member of the 2015 class and the only tight end. When he gets to Michigan next year — assuming his commitment holds through signing day — he will join a talented group that includes fellow four-stars Jake Butt and Ian Bunting and three star Khalid Hill. For what it’s worth, Devin Funchess was a three-star, though it’s a stretch to consider him a tight end at this point.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier likes to utilize tight ends, so the success Hoke and staff have had recruiting the position the past few years bodes well for the future. Clark has also said that he will do some recruiting for Michigan to try to lure other top prospects to join him in Ann Arbor.

Countdown to kickoff: 80 days

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-80

Countdown to kickoff: 87 days

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


Devin Funchess, Jake Butt

Countdown to kickoff: 88 days

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-88

Countdown to kickoff: 92 days

Friday, May 30th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-92_edited-2

Burning questions as Michigan football opens spring practice

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014


Morris-Gardner(Detroit News)

It has been just 59 days since Michigan’s season wrapped up with an underwhelming loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The 2014 season seems eons away as basketball season is about to head into conference tournaments and then the Big Dance. But while it may be hard to turn our attention back to football, Brady Hoke’s squad is set to return to the gridiron today to kick off spring practice.

Last season was as disappointing as any in recent memory because no one expected it to go the way it did. Most preseason expectations ranged from 9-4 to 11-2, and after the Wolverines topped Notre Dame in Under the Lights II, there was even some talk of national championship possibilities. Of course, Michigan followed up the high of that game with a thud against Akron, needing a last-second goal line stand to hold off what may have been a bigger upset than when Appalachian State stunned the Wolverines in 2007. And the season unraveled from there.

Now, needing to get the bad taste of 2013 out of its system, Michigan has a 2014 season opener to look forward to against, well, Appalachian State. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the biggest questions the Wolverines face heading into spring ball.

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How healthy is Devin Gardner?

Brady Hoke turned some heads earlier this month when he seemed to imply that the starting quarterback role was up for grabs this fall.

“I think (the starting quarterback for next season) is an unknown,” Hoke said. “We were 7-6 (last season). And we’ve got a lot of young guys (on the team). We’ve got a lot of competition.”

In a technical sense it’s true. Gardner finished the 2013 season in a walking boot and couldn’t even play in the bowl game. Until he’s fully healthy he can’t be 100 percent presumed the starter. What if the injury is even worse than thought? What if it continues to linger throughout the offseason?

But assuming Gardner is able to fully heal there’s no question he’s the starter on Aug. 30. The main question is how much will he be able to do in spring ball?

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be the third Gardner has had in his career, and although he didn’t start under Calvin McGee, it will still be the third offensive system he has had to learn. Nussmeier has done wonders for the quarterbacks he has coached during his quick rise up the ranks, from Jeff Smoker to Drew Stanton to Tom Brandstater to Jake Locker to Keith Price to A.J. McCarron.

Sophomore-to-be Shane Morris is likely to benefit the most from Nussmeier’s quarterback expertise since he has three more years to work with him, but Gardner could very well take a significant leap in 2014 given his talent and experience. In 2003, Nussmeier helped Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker set a school record 3,395 passing yards after struggling as a junior. He then helped Drew Stanton improve from 1,601 yards in his first season to 3,077 the next year. Most recently, he helped Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron improve on a near flawless 2012 season.

It will be important for Gardner to participate in spring drills to continue the work that he has built upon the past four years, but most importantly to work with Nussmeier and learn his offense. Gardner can still do that if not at full speed, but it’s obviously better to learn at full speed than not.

Who will catch passes?

Jeremy Gallon graduated and took 42.6 percent of last season’s receiving yards with him. Add the production lost from fellow seniors Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, Joe Reynolds, and Fitzgearld Toussaint — who finished as the team’s fourth-leading pass catcher — and Michigan has just 41.3 percent of its production returning.

Jehu Chesson is Michigan's leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

Jehu Chesson is Michigan’s leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

To make matters worse, tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL in offseason workouts, and while he’s likely to return at some point during the season, he may not be 100 percent. Devin Funchess was almost certain to make the official move to the outside prior to Butt’s injury, but with no other established pass catching tight end, Michigan may not be afforded to move him permanently.

The leading returning true receiver is Jehu Chesson, who caught just 15 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. No other true wide receiver that caught a pass returns. The x-factor will be Chesson’s classmate, Amara Darboh, who was in line to start last season before a foot injury in fall camp sidelined him for the season. At 6’2″ and 212 pounds, Darboh has the size to be a formidable outside receiver, but will his foot be healthy enough to fully participate in spring ball? He impressed last spring and fall before sustaining the injury. Can he regain that form?

The unknowns are the cadre of true and redshirt freshmen that have been brought in in the past two recruiting classes. Jaron Dukes, Csont’e York, and Da’Mario Jones all redshirted in 2013 and Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris, and Maurice Ways are incoming. Of the latter group, Canteen and Harris enrolled early and will have a chance to show what they can do while getting their feet wet this spring.

All five have good height but will need to add some bulk to their thin frames, Canteen (6’3″, 170) and Harris (6’4″, 180) especially. Chesson played last season at 6’3″, 196 and seemed thin at times. York was listed at 6’3″, 180 last season, while Jones was 6’2″, 192 and Dukes 6’4″, 190, but by the time the spring roster is released, they will have surely added some muscle with a full season under their belts.

There is plenty of young talent and great size to go around, but who steps up and garners that hype that Darboh did a year ago before his injury will be one of the biggest aspects to watch this spring.

How will the line shape up?

The biggest disappointment in 2013 was undoubtedly the poor performance of the offensive line. While senior left tackle Taylor Lewan earned the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award for the second straight year and right tackle Michael Schofield was solid, the interior was a sieve all season. Several different combinations were used throughout the season and the coaching staff even went as far as to try odd tackle over formations to utilize Lewan’s strengths in order to hide other weaknesses, but nothing seemed to make the offense any more efficient.

With the bookends gone to graduation and a new offensive coordinator the development of the line will be interesting to watch. Much was said throughout last season about Brady Hoke’s supposed inability to develop offensive line talent, but let’s not forget that his first full class was redshirt freshmen in 2013. Most linemen, even the most highly rated ones, don’t gain starting roles on the line until two or three years into their careers at minimum.

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Highly-ranked offensive line hauls are great, but we shouldn’t have begun to sniff the payoffs until this upcoming season at the earliest. In a normal situation without the attrition from previous classes decimating the line depth, Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, Blake Bars, and Ben Braden would have simply played reserve roles in 2013, heading into the spring of their redshirt sophomore season looking to work their way into the starting lineup. Instead, Kalis and Magnuson, along with true freshman Kyle Bosch, were forced into action before they were clearly ready and it showed. While that hurt the offense in 2013 it should pay dividends in 2014 as they can build upon the experience they gained.

One thing that is for certain is that, aside from injuries, everybody will get a chance to compete throughout spring practice for a major role this fall. Magnuson and Chris Bryant — both of whom started games last season — will be held out due to injury, but aside from that, who emerges as the starters is anyone’s guess.

Hoke hinted that they would start the spring with Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, and Ben Braden as the starting five from left to right, and the competition would go from there.

“We’ll obviously start with a five, but all that is going to be competitive, and with a young team, to some degree, even though they played a little bit, you’ve got to have it competitive,” Hoke said.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier won’t bring huge changes, but he will simplify the schemes the line uses in the running game. Last year, Hoke and then-offensive coordinator Al Borges tried just about everything they could think of to find something that worked. This year, Nussmeier will start with a basic inside zone and build from there. Whichever five emerge from the April 5 spring game as the starters will carry confidence and cohesiveness into fall camp.

How will the defensive coaching shakeups impact the defense?

Nussmeier replacing Borges was the only coaching staff change this offseason, but last week Hoke announced that the roles of several defensive coaches would be shaken up in an effort to create a more aggressive defense and streamline the staff. Most notably, Hoke won’t be coaching any specific position groups himself. He spent the past three seasons coaching the defensive line. Stepping back will allow him to take a larger role and perhaps devote more time to areas that may have been overlooked in the past.

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Mark Smith, who has coached the linebackers the past few seasons, will take over the defensive line, while defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moves to the linebackers. Mattison coached the Baltimore Ravens linebackers — and good ones like Ray Lewis — and said on National Signing Day that he has been looking for bigger linebackers. Smith, meanwhile, spent 15 of his 32 years as a defensive line coach, but hasn’t specifically coached the position since 2002 at Indiana State.

Curt Mallory will be taking on more of a specialized role with just the safeties after coaching the entire secondary the past three seasons, while Roy Manning will take over the defensive backs. Manning was hired prior to last season to coach the outside linebackers.

“Everyone on the staff and the kids are really excited about these changes,” Hoke said. “Greg and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle. When you look at Mark’s experience on the defensive line, then being able to split the secondary, where you have five positions and 20-plus guys, and with the way offense and passing has changed in college football, I think it balances our staff on that side of the ball.”

Michigan’s defense has gone downhill in each of the three seasons under the current staff. In year one, Hoke and Mattison transformed what was a sieve under Rich Rodriguez into the nation’s 17th-best total defense and sixth-best scoring defense. But those numbers have fallen the past two seasons from 13th and 19th in 2012 to 41st and 66th last season. While the offense had its share of well-publicized struggles, the defense was virtually unable to stop anyone over the second half of the season.

The coaching staff shakeup sounds like a sign of desperation at first glance, a coach trying one last ditch set of moves in order to save his job. That may be partially true, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Moving Mattison to coach the middle of the defense makes a lot of sense as that’s where he coached in Baltimore and the linebackers run the defense. Hoke stepping back from coaching a position group also seems like the right move, and Smith taking over a group with which he has considerable — if not recent — experience could invigorate the line. Finally, splitting the secondary among two coaches also make sense since there are so many bodies among the cornerbacks and safeties.

In a perfect world, the moves will create excitement among the players — at the very least shake up any complacency or entitlement that may exist. Even though Nussmeier is the only new addition to the staff, the whole defense will be playing for a new position coach and thus fighting even harder to make a statement and earn playing time. Should it have gotten to that point? No. But it can only be a good thing throughout the spring.

Third annual M&GB Hail Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014


It’s that time of year again – time to take one final look back at the football season that was and hand out our awards for the top players, plays, and moments. The past two years we posted this on Christmas Eve, but this year decided to wait until after the bowl game.

Team 134 held high expectations by most, coming off of a disappointing 8-5 season. With Devin Gardner at the helm, most assumed the pro-style, power running offense was about to take flight. And through the first two games there was nothing to make anyone think otherwise. Michigan throttled Central Michigan to start the season and then beat Notre Dame in style under the lights. At that point, Michigan fans were certain this team could win the Big Ten and possibly compete for a national title.

But back-to-back scares at the hands of Akron and UConn tempered those expectations quickly, and after a good win against Minnesota, Michigan suffered its first defeat of the season in quadruple overtime at Penn State. From there, it was pretty much all downhill save an offensive explosion against Indiana and a triple overtime win at Northwestern. Michigan State and Nebraska held the Wolverines to a combined negative-69 yards rushing. Iowa held Michigan to just 158 total yards and 10 first downs and the regular season culminated with a fantastic performance that ultimately came up just short against rival Ohio State. In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan was completely outclassed by Kansas State and the season ended with an even more disappointing 7-6 record.

The underachievement prompted the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges and the hiring of Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to the delight of Michigan fans everywhere. The doom and gloom of 2013 finally, briefly, gave way to hope for 2014. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s relive the top moments of Team 134.

To revisit previous years awards: 2012, 2011.

Harmon Player of the Year Jeremy Gallon

Everyone knew entering the season that Jeremy Gallon was in for a big year. He came alive at the end of the 2012 season when Denard Robinson went down and Devin Gardner stepped in at quarterback. But no one expected a record-breaking season.

His 1,373 yards broke Braylon Edwards’ single-season receiving record of 1,330 which was set in 2004. He also shattered the single-game receiving record (and the Big Ten’s) with his 14-catch, 369-yard performance against Indiana.

“For decades, the prototypical wide receiver at Michigan has been 6’3″, 210 pounds, and had an ability to outmuscle an opposing secondary,” said Drew. “Yet, despite being listed at a minuscule 5’8″, Jeremy Gallon completed of the best statistical seasons for a wide receiver in the 134-year history of Michigan football. Although opposing defenses knew U-M could not run the football and that Gallon would be Devin Gardner’s go-to target, Gallon still broke record after record after record.”

“Was the leader on an offense that struggled to do much of anything this season,” said Chris. “Was consistently reliable any time the team needed him.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Devin Gardner (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Denard Robinson

Chappuis Offensive Player of the Year Jeremy Gallon

Gallon finished the season with 89 receptions, 1,373 yards, and nine touchdowns. The next closest receiver, Devin Funchess, had 49 for 748 and six. No running back did much of anything this season, and only Devin Gardner could be considered for the offensive player of the year award in terms of production.

Gallon had big-time performances against Notre Dame, Indiana, Northwestern and Ohio State and came close to 100 yards in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He caught at least four passes in all but one game (Minnesota).

“Record setting year and pretty much the only consistent player on the team,” said Josh. “Without him we might have had a losing record.”

“Devin Gardner and Taylor Lewan each had great seasons that will be overlooked because of turnovers and Michigan’s record, respectively,” said Drew. “But this is an easy choice. Jeremy Gallon was Michigan’s best offensive player. Not only did Gallon have the most receiving yards and second-most receptions in a single season in school history, he also caught at least four passes in 12 of 13 games in 2013. On an offense that was wildly inconsistent, Gallon was one of the few constants.”

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson & Devin Gardner (tie)
2011: Denard Robinson

Schulz Defensive Player of the Year Blake Countess

No Michigan defender truly stood out this season, especially with last year’s winer, Jake Ryan, sidelined for the first half of the season. But Blake Countess recorded a team-high six interceptions, including one in the end zone against Notre Dame to seal the win. He had a 72-yard interception return for touchdown against Minnesota and also picked off Braxton Miller.

Countess also tied for the lead among the secondary with two tackles for loss and recorded four pass breakups. He was named first team All-Big Ten by the media.

“After missing the 2012 season with a knee injury, there were some questions whether Blake Countess would be able to return to his form from his freshman season,” said Drew. “Thankfully, for Michigan fans, Countess not only returned to form, he improved upon it. Countess was one of the few playmakers on U-M’s defense in 2013. His six interceptions were tied for third-most in program history and the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard’s six picks in 2000. And once Countess made those picks, he knew what to do with them, garnering 169 interception return yards – the third-most in the nation and the second-most in U-M history.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: James Ross III, Raymon Taylor, Desmond Morgan (1 each)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jake Ryan
2011: Mike Martin

Yost Coach of the Year Jeff Hecklinski

After a season in which Michigan underperformed all around and offensive coordinator Al Borges was let go, voting for Coach of the Year was not an enviable task. But alas, one position group did perform well and that was the receivers, so Jeff Hecklinski gets the honors.

Jeremy Gallon set the all-time Michigan single-season receiving record and combined with Devin Funchess to set the record for most receiving yards by a duo in school history (2,121). In addition, Jehu Chesson developed into a solid blocking receiver.

“Hecklinski wins for me because his receivers showcased big play ability, were a consistent bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season, and laid some big-time hits (see: Jehu Chesson vs. Notre Dame),” said Sam. “Hecklinki’s unit was all the more impressive considering one of the two presumed starters, Amara Darboh, went down late in fall practice with a season-ending injury and didn’t play a game.”

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: Greg Mattison (1), None (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Greg Mattison
2011: Brady Hoke & Greg Mattison (tie)

Little Brown Jug Game of the Year Under the Lights II win over Notre Dame

Had Michigan converted the two-point conversion against Ohio State, that would have been the hands-down favorite, but instead the big early September victory over Notre Dame takes the cake.

The season still held high hopes and a win over the defending BCS runner-up in the final meeting between the two storied schools in the Big House was a surreal scene to behold.

“It was the second night game in the history of Michigan Stadium,” Drew said. “It had the largest attendance to ever witness a football game. And, most importantly, it was Michigan’s most complete performance of the season. Devin Gardner lit up the Fighting Irish for five touchdowns, throwing three to Jeremy Gallon, and the Wolverines’ defense allowed only two offensive touchdowns.”

“Gardner was both spectacular and spectacularly bad all in the frame of one half, Gallon was outstanding, and the season seemed oh-so-promising on that warm September night,” said Sam.

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Near upset of Ohio State (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Last second field goal to beat Michigan State
2011: 40-34 win over Ohio State

Howard Play of the Year Fire drill FG to force OT at Northwestern

For the second straight year our play of the year involves a game against Northwestern. Last year, Roy Roundtree’s acrobatic catch to set up the game-tying field goal got the honors. This year, it is the fire drill field goal at Northwestern to get Michigan into overtime that gets top billing.

With 18 seconds remaining, trailing by three, facing 3rd-and-23, Michigan snapped the ball at the Northwestern 44-yard line. Devin Gardner dropped back and fired a bullet to Jeremy Gallon at the 26 near the right sideline. But he was hit immediately and couldn’t get out of bounds.

As the clock ticked down, the field goal unit ran onto the field. Holder Drew Dileo slid into position and kicker Brendan Gibbons simply took a few steps back as the snap went. He then booted it through the uprights sending the game into overtime where the Wolverines won.

“Incredible effort and execution to save the game, and essentially a winning season,” said Josh.

“Even though it shouldn’t have been needed after poor clock management by the Michigan coaches, the field goal unit did a great job of getting out on the field quickly and Brendan Gibbons did a great job to make a rushed, pressure packed field goal in a less than ideal situation,” said Chris.

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Desmond Morgan’s game-saving one-handed INT at UConn (1)

Past Winners:
2012: Roy Roundtree’s acrobatic catch against Northwestern
2011: Denard’s touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree to beat ND

Biakabutuka Performance of the Year Devin Gardner against Ohio State

This one may be semi-controversial since it came in a losing effort, but the vote was nearly unanimous. In the biggest game of the season, Devin Gardner put together a performance for the ages. Battling injuries, the junior shredded the Ohio State defense, passing for 451 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for another. Had he completed the two-point conversions it would have gone down as one of the greatest performances in Michigan history.

“Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon broke school and conference records with their spectacular performances against Indiana,” said Drew. “But Gardner’s 451-passing-yard, five-touchdown performance against one of the best defenses in the nation in Ohio State was absolutely sensational. Not only did Gardner shred OSU’s defense, he continued to do so after he broke his foot. After suffering the injury in the third quarter, Gardner fought through it, completing 18 of 27 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns, and was a two-point conversion shy of leading Michigan to its biggest upset win over its bitter rival from Columbus since 1969.”

“After a season of inconsistent performance following the Notre Dame win, Gardner came on strong against Ohio State to give the team and fans hope for a stronger senior season next year,” said Chris.

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Jeremy Gallon’s 14-catch, 369-yard, 2-TDs vs Indiana (1)

Past Winners:
2012: Denard recording 101% of offense vs Air Force
2011: Denard’s five TDs in win over Ohio State

Friedman Quarterback of the Year Devin Gardner

Devin Gardner struggled early in the season, but his decision making and accuracy improved as the season went on. He finished second in the Big Ten with 246.7 yards per game, as well as second in total offense (286.9) and fourth in pass efficiency. His total yards (3,443), passing yards (2,960), and total touchdowns (32) are second best in school history and he didn’t even play the bowl game. He had dynamic performances in big games against Notre Dame and Ohio State and committed a total of just seven turnovers in his final eight games.

“His heart and toughness helped lead this team, though not always consistently, to a winning record,” said Josh. “He was just shy of only the second ever 3,000-yard passing season in history and bailed out the team time and time again despite an inept line. Without Gardner this team would be 4-8, or worse.”

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson & Devin Gardner (tie)
2011: Denard Robinson

Heston Running Back of the Year None

For the first time in the short three year history of the M&GB Hail Awards, we are leaving one award on the table. It’s no secret that Michigan’s running game was subpar this season, and it wasn’t all the fault of the running backs, but four of our six writers voted to award it to no one at all.

“None of the three Wolverines that carried the football at least 30 times this season – Toussaint, Devin Gardner, and Derrick Green – averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry,” said Drew. “Only three Wolverines averaged more than five yards per carry: Dennis Norfleet, Shane Morris, and Devin Funchess – a wide receiver, a backup quarterback, and a hybrid tight end-wide receiver, respectively. Further, Morris notched U-M’s longest run of the season with a 40-yard draw on U-M’s final drive of the season. That is depressing.”

“When your leading rusher recorded 648 yards on 3.5 yards per carry and the longest run of the season came in a blowout bowl game by your backup QB, no running back deserves this award,” said Sam.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: Fitzgerald Toussaint (2), Derrick Green (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Fitzgerald Toussaint

Carter Receiver of the Year Jeremy Gallon

What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Gallon swept the player of the year, offensive player of the year, and now receiver of the year awards thanks to a record-setting season. He also won this award last season.

His 1,373 receiving yards, 105.6 yards per game, and 6.8 receptions per game each ranked second in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s Allen Robinson. His nine touchdowns ranked third. He also recorded a catch in 39 straight games. Remarkably, he was edged out by Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis for first team All-Big Ten despite Gallon having better numbers in every receiving category.

“Gallon is the only Wolverine to be ranked in the Top 3 in Michigan’s record book for most catches and receiving yards in a game, season, and career,” said Drew. “No, not even Braylon Edwards, Desmond Howard, or Anthony Carter can say that.”

“What Gallon did in the Indiana game was incredible, but it was just one sample of his incredible season,” said Derick.

Votes: 7
Others Receiving Votes: None

Previous Winners:
2012: Jeremy Gallon
2011: Junior Hemingway

Dierdorf Offensive Lineman of the Year Taylor Lewan

Everyone knows that most of Michigan’s struggles this season stemmed from the offensive line. It’s hard enough to break in the entire middle of your line in one season, let alone doing so with walk-ons and freshmen. But Taylor Lewan was not part of the problem. Sure, he let his emotions get the better of him against Michigan State, but he performed arguably better than he did last season.

For the second straight year, Lewan was named the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year for the Big Ten. His decision to return for his senior season didn’t pay off with a Big Ten title or a trip to Pasadena, but his mentoring of the young linemen will pay dividends in the years to come.

“It’s very difficult to evaluate individual linemen without a trained eye, and even more so when the whole line appears to be a sieve, but Taylor Lewan will be a top-15 NFL draft pick for a reason,” said Sam. “Re-watch a few games and only pay attention to Lewan and you will see why…and wonder how the line could be so bad.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: None (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: Taylor Lewan
2011: David Molk

Messner Defensive Lineman of the Year Frank Clark

Michigan fans have been waiting for Frank Clark to break out, and while he still hasn’t shown his full potential, he did have a solid season on an underwhelming defensive line. He started all 13 games and recorded 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and two fumble recoveries. He was named All-Big Ten second team by the coaches. In the loss to Penn State, Clark had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, one returned for a touchdown.

“The one ‘bright’ spot on the line,” said Josh. “He was not always consistent, a theme for the whole team, but he showed progress and appeared to make some significant improvement as the season wore on.”

“In a six-game stretch from the Minnesota game to the Iowa game, Clark accumulated 9.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks,” said Drew. “In that span, Clark also recovered two fumbles, including one he returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Clark’s playmaking ability made him Michigan’s best defensive lineman in 2013, but Clark needs to showcase that ability consistently as a senior in 2014.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Willie Henry (2)

Previous Winners:
2012: William Campbell
2011: Mike Martin & Ryan Van Bergen (tie)

Simpkins Linebacker of the Year Desmond Morgan

This was the closest vote of all the awards, but Desmond Morgan narrowly edged out James Ross III. Morgan started all 13 games and finished third on the team with 79 tackles, recorded one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, three pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. He’s not the most athletic player on the field, but is more often than not in the right place at the right time and fundamentally sound. His one-handed interception against UConn saved the game and was likely the difference between a winning season and a losing season.

“James Ross III may have had more tackles, tackles-for-loss, and sacks than Desmond Morgan, but Morgan made fewer critical mistakes throughout the season,” said Drew. “Morgan was the rock in the middle of the defense that Michigan could count on each game to make thumping tackles at the line of scrimmage. Ross III improved as the season progressed, but sometimes his aggressiveness would throw him right out of the play. Plus, without Morgan’s amazing one-handed interception against Connecticut, Michigan likely would have suffered one of its worst upset losses in school history.”

“More often than not, when Michigan stopped an opposing running back for fewer than four yards, Morgan was in on the tackle,” said Sam.

Votes: 4
Others Receiving Votes: James Ross (3)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jake Ryan
2011: Jake Ryan & Kenny Demens (tie)

Woodson Defensive Back of the Year Blake Countess

Countess also won our Defensive Player of the Year award. He came back from a torn ACL and recorded 42 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes defended, and a team-high six interceptions. He earned first team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second team from the coaches.

“Raymon Taylor led Michigan with 86 tackles, nine pass breakups, and added four interceptions of his own,” said Drew. “But Taylor had better statistics than Blake Countess only because opposing offenses consistently attacked Taylor’s side of the field, avoiding Countess in the progress. Not only did quarterbacks avoid targeting Countess’ side of the field, when those quarterbacks did try to attack Countess, he made them pay. Countess made great plays on the ball on each of his six interceptions, which are tied for the most by a Wolverine this millennium.”

“Countess seemed to always be making plays on the ball on his way to a Big Ten-high six interceptions and All-Big Ten honors,” said Sam.

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Raymon Taylor (1), None (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Jordan Kovacs
2011: Jordan Kovacs

Hamilton Special Teams Player of the Year Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons had quite the career in Ann Arbor, going from a freshman unable to hit the broad side of a barn to Mr. Clutch and Michigan’s all-time most consistent field goal kicker. He finished his career having made 45-of-60 with a record 16 straight and a 141 straight extra points. This season he converted 15-of-20 field goal attempts and finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring.

“Northwestern game tying FG saved the season,” said Josh. “We’d easily be 6-7 without it.”

“After making only one of five field-goal attempts as a freshman in 2010, Brendan Gibbons made 29 of 35 field-goal attempts (82.9 percent) during his sophomore and junior seasons,” said Drew. “Gibbons was close to maintaining that conversion rate in his final season, making 15 of 20 field-goal attempts for a 75 percent conversion rate. And, most importantly, Gibbons oozed reliability at the position. Gibbons set school records for most consecutive field goals (16) and most consecutive PATs (141) this season. Further, Gibbons made three game-tying field goals in the final five minutes of regulation or in overtime in 2013. Gibbons may never have had had a booming leg, but Michigan fans will learn they took him for granted next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Dennis Norfleet (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Brendan Gibbons & Dennis Norfleet (tie)
2011: Brendan Gibbons & Jeremy Gallon (tie)

Hart Newcomer of the Year Jake Butt

For the second straight year this award goes to a tight end. Jake Butt stepped in as a true freshman and worked his way onto the field, ultimately becoming a key piece of the offense by season’s end. He started eight games and played in all 13, recording 20 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest game came against Ohio State when he caught five passes for 85 yards and a score. He also made a great one-handed touchdown catch in overtime against Northwestern.

“When Brady Hoke stepped on campus, he made it clear that tight ends would play a pivotal role in his offense,” said Drew. “In his first full recruiting class, Hoke reeled in Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams. However, both has had trouble maintaining blocks, which led to Funchess’ transition to wide receiver. Enter: Jake Butt. Butt, as a true freshman, was not only Michigan’s third-leading receiver with 20 catches, 235 receiving yards, and two touchdowns, but he also displayed an ability to block that Funchess and Williams have not. If Butt can add a few more pounds in the offseason, expect him to contend for All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Derrick Green (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Devin Funchess
2011: Blake Countess

Schembechler ‘Those Who Stay’ Senior of the Year Jeremy Gallon

This is always a hard one to pick each year because there are usually two or three departing seniors that have left their mark on the program and will be missed. A case could certainly be made for Lewan here, but six of the seven of us went with Gallon.

When the diminutive slot receiver from Apopka, Fla. first stepped foot on campus no one could have imagined he would finish his career as one of the best receivers in Michigan history. But that’s just what he did. He broke Braylon Edwards’ single-season receiving record, caught a pass in 39 straight games, and set the Big Ten record for receiving yards in a game.

He finished his career third in receptions (173) and yards (2,704) in Michigan history.

“From RichRod’s leftover to Michigan record holder,” said Josh. “He was the one bright spot in an otherwise disappointing and depressing season filled with inconsistency and baffling play/play calling. He made an impact on the program that no one could have imagined and will remain in the record books for years to come.”

“Consistently counted on to make big plays, always stepped up when it mattered, provided good leadership for the rest of the team,” said Chris.

“In eight Big Ten games, Funchess averaged 4.88 catches and 72.75 receiving yards per game,” said Drew. “His improvement at wide receiver will allow Funchess to be Gardner’s top target in 2014. Funchess has become a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, but he must limit his dropped passes next season.”

Votes: 6
Others Receiving Votes: Taylor Lewan (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Denard Robinson
2011: Mike Martin

Harris Most Improved Player of the Year Devin Funchess

Last season, Devin Funchess won the Newcomer of the Year award. This year, he adds the Most Improved Player of the Year award. While he burst onto the scene in Week 2 of his freshman year, he was one-dimensional and faded in the second half of that season, finishing the year with 15 catches for 234 yards and five touchdowns. This year, he was a consistent receiving threat all season, upping his numbers to 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns.

“His blocking left much to be desired but his ability as a pass catching nightmare match-up stood out,” said Josh. “A few too many drops for someone with his skill set but still made a major jump from 2012 to 2013.”

“Funchess had some bad drops toward the end of the year, but after finally moving to wide receiver for good, Funchess wreaked havoc on some opposing defenses on his way to a solid 49-catch, 748-yard season,” said Sam.

“In eight Big Ten games, Funchess averaged 4.88 catches and 72.75 receiving yards per game,” said Drew. “His improvement at wide receiver will allow Funchess to be Gardner’s top target in 2014. Funchess has become a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, but he must limit his dropped passes next season.”

Votes: 5
Others Receiving Votes: Raymon Taylor (1), James Ross (1)

Previous Winners:
2012: Devin Gardner
2011: Brendan Gibbons & Fitzgerald Toussaint (tie)

Happy Valley Heartbreak: Penn State 43 – Michigan 40

Saturday, October 12th, 2013


Through the first two-plus years of the Brady Hoke era he has shown a willingness to roll the dice at times. Les Miles he is not, but he appeared to be at least a bit more bold than the coach he cut his teeth with, Lloyd Carr. But on a beautiful Saturday night in front of a raucous white-out Beaver Stadium crowd, shades of Carr emerged – and not the good ones.

Up seven with 6:35 remaining, Michigan got the ball back needing to run out the clock or score to put the game away. They did neither. The Wolverines were able to move the chains three times and run 5:45 off the clock, but it wasn’t enough. A delay of game penalty on 3rd-and-9 from the Penn State 27 moved the ball back five yards, and a three-yard loss by Fitzgerald Toussaint left Hoke with a decision of whether to punt the ball back to Penn State with a minute left or attempt a 52-yard field goal to seal the game. He chose the former but Matt Wile booted into the end zone resulting in just a 15-yard net gain.

Final Stats
Michigan Penn State
Score 40 43
Record 5-1 (1-1) 4-2 (1-1)
Total Yards 389 390
Net Rushing Yards 149 85
Net Passing Yards 240 305
First Downs 21 24
Turnovers 3 4
Penalties-Yards 7-62 5-56
Punts-Yards 6-245 4-179
Time of Possession 36:13 23:47
Third Down Conversions 4-of-18 3-of-16
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-0 2-of-3
Sacks By-Yards 4-16 3-22
Field Goals 4-for-7 3-for-5
PATs 4-for-4 4-for-4
Red Zone Scores-Chances 2-of-3 5-of-6
Full Box Score

Penn State went 80 yards in just five plays, getting completions of 14 yards, 29 yards, and 36 yards, and ultimately punching it in with 23 seconds remaining on a one-yard run by freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Michigan had one more chance to win it in regulation after a 34 yard kickoff return by Dennis Norfleet gave the Wolverines good starting field position. Devin Gardner found Jeremy Gallon for 25 yards and then got another five-yard completion to Justice Hayes to give Brendan Gibbons a 52-yard attempt to win it. But the kick fell a few yards short and the game went into overtime.

In the first extra period, Michigan’s defense held strong, forcing a field goal attempt. Penn State kicker Sam Ficken missed the 40-yards try and all Michigan had to do was score to win the game. Instead of playing aggressively to move closer to the goal line, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges elected to run Toussaint twice, each for a yard, and then have Gardner position the ball for a Gibbons field goal attempt. But Penn State blocked it sending the game into a second overtime.

This time Michigan started with the ball and got a 25-yard field goal out of it. Penn State couldn’t move the ball and kicked a 36-yard field goal to send the game into a third extra period.

Head Coach Bill O’Brien, who also calls the plays, went with an end-around on the first play, but Allen Robinson fumbled the pitch and Frank Clark recovered. Once again, Michigan just needed a score to win the game. Two Toussaint rushes for no gain bookended a nine-yard completion to Gallon forcing Michigan to attempt yet another field goal. This time, from 33 yards out, the usually reliable Gibbons missed and the game went on.

In the fourth overtime, Michigan was once again unable to move the chains and had to settle for a field goal. Gibbons connected from 40 yards out to put the Wolverines ahead 40-37. Penn State ran it three straight times to get to 4th-and-1 from the 16. O’Brien decided it was time to put the game on the line and go for it. It worked as running back Bill Belton gained three yards. After an incomplete pass and a two yard gain, Penn State faced 3rd-and-8. Hackenberg fired a pass incomplete to the middle of the end zone, but safety Jarrod Wilson was flagged for pass interference giving Penn State the ball on the two. One play later, Belton rushed to the left and into the end zone for the win.

Frank Clark's big game and Jake Ryan's return weren't enough to get the win (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan had several opportunities to win the game but failed to both execute, both on the field and on the sidelines. Not once in the four overtime periods did Michigan throw the ball into the end zone. The closest was a lob to freshman tight end Jake Butt around the 2-yard line, which was knocked away by a Penn State linebacker. Instead, Hoke and Borges went the conservative route, content to ride a running game that went backwards more often than it went forward and settle for field goal attempts.

Michigan gained 149 yards on the ground, but 121 of them were by Gardner. Toussaint had 27 carries for 27 yards and Derrick Green had three for one yard. That’s less than a yard per carry by Michigan’s running backs. Yet time and again Gardner handed off just to see Toussaint run into a face full of tacklers at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Gardner completed 15-of-28 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions to go along with his 121 yards on 24 carries. Devin Funchess led all receivers with four catches for 121 yards and two scores. Gallon caught seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Michigan’s defense got a great game from Frank Clark who scooped up a Penn State fumble on the first play of the second half and raced 24 yards for a touchdown. He also recorded two sacks, recovered a fumble in overtime, and nearly had an interception. Jake Ryan, playing for the first time this season after tearing his ACL in April, recorded three sacks, one for loss.

The Wolverines held Penn State to just 85 yards rushing on 44 carries, an average of just 1.9 yards per carry, and the Hackenberg touchdown at the end of regulation was the first rushing touchdown Michigan has allowed all season. But in the end, is was Penn State that made the right calls and executed at the right time to earn the victory.

Michigan falls to 5-1 on the season, 1-1 in the Big Ten and returns home to face Indiana (3-3, 1-1) next Saturday. A lot of work needs to be done if Michigan wants to win the Legends Division with a brutal schedule coming up, but the good news is the division is still within reach. Stay tuned for more analysis in the coming days and previews of the Indiana game.