Posts Tagged ‘Jake Butt’

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.

Final Look: Minnesota

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan finally played a pretty good game that resulted in a convincing win just the way it should. Now, it has a chance to go on the road and prove it’s better than it played in the two games before the bye week. But before we get there, let’s take one last look back at the big plays, numbers, stats, and observations from the 42-13 win over Minnesota.

Three big moments

1. Jibreel Black forces a fumble

Many were wondering how Michigan would respond coming out of the bye week that followed back-to-back poor performances against Akron and UConn. Just like in the first four games, Michigan kicked off to open the game, which meant the defense got a chance to set the tone. The kickoff went ominously out of bounds, giving Minnesota the ball at the 35.

On Minnesota’s first play quarterback Mitch Leidner rushed for two yards. On the second Leidner completed a pass to tight end Maxx Williams for two more. On 3rd-and-6, Leidner dropped back to pass and then pulled it down to run a draw up the middle. At first it looked like he had a hole, but Jibreel Black came around and hit him at the 35. He got his right hand on the ball, knocking it loose and James Ross recovered, giving Michigan great field position. The Wolverines punched it in six plays later to take an early 7-0 lead.

2. Funchess diving catch

Blake Countess leads the nation in interceptions and INT return yards (MGoBlue.com)

While Michigan got off to a quick start thanks to Black’s forced fumble, Minnesota did a good job of keeping Michigan’s offense off the field the rest of the first half. The ensuing Gopher possession lasted 9:44 and Michigan only got to run 17 plays the rest of the half. With a 14-7 halftime lead, Michigan needed a strong second half to put the Gophers away.

On the first possession, Michigan looked to establish the run. Fitzgerald Toussaint took the first three carries for 14, five, and eight yards, respectively, and then Derrick Green ran for nine. At the Minnesota 44, Gardner connected with Jehu Chesson for a 22-yard gain to put Michigan in field goal position. On first down from the 22, Toussaint lost a yard. On second, Gardner threw an incomplete pass setting up a critical third down. On 3rd-and-11, Gardner dropped back to pass and fired a bullet across the field, towards the pylon at the front right corner of the end zone. Devin Funchess had to come back to get it and dove from the goal line, picking the ball off the turf at the 2-yard line. The play was reviewed and remained a catch and Green punched it in on the next play to give Michigan a 14-point lead. Without the great catch, Michigan would have faced a 40-yard field goal to go ahead 17-7, leaving Minnesota still in the ball game.

3. Countess takes it home

Michigan held a 35-13 lead after Gardner ran it in from two yards out with 2:36 to play. Minnesota got the ball back looking to possibly score once more, but Blake Countess had other plans. On 1st-and-10 from the Michigan 36, Leidner threw to the left side of the field and Countess stepped in front of the receiver, picking it off at the 28. He then raced 72 yards untouched for a touchdown to bring the final score to 42-13. It was his fourth interception of the season, tying for the most nationally, and the 72 return yards combined with his previous return yards to give him the most interception return yards in the country.

The numbers game

73-24-3: Michigan’s all-time record against Minnesota

86-27: Michigan’s all-time record in homecoming games

0: The number of turnovers by Devin Gardner, marking the first turnover-free game of his career to date

9: The number of consecutive games that Gardner has recorded a rushing touchdown

21: The number of Michigan players to eclipse 2,000 career rushing yards. Fitz Toussaint became the 21st with his 78-yard game

0: The number of passes Michigan threw in the first quarter

72: The yards of Blake Countess’ interception return for touchdown, the sixth-longest in Michigan history

Drive chart
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*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics

Three observations

1. Starting strong

For the fifth consecutive game, Michigan started on defense, and for the fifth consecutive game the defense didn’t allow a point on the first possession. Opponents are averaging just 3.8 plays, 11.4 yards, and 1:35 per opening possession. What’s more is that Michigan’s offense has scored on four of the five ensuing possessions, including the blocked punt returned for touchdown following Central Michigan’s first possession. The only game that Michigan didn’t score right after holding the opponent to start the game was UConn when Devin Gardner threw an interception. Three of the four scores have been touchdowns. The other, against Akron, was a field goal. So that’s a combined 24-point lead that Michigan has taken right out of the bat despite not getting the ball to start the game.

2. Funchess out wide

Devin Funchess' move to the outside provides an instant upgrade to the receiving corps (MGoBlue.com)

Devin Funchess played much of the game lined up as a wide receiver and had the best game of his young career with seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. His sheer athleticism and height make him an instant mismatch for opposing defensive backs, so it’s a logical move since Michigan hasn’t found a true downfield threat this season. Funchess provides that. The return of AJ Williams and the development of freshman Jake Butt has allowed Brady Hoke and Al Borges to make this move.

Funchess has struggled with his blocking, but excels at catching the ball. Part of his decline in production as the season went on last season was because opponents knew that whenever he was in the game it was a pass. Oftentimes Michigan used that as a decoy, but it resulted in seven receptions in the final nine games after eight in the first four. Now, with the move to the outside, he can do what he does best and the offense won’t sacrifice anything to get him the ball.

3. Offensive line shuffle

Chris Bryant stepped into the starting lineup, pushing Graham Glasgow to center and Jack Miller out. The numbers don’t show any improvement – Michigan rushed for just 3.3 yards per carry – but it seemed to passed the eye test. There seemed to be a noticeable improvement. Michigan did have four negative rushes, a sack, and a fumbled snap that resulted in a loss of five, but the four negative rushes were only one-yard losses and three of them were by Green.

More importantly, Michigan had just two short drives. Look at the drive chart above and then go back and look at the drive charts from the Akron and UConn games. Those two are littered with short maize lines. The Minnesota game had just two in which Michigan didn’t pick up a first down. That’s an improvement.

In addition, the coaches moved Taylor Lewan around the line on certain plays and ran all but two runs behind him. Whether that’s something they will continue to do the rest of the season or this was just a chance to test it out remains to be seen, but he’s the start of the team and it’s always a good bet to run behind him.

Minnesota’s defense certainly wasn’t a stern test, so the real test of how much this shake-up improves the line is still to come. Penn State will be much better defensively than Minnesota was, so before we go grading the offensive line shuffle let’s wait at least another week.

Final Look: UConn

Thursday, September 26th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

With no Michigan football this Saturday, it means we have more time to analyze last week’s game. As we have done the first three weeks, let’s take one final look back at the big plays, numbers, stats, and observations from Michigan’s 24-21 win over UConn.

Three big moments

1. Desmond’s game-changing grab

No play was bigger last Saturday than when linebacker Desmond Morgan read UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer perfectly and snagged his pass out of the air with one hand. Michigan trailed by seven at that point and UConn had the momentum after stopping the Wolverines on 4th-and-2 from the Husky 23. A long scoring drive would be a dagger to a Michigan squad that had entered the game favored by 18.

After taking possession following the turnover on downs, UConn quickly picked up a first down, but left tackle Jimmy Bennett false started, giving the Huskies 1st-and-15 instead of 1st-and-10. Whitmer dropped back to pass, stared down his receiver and fired towards the left hash marks, about 14 yards downfield. Morgan dropped back, read Whitmer’s eyes, and leaped up with his right hand extended, snagging the ball and pulling it in at the UConn 41. He then zig-zagged his way to the UConn 12, giving Michigan great field position. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran it in on the ensuing play, tying the game.

Desmond Morgan changed the game with his fourth quarter interception (MGoBlue.com)

2. Gardner options to Toussaint

Trailing 21-7 midway through the third quarter, Michigan needed to find some offense. The fist two drives of the second half had resulted in a total of two yards, a fumble returned for a UConn touchdown, and a punt. UConn punted the ball back to Michigan with ten minutes remaining in the third and the Wolverines took over on their own 25. A 4-yard Toussaint run and a 13-yard completion to Drew Dileo moved the ball to the Michigan 42. A 12-yards strike to Jeremy Gallon got Michigan into UConn territory. Another first down advanced the Wolverines to the UConn 35.

On first down, Gardner threw an incomplete pass. On 2nd-and-10, he saw something in his pre-snap reads and checked into the pistol formation. Gardner took the snap and ran to his right, drawing the UConn defensive end. Just before contact, he pitched the ball to Toussaint who cut up-field at the 42 got a good seal block from Jake Butt, cutting to his left at the 23, dodged a diving defender at the 20, and raced the rest of the way into the end zone to pull Michigan within seven. It was just the play Michigan needed to get back in the game.

3. Gardger gets it done with his legs

On the opening drive of the game, Michigan forced UConn to punt. Michigan’s offense moved the ball to the UConn 33, but Gardner was intercepted. After forcing another UConn punt, Michigan took over looking to put the first points on the board. Three separate times on the drive Gardner converted a third down with his legs. On 3rd-and-1 from the Michigan 40, Gardner rushed for 14 yards. On 3rd-and-2 from the UConn 38, Gardner scampered for 11. A pass interference kept the drive alive the next time Michigan faced third down and then on 3rd-and-12 from the UConn 17, Gardner ran for a touchdown.

It surely wasn’t the way Michigan wanted to drive down the field, but it was the only part of the offense that was working. Four first downs on the drive resulted in: a Toussaint loss of one, a Gardner rush for two, a Jehu Chesson loss of one, and a Tousasint loss of two. Not gaining positive yards on first down meant Michigan faced a lot of third downs on the drive and thankfully Gardner was able to keep the chains moving despite getting no help from the traditional running game.

The numbers game

42,704: The record crowd that filled Rentschler Field for the primetime matchup

7-0: Michigan’s all-time record against teams currently in the American Athletic Conference

Sept. 16, 1995: The last time Michigan played a non-conference game on the East Coast (against Boston College)

Nov. 26, 2011: The last time Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 100 yards (against Ohio State)

1,961: Toussaint’s career rushing total after gaining 120 against UConn, surpassing Chris Howard (1994-97) and Rick Rogers (1981-84) for 23rd in the record books

30: The number of consecutive games in which Jeremy Gallon has caught a pass

1,659: Gallon’s career receiving total after gaining 31 against UConn, surpassing Junior Hemingway (2007-11) for 17th all-time

10: The number of consecutive extra points Brendan Gibbons needs to make to pass JD Carlson for tops in Michigan history

1-of-11: UConn’s third down conversion percentage. The Huskies had converted just 29 percent in the first two games

Drive chart
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*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics

Three observations

1. Defense first

Michigan’s defense starting the game has become a positive trend dating back to last season. On UConn’s first possession of the game, Michigan forced a punt just like it has done in all four games so far this season. In each one, the opponent started with the ball and each time punted it away to Michigan. The four opponents have combined for 16 plays for 57 yards on opening drives this season, an average of 14.25 yards per drive. This is something Michigan’s defense has been very good at the past couple of years.

Last season, Michigan started on defense in nine games and only Ohio State and South Carolina scored on the opening possession, which means since the beginning of 2012, only two of 13 opponents have scored when they started the game with the ball. In Hoke’s first season, 2011, three of six opponents that started the game with the ball scored on the opening possession.

2. Turnovers, man

Toussaint's 120-yard performance was Michigan's first 100-yard game by a running back since the 2011 Ohio State game (MGoBlue.com)

This will be discussed in more detail in tomorrow’s post, but turnovers seem to be a disturbing trend with Hoke’s teams. Michigan now has 12 turnovers through four games, which ranks 120th out of 123 teams nationally. Only Western Kentucky has more (15). Through the first 30 games of Hoke’s tenure his teams have turned the ball over 61 times. That’s six more than Lloyd Carr’s first 30 games and five fewer than Rich Rodriguez’s.

Turnovers let Notre Dame back into the game in Week 2 and allowed Akron and UConn to have a chance to win the games the past two weekends. With all the other struggles Michigan has, eliminating turnovers has to be atop the list of areas to improve during the bye week.

More to come on this tomorrow.

3. Toussaint

I’m not as down on Toussaint as much as others are. In this game he recorded his first 100-yard game since the Ohio State game in 2011. Yes, he has a lot of negative rushes so far this season, but he’s capable of making big plays as we saw in the 35-yard touchdown run and the game-tying touchdown run. He’ll never be confused for Tyrone Wheatley, but he’s also playing in an offense struggling to find it’s identity. Is it a power running game or a zone running game? It seems the personnel is still more suited for a zone running game at this point despite Hoke and Borges’ longing for a power running game. Toussaing just isn’t the right back for that.

Perhaps Derrick Green can evolve enough during the bye week to be able to step in and take some of the power running game carries so Fitz can focus on the zone stuff, but that may be too much to ask at this point. For now, Toussaint is reliable enough to keep as the every down back, he doesn’t fumble, and he’s sure to improve throughout the season as he gains confidence after returning from the gruesome broken leg he suffered last season.

M&GB staff predictions: UConn

Friday, September 20th, 2013


Katie and Chris tied for the closest score last week, although I considered not giving it to anybody since no one was anywhere close. We all predicted blowouts and their prediction of 48-6 ended up the “closest”. Last week in this space I said that if Michigan was to not meet our expectations, at least they were exceeding them in the first two weeks, but then the Wolverines went out and played so far below expectations that now no one knows what to truly make of this team. Was that performance simply a fluke? Or was it an indication of what’s to come the rest of the season? Let’s take a look at our picks for this week’s game.

Justin: After what happened last week, any Michigan player or coach who overlooks UConn should be dismissed from the team. But that’s not going to happen. Tomorrow we will see a Michigan team with a renewed focus take the field in East Hartford looking to prove to everyone that last week was simply a letdown and not part of a larger problem.

While it won’t be the blowout we all expected last week, the matchup sets up perfectly for Michigan to have a big game and win in convincing fashion. Defensively, UConn prefers to sit back and try to keep everything in front of them, but the linebackers tend to get sucked up on play action. They also have trouble stopping the zone read and inverted veer. All of that means that Devin Gardner could have a monster game and make people forget about last week.

Offensively, UConn does most of its damage through the air, but quarterback Chandler Whitmer is prone to throwing interceptions. Expect Michigan to blitz much more than it did the last two weeks, trying to force Whitmer into bad decisions. He’s been sacked 10 times in two games and has thrown 19 interceptions dating back to last season.

Staff Predictions
Michigan UConn
Justin 45 20
Chris 49 13
Josh 42 17
Sam 42 20
Derick 40 17
Katie 41 13
M&GB Average 43 17

It won’t be a blowout, but should be similar to the way Maryland beat the Huskies last week. Close through the first half and pulling away in the second. With a bye week next week, don’t expect to see Shane Morris play at all, but don’t be surprised to see more of Derrick Green, especially if Toussaint keeps struggling. Michigan wins and turns its attention to the Big Ten title chase.

Michigan 45 – UConn 20

Chris: This week, the Wolverines visit UConn. My guess is that the guys on the team can’t wait to get back on the field after last week’s narrow escape. The players have talked all week about proving to themselves and everyone else that their performance last week was an aberration. All of that is bad for a UConn team that has struggled thus far this season.

I think Michigan dominates this game for all four quarters. Everyone has something to prove, especially Devin Gardner. Hoke and the other coaches need to leave the starters in until they’re up by 50, as work needs to be done by each player to get better before the Big Ten schedule begins. Michigan wins big.

Michigan 49 – UConn 13

Josh: Please see yesterday’s Friend vs Foe for my full breakdown.

Michigan 42 – UConn 17

Sam: After cruising in the first two weeks of the season, the Michigan Wolverines looked to be on the fast track to a BCS bowl berth; then last week happened.

An ugly, turnover-riddled, defensive-disappearing-act of a game found its way to Ann Arbor in the form of a 28-24 win over the lowly Akron Zips and sent shock waves across Michigan message boards, causing fans to wonder what is going on at Michigan.

Just two weeks ago, Devin Gardner was phenomenal in leading the Maize and Blue over a nationally-ranked Notre Dame team, and the game never really seemed to be in doubt. One short week later, however, Akron, a team who had not won away from home in five years and had not beaten an FBS-level opponent since 2009, found itself within three yards of a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds at the Big House.

Clearly something was, or is, wrong. Whether the near-loss (because it was more that than a narrow win) was the result of a massive hangover or was more indicative of actual weakness should be evident as soon as this weekend, when Michigan takes to the road for the first time this season to play Connecticut. Two weeks ago, this game seemed like a walkthrough, after UConn was throttled 33-18 in their season opener to Towson, and followed that up with an 11-point loss against Maryland last week. Now it seems like a game in which anything could happen.

Still, the Wolverines open as 18-point favorites in East Hartford and really have no business letting UConn compete. The Huskies have proved to be putrid in defending the run thus far, giving up 201 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to Towson and 224 more rushing yards to Maryland, and perhaps even worse in running the ball themselves, averaging just 59 rushing yards per game – good for 122nd place out of 123 FBS teams.

Hoke made the team practice in full pads on Sunday following the Akron game and will have them ready for UConn (MGoBlue.com)

Fitzgerald Toussaint has had some troubles this season in finding the hole behind a raw interior offensive line, but if he can’t crack 100 yards Saturday, he may lose his starting job. Expect him to bounce back while one of Derrick Green or De’Veon Smith carries the rock double digit times as well to help Michigan amass 250-plus rushing yards. Gardner should also bounce back as the running game opens up the field and Jeremy Gallon will score twice more.

Michigan 42 – UConn 20

Derick: After a week of punishing practice, Taylor Lewan and the offense rebound from an “embarrassing” performance against Akron. Al Borges absolutely needs to find some semblance of a running game to give Devin Gardner less touches and take care of the ball. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the offensive line, which has yet to create solid running lanes for Fitzgerald Toussaint in this young season.

Defensively, the line has to get in the backfield and keep the quarterback from getting too comfortable; as Kyle Pohl did last Saturday. With pressure, a secondary that has gotten strong starts from Jarrod Wilson and Blake Countess can limit the big plays over the middle.

Last week was a wakeup call for Michigan fans that started looking too far ahead after the Notre Dame victory. Akron exploited some weaknesses that could kill the Wolverines during the Big Ten season, and now Brady Hoke’s team gets a chance to bounce back in the first road test. Luckily, UConn has shown countless weaknesses so far this year and Michigan should be able to right the ship and regain some of their confidence heading into the bye week before the important conference schedule arrives.

Michigan-40 Connecticut-17

Katie: First off, I’m predicting a much cleaner game from Michigan, and with a lot more heart than what they played with against Akron.  After watching the post game interview with the team captain, Taylor Lewan, and Devin Gardner I think it’s fair to say that the Wolverines are out to prove that they shouldn’t be counted out of the hunt for the Big Ten title just yet.  The main problem last week was the turnovers and the lack of defensive pressure.  This game will hopefully serve to show that the nail-biter against the Zips as more of a fluke than a genuine estimation of what this team is capable of…at least one hopes so.

Considering Michigan has two great tight ends in Funchess and Butt, two sure handed wide outs in Gallon and Dileo, and UConn has a weak secondary, Michigan should be able to demoralize the Huskies (One of the issues last week was that the Zips were confident and only grew more so as the game continued).  Toussaint will hopefully get more help from the O-line, as promised by Lewan on Saturday.  And if the defense is able to put more pressure on the quarterback and isn’t forced to take the field after multiple turnovers, I think this game is going to go rather smoothly for Michigan.

I don’t see another close game in store for the Wolverines, but then again I am a bit anxious going in.  The Maize and Blue barely avoided a disaster, and I hope that it will only serve to light a fire under them. We can’t have another close call this week.

Michigan 41 – UConn 13

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For more coverage of this week’s game, see: Michigan-UConn game preview; this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe with Andrew Callahan of the aptly named UConn SB Nation blog The UConn Blog; Monday’s First Look: UConn, and this week’s Five-Spot Challenge.

Also check out game previews from MGoBlog,  Maize n Brew, Touch the Banner, 247, Maize n Blue Nation, UMGoBlog, and The M Block.

Michigan 59 – Central Michigan 9

Sunday, September 1st, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

True freshman Dymonte Thomas didn’t take long to make his name known to those who don’t follow recruiting as ardently as others. In fact, true freshmen contributing was the theme of the game as Brady Hoke’s latest recruiting class displayed just why it was ranked so highly.

After picking up a first down on the first play of the game, Central Michigan was stuffed on three straight plays and forced to punt. Thomas came around the right side of the line and blocked the punt, which was picked up by receiver Joe Reynolds who raced 30 yards for Michigan’s first touchdown of the season.

Final Stats
Michigan Central
Score 59 9
Record 1-0 0-1
Total Yards 463 210
Net Rushing Yards 242 66
Net Passing Yards 221 144
First Downs 22 12
Turnovers 3 2
Penalties-Yards 7-55 8-74
Punts-Yards 7-277 1-51
Time of Possession 34:16 25:44
Third Down Conversions 10-of-15 4-of-14
Fourth Down Conversions 2-of-2 0-of-0
Sacks By-Yards 4-22 1-3
Field Goals 1-for-1 3-for-3
PATs 8-for-8 0-for-0
Red Zone Scores-Chances 7-of-7 3-of-3
Full Box Score

Hoke said afterward that the game plan was to rush the first punt and it fired up the team. It was Michigan’s first blocked punt since Brandon Graham blocked one in 2009.

But the excitement didn’t last long as Michigan forced another punt, and on the Wolverines’ second offensive play of the season, Devin Gardner was picked off by Jarret Chapman at the Michigan 6-yard line, setting up first and goal for CMU. The defense held strong, forcing a field goal, and Michigan never looked back from there.

Gardner led a six-play, 77-yard drive with a 36-yard pass to Drew Dileo followed by a 22-yard touchdown run. After another Central punt, Michigan mounted a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive, capped by a 1-yard Fitzgerald Toussaint touchdown run to grab a 21-3 lead.

Bad Gardner reared its head once again on Michigan’s next possession as his deep ball to Jeremy Gallon was intercepted and returned 36 yards to the Michigan 29. But the defense held Central to a field goal yet again. Michigan finished the half by finding the end zone twice more, an 11-play, 79-yard drive that covered 6:09 and a 3-play, 12-yard drive set up by Raymon Taylor’s first interception of the season.

Michigan took a 35-6 lead into the locker room and came back right where it left off, marching 75 yards in six plays, most of which came on a 45-yard pass from Gardner to Reynolds. Toussaint carried it in from two yards out.

After a CMU three-and-out, Michigan turned to its freshmen running backs for its next drive. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith carried the ball on all 10 plays, covering 55 yards and resulting in Green’s first touchdown of his career to put Michigan ahead 49-6. Green broke away for a 30-yard run on the drive and also converted a 4th-and-2.

That was the night for Gardner and the rest of the starters as Shane Morris took over under center on the next possession. The freshman phenom picked up right where Gardner left off, driving 81 yards in eight plays for Michigan’s eighth touchdown of the night. On the drive, Morris connected with fellow freshman, tight end Jake Butt, for eight yards on 3rd-and-3. He also found Devin Funchess over the middle for a 36-yard gain. Thomas Rawls got the touchdown from five yards out.

Derrick Green led the team in rushing with 58 yards on 11 carries (MGoBlue.com)

After another Central Michigan field goal, Morris threw the first interception of his career, but freshman defensive back Channing Stribling forced a fumble on the very next play and Michigan got the ball right back. For the first time all night, Michigan wasn’t able to punch it in the end zone, instead settling for a 30-yard Brendan Gibbons field goal to reach the final score of 59-9.

In all, 10 true freshmen played and nearly all of them produced. Gardner made a couple of mistakes, which he attributed to jitters and rust, but showed very good command of the offense and playmaking ability. Toussaint ran hard and the rest of the backfield showed off the depth Michigan has at the position. Dennis Norfleet displayed his game-breaking ability, taking a reverse 38 yards and nearly breaking two or three returns. The defense didn’t allow a touchdown, and there seemed to be no major injuries (we’ll see how bad Reynolds and Drake Johnson are hurt, but they didn’t appear to be too bad).

Green led Michigan with 58 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while Toussaint added 57 yards and two scores on 14 carries. Gardner completed 10-of-15 passes for 162 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions while also rushing seven times for 52 yards and two scores. Jeremy Gallon (four receptions) and Devin Funchess (two) each tallied 47 receiving yards. Gallon also added a touchdown.

It was a good showing for the young Wolverines on an opening weekend in which nearly every other Big Ten team struggled with inferior competition. Michigan featured 460 yards of offense and a defense that held its opponent under 200 yards until mop-up time when Central barely inched over the mark. In the long run, it won’t mean much, but as for opening weekends go, it went about as well as one could have hoped.

The first true test is next week when Notre Dame comes to town with an offense that passed for 355 yards in a 28-6 win over Temple and a defense widely recognized as one of the nation’s best entering the season.

Stay tuned for continued breakdown and analysis of Michigan’s season opening win as well as preparation for Notre Dame.

Maize and Go Blue staff roundtable

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013


Just a few days from the start of the season, the time has come to put our predictions to paper. Or the internet, where they will forever live, serving as a reminder of the surge of optimism that perpetually springs just before the don of a new season. All the usual suspects – Justin, Chris, Sam, Josh, and Katie – will give their predictions, as will the newest member of our staff, Derick, who you have read in our preseason Predicting Michigan series. You can view all of our staff bios on the Meet the Staff page.

With introductions out of the way, let’s get down to business.

What are you most excited about this season?

JUSTIN: I’m excited about the return to the Michigan football of old. Denard Robinson will forever be remembered as a great Michigan football player, but as was apparent he had his limitations and Al Borges was never able to fully implement his offense.

Back when Rich Rodriguez was announced as the new head coach to replace Lloyd Carr, there was a lot of excitement over the kind of offense he could bring to Ann Arbor, the likes of which none of us had ever seen. The Michigan brand of football had gotten a little stale during the latter part of Carr’s tenure, so we were excited for something new. Well, we all know how that turned out and now a return to smash-mouth Michigan football with mammoth offensive linemen and tall, rangy wide receivers sounds more appealing than ever. It’s funny how perspective changes.

Most of us are looking forward to getting back to the Michigan football we all remember

There will still be some pieces of spread mixed in, but with Devin Gardner behind center Borges’ offense will be able to thrive. It will take a little time to be sure, with a young interior line and group of receivers, but I’m excited to see the return to Bo and Mo and Lloyd’s brand of football.

CHRIS: Seeing how the offense will look with Devin Gardner as the starting QB and a stable of quality running backs, including the return of Fitz Toussaint from a major injury, and a group of young, top recruits.

JOSH: Having a legitimate passing threat under center and getting back to real Michigan football. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen that style and been good at it (2006). To me Michigan football is a smash mouth running game and a tough defense, I think we get one step closer to resembling the teams of yesteryear.

SAM: Besides football being back? Well, to start off, I’m excited about the potential of the offense to put up some points with Devin Gardner leading the way, a crowded yet talented corps of running backs, a tight end that can make any defender look foolish, two bite-sized receivers with hands made of glue, and an actual, tangible depth chart on the offensive line that doesn’t read “PANIC” after the starter goes down. I think Al Borges is finally starting to see an offense on the field close to the one he envisioned when joining Brady Hoke in Ann Arbor two seasons ago, and the results should start to show. Denard Robinson was an other-worldly talent, but his skill set simply did not match up with what the New Michigan is looking to do – pound the ball behind a physical offensive line and take deep shots down the field when the safeties are forced to cheat up. Gardner certainly has the physical abilities to run the system to near perfection, and if he starts up where he left off last season, the Wolverines should light up the scoreboard.

As a special aside, I also want to give Dennis Norfleet a quick shout-out as the lead punt and kick returner. Norfleet is probably the single most exciting player on the roster, and I think it’s about time Michigan scored on special teams. Look for that to happen within the first two weeks of the season.

DERICK: The return of a potent passing attack to the offense. As Denard Robinson moves on to the NFL, Brady Hoke and Al Borges will try to move back in the direction of a physical offensive style. Quarterback Devin Gardner will lead the 2013 Michigan offense with a revamped passing attack. During his starts at the end of 2012, Gardner proved that he has an accurate arm and can extend plays with his legs. Receivers like Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo and Amara Darboh figure to have big seasons with Gardner under center.

KATIE: Seeing what Devin Gardner can do, and if he finds a go-to in Gallon or Funchess.

What worries you the most entering the season?

JUSTIN: My main concern is the inexperience on the offensive line and at receiver. Returning to a power running game is great, but you have to have interior linemen that can open holes for your backs. Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are solid bookends, but how quickly will Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, and Kyle Kalis gel? The opener against Central Michigan will be a good dry run, but we’ll get our first real indication in Week 2 against Notre Dame’s ferocious defensive front.

At receiver, the loss of Amara Darboh to injury is a big blow. Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are well established, but the offense needs a guy like Darboh who can play the Junior Hemingway/Adrian Arrington role. A lot of pressure will fall on Jehu Chesson to step up, which I think he’s more than capable of doing. I’m not sold on Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds, who have had three years to step up and still haven’t done so.

The young offensive line worries us the most (John T. Greilick, Detroit News)

CHRIS: How an inexperienced group of players on the offensive and defensive lines will mature and get better throughout the season.  With three new starters on the offensive line, and essentially three new starters on the D-line, I believe this to be the key to how good of a season that the Wolverines end up having.

JOSH: Lack of known commodities on the line, receiver, and running back. A LOT of talented, but inexperienced, kids on this roster at key spots could mean for some serious growing pains early on. With Notre Dame coming to town in Week 2 this more than worries me, even though I am not sold on ND being nearly as ‘good’ as they were last year.

SAM: This might be wacky, but I am going with the offense again, and specifically Gardner. While he possesses all the tools to excel in Borges’s offense, I’m still a little wary of crowning the redshirt junior as the savior of the program, the one who will bring Michigan full circle. I know it’s been a long time since the spring of 2011 and 2012, but Gardner’s struggles in the spring games of those two years will always be in the back of my head.

With his big arm, pinpoint precision, and capable legs, Gardner can be great, but I’m a little skeptical of his decision-making. I’ve seen him scramble and throw an ill-advised bunny one too many times to rest easily this week of the season opener, and I am worried that his success over the last five games of last season were partially a product of opposing defenses having very little information on him. With a full offseason to break down tape, opposing coaches have certainly found new ways to try to attack Gardner, and any hesitancy on his end early on could signal trouble in Ann Arbor.

Again, there is no doubting Gardner’s potential, and I do think he will have a very good year; I am just not quite ready to bring both feet onto the bandwagon.

DERICK: The youth on the interior offensive line. While Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield will be solid at the tackle positions, the rest of the offensive line is a question mark. Two talented recruiting classes will battle to fill the remaining three spots. Too much youth can be an issue on either line, but fortunately Michigan has Lewan to lead the young players and help make up for any mistakes. If the line can protect Gardner, the offense should be potent.

KATIE: Some of our offensive line is young. That, coupled with an unsure running game.

Who will be the breakout player on offense this season?

JUSTIN: Darboh was going to be my pick, so the obvious choice now would be Chesson. But I’m going to go a little out of the box and say Jake Butt. Last year, I correctly picked Devin Funchess, so I’ll stick with that position which Borges absolutely loves. With Darboh out, I could see Borges utilizing the tight end position even more, and Funchess is the known commodity as far as opposing defenses are concerned. That could free up Butt for some open looks much like Funchess got last year, although he likely won’t get as many targets because of, well, Funchess.

CHRIS: Derrick Green- I know that this is the easy pick considering his highly regarded status as one of Michigan’s top signees ever, but this guy is good.  His size and speed are unparalleled for a freshman running back and he’ll have the opportunity get a large amount of playing time given the uncertainty in the Michigan backfield.  With a couple weeks left in fall camp, it appears that Fitz Toussaint is taking control of the top spot, however the offense will feature more than one guy running the ball.  I like Green’s chances to have an excellent season.

We're excited about the potential of Jehu Chesson (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

JOSH: So many options and it seems like a cop out to go with Gardner or Funchess, so I’m going to stick with a first year starting wide receiver, Jehu Chesson. He’s a tall, fast guy that can take the top off the defense and open things up underneath for Gallon, Dileo, and Norfleet. He’s had a year in the system and from what I’ve read he seems to be an incredibly humble and hardworking kid. Not sure he’s Mario Manningham 2.0 yet but he’s got the size and speed to fill that type of role.

SAM: I already alluded to some of his mismatch-making in regards to why I’m excited about the offense this year – I think Devin Funchess is a guy you will see turn heads this year. The sophomore out of Farmington Hills set the world on fire early on in his debut season, catching touchdowns in weeks two and three against Air Force and Massachusetts and recording multiple catches in three of the first four games, but he kind of fell off the map as the season wore on. Over the last nine games of the season, Funchess never recorded a multiple-catch outing, and his highest yardage output over that same span was just 29.

His potential is both clear and vast, however. A whopping 33 percent of Funchess’s 15 receptions last season went for scores, and his 6’5″, 235-pound frame (now with added muscle!) is enough in itself to make defensive coordinators toss and turn at night. In Borges’ offense, tight ends are called upon to block quite often, and blocking is unfortunately the biggest area Funchess needs to improve upon, but his added weight should help him see more snaps and, in turn, more targets this year. His monstrous hands make him an obvious red zone target, and his overall length and athleticism should get plenty of run over the middle and on broken plays where Gardner will be seeking a safety valve. Look for Funchess to at least double his catches in 2013 while recording 600-plus yards and eight scores.

DERICK: I’m going to go with Jehu Chesson now that Darboh is out. I really think that the second receiver behind Gallon is poised to have a big year behind him and Funchess in the passing attack. Gardner should be able to spread the ball out and use his entire receiving core, so if Chesson can step in and take over a big role that I believe Darboh was destined for he can pick up important offensive production that Michigan lost with Roundtree graduating.

KATIE: I would like to see Derrick Green rack up yards as a freshman, like Hart did, and make the next few years look even more enticing.

Who will be the breakout player on defense this season?

JUSTIN: The obvious pick here is James Ross, but in my opinion, he already had a semi-breakout at the tail end of last season. He’s due for big numbers this year. But I’m going to say a guy not many people are talking about: Raymon Taylor. He was thrust into the starting role last season when Blake Countess went down with a season ending knee injury and performed admirably, probably even better than J.T. Floyd. Now, with Countess back and grabbing all the attention, Taylor has locked down the other starting corner spot. He made a big interception against Notre Dame and followed that up with another the next week, and I think it’s safe to say we can expect more from him this season now that he has 11 starts under his belt.

CHRIS: Frank Clark- Even though he played in all 13 games last season, he only started the final four.  In those four games, he had excellent performances, including a huge one against Ohio State.  This season he will be counted on to man one of the defensive end positions and to be one of the defensive leaders.  He is an excitable player who will be counted on to anchor a defensive line which has only one true returning starter, and that player, Quinton Washington, only started 10 games.  Clark must quickly become a force to reckon with if the Wolverines want to win versus better competition.

With Jake Ryan out, James Ross III and Frank Clark need to step up

JOSH: I’d love to say Dymonte Thomas, I think he’s going to be really good, but everyone else probably will say that too, so I’m going to go with Blake Countess. He had a great freshman year then missed all but a few plays of last season. With almost a full year to recover and hone his craft. I don’t think we’re looking at Ty Law or Charles Woodson type play but he seems poised to make a name for himself as another great Michigan defensive back.

SAM: Funchess is a tremendous breakout candidate on offense because of all the physical attributes he possesses, but on the defensive side of the ball, my pick for breakout player will thrive for the exact opposite reasons. James Ross III, another true sophomore, from nearby Orchard Lake, is not the biggest guy on the field, but his instincts and grit will one day make him a great linebacker at Michigan. At 6’1″ and 220 pounds, Ross is certainly not a prototypical Big Ten backer, and at barely 19 years of age, “Biggs” is younger than ideal as well, but he has heart and quickness in bunches.

With only 21 solo tackles and 15 assisted tackles last season, Ross has hardly scratched the surface. I love his ability to quickly diagnose the play and react accordingly without hesitation. Yes, sometimes such an aggressive style has and will lead to getting burned on play action, but with more experience will come better decision-making. A James Ross that correctly reads every offensive play is a James Ross that no running back or quarterback wants to face. The second year man is a sure tackler, a solid cover man, and the embodiment of a football player. Look for him to rack up 10 tackles for loss this year on his way to being the second-leading tackler on the team.

DERICK: Frank Clark. The new start at defensive end could be a jump start for Frank Clark’s career. The 6’2″ junior contributed on the line at times during his sophomore season, and figures to play a much bigger role in 2013. It is crucial that Michigan gets pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing linebackers this season, because the secondary has remaining questions. If Clark can be an effective pass rusher it could make a huge different for Michigan.

KATIE: James Ross III. Not that he didn’t have a breakout freshman year, but I’m expecting him to have matured more and be someone who will make a big impact at the linebacker position.

What is your prediction for the season? What will Michigan’s record be? Who will Michigan lose to? What bowl game will Michigan make?

JUSTIN: Great recruiting classes by Hoke the past couple of years have turned up the excitement level big time. But let’s not forget Hoke’s first full class is still sophomores. I think we’re a year away from competing for a national championship, but that doesn’t mean a Big Ten title is out of the question. However, it’s not going to be easy. If Michigan had Ohio State’s schedule, a spot in the Big Ten title game would be a no-brainer, but the November stretch of at Michigan State, home against Nebraska, at Northwestern, at Iowa, and home against Ohio State is going to be brutal. There’s no margin for error prior to November, which means Michigan has to win at Penn State, which I think they will.

Two of the three top contenders in the Legends division, Michigan State and Nebraska, don’t even have to face Ohio State, so they have the easier path the to Legends division title. That means those two games are critical for Michigan. Lose one and the Ohio State game is a must-win. Lose both and Michigan probably won’t make it to Indianapolis.

I think the Ohio State game will be a must-win regardless. I think the only way a rematch happens (without being undefeated) is if Michigan beats Michigan State and Nebraska, but falls to Northwestern…which is exactly what I think will happen. I see Michigan undefeated heading into East Lansing. State just doesn’t have the offense this year, so a win there and a win the following week against Nebraska will leave Michigan 9-0 as they travel to Northwestern. That’s the game that will trip Michigan up coming off of two big wins. Michigan will then beat Iowa and fall to Ohio State, finishing 10-2. Northwestern will also lose to Ohio State and two of the three against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska, finishing 9-3. A win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game will fittingly send Michigan to Pasadena for the 100th Rose Bowl where Michigan will lose to Stanford, finishing 11-3 overall.

A trip to the 100th Rose Bowl would only be fitting for the team that won the first one ever

CHRIS: In all reality, the Wolverines have the chance to go 12-0, and I’m not only saying that because every team has a chance to do that each year.  However, Team 134 will need to avoid the pitfalls of some tough games, especially once the November schedule hits.

Prior to Michigan’s first November game against MSU, they need to be 7-0, and I think they will be.  The only tough game during that stretch is Notre Dame, but the game is at home, under the lights, and I believe that the Irish will take a step back this year compared to the 2012 team.  MSU will be a decent squad this year if they can break in new starters for half of the positions on both offense and defense.  Michigan’s offensive and defensive line play will have to be stout by this game, otherwise there could be trouble.  Plus, MSU will be looking for payback after last year’s heartbreaking, last-second loss.

After that, Michigan gets Nebraska at home.  I don’t expect the Huskers to be a very good team this year, especially on defense, where they only return four starters from a defense which wasn’t particularly good last season.  They do return Taylor Martinez at the QB position, who is a streaky passer and a good runner when he gets the opportunity.  Michigan will need to take advantage of a weak offensive line and contain Martinez to win this game, as well as watch out for a potential let-down following the MSU game.

After that comes the game that worries me the most- At Northwestern on Nov 16.  They return 15 starters on both sides of the ball, plus both starters in the kicking game.  They have two good QBs in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, each of which will attack the Michigan defense with different styles.  They also have stud running back Venric Mark returning, who is the top returning player at that position.  The defense will be good as well, with three returning starters in a secondary which struggled at times last season.  I see a couple of keys for Michigan which will allow them to win this game: good defensive line play and a quality game plan by Greg Mattison which will confuse three new starters on the offensive line; and a quick re-focusing by the players after two tough games.  Ryan Field can be a tough place to play, especially if the game is played with a noon EST kickoff.  That’s 11am Central time, and if the Wolverines don’t come focused and ready to play, an upset could happen.

The comes Iowa at their place.  Should be a win.

Then, The Game.  Ohio State will likely come to the Big House 11-0 and looking for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game and a potential BCS National Championship appearance.  The Buckeye offense will be good and will put up a lot of points this season.  Michigan’s defense will be tested by the large number of weapons which Ohio State can attack with.  Defense is another story, however.  They only have four returning starters on this side of the ball, although the spots will be filled by quality, yet unproven, recruits.  With the weapons on Michigan’s offense, this has the potential to be a shoot-out, with the team that wants it the most coming out on top.

I expect this Michigan team to finish the season 10-2 or 11-1.  There’s that potential loss to Northwestern hanging out there, but I think that Brady Hoke will ensure that the team is ready to play against a quality Big Ten opponent.  I don’t think that Michigan has the overall experience and talent yet to beat Ohio State.  While I do think the game will be close, Ohio State will have too much for the Wolverines.  With this being said, there is potential for a Michigan-OSU rematch in the Big Ten Championship.  For this to happen, Michigan cannot lose any other conference games, especially to opponents on their side of the Division.  If the two teams rematch, Michigan will win and take the Big Ten crown for 2013 and play in the Rose Bowl.

The Big Ten Championship game could very well be a Michigan-Ohio State rematch

JOSH: I can honestly see this team going undefeated or losing four games again. There is just too much uncertainty at key positions to make a good prediction, but I’ll venture one anyway. There are too many toss-up games on the schedule for me to feel confident about a largely young and inexperienced team. Notre Dame, MSU, Nebraska, OSU, and you can’t count out Northwestern. 9-3 (6-2), no B1G title game appearance and Outback Bowl again.

SAM: I have Michigan going 9-3 in the regular season and finishing in first place in the Legends Division before heading to the Big Ten championship game, where they will face off with Ohio State before heading to a bowl game somewhere where it’s warm. The schedule is not extremely difficult, but Michigan is still probably a year away from competing on the national level. I see the Wolverines dropping two of the four of Notre Dame, at Penn State, at Michigan State, and at Northwestern, and one to the Buckeyes. After finishing out the regular season, I think Michigan will lose again to Ohio State in Indianapolis before winning their bowl game to finish at 10-4 overall.

If you are thinking, “isn’t this the guy that wants back-to-back matchups with Ohio State?” The answer is yes, I am. Unfortunately this is the wrong year to potentially have that come up. The Game should be a classic, but I think Michigan’s defense will be just a step behind Ohio State’s offense and the Scarlet and Grey will take the cake. Regardless, there is plenty to look forward to this season, and there’s a reason they play the games. Maybe, just maybe, the Maize and Blue will prove me wrong.

DERICK: 11-3, B1G runner-up, BCS at-large. Michigan could definitely go into The Game at the Big House with a 10-1 record. The loss of Everett Golson makes the Notre Dame game very winnable for the Wolverines, but the gauntlet of Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa will be difficult to endure without a loss. If Michigan can go 3-1 through that game I think they can split with OSU (since the Buckeyes will likely be playing in the Big Ten Championship game) and likely win the game at home and get a Sugar Bowl bid if the SEC sends their champion to the National Championship Game. The bowl game will be difficult, obviously, and could be the third straight game against a top-5 team for Michigan. After a strong start to the season, I think the final few weeks could be tough.

KATIE: A 9-3 regular season finish and 6-2 in the Big Ten.

Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

Thursday, August 8th, 2013


Rounding out the offensive portion of our Predicting Michigan series is the tight end position, which should be one of the most exciting to watch this season. Previously, we featured the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive line.

Returning To The Offense

Devin Funchess needs to prove he can stay on the field in non-obvious passing situations

In the last few seasons, the Michigan offense has revolved around a spread rushing attack and featured less use of the tight end position as a result. When the spread offense was introduced, the preferred receiving options became small, fast athletes that could blow by defenders and make moves in space. As Brady Hoke takes the Wolverines back to a more physical style of play, tight ends have started to resurface in Ann Arbor.

In 2012, Devin Funchess burst onto the scene with 140 yards and two touchdowns in the games against Air Force and Massachusetts. As the season progressed, Funchess faded and had more than 15 receiving yards only once, when he caught a 29-yard touchdown against Iowa.

This year’s team will likely rely more on the tight end position. A renewed focus on rushing between the tackles means that size and blocking on the line will become more important. Also, Devin Gardner’s ability to keep plays alive and go through multiple options will give the tight ends a greater opportunity to catch passes even if they aren’t the primary route.

The Name We Know: Devin Funchess

Funchess will return to the team as the only familiar name at the tight end position that had a statistical impact. His early success made him an immediate fan-favorite on Saturdays at the Big House, and his lack of production late in the season was proof of how difficult it is to adapt to the physical play of the Big Ten. As Denard Robinson led the offense into conference play, he connected with the 6’5″ tight end less and less. Even against poor defensive teams like Illinois and Purdue, Funchess didn’t really show up on the stat sheet, catching only one pass in each contest. When Gardner was reinserted into the quarterback role, Funchess continued to have around one catch each game. This was partially because opponents caught on that when he was in it was to catch a pass, and partially to be used as a decoy because of his inability to block.

This season, after working with Gardner for an entire offseason, Funchess should be more like the player he was early in the season. Gardner isn’t afraid to run through three or four options before giving up on a play, so the tight ends will have a chance to catch more passes. Funchess will also play a big role in the blocking game, which will allow him to stay on the field more often, when running backs like Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green pound the ball up the middle. His size and strong hands will make him a threat in the red zone, and he can build off of his five touchdowns from last season.

Projected Stats
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
25 330 13.2 5 27.5
Career Stats
2012 15 234 15.6 30 5 18.0
Totals 15 234 15.6 30 5 18.0

Returning Players

There are four returning tight ends in addition to Funchess on the Michigan roster, but only one of them has ever recorded a catch. Dylan Esterline made a reception for seven yards in the 45-0 blowout of Illinois in Ann Arbor, but A.J. WilliamsJordan Paskorz and Michael Jocz haven’t been included in the receiving game in their careers. While Williams is known as a very good blocking tight end (he was recruited as an offensive tackle/tight end hybrid), the thin roster at this position is a result of the transition to the spread offense. When the speedy receivers were brought in, the fullbacks and tight ends were basically erased, so these players contributed very little during that time. This season, they may fill in to block or provide depth, but it is unlikely that they will play major roles in the offensive attack. Brady Hoke will find roles for them on special teams, because of their strength and size.

Recruits: Early Impact

Jake Butt caught a TD in Michigan's spring game and will make an impact this season

The 2013 recruiting class will play a big role at tight end. Two young recruits were brought in to help solidify a weak position on the team, and both players will have a chance to contribute in their freshman seasons.

Khalid Hill was a three-star recruit and is an interesting player at tight end. Due to his lack of superior size for the position, Hill isn’t the strongest blocker and can’t muscle up like other big players can. However, his body creates a different kind of matchup problem. Hill’s strength is in the receiving category, because he has surprising quickness and showed a great ability to run routes and catch the ball in high school. He doesn’t seem to be the prototypical tight end for a physical offense, but he could be the perfect player to get open and give Gardner another weapon in the passing attack.

Fellow recruit Jake Butt generated more buzz around Ann Arbor when he committed as a top-five tight end. Butt is a matchup nightmare for defenses at 6’6 because of his incredible athletic ability and coordination in the passing game. Robinson would have enjoyed throwing to this athletic tight end, because in high school Butt excelled at bringing down jump balls. Defenses will have a hard time finding a corner that can stop a receiver this big and athletic downfield.

Butt could improve in the blocking category, even though his size and athleticism make him an intimidating player across the line. Hoke will have Butt in the weight room working on his strength, and if he can add some bulk to his already-impressive body, this tight end could end up being one of the best all-round offensive threats in the country. This true freshman will likely be a major factor immediately during the 2013 season.

Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC TD YPG
25 260 10.4 4 21.7
Projected Stats – Hill
Receptions Yards YPC TD YPG
5 60 12.0 1 5.0

Wrapping Up

Michigan is still looking to find the type of tight end play it had in the past, with players like Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker in 2004. With Funchess and Butt as potential starters, things are starting to look up. Not only are both players developed physically, they both pose a definite threat in the passing game. For a team with Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon as the main receiving targets, two big men with superior catching ability is a welcome addition to the offense. Expect Gardner to utilize the skills of the tight ends, and for 2013 to be the first year since before the Rich Rodriguez era that Michigan gets big contributions from the position.

National Signing Day: visualizing Michigan’s 2013 recruiting class

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013



Stay tuned in the coming days as we profile each of the 27 members of Michigan’s 2013 class.