Michigan Mott Spring Football “Game”, sponsored by PNC, was played Saturday April 13, 2013-It should be noted this was not a “game” but drills and a glorified scrimmage with spectators. No score is kept. It was the number one offense unit versus the one defensive unit, and the two offense versus the two defense, and drills. The offense started from three zones: Black zone: offense starting on own 20-yard line. Normal zone: starting around own 34-yard line. Red zone: started at opponent’s 20-yard line. An Alumni touch football game with 80 or more distinguished ex-Wolverine footballers provided entertainment on an April Day disguised as a late fall day. There was a small crowd, announced as 18,000. The MVP was B.J. Dickey, who was rewarded (?) with the usual eleven foot high trophy. The announced crowd was 18,000.
It seems that spring always is a time for football optimism. In the past not all of that optimism has proved durable with realities often intruding.
This spring great expectations for Wolverine Football team Number 134 are prevalent. There were a few springs in recent memory that expectations were limited, and at times, even those limited expectations proved elusive of achievement. Now there are but few, if any, echos of problems from the past, as Brady Hoke prepares for his third season as the Wolverines’ head man. A rougher, tougher football team is in the offing. This edition is physically bigger. Let’s hope that they all handle the off season better than some of them managed last year. Chances are, they will.
Even with the nasty loss to injury of one of the team’s best defensive players, Jake Ryan, Greg Mattison’s defense is deeper, more physical, and should progress as the season unfolds. One of the best defensive coaching gurus in the country, the experienced Mattison has proved his mettle, and has a great opportunity to produce the best Wolverines defense in the past few seasons. With the loss of Kovacs at strong safety, Thomas Gordon has stepped up. Sophomore LB James Ross III garnered recognition with 8 tackles, and two TFLs, and played all the snaps from start to finish. Saturday, the defense pounded for four sacks, one each, by Jabreel Black, by Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. These are four players that have been noticed all spring. Black is improving and is bigger, Frank Clark is becoming a much more effective player (played with his lower arm in a cast Saturday), Mario Ojemudia is proving himself, and Taco Charlton, an early freshman enrollee, is fast making a name for himself.
The defensive line is a strength. Richard Ash, Jabreel Black, Quinton Washington and Ondre Pipkins are part of an impressive cadre of defensive linemen. Chris Wormley, a 6’4″ and 290 lb. redshirt freshman returned from injury, is a good example of the depth mentioned below. Here is what Coach Hoke thinks of them: He has confidence in the front four on defense.. “I think we’ve grown. We’ve got some young kids who have ability, obviously. I think with Greg (Mattison), and his passion and how he teaches it, rushing the passer, I really think the work is being put in. The guys are excited about it. They know what we want to do and what the goal is. We’re better. We’re not near what we can be, and what we will be, but we’re a little better at it.” The defensive line is big, athletic and deep, and may help spare the defensive backfield which has many young players..
Al Borges is now able to build an offense that is more along the lines of power football/West Coast offense, with more snaps under center. Coach Borges must dispel the shadow of last season’s Ohio and Bowl games which drew attention to offensive deficiencies. Some fans were hot over play calling etc. Now he has a QB with a strong arm and good wheels in Devin Gardner, even if the world class legs of Denard Robinson are no longer at his command. While the composition of the offensive line is still unsettled inside, the tackles (Lewan and Schofield) are as good as any in the B1G. Jack Miller has a good shot at the center position, and there are a number of large and talented newcomers that will have a shot at center, and right and left guard. There are plenty of good candidates, big people, and smart footballers in the wings. Not the stockpile that Hoke wants accumulated as yet, but two nice recruiting classes in a row does help.
The question is whether these baby inside road graders can pave the way on the ground as Hoke and Borges want them to do. Will they be able to move the chains on the ground, while the defense rests? Last year the Wolverines produced a relatively meager average of 183.8/ yards in 13 games, which includes Denard’s sometimes prolific running. Running back yardage last year was almost as scarce as Spartans complimenting the Wolverines, and sometime as grudging.
Will the OL pass protect effectively? Saturday it was a mixed bag. You used to be able to easily tell how good an offensive line pass protected by the amount of, or lack of, grass stains on the jersey of the team’s QB. Even with artificial turf you can still measure OL effectiveness in winning records. But this was a no score, OB protected game. The defense did get to the QB four times. Does that indicate a great defense or a faulty offensive line? Or neither? Hard to tell. It will be well into fall camp before all the components of the offensive line are welded together, but there are plenty of practices left. I believe this unit will become one of the team’s strengths but not yet. How soon is a critical question. It is safe to say that they did not dominate the defense in the recently played spring “game”, but did OK, maybe a little above average, maybe a B.
There are a couple of reasons why improvement should be expected. The best offensive lineman, Lewan did not play many snaps, and the offensive scheme was strictly under wraps. Likely the defense has seen this vanilla stuff many times this year. But even sporting mustaches across the front, this OL is still a unit in progress and that is to be expected. Better numbers and talent and good size this season will whip into effectiveness. This year the Blue will have an effective running game, and ability to move the chains, and facilitate play action passing. But they are not there yet. Nor were they expected to be. But pro style offensive football will be back in Ann Arbor.
While the number of running backs in the spring was limited, in the fall Fitz Toussaint will be back, and a couple of freshman will push the current cadre of Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, Drake Johnson, and Dennis Norfleet. All performed OK in the spring game, but no one grabbed the job. Freshmen Deveon Smith and 5 star recruit Derrick Green will add competition in the fall. It is hoped that Fitz Toussaint will be 100% by fall, and that is looking more and more likely.
Most players on team 134 will successfully jump the hurdles barring success to produce what I expect to be a very good football team by fall. Their skill sets and physiques generally better match Hoke’s preferences than in his prior years as the head man. Hoke always wants “tough guys” and they are practicing more like that all the time. It is a collision sport, and hitting is the name, and sometimes the bane, of the game. But players also get damaged in drills, walking or running, or doing pedestrian things like going up or down stairs. Injury is a part of life as well as football. Successful football teams have to be lucky injury wise. Too many Wolverines have been hurt in the recent past. Some worry that Brady’s emphasis on hitting will cause more.
Hitting is the nature of the game. Injuries have already impacted this year with Kaleb Ringer, Chris Wormley, Blake Countess injured as well as Ryan, Bellomy, and Toussaint. Ringer, Wormley and Countess are back. Countess was dressed, but did not play. Devin Funchess left the game with a slight injury but says he is now OK.
The poster boy for injuries this season is Jake Ryan. Fortunately it is now said he may return to the playing field around the middle of October, for the heart of the season. A fast rising defensive star, he will be sorely missed. Everyone had him penciled in as a game breaker this year. It looks like Cameron Gordon will fill the strong side (Sam) LB position. Cam Gordon has been getting good notice and will contribute. Brennen Beyer did well Saturday had been switched to the position to help shore it up. Mike Jones is available. One of the prime spring defensive concerns was plugging that vacancy. Losing Jake Ryan was a big blow to the defense. It appears that C. Gordon has stepped up, and Beyer too.
When Russell Bellomy went down, it left the Quarterback position with just one scholarship player, Devin Gardner. For those of us that were underwhelmed by the loss of Russell, and recalled the Nebraska debacle of last year with distaste, consider reconsidering now. He is a quality football player and human being, and might well have helped the team this year. Reports were he was doing just fine until injured. Right now the number two QB is walk on Brian Cleary. It appears that Cleary has talent in his own right, but it seems the staff is looking for a one year recruit with graduate eligibility or a JC candidate. While originally I thought the chance of a JC QB getting accepted at Michigan was remote, Phil reminded me that Spencer Brinton filled that role a few years ago.
The offensive fate of team 134 is largely in the big mitts of Devin Gardner, and the developing OL. Gardner has determination, intelligence, and athletic skill, all married to some experience, due to Denard’s misfortune last year. The season will reveal his level of dedication. His performance will go a long way in determining the number of wins and losses. The only odor you will smell at the QB position is the probable burning of the redshirt of Shane Morris, a much sought after freshman who is going to need to grab the number two QB spot. This position group will do just fine thank you, if the OL develops a taste and talent for a ground game, and pass protection. Gardner was wearing the orange shirt in practice to prevent catastrophe. A gimpy Gardner would have dire consequences, until a suitable understudy is groomed.
Saturday Devin had a good practice, tossed a thirty-yarder down the sideline to a streaking Amara Darboh down the left sideline, and he hit Devin Funchess over the middle with a 35-yard pass. Funchess provided another leaping, twisting grab up the middle. Windy and cold, the weather was a challenge. Coach Hoke talked: about Devin Gardner’s performance in difficult conditions … “Devin naturally throws a tight ball. When you throw a tight ball, and he’s got good arm strength, and he has good velocity on it, you can cut through the wind pretty well. He’s always thrown the long ball pretty well. I think he had a good day.”
Devin was 11 of 16 passing for 142-yards and a TD on a 12-yard TD to Tight End Jake Butt.
While his name will be the subject of some puns, Freshman Tight End Jake Butt is among the best at the position on the team.. With Devin Funchess, and big AJ Williams, the tight ends unit seems solid.
Obviously, If a team wants to win with power football consistently, they have to have north south running backs that can move the chains, and possess the ball to go with their up-front road graders. Last year the running game was hurt by more than Denard Robinson’s and Fitz Toussaint’s nasty injuries. Many times the holes were not there, and the problem was not all with the backs. It was a deadly combination as the backs too often struggled east west as much as north south. Last year the running back production was dismal. It went entirely south when Denard hobbled out of the Nebraska game, and Fitz was injured.
Michigan football without an effective running game is unthinkable, but one has claimed the position this spring. It is still very much a work in progress. The spring running back group did not firmly lay claim to the position. Thomas Rawls had a TD and a fumble. The fall competition will be enhanced by the return of Toussaint, and the addition of two heavy duty freshman backs, Derrick Green and Deveon Smith.
Fullback is more in the picture. Siona Houma played well Saturday. Joe Kerrridge saw action. Freshman Wyatt Shallman , a big athlete (6-3, 250) that can play multiple positions, is in the wings.
Much is expected of Green. He is a powerful downhill runner, a five star recruit. While we may recall Kevin Grady, who was also a five star back and struggled, perhaps Green will fill the bill. Smith is slightly smaller but also a gifted power runner. This group can’t be evaluated until after fall camp. It is a certainty that someone will step up. Again, the sooner the better after all hands are on board.
Another area of pre-season concern has been the receiver corps. With Gardner switched back to QB from receiver, depth was thinner than comfortable. Some good receivers return.
Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are of smaller size but were very good last year. Jeremy Jackson is back. Two that will provide some spectacular downfield catches are Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Darboh made a spectacular catch of thirty-yards Saturday. and did Saturday. Chesson has everything but a sonic boom. OK, that’s a reach, but he is fast. Unfortunately he did not catch a pass Saturday. This group will be great eventually. It appears this is going to end up a position of strength. Jeremy Jackson has stepped up.
As far as the corners go, Blake Countess is back, but not yet 100%. Delonte Hollowell looked good Saturday, Ramon Taylor will be a fixture at nickel, backed up by Freshman Dymonte Thomas. Courtney Avery will battle for a spot. There is an upgrade of talent, and better numbers, but they can’t be evaluated as a unit now. They should be improved, but we’ll see.
Coach Hoke spoke about the receivers: “Jeremy Jackson has had his best spring since we’ve been here. When you look at Jehu (Chesson) and Amara (Darboh), I think both of those guys have really come along. They are both very talented and can do a lot of different things. Joe Reynolds keeps pushing everybody. Joe is a guy who can play a lot of positions and that’s a real positive for us.” Joe Reynolds caught a late TD pass.
The same goes for the safeties. As said above Thomas Gordon has nabbed Koavc’s strong safety spot. Jarrod Wilson and or Marvin Robinson will be at free safety.
I’ll leave special teams until later, as this “game” format gives little on which to base ST opinion, but I can say that Matt Wile and Kenneth Allen punted well. Will Hagerup is still in the doghouse.
The past proves that sometimes those with shining individual performers in the spring do not necessarily achieve stardom in the fall. Some blossom and fade by yielding to injury, or failing academic challenges, having talented competition stockpiled ahead of them, making personal errors, or just get hammered by bad luck. And some that will influence the outcome of the season are not even on board yet. There is always attrition over the long haul for every class or team, but this team seems as solid as any. The spring seldom if ever yields a finished product. Fall camp tells a bigger, more reliable story.
And an interesting story it will be.