Devin Gardner enters fall practice as Michigan’s presumptive starter at quarterback. While signs point to him leading the team as it tries to bounce back from a disappointing 7-6 record, there are some nagging doubts about whether Gardner’s position on the top of the depth chart is completely solid.
The aura surrounding the Wolverine Football program is a deeper shade of blue.
There is more confidence, more appreciation. There is added optimism that the team has the ability to compete in its conference, offensively, defensively and on special teams.
There is more swagger, as well as more quiet confidence, among those that have earned and worn the M, and among the fans that fill those expensive stadium seats. High school coaches are warming to the program. Recruiting is prospering as far as instant analysis of the process can divine. Hoke’s judgment in hiring his staff is beyond reproach. Their coaching abilities are universally respected, and those abilities are put to full use.
As Coach Hoke steps into his second season, he has raised perceptions, expectations, and realities regarding his program. People can actually believe it when the Wolverines state their goals are a B1G Championship and beyond. It appears to many that the Wolverines might realistically be a factor again, might really be able to compete at significantly higher, or the highest levels, now.
Coach Hoke appreciates how far his current group has progressed since they struggled last spring with new coaches and new systems, but he is not satisfied. Hoke will never be satisfied. The necessity to improve and compete is as much of a mantra for him as demanding that tough guys play for him.
Coach Hoke has been able to figuratively clear all the first year hurdles to success in unexpected fashion. Hoke running hurdles does conjure up a visual doesn’t it?
It is hard to think his first fourteen months at the Michigan helm could have been done better. Hell yes, a victory over MSU would have been sweet, and knocking off Iowa last season also would have been sweet, but we are looking at the big picture here. Look where the Wolverines were defensively the year before, and the year before, and the year before. In fourteen months great strides have been made.
His teams have always done better the second year, and that will probably be true of the upcoming season. That applies to Borges, and Mattison, and maybe some of the other coaches. Progress is being made, and this team of Wolverines is assisting in its manufacture and propagation.
Improvement is palpable everywhere, including the improved stadium, bigger scoreboards, in the merchandising of the program. No yellow ring around the stadium, no NCAA sanctions, the BuckNuts humbled. That too, and waiting in the wings is….what? Likely more success.
Even Rich Rodriguez deserves some credit. Of course not defensively, but the acquisition of Denard Robinson, and others who have stuck it out and contributed deserves credit. RR deserves extra credit for Denard. Robinson is the best dual threat QB in the country, and improving. And he is not the only RR acquisition that is benefitting this team. Think Roundtree and Kovacs, and more.
Notwithstanding this, Rich does have the ability to stick his foot in it public relations wise. Like reported comments that he said he baked the cake, and iced it, but someone else got to eat it, when commenting on last season’s Michigan football success.
This doesn’t have legs when one considers his team’s defensive ineptness, his lack of defensive recruiting. There is no excuse for Michigan being one hundred tenth in the nation in defense. I have a feeling he will do better with Casteel as his DC in Arizona. Casteel has made the 3-3-5 come alive at times. Wouldn’t it be something to meet Arizona in the Rose Bowl someday?
Much credit for the Wolverines success the last fourteen months must go to the personality, work ethic, values, and football acumen of Brady Hoke. He has proved to be the right man, at the right time, in the right place.
The Wolverines should be one of the teams to beat in the B1G this year if Denard has a big year. If they can find effective replacements for center Molk, receivers Stonum and Hemingway, defensive lineman Heininger and VanBergen, nose Mike Martin, and if some freshman not on the scene yet can shore up the two deep for those disabled by injuries yet to happen.
The depth of the offensive and defensive lines is a concern, and Will Campbell and Ricky Barnum both have huge shoes to fill, as Molk and Martin were the best linemen on last year’s team.
Barnum muffed two snaps Saturday. Coaches say he fits his new position perfectly. When he was interviewed post spring game, he brought the subject up himself and shouldered responsibility: said it was his fault, said it had not been happening, and would stop there.
Campbell’s defensive line was identified as too soft in the middle by both Coach Hoke and Mattison, but they still looked pretty good. Gang tackling is back. Strong side end Keith Heitzman was mentioned by Coach Hoke, and I could not help but notice Richard Ash at DT. On the OL, Joey Burznski, Junior/Sophomore, started at left guard.
The players I talked to said that players improve under the expectations of this staff in the summer. Team 133 is still a work in progress, but it is a work in progress at a higher level than last year.
Saturday, as you are probably well aware, the “spring football game” was held in Michigan Stadium, with the offense winning 17-0. It is not a game, but a glorified practice. Attendance was estimated at 25,000 and undoubtedly was not improved by the dire weather forecasts the night before that said the game might be cancelled. Thunder storms did not appear as forecast and the day proved a decent replica of a fall day-dry but not pretty and, gray. The new lights were on. Almost $250,000 was raised for Mott Children’s Hospital.
A flag football game with 100 former players filled the morning, Maize against Blue, with the Blue prevailing 33-19. Alijah Bradley won the MVP award, again burdened this year with the 10 foot tall statue he also won last year. David Brandon did his part. There was a band, announcers, both scoreboards were working. The end zones were roped off due to the pending lacrosse game. There is danger to fans from over thrown balls in that game.
This spring event is not a game, but a glorified practice, with some frills and two 30-play segments. It is difficult to judge much about the quality of a football team under this format. Something similar has long been excused because of the effect of 85 scholarships instead of 115. That heightened the nasty effect of injuries to a team. But it also seems that lack of depth plays a part. Alabama held its spring game before 80,000 and reports indicated it was a game, not a glorified practice.
Some press reports indicate Coach Hoke has said he wished an “exhibition game” against another team was allowed. This certainly would peak interest, but whether it would aggravate injuries would remain a question.
This year was unique in that under studies got huge chunks of playing time. For example Russell Bellomy got extensive opportunity at QB, and Devin Gardner got some. Obviously they are confident Denard and others know the system well enough to sit. Many played and got their first exposure to playing in the Big House under game conditions.
Thomas Rawls had two runs for TDs and 42-yards on 10 carries. His slashing, hard nose running style fits the system perfectly. Justice Hays got some carries. Fitzgerald Toussaint looked like, well, the Fitzgerald Toussaint you know. Coach Hoke identified FB Paul Gyamati as a tough runner, and lauded FB Stephen Hopkins as having a good spring.
Asked if any receiver was going to wear the Number 1 this year, Coach Hoke reminded that he has 115 worthy players, all trying to earn honors.
Vincent Smith, Jerald Robinson, and Jeremy Gallon collared passes, none of which were deep.
The switch of Craig Roh to strong side defensive end seems to have benefitted him, Jabreel Black is doing well with his hand down, and on the weak side there is a prospering competition between Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, with Beyer starting this time, but Clark close. Keith Heitzel, a reserve strong side DE was mentioned by Hoke.
Blake Countess grabbed a pick. Brandon Hawthorne made his presence felt with five tackles and an interception. He has been tolerating some dings.
It is difficult to predict future success or failure from “spring games”. Players that have a strong spring game may falter in the fall. The same can happen to a team. The whole body of work has to be considered including the results of competition.
Sometimes the defects revealed in the spring are glaring. Such as defensive deficiencies in the spring game at Saline a few years ago. Not so this year. It seems that the Wolverines are going to be a highly competitive team in the B1G this year. Whether they will be able to compete at a national level won’t be validated until after their appearance Arlington, and even then the team that ends the season may be much stronger than the one that started the season.
What we do know is that something good is being built in Ann Arbor. How good only time will tell.