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March 17, 2011

Michigan ready to start new era under Hoke

The most tumultuous three seasons in modern Michigan football history are over. The page has been turned on the Rich Rodriguez era.

History will remember the Rodriguez experiment as an abject failure. Rodriguez went 15-22 overall and 6-18 in the Big Ten, with one bowl game and zero wins against Ohio State or Michigan State. There also were unacceptable home losses to the likes to Toledo, Purdue and Illinois that never should happen.

Michigan hadn't been this bad since the Bump Elliott era in the late 1960s.

Denard Robinson is one of the nation's most explosive players, but can he adapt to a pro-style attack?
Coach: Brady Hoke
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten. Lost 52-14 to Mississippi State in Gator Bowl.
Spring dates: March 19-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (9): WR Junior Hemingway, TE Kevin Koger, T Taylor Lewan, C David Molk, G Patrick Omameh, QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, TB Vincent Smith, WR Darryl Stonum.
Defense (7): LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, LB Cameron Gordon, SS Jordan Kovacs, NT Mike Martin, E/LB Craig Roh, T/E Ryan Van Bergen.
Special teams (1): P Will Hagerup.
Rodriguez's career was appropriately punctuated by a 52-14 drubbing by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. It couldn't have ended any other way, really.

Poor on-field play may not have been Rodriguez's biggest sin. Rather, that he got this proud program put on probation (for violating NCAA practice limits) for the first time ever is Rodriguez's most dubious distinction.

So, Rodriguez is out and Brady Hoke is in. And there is much rejoicing in Ann Arbor.

If Hoke, 52, looks and sounds like a Michigan coach, it's because he once was, having served as an assistant from 1995-2002 under Lloyd Carr before becoming coach at Ball State (2003-08, 34-38 record) and then San Diego State (2009-10, 13-12). Hoke knows the Michigan culture; he knows the Michigan way.

How quickly can Hoke return Michigan to prominence? The program hasn't won a share of the Big Ten crown since 2004. His pro-style style on offense differs radically from Rodriguez's spread scheme. Will the personnel be able to adapt quickly? The new offense will put an emphasis on tight ends and fullback, more closely resembling the offense under Carr.

But defense is the biggest issue. Can the unit go from horrid to even adequate? The coaches have a lot of work to do, but there's lots of veteran talent and hope.

Here's a look at Michigan as Hoke prepares for his first spring practice as Wolverines coach.

Positions of strength

QB Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in the nation. But are his skills a good fit for coordinator Al Borges' offense? Robinson, the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, is the quintessential one-man gang who can score every time he touches the ball. "D-Rob" paced the Big Ten with 1,702 yards rushing despite missing significant chunks of games with injuries. He just got too beat up carrying too big of a load. Backup Tate Forcier has transferred to Miami, so the new staff likely will turn to sophomore Devin Gardner as the backup. To make the offense even more effective, Robinson must pass better. He did OK last season winging it, hitting 62 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards with 18 touchdowns. But he led the Big Ten with 11 picks. That number must be pared. The makings are there for an explosive offense, as Robinson will be surrounded by loads of veteran talent. Led by Roy Roundtree, Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum, the receiving corps is deep and skilled. Roundtree caught 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Three starting linemen return, though G Stephen Schilling will be missed. C David Molk could be special.

Help is needed

The defense needs it everywhere. The linebackers and secondary are especially troublesome. NT Mike Martin is an unquestioned stud. Are there any others on defense? The unit never showed a modicum of improvement in three seasons under Rodriguez. You've read the numbers from last season. They all are horrible -- last in the Big Ten in total defense (450.8 ypg), scoring defense (35.2 ppg), pass defense (261.9 ypg). The linebackers whiffed on tackles, most of the linemen were pushed and shoved like blocking sleds and a young secondary often was torched. Hoke hired Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison -- a former Michigan assistant -- to coordinate the sad-sack defense. He's a smart coach who will dump the unconventional 3-3-5 set and install a 4-3, but Mattison may not have enough top-shelf talent to work with to make this anything better than an average unit for now. The defense would be helped by an offense that can control the ball and clock with the run. But Michigan needs to get more production out of its running backs to do that. Robinson can't continue to carry a massive rushing load on his narrow shoulders. Vincent Smith led all running backs with 601 yards in 2010. Turnovers also were a major issue, as Michigan led the Big Ten with 29 giveaways. Kicking was another embarrassment: Michigan hit just 4-of-14 field-goal attempts in 2010.

3 guys to watch

G Ricky Barnum: He has a great chance to slip into Steve Schilling's vacated left guard spot. Barnum, a junior, played in just three games last season but was the No. 5 center prospect in the nation in 2007.

LB Mike Jones: He was looking at significant playing time in 2010 before a leg injury forced him to redshirt after he appeared in two games. Jones, a sophomore, should get a real shot at breaking into the lineup.

DT Quinton Washington: He moved from the offensive line to the defensive line before the Penn State game on Oct. 30 last season. If Washington, a sophomore, stays on defense, he could be a factor in a new 4-3 scheme.

The pressure is on

TE Kevin Koger: Tight ends weren't a priority in the Rodriguez regime. Those days are over. Hoke's attack promises to utilize tight ends, and Koger is the Wolverines' best. He has good size (6-4/255) and has the tools to be a star. He has 36 career receptions for 512 yards and five touchdowns. Koger has the potential to eclipse those numbers this fall, and if he does, he could emerge as a Mackey Award candidate. But he has to show this spring that he can handle the potential workload.

The buzz

There is an air of excitement in Ann Arbor with Hoke on campus. His familiarity with the program and "Michigan style" is a welcome return to normalcy for this proud fan base. But Hoke has work to do. He has lots of veteran talent on both sides of the ball, but can he fit the spread-option personnel to his pro-style attack? Most important, can the new staff stop the hemorrhaging on defense? Michigan isn't ready to compete for the Big Ten title, but there's enough talent on hand to return to a bowl.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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