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July 14, 2011
OVERVIEW: There is plenty of talent returning from an attack that averaged a Big Ten-high 488.7 yards. But new coordinator Al Borges has scrapped Rich Rodriguez's spread scheme for more of a West Coast attack. Can Borges make all the pieces work in his scheme? That will be the key to this unit remaining one of the nation's best.
BACKFIELD: QB Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in the nation. But are his skills a good fit for Borges' offense? Robinson, the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, can score every time he touches the ball. "Shoelace" paced the Big Ten with 1,702 rushing yards despite missing significant chunks of games with injuries. He just got too beat up carrying too big of a load. Backup Tate Forcier transferred, so the new staff will turn to sophomore Devin Gardner as the backup. To make the offense even more effective, Robinson must pass well. He did OK last season, hitting 62 percent of his passes for 2,570 yards with 18 touchdowns. But he also led the Big Ten with 11 picks, and that number must be pared. The makings are there for an explosive offense, as Robinson will be surrounded by loads of veteran talent. But Robinson can't continue to carry a massive rushing load on his shoulders. Who will emerge at running back? Vincent Smith led all backs with 601 yards in 2010 after splitting time with Michael Shaw. Keep an eye on Stephen Hopkins, Michael Cox and touted signee Justice Hayes.
RECEIVERS: Led by Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway, the receiving corps is deep and skilled. Roundtree caught 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last season. This group will be even better if and when Darryl Stonum returns from an indefinite suspension. Look for TE Kevin Koger to play a big role in this offense. He could be special in a more traditional attack.
LINE: Three starters return, though G Stephen Schilling will be missed from a unit that yielded a Big Ten-low 11 sacks in 2010. C David Molk has All-America potential, but he must avoid the injuries that have nagged him during his career. T Taylor Lewan and G Patrick Omameh are primed to emerge if they continue to work.
OVERVIEW: New coach Brady Hoke hired Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison - a former Michigan assistant - to oversee a sad-sack unit that ranked last in the Big Ten in total defense (450.8 ypg), scoring defense (35.2 ppg) and pass defense (261.9 ypg). Mattison is a smart coach who will dump the unconventional 3-3-5 set of the former staff and install a 4-3. But Mattison may not have enough top-shelf talent to make this anything better than an average unit for now. This defense would be helped by an offense that can control the ball and clock with the run.
LINE: NT Mike Martin is a stud and a potential All-American. He may be moved around to make it more difficult for foes to locate and double-team him. Es Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen can be playmakers off the edge; they have underrated speed and athletic ability. It's vital they bring the heat to take pressure off a still-developing secondary. The other tackle spot is a concern, though likely starter William Campbell has talent.
LINEBACKERS: This unit's struggles were a major reason last season's defense was so bad. Staffers are excited about redshirt freshman Jake Ryan, while Cameron Gordon was shifted from safety to add athletic ability and speed. Kenny Demens has the potential to be a playmaker inside. But more help is needed for a unit that has a lot to prove. Michigan signed four linebackers in February, and it's likely that one or two will play this fall.
SECONDARY: This unit needs help. The staff moved sophomore Carvin Johnson from linebacker to free safety, and he looked good enough in the spring to go into fall drills as the starter. But the return of CB Troy Woolfolk will be a bigger boon to this unit. He missed last season with a dislocated ankle suffered in late August. CB J.T. Floyd also is back after being sidelined for the season in early November with an ankle injury. Former walk-on Jordan Kovacs again should start at strong safety. There are five true freshman defensive backs, and they will get the opportunity to play right away.
How bad was the kicking last season? At one point, Rodriguez held open tryouts among the general student population. Michigan hit just 4-of-14 field-goal attempts in 2010. Look for true freshman Matt Wile to win the job. Will Hagerup is back at punter after a successful debut season saw him average 43.6 yards on 33 attempts. The return game needs to improve, and punt coverage must tighten after ranking 84th in the nation.
Michigan needs Wile to settle an unstable situation at kicker. Wile, from San Diego, was considered one of the 10 best high school kickers in the nation. He hit 10-of-13 field-goal attempts last season, with a long of 49 yards.
Opening with five consecutive home games always is a good thing, but the Wolverines will be tested during that stretch by Notre Dame and San Diego State, Hoke's old employer. Not playing Penn State or Wisconsin helps, but conference challenges still abound. Michigan's season will be made or broken in November, beginning with road games at Iowa and Illinois and finishing at home against Nebraska and Ohio State, which has won seven in a row and nine of 10 over the Wolverines.
How quickly can Hoke return Michigan to prominence? The program hasn't won even a share of the Big Ten crown since 2004. His West Coast/pro-style offense differs radically from Rodriguez's spread scheme; will the personnel be able to adapt quickly? The new offense will use tight ends and fullbacks, more closely resembling the attack under Lloyd Carr. Still, 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 is a lot of veteran talent and even hope. There is an air of excitement in Ann Arbor with Hoke on campus. His familiarity with the program - he was a Wolverines assistant from 1995-2002 - and "Michigan style" is a welcome return to normalcy for this fan base. Michigan isn't ready to compete for the Big Ten title, but there's more than enough talent on hand to return to a bowl.
For more on Michigan now and throughout the season, check out TheWolverine.com