By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Michigan Wolverines 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 17-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7, K/P — 2
Passing: Denard Robinson, 142 of 258, 2,173 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT
Rushing: Fitzgerald Toussaint, 187 att., 1,041 yards, 9 TD*
Receiving: Jeremy Gallon, 31 rec., 453 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Kenny Demens, 94
Sacks: Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs, 4
Interceptions: J.T. Floyd and Courtney Avery, 2
* - Robinson actually led the team in rushing with 1,176 yards. Toussaint led all running backs in rushing.
Redshirts to watch: RB Justice Hayes, DE Chris Rock, LB Antonio Poole, OL Chris Bryant
Joe Bolden, LB (6-3, 230), Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain
Kaleb Ringer, LB (6-1, 225), Clayton (Ohio) Northmont
Jarrod Wilson, DB (6-2, 190), Akron (Ohio) Buchtel
Sept. 1 Alabama (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 8 Air Force
Sept. 15 UMass
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 at Purdue
Oct. 13 Illinois
Oct. 20 Michigan State
Oct. 27 at Nebraska
Nov. 3 at Minnesota
Nov. 10 Northwestern
Nov. 17 Iowa
Nov. 24 at Ohio State
Offensive Strength: One word: Quarterback. Denard Robinson is entering his third full season as the starter after back-to-back 2,000-yard/1,000-yard seasons and a BCS Bowl win over Virginia Tech. He is the most explosive athlete playing quarterback in the entire nation. While his efficiency could still use some work, his leadership and production are virtually unmatched nationally.
Offensive Weakness: There really isn't a major area of concern for this unit, but without Rimington Award winner David Molk at center, Kevin Koger at tight end and Mark Huyge at right tackle, the offensive line will need to rebuild this spring. With Taylor Lewan back, however, this isn't a position that will keep Michigan from winning a Big Ten title.
Defensive Strength: The back seven returns entirely intact minus Troy Woolfolk, so this has to be considered the muscle of the defense. Every contributing linebacker returns and has added two early enrollee freshman, including future star Joe Bolden. The secondary returns two all-conference performers and plenty of depth as well.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive line lost two all-conference players and has to be completely reworked. How well Michigan fills the holes left by leading sackmaster Ryan Van Bergen and interior stud Mike Martin could determine if this is a Big Ten title team or perhaps even more than that.
Spring Storylines Facing the Maize and Blue:
1. Rebuilding the defensive line this spring might determine just how high this team can go in 2012. Without Martin, Van Bergen and Will Heininger, the group lacks experience outside of Craig Roh. The D-Line was easily the most improved unit from 2010 to 2011 and was the main factor in Michigan being able to land in a BCS bowl in Brady Hoke's first season. Jibreel Black, Quinton Washington and Frank Clark have some ability, but uber-recruit William Campbell needs to show fans what recruiting scouts saw in him back when he was the Big Ten's No. 2-rated overall recruit in 2009. Fans are eagerly awaiting the arrival of potential freshman contributor Ondre Pipkins this summer. His addition will be that much more effective if Roh, Campbell and company can solidify the rotation up front. With expectations sky high in Ann Arbor this season, the defensive line will likely be the difference between a great Michigan season and a truly special one — also known as the BCS National Championship game.
2. Developing the receiving corps. Hoke has to replace his top receiver in Junior Hemingway and dependable tight end in Kevin Koger. Roy Roundtree (355 yards) and Jeremy Gallon (453 yards) return as the top targets for Robinson and should step into bigger roles with relative ease. Beyond that, names like Jeremy Jackson, Drew Dileo and Jerald Robinson must develop into consistent play-making threats. There is little experience at tight end but lots of bodies. Tight ends Brandon Moore and Ricardo Miller will be the starters in spring practice with the addition of AJ Williams and Devin Funchess looming this summer. Developing a reliable rotation of pass-catchers at both wideout and tight end has to be near the top of Shoelace's spring wish list.
3. Shoelace also needs to stay healthy, and to do so, Hoke will need to find replacements for some key losses along the offensive line, most notably the center position. Rimington Trophy winner David Molk isn't around any longer to lead the hog mollies, so redshirt freshman Jack Miller, senior converted guard Ricky Barnum and veteran reserve Rocko Khoury will likely fight it out for the starting spot. With star left tackle Taylor Lewan protecting Robinson's blindside and two experienced guards, Michael Schofield and Patrick Omameh, returning to the starting line-up, the center position will take center stage this spring.
4. Dealing with expectations. This Michigan team will likely be picked by Athlon Sports to win the Legends Division and probably the Big Ten title. With a chance to knock off the defending champion Crimson Tide — and their completely rebuilt defense — on the fast track of Jerry's World in Week 1 could also have Maize and Blue faithful thinking South Beach in January. After a tremendous first season under Hoke, the players need to remain grounded, work as hard as ever and stay healthy this spring. This falls to the team leaders Robinson and Lewan on offense and Jordan Kovacs, J.T. Floyd, Kenny Demens and Roh on defense.
Related Content Links
Athlon Sports No. 6 Recruiting Class: Michigan Wolverines
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012