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Big Ten Legends PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Brady Hoke , 19-7 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Al Borges | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Mattison
Devin Gardner is poised to become one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks.
Michigan has long planned to implement a new pro-style offense after the graduation of Denard Robinson but got a preview of it in the final five games of last season due to a Robinson injury. The results showed just why this program is so excited for the future.
New quarterback Devin Gardner scorched opponents through the air, finishing 75-of-126 passing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns despite playing exclusively at receiver before the move. He also rushed for seven scores in the five games. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Gardner is not an electric runner like Robinson, but he’s elusive. Armed with terrific vision and accuracy downfield, he’s drawn comparisons to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Michigan should enjoy a successful transition to the pro-style offense.
The Wolverines have uncertainty elsewhere though, starting on the offensive line, where they’re breaking in three first-time starters. The tailbacks were awful last year, averaging a school-worst 72.8 yards per game. The Wolverines will choose this year between a former 1,000-yard rusher coming off a down season in Fitz Toussaint, or the most heralded tailback recruit in the country in Derrick Green.
They also need a third receiver behind proven weapon Jeremy Gallon and reliable slot guy Drew Dileo. Michigan could get creative with tight end Devin Funchess, who led the team with five touchdown grabs last year. He’s a 6'4" pass-catcher who is a tough matchup because he’s taller than corners and faster than linebackers.
The Wolverines are coming off back-to-back top 20 seasons defensively but are tasked with replacing their best lineman in Craig Roh, defensive back in Jordan Kovacs and linebacker in Jake Ryan, who will be out until at least mid-October with a torn ACL.
Ryan led the team in tackles (88), tackles for a loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (four) a year ago. U-M has moved Brennen Beyer from the defensive line to compensate for the loss, and he’ll compete with senior Cam Gordon.
There are pieces to like, though. Junior defensive end Frank Clark is called a “freak” by teammates. He’s a former safety who has packed on 50 pounds the past two years and can still outrun receivers despite weighing 277. He will be the key to stirring up a declining pass rush (22 sacks last year).
Third-year starting linebacker Desmond Morgan has moved from the weak side to the middle, which paves the way for promising sophomore James Ross to start on the weak side. He is somewhat undersized at 6'1", 223 pounds, but the Wolverines want more speed, and Ross is the fastest guy in the unit.
Devin Gardner, QB – Started the final five games of 2012, was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for two of them.
Taylor Lewan, LT – Has started 28 consecutive games at left tackle, emerging as the next great Michigan offensive lineman.
Thomas Gordon, S – With Jake Ryan rehabbing from a torn ACL, Gordon is the defense’s most proven commodity.
Michigan has a sure thing in placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who has hit 29 of his past 35 field goals and 13 in a row. Matt Wile will capably handle punt duties while reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year Will Hagerup serves a suspension. Dennis Norfleet was second in the Big Ten on kick returns as a true freshman. The only problem area is punt return, where Gallon has been unproductive.
Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title in eight seasons, its longest drought since 1951-63. A forgiving schedule should make the task more manageable this year, with all but two (Michigan State and Northwestern) of its toughest games slated for Michigan Stadium, where U-M is 14–0 under Brady Hoke. The emergence of Gardner should help stabilize the offense, and there are playmakers on defense. If the offensive line can find its way with three new starters, and a reliable tailback emerges, the Wolverines could make it back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2006.
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