Michigan Monday: Ten Things to Watch For From the 2012 Wolverines
By Tony Gerdeman
Perhaps the last time you saw the Michigan Wolverines there were open Buckeye receivers being overthrown by Braxton Miller, but a lot has changed since then.
I don't know if the overthrown receivers has changed, mind you, but areas of the Michigan football team certainly have.
What follows is an attempt to clue you in on what you may want to watch for this year from the Wolverines, and done in the best possible way – list form!
1. Greg Mattison Won't Be Cheated
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should get just about every ounce of credit for last year's defensive improvement. In 2010, Michigan's opponents scored 35.2 points per game. In 2011, he cut that number in half to 17.4, and it's not like the defense was overly talented. What Mattison's players lacked in talent, they made up for in effort and fundamentals. It's a boring answer, but it's also the one that is most often given when it comes to solid defenses. This year shouldn't be much of a change as far as getting as much out of a player as there is to get. There will be more inexperience on the defensive line, so they won't be as fundamentally sound as last year's group, but the effort should be there nonetheless. Even though the front four won't be as good as they were last year, they'll have a better back seven helping them out.
2. Denard Being Denard
We saw Michigan's offense adapt last season as offensive coordinator Al Borges better learned how to use Denard Robinson. This year, this is no learning curve. Denard should be doing Denardian things right out of the box. Whether or not those things include jump balls into double coverage remains to be seen, but he'll be doing everything else. He is saying the right things so far, and understands that he turned the ball over way too much last season. If he cuts down on his turnovers in 2012, the Wolverines could run away with the Big Ten. If he doesn't, they're going to be fighting for just about every inch.
3. Quarterback Devin Gardner at Receiver
This isn't huge news, and was talked about in the spring. However, it's certainly notable that Michigan's number two quarterback will be spending some time at receiver this season. It almost makes you wonder if he's still the actual number two quarterback. As to what kind of receiver he can be, he's 6'4" and 203 pounds, so he's just the type of big body that the Wolverines like. He hasn't wowed anybody in camp necessarily, but he's good enough to be getting snaps.
4. New Names at Receiver
Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon return after combining for 50 catches last season, but the Wolverine passing game will need more than just those two in order to make things work. Both are better suited for the slot, but will be starting on the outside. Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson and Devin Gardner combined for 13 receptions last year, and they are the only other wide receivers to catch passes last season. There has been a good deal of positive buzz surrounding redshirt sophomore Jerald Robinson, but his next important play will be his first one. Even though he's currently listed fourth on the depth chart behind Roundtree, watch out for true freshman Amara Darboh, who at 6'2" and 220 pounds is just the type of brute to make a name early.
5. An Improved Secondary
The Wolverines lost Troy Woolfolk from last season, but they still return over 80 career starts in the secondary. They finished sixth in the conference in defensive pass efficiency last year, but that was still good for 36th in the nation. Free safety Thomas Gordon got his first real experience in the secondary last year after playing linebacker as a redshirt freshman. He will obviously be better and more comfortable this season, and he'll need to be. Both he and Jordan Kovacs are said to be covering more ground than ever before, and with a lesser defensive line, offenses may be able to attack them more properly. For the first time in a few years, there are also options at cornerback for Michigan. There are three corners with starting experience, and if they don't work out, there are young players who could get a look. However, expect those three cornerbacks to be better than they were last year. They will still have some issues, but that's just the nature of the position.
6. An Improving Linebacker Group
Middle linebacker Kenny Demens was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honoree last year, and his motto this season should be "Second-Team or Bust". Though, admittedly, that would be a terrible motto. The good thing for Michigan this season is that they return all three starters, and they also add in players who can push those starters. The best thing may be that they finally have the players who simply get better when pushed, as opposed to getting passed by.
7. Unproven Tight Ends
Michigan currently lists four tight ends on their depth chart. Fifth-year seniors Brandon Moore and Mike Kwiatkowski, and true freshmen A.J. Williams and Devin Funchess. They have a combined two career catches, both belonging to Moore. Moore was one of the top-rated tight ends in his recruiting class, but has never produced like the analysts thought he would. Kwiatkowski got his first ever action last season. Williams is more of a run blocker at 6'6" and 283 pounds. Funchess (6'4" 229) is a guy who has looked good at times, but he's not the blocker they need yet. They will need to find two good tight ends this season, and there's a chance that Funchess will be one of them.
8. Somebody in the Front Four Must Emerge
When the Wolverines lost Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger they didn't just lose 37 starts, they also veteran production. Craig Roh returns, but he has started 18 games at defensive end and only produced four sacks in that time. Michigan doesn't need LaMarr Woodley or Brandon Graham, but it sure wouldn't hurt. Basically, the production is going to have to come from players who have never really produced the way they'll need to this season. Mario Ojemudia is a freshman defensive end who has been mixing in with the first team while Frank Clark tinkers in the doghouse, but how much can realistically be expected of a freshman. Ideally, Roh has his best season ever and finally becomes the player that fans had hoped he'd be for the last two seasons.
9. A Better Running Game
Michigan was second in the conference in rushing last season, averaging 221.9 yards per game. This year, however, they should be even better. That may not be quite as apparent after week one as it will be after week eight, but the infusion of the burly Thomas Rawls (5'10" 218) will only help matters. He finally gives the Wolverines a guy who can move the pile.
10. A Better Team, But Not a Better Record
The Wolverines would have to have a heck of a season in order to lose just two games in 2012. They will be underdogs possibly four times this season, and that's not even including whichever bowl game they find themselves in. Last season, Michigan faced three ranked opponents (#23 Michigan State, #17 Nebraska and #17 Virginia Tech), and didn't face a top 15 team in the regular season for the first time in over 20 years. That's not going to happen this year.
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