Under Rich Rodriguez, offense was the name of the game and defense was an afterthought. The offense soared to heights Michigan fans weren’t used to, but it struggled against the tougher defenses. It was both exciting and frustrating at the same time.
When Brady Hoke took over and brought in Al Borges as his offensive coordinator, many wondered how the offense would change. Would he do what Rodriguez did in year one and immediately run his offense? This would mean completely transitioning from the spread to the west coast. Would he move Denard Robinson to receiver in favor of a quarterback that better fit the mold of his style of offense? Can the offense be as potent as it was under Rodriguez or would it be as inept as it was in Rodriguez’s first year?
All of those questions were answered convincingly as Borges put his faith in Denard and adapted his offense around Denard’s abilities. Sure it took a few games to really develop an offensive identity, but by the end of the season it was rolling.
This year, Denard and the rest of the offense knows the system and will look to refine it. Borges knows the tools he has at his disposal and will look to add wrinkles that will take it to new heights. So let’s take a look at the personnel that will make up the 133rd edition of Michigan’s offense.
# 16 – Denard Robinson
Projected Starter: Denard Robinson
It has been five years since Michigan entered a season with so much promise at the quarterback position. In 2007, Chad Henne was a senior, fourth year starter and Michigan entered , but that didn’t end too well. Henne missed three games with an injury and the Wolverines finished a disappointing 9-4.
It’s no secret that Denard Robinson is the most exciting player in college football at the moment. He has two straight 2,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He’s poised to finish in the top five in Michigan history in most passing and rushing categories. The past two seasons have been new: in 2010, he was a first year starter and in 2011, he was learning a brand new offense under a new coach. This season, he knows the offense and can take it a step further.
Borges has seen first-hand the kind of improvement that can bring with quarterback he coached, Cade McNown at UCLA. McNown was last in the Pac-10 in pass efficiency during his first year in Borges’ offense, but ranked second in the nation in his second year. Expecting that kind of leap from Denard is probably asking too much, but a noticeable leap should be expected.
Backups: Devin Gardner and Russell Bellomy are the backups, though Gardner will likely see more time at receiver this season. Bellomy isn’t the dual-threat quarterback that Robinson and Gardner are, but his progression since last season have allowed Borges to feel comfortable moving Gardner to receiver.
#28 – Fitzgerald Toussaint
#38 – Thomas Rawls
#2 – Vincent Smith
Projected Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint*
The listing of Toussaint as the projected starter is to be taken with a grain of salt. Toussaint was to be the clear starter until is DUI arrest in late July. The junior gave Michigan a dangerous running game to complement and take some of the pressure off of Robinson last season. He was the first Michigan running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Mike Hart in 2007 and he didn’t really even break out until a few games into the season. This year, he was expected to improve on those numbers, but at this point it’s unclear how many games (if any) he will be suspended for.
His arrest opens the door for sophomore Thomas Rawls to step in. The likely starter in the season opener, Rawls has yet to start a game, but has impressed throughout the spring and fall.
“He’s got Mike Hart kind of feet, but a lot faster than Mike,” said running backs coach Fred Jackson. Granted, Jackson hypes every running back, but Jackson also compares Rawls to former Michigan back Chris Perry and former Alabama back Mark Ingram. That’s some good company to be in, and if he’s even close to that, we’re in for a treat the next few years.
Backups: It’s hard to classify Vincent Smith as a backup since he has so much experience and is essentially Michigan’s third-down back, but he’s behind both Toussaint and Rawls. He has started 11 games in his career and played in 33, so he’s the most experienced back on the team. He’s also versatile enough to do more than just carry the ball. Against Minnesota last season, he rushed for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, and threw a touchdown, becoming the first player in modern Michigan history to do so.
Stephen Hopkins is the biggest back on the team and will be the main fullback. At 240 pounds, he’ll be a force in the backfield when Michigan goes big. Justice Hayes is a redshirt freshman to be excited about. He likely won’t see much time in the backfield this season, but once Smith graduates, he’ll move into the role of third-down back. Hoke likes Hayes’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, so he may see time in certain packages.
Receivers and Tight Ends
Projected Starters: Roy Roundtree, Jerald Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, Brandon Moore
#21 – Roy Roundtree
#83 – Jerald Robinson
#10 – Jeremy Gallon
#89 – Brandon Moore
A position with the most questions entering the season is receiver. The loss of Junior Hemingway, Martavious Odoms, Kelvin Grady, and Kevin Koger to graduation, as well as Darryl Stonum who was dismissed from the team. The leading returning starter, Roy Roundtree, doesn’t have a lot of hype nationally because of reduced production last season. However, he proved in 2010 that he’s capable of thriving in a leading role. That season, he finished second in the Big Ten with 72 receptions for 935 yards and seven touchdowns.
The main question with Roundtree is how quickly will he recover from arthroscopic knee surgery? The coaches expect him back next week, in time to play against Alabama, but will he be at full strength?
The next most experienced receiver is Jeremy Gallon, a small slot guy who only emerged last season. He had his coming out party against Notre Dame when he caught two passes for 78 yards and a touchdown, the most important being a 64-yard reception to set up the game-winning touchdown. He’s sure handed and plays bigger than he is, but also has the quickness to make plays from the slot position.
Aside from Roundtree and Gallon, Michigan will need some guys to step up and the coaches are hoping Jerald Robinson will be it. He played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman last season but didn’t record a catch. He has the size (6’1″, 215) to fill Hemingway’s role.
The biggest wild card of the position is Gardner. He hasn’t played receiver in a game yet, but he has the athleticism and knowledge of the offense to excel at the position. At 6’4″, 203 pounds, Gardner will be Michigan’s tallest receiver. Since practices have been closed to the media and the players and coaches haven’t talked about or shown anything regarding Gardner at receiver, how well the experience works out will be a mystery until the season starts.
At tight end, Brandon Moore will get the nod. He was Koger’s main backup last season and Borges thinks he’s ready.
“Brandon’s got some talent,” Borges said. “In terms of understanding what we do, I don’t think there’s any issues there. He’s a smart kid. Now that he understands it, the paralysis through analysis should be gone, and pretty much is. He’s as aggressive as I’ve seen him and has demonstrated a certain degree of consistency that’s shown improvement.”
Backups: Jeremy Jackson will see a lot of time, especially if he proves he can catch the ball consistently and block on the outside. The son of running backs coach Fred Jackson has played in 22 career games but has just seven receptions for 91 yards.
Drew Dileo is similar to Gallon, small and quick. Last season, he caught nine passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, so he’ll see some tim ein the slot as well.
Freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson will both get a chance to contribute. Darboh already has the size (6’2″, 220) of a veteran receiver and Chesson was a track star in high school. Darboh has impressed in the first couple weeks of fall camp.
“He’s really fast and strong,” said Roundtree after the first practice. “He just showed out today. I feel like he’s really being comfortable. I told him ‘it’s football man. It’s just a faster pace,’ and he did it.”
Freshman A.J. Williams will be featured as a tight end backing up Moore. At 6’6″, 283 pounds, he’s a big body, but Hoke likes his ability to run as well. When asked if he was too heavy, Hoke responded.
“Depends on what you want him to do,” Hoke said. “He runs well enough. I shouldn’t say surprisingly, because we recruited him. We must have thought he ran well enough. But for moving that big body around, he’s not bad.”
Projected Starters: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Elliott Mealer, C Ricky Barnum, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Michael Schofield
#77 – Taylor Lewan
#57 – Elliott Mealer
#52 – Ricky Barnum
#65 – Patrick Omameh
#75 – Michael Schofield
Lewan is far and away the star of the line. An All-Big Ten second team member last season, Lewan started every game at left tackle and will likely be a first round pick in next April’s NFL Draft if he foregoes his senior year. He has struggled with the mental side of his game and controlling his temper early in his career, but has grown up as a junior.
Barnum is the center, moving into the position from left guard to replace David Molk. Omameh has started 29 straight games at right guard. Though he hasn’t earned any conference recognition, he has been a solid member of the line. Schofield made 10 starts at left guard last year but is moving over to right tackle this season. Tackle is more of his natural position and will allow him to thrive.
The position that hasn’t been locked down yet is left guard where Elliott Mealer and Joey Burzynski are battling it out. I think Mealer will win the job to start the season, and not just because of his epic beard. As a fifth-year senior, he has played in 37 career games in a backup role. Burzynski is a former walk-on who saw time in four games last season. Neither is the future of the position, but Mealer’s experience should give him the nod.
Backups: Kyle Kalis is also in the mix to win the starting left guard spot, but as a true freshman it’s a very hard position to pick up quickly. He’s more likely to take over the center position in 2013. Redshirt freshman Chris Bryant is trying to work his way into the lineup and will see reserve time at either guard position. Jack Miller is the backup center ready to fill in if Barnum struggles. Freshman Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden will also get a chance. Magnuson is the heir apparent to Lewan and will move into his role when he departs. Braden has drawn high praise from the coaches while working his way into the two-deep.
For continued coverage of our season preview series, make sure to come back each day this week.
Tomorrow: Defense Preview
Thursday: Record Watch
Friday: Schedule Predictions