Brady Hoke finally figured out who his backup quarterback is going to be, but he still has plenty of offensive decisions to make before next week's season opener against Central Michigan.
Top recruit Shane Morris will be No. 2 behind Devin Gardner, having finally earned the job in an Aug. 18 scrimmage.
"I think Shane has continued to improve every day," Hoke said. "He's learning the offense, and he's throwing the ball really well."
At one point, Morris was expected to have a great shot at being the 2013 starter instead of battling for the No. 2 job. A year ago, Gardner had moved to wide reciever, and Morris was starting what was expecting to be a record-setting senior season at Warren De La Salle High School. As one of the nation's top quarterback prospects, Morris was a slight favorite to start as a true freshman, with Gardner turning into his No. 1 receiver.
Two things changed that plan. First, Morris came down with mononucleosis, causing him to miss most of the season and, just as importantly, meaning that he wasn't able to enroll in Michigan in January. That meant no spring practice with the team, putting him well behind the learning curve.
In the meantime, Denard Robinson ruined his passing elbow and Russell Bellomy failed horribly in his chance as his replacement. That turned Gardner back into a quarterback, and he played well enough down the stretch to lock up the starting job for this year. Bellomy blew out his knee, ending any hopes of a face-saving comeback, and putting Morris into a battle for No. 2 with walk-on freshman Brian Cleary.
Given Michigan's famed secrecy, it was almost impossible to know how Morris and Cleary would doing in the competition, although a five-star recruit would expect to be able to beat out a walk on. As it turned out, he did, although we may never know if he did it easily or by a tiny margin.
"We just thought he had done the most to move us forward," Hoke said. "We made the decision after the scrimmage, but he had done a good job before that."
Gardner will be joined in the backfield by Fitzgerald Toussaint, who has come back from a broken leg, but Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges plan to use a rotation of running backs, and it isn't clear who will be the first one off the bench. Another top prospect, Derrick Green, was hampered by an ankle injury in fall camp, but has impressed while healthy. So has fellow freshman De'Veon Smith, and they got a lot of work in this week's scrimmage while Toussaint got a day off.
"De'Veon had a couple good runs, but Derrick looked a little sharper," Hoke said. "Their timing is better and they doing a great job in pass protection and picking up blitzes."
The freshmen are far from the only running backs in the mix, though. Juniors Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes are both hoping for better things after failing to impress as sophomores, and redshirt freshman Drake Johnson will also be hoping for carries.
Hoke and Borges also have to find a wide receiver to fill the big-play role that was planned for Amara Darboh. The sophomore is going to miss the season with a foot injury, and the Wolverines don't have any obvious candidate to replace him. Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon give Michigan experienced slot receivers, but Darboh was supposed to be the closest thing Gardner had to Calvin Johnson.
Filling out the offense, of course, is the line. Left tackle Taylor Lewan might be the best lineman in the country, and would probably have been in the first pick in April's NFL draft had he not decided to return for his senior season. Michael Schofield is set at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis will probably be next to him at right guard. Another player who watched last year from the sidelines, Ben Braden, is the favorite at left guard, while sophomore Jack Miller is battling walk-on Graham Glasgow for the job at center.
That means that the three interior jobs will be manned by players with very little game experience. If they don't step up, the so-called skill positions are going to be in trouble, no matter who is holding them down.