Analysis: 7 observations from Michigan's preseason depth chart
ANN ARBOR -- The Michigan football team shut down access to its fall camp this year, which meant its initial depth chart was highly anticipated.
Now that we have it, there are a few surprises. Here are some thoughts on the initial release:
Surprise defensive line
While Fitz Toussaint's inclusion as the No. 1 tailback made waves Monday, an even bigger surprise emerged on the initial depth chart: Quinton Washington has won the nose tackle job.
It's an interesting move, because Hoke touted throughout the offseason his new-look defensive line with former-end Jibreel Black in the middle. He said he loved Black's athleticism at that position, and the overall quickness it gave his line.
Now, though, Black has moved back to weak-side end, where he'll start over Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Senior Will Campbell is at tackle and senior Craig Roh at strong-side end, as expected.
Basically, it appears Hoke has ditched the athletic approach and gone for heft. It's unclear if that's for one game, to combat the size of Alabama's offensive front, or if this lineup is here to stay.
Either way, this appears to be the Wolverines' biggest mismatch against Alabama. Coach Brady Hoke already has called the Tide's offensive front the best he's over seen in the college game, and now he'll combat it with new starters at each defensive line spot.
The linemen combine for one start at their current positions. Black and Washington have never started, period, and Campbell only once.
Alabama, by the way, has three offensive linemen who have drawn various preseason All-American honors.
Eight new starters
Michigan will break in eight new starters against Alabama, based on the depth chart: Left guard Elliott Mealer, center Ricky Barnum, right tackle Michael Schofield, tight end Brandon Moore, weak-side defensive end Jibreel Black, tackle Will Campbell, nose tackle Quinton Washington and strong-side end Craig Roh.
Barnum, Schofield and Roh have started before, but at different positions.
All told, Michigan's experience level has two polars: Lots at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, but very little on the lines. Based on the depth chart, seven of the Wolverines' eight new starters play on the line, and the eighth is a tight end.
One note: Michigan's depth chart doesn't list a third receiver, and it will have a new starter there as well.
Thirteen true freshmen made the depth chart. None are starters, but five made the two-deep as backups: Left tackle Erik Magnuson, middle linebacker Joe Bolden, weak-side linebacker James Ross, free safety Jarrod Wilson and kick/punt returner Dennis Norfleet.
"Obviously, there's some talented guys who probably are going to get better as the season progresses," Hoke said of the freshmen. "It speaks to depth and where we feel we are and where we need to be.
"The one good thing about freshmen: they become older. One bad thing is: they're freshmen."
Three of the four freshmen offensive linemen made the depth chart. Kyle Kalis is the third left guard, Ben Braden the third right tackle and Magnuson the backup left tackle.
However, right tackle Michael Schofield likely would slide over to left tackle if something happened to starter Taylor Lewan.
Will Hagerup wins punt battle
There's only one "OR" on the first depth chart, which actually is low for Brady Hoke -- there were four on the final depth chart of last year -- and it separates punters Will Hagerup and Matt Wile.
But don't let it fool you -- Hagerup has won the job.
"Hagerup will do the punting," Hoke said. "I didn’t think we started the summer off as well as we’d have liked, but I really like how they’ve competed. Right now, Will will do the punting. Matt will do kickoffs, and Matt will also do some of the pooch punting if we got into those situations."
Hagerup averaged just 36.0 yards per punt last year -- 7.6 yards off his freshman production. He's won back the job, but it's hard to imagine his leash will be as long as it was last year.
Wile outperformed Hagerup last season, and pushed him throughout camp. Hoke pulled Hagerup in the Sugar Bowl, and won't wait as long to do the same this year if his struggles continue.
Furman, Norfleet to return kicks
Hoke was secretive for most of the offseason about his candidates for kick returner, although he was thought to be choosing from a pool of Vincent Smith, Jeremy Gallon, Dennis Norfleet and Blake Countess.
In the end, there was a surprise on the top line of the depth chart: Josh Furman.
The little-used defensive back is buried as a third-stringer at free safety, but quietly rose into the starting lineup at Michigan's greatest point of weakness last year. It finished 117th nationally in kick returns.
The Wolverines lacked pure speed here, but that could be addressed with Furman. He hasn't seen the field much at Michigan, but was considered a blazer coming out of high school in Millersville, Md.
The same goes for Norfleet, a true freshman who has been noted this offseason for being perhaps Michigan's fastest player besides Denard Robinson. Hoke said Furman will see time on kick returns with Furman.
"He’s got the ability, he’s got good vision, he’s quick, he can accelerate," Hoke said of Norfleet. "He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he has a knack and he has a skill level for kickoffs and punts.”
Gardner's dual role is real
Devin Gardner's foray at receiver was one of the closest-watched storylines of the offseason, and now it's real. The junior continues to be listed as the backup to Denard Robinson at quarterback, but also appears on the third line at receiver.
Although listed behind senior Roy Roundtree and sophomore Jerald Robinson at the first spot, that doesn't mean Gardner is third string. Michigan only lists two receiver positions on its depth chart, but plays three. Jeremy Gallon is the other listed starter.
Outside of Roundtree and Gallon, Michigan lacks depth and experience at the position. Also, size. And although Gardner can't help with the former, he can the latter at 6-foot-4.
Gardner on the depth chart at receiver means he's not just an experiment. He's probably not even just going to appear in some wacky, little-used formations. Expect to see him receive a steady diet of reps.
"I feel like he probably will play a lot," Roundtree said.
Will Toussaint play?
Suspended tailback Fitz Toussaint is slotted first on the depth chart, but Hoke said the junior has yet to be cleared for the Alabama game. Does that mean he'll play? Or is this a bit of gamesmanship on Hoke's part?
Keep in mind, Hoke's depth charts last year were decent guidelines, but were far from accurate portrayals of game-day lineups. So, Toussaint landing No. 1 on the depth chart shouldn't be used as any kind of indicator as to whether or not he'll play.
This can be said though: The longer Hoke holds out on a decision, the more likely it becomes Toussaint will play. Why else would he hold out on a decision? Toussaint was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving back on July 21 and suspended shortly thereafter. If Toussaint was going to be held out against Alabama, that move could have been made days or even weeks ago.