10 most important returners for Michigan football team
ANN ARBOR -- We ranked the 10 biggest departures from the Michigan football program.
But what about the guys who are back?
The Wolverines' quest to avenge a five-loss season, and secure that elusive Big Ten championship -- they haven't won one in eight seasons -- will be a function of how these guys fill voids:
1. QB Devin Gardner: He was an inconsistent passer and erratic decision-maker as a quarterback -- until, he became a receiver. Gardner has said the move before last season is one of the best things that has happened to him, now that he better understands the other end of the pass game, and the results speak for themselves: 75-of-126 passing (59.5 percent) for 1,219 yards, 11 TDs and five picks in five starts. His move back to quarterback immediately spiked receiver production, brought balance to the offense and turned a great third-down offense into a truly elite one. Gardner's results diminished a bit in the final two games, but he seems prepared to inherent the reins of the post-Denard Robinson era.
2. LB Jake Ryan: He was great as a redshirt freshman, and morphed into a menace as a sophomore. Although Ryan led the team with 88 tackles, his worth is measured in his impact plays. He had 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, both team highs. He forced a Big Ten-best four fumbles. As South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders said of Ryan, "He hurts people." Ryan can really play, and figures to be the defense's most important player as a third-year starter.
3. WR Jeremy Gallon: Gallon always has been a tough matchup, despite his 5-foot-8 frame, but his production rarely showed it with Denard Robinson at quarterback. After Gardner's move to quarterback, Gallon's productivity immediately spiked to more than six catches and 100 yards per game. He's Michigan's top wideout, at a position that will lack depth.
4. RT Michael Schofield: He isn't Michigan's fourth-best returner, but he is the team's fourth-most important returner. He improved throughout the season, providing a solid bookend with left tackle Taylor Lewan for an otherwise disappointing offensive line. With Lewan expected to declare for the NFL, the senior-to-be is the unit's lone returning starter, and perhaps its only upperclassmen. He'll be expected not only to provide production, likely at left tackle, but leadership for the line's four first-time starters.
5. RB Fitz Toussaint: Toussaint began the season with a suspension, ended it with a major injury and averaged only 51.4 yards per game in between. His decline is in part a function of the offensive line's issues, but the line isn't expected to be much better next year -- in fact, it could be worse, especially early -- and Toussaint, assuming he's still the starter, needs to find another gear that allows him to create on his own.
6. CB Blake Countess: Michigan's secondary was dissected by South Carolina, suggesting the unit's lofty numbers -- second-fewest yards allowed per game in the country -- were more a function of playing pedestrian passing attacks. Countess' return should help. He missed all but the first series of the season due to an ACL injury, after posting a strong freshman season in 2011.
7. DT Quinton Washington: He started slow, but formed a solid interior with Will Campbell by midseason. With Campbell graduating, more will be expected from Washington as Michigan breaks in two new starters on the defensive line.
8. TE Devin Funchess: His freshman season had a thrilling start, hauling in four passes for 106 yards and one touchdown in his first significant action against Air Force. He finished with a team-high five scoring grabs, but his overall production tapered, never hauling in more than one catch in the final nine games. With Michigan moving to more of a pro-style attack with Gardner, the big tight end could become a major asset -- and matchup problem. But he never developed much chemistry in the pass game with Gardner, which needs remedy.
9. PK Brendan Gibbons: My, how far he's come since 2010, when he was benched -- from the country's worst field-goal unit. Gibbons has made 29 of his 35 attempts the past two years, including 16-of-18 this past season. He made a game-winner against Michigan State, forced overtime against Northwestern and has made his past 13 attempts overall, just one off the school record.
10. S Thomas Gordon: Michigan loses third-year starting corner J.T. Floyd and fourth-year starting safety Jordan Kovacs, and Gordon will be the most-experienced defensive back as the unit transitions forward. He had 81 tackles in a steady 2012, including four tackles for loss. He made two interceptions.
-- Download the Michigan football on MLive app for iPhone and Android
-- Download the Michigan basketball on MLive app for iPhone and Android
-- Follow Kyle Meinke and Nick Baumgardner on Twitter
-- Like MLive's Michigan Wolverines Facebook page