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Posted on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 9:45 a.m.

Jake Ryan, Devin Gardner among possible Michigan football breakout players to watch in 2012

By Nick Baumgardner


Michigan football linebacker Jake Ryan is one of several players who could enjoy a breakout campaign in 2012.

Melanie Maxwell |

Every year, it's someone.

In 2010, Michigan football quarterback Denard Robinson went from exciting to dynamic in just one afternoon.

In 2011, the Wolverines began the season with immense uncertainty behind Robinson in the backfield, but ended the year with Fitz Toussaint becoming the first Michigan running back since 2007 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.

Every year, at least one player goes from good to great. Or, at least, from unknown to productive.

Who makes the jump this season? Who goes from solid to superstar? Who goes from the bench to the top of the depth chart?

We debate:

Kyle Meinke

No. 1 Jake Ryan
Michigan had gone three-and-out on its first drive of the Sugar Bowl, and Virginia Tech countered by driving 59 yards on eight plays. It had the ball on the Wolverines' 4-yard line.

The Hokies' star tailback, David Wilson, took the handoff -- and went backward, with Jake Ryan hounding him deep into his own backfield. Ryan eventually corralled him for a 22-yard loss and Virginia Tech settled for a field goal.

And that's exactly what Jake Ryan does for you: Makes plays.

It's a little unconventional to go with a returning full-time starter as a breakout player, but I think Ryan is poised to become one of the best playmaking linebackers in the Big Ten -- and eventually, maybe the country.

He finished with 37 tackles last year, which was just tenth on the team and last among the starting linebackers. Even backup linebacker Brandin Hawthorne had more.

But Ryan's worth wasn't measured in overall plays, but in impactful plays. He was brilliant in opponents' backfields, and finished with 11 tackles for loss -- nearly a third of his overall tackles.

That was more than the other starting linebackers combined, and trailed only defensive end Ryan Van Bergen on the team.

And he was a redshirt freshman.

He was good from the start, and great by the end. His best game of the year was on the big stage against Virgina Tech, when he set career highs for tackles (seven), solo tackles (six) and tackles for loss (four). He also had one sack.

Ryan often was called an "unorthodox" or "instinctual" player by coaches last year, which basically was their way of saying he was a hell of a player despite poor technique. And now, he's had an offseason to refine that technique.

With the Wolverines' starting linebackers back intact, operating the same 4-3 defense as last year, Ryan will make a leap. With a rebuilt and inexperienced defensive line in front of him, he'll be expected to make more plays.

And that's what he does. He's a playmaker, and could become Michigan's best defensive player this season.

No. 2 Devin Gardner
Michigan lost receivers Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum this offseason. Roy Roundtree, the most experienced returner, had knee surgery. Jeremy Gallon is coming off a nice season, but is undersized to play outside.

The Wolverines need a guy with size. Gardner has size, and he will play receiver this year. That, as well as Gardner's usual backing of Denard Robinson at quarterback, means the junior will be more involved than ever before in his -- so far -- quiet career.

3. Thomas Gordon
Gordon had impressive numbers last year, but coaches weren't pleased with his consistency, especially in practices. He eventually had to split reps with Troy Woolfolk, who moved to safety after losing his cornerback job.

But Woolfolk's gone and Gordon is the clear starter next to Jordan Kovacs in the Wolverines' defensive backfield. His playmaking ability is superb, and he was key to Michigan's knack for takeaways.

He recovered a Big Ten-best four fumbles last year, and he also had two forced fumbles and an interception. That's seven takeaways.

Minnesota, as a team, had nine.

Nick Baumgardner

No. 1 Devin Gardner

Before anyone starts to get riled up, let me explain how I'm justifying Gardner as my top breakout performer in 2012.


Will this finally be the year that Devin Gardner plays a major role in the Michigan offense?

Melanie Maxwell |

I'm not ready to say the current quarterback-wide receiver hybrid will put together an All-Big Ten season, not by a long shot. But given Michigan's consistent outside the box thinking as it relates to Gardner's usage, I believe 2012 will be the season the 6-foot-4, 203-pound athletic monster sees the field.

And sees it a lot.

Al Borges nailed it several weeks ago when he said that "it's probably not good coaching" to have Gardner standing with a headset on the sideline all season. And he's right. Gardner's too big, too quick and too rangy to go unused.

We have no idea how prolific Gardner is at wide receiver right now, because Michigan hasn't allowed us to see it. But given Roy Roundtree's injury, Jeremy Gallon's size and the considerable amount of unproven talent at wideout -- if Gardner can find a way to get open and avoid drops, he'll see plenty of snaps at receiver.

Borges has promised nothing, but hasn't ruled anything out, either. He could be a weapon in the red zone, and literally anywhere else on the field if he progresses quickly.

And, more than that, Gardner could still see snaps in Borges' deuce package as a quarterback. The Michigan offensive coordinator says he has plans to expand that formation this season, and Gardner still figures to play a role there.

Bottom line: Gardner appears just too athletically gifted to sit out large chunks of the season again. He might not be dominant, he might struggle with his new position -- but he will be given plenty of snaps to figure it out. One way or another.

No. 2 Blake Countess
Forty-four tackles, six pass breakups and a forced fumble in just six starts as a freshman last season.

Countess was given the John F. Maulbetsch award during the spring, awarded to a freshman based on "desire, character, capacity for leadership and future success both on and of the field" and has spent the summer with a business-like attitude. He could go from a freshman surprise to a sophomore standout in 2012.

No. 3 Desmond Morgan
Kyle went with Jake Ryan on his list, and while I can't disagree, I think it's fair to make a case for Morgan here as well.

As a freshman, he started just seven games, but still finished fifth on the team in tackles. A star in the making? Possibly.


Did we miss someone? Screw up our lists? Make you angry?

Let us know whether you agree, disagree or have something to add. Got a favorite pick for Michigan's best breakout performer in 2012?

We're all ears.

Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan football and basketball for



Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

Hailmary, Denard will not be much better at passing than he is now, he's just not a QB. You could improve accuracy but that wouldn't still make him an average passer as far as I've seen. Don't get me wrong, I love Denard and he seems to be a very nice kid. He also is one of the fastest QB's in football today and we cannot win a game without him. It's just I have no faith in his passing abiltiy at all, not one bit. I cringe everytime he pulls up to pass, sometimes I'm happy about the results, but more often I'm not. Under RR and Borges he still seems to just heave up passes like a good ole' game of "500" and it's hard to stomach. Borges is good at what he does, but it would be like a maricle if this kid could turn into a QB!


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:35 a.m.

Yost, I see your point, but that kid cannot pass. He was bailed out by Hemingway a good bunch and most of his passes were 15 yards. (Some have been taken for more yards but he doesn't stretch the field at all.) Like I said before I like Denard, we wouldn't win a game without him, but he is not a passer. Let's hope that Hoke and Borges proves me wrong!

Yost Ghost

Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 5:48 p.m.

Mass, I don't think you're being fair. Last year was D-Rob's first year in Borges' system. He threw for over 2k yds and rushed for 1k, a first in UM history. His avg passer rating for the year was over 144/game and his completion pctg was 55% (Henne 2007 58% @ 1938yds). His completion % was below 50% in only 4 games and above 60% in all the rest (3 games were 79%+). He threw 20 TD's and 14 INT's (Henne 17/9 in 2007). Most of those INT's happened in the ND & NW games (6), both were wins. The bulk of his INT's came in the first 6 games (9), the last 6 games he only threw 5. In my mind this paints a picture of a kid adjusting to a new offensive scheme over the first half of the season. If you look at how he finished the season I think it shows marked improvement when you consider the level of competition increases over the course of the season. I think year 2 in this offense is where DRob is gonna shine. He may not be an NFL caliber QB but then again neither is Tebow.


Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 9:08 a.m.

I think the breakout title belongs to Denard. I know, I know what the heck am I talking about ? I never felt Denard played up to his passing potential and I think 2012 is a breakout year for Denard's passing skills to improve dramatically. I always felt that Denard was a 75% complete package, less due to his passing or lack of skills, yup, 2012 is Denards breakout year with his arm including being able to pass accurately on the run.


Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 1:35 a.m.

I'll take a long shot on this one. I'm going with Russell Bellomy. It sounds like he is progressing and could end up pressing Devin for the backup job before all is said and done. If Devin evolves into a good receiver and want to stay there I could see Russ having a "break out" year so to speak if he was worked into the deuce formation and goes in when Denard gets nicked up. I'm sure this is a long shot and probably won't come to fruition but if you only shoot for the moon you won't reach the stars


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 11:43 p.m.

I love the Jake Ryan story. He was an unheralded player coming out of H.S. who looks like he has All Big Ten potential - at least 2nd Team before he's done. But I believe Devin Gardner is a key player this year for Michigan IF he can catch the ball and hold onto it. Michigan needs a big receiver who can get open and enable Denard to make easier throws. Denard struggled last year throwing into traffic. And Devin has big play potential for sure. He has ideal size for a wideout, is smart, and knows the playbook well. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do. I also really like Desmond Morgan. He's another relatively unheralded player who can be a big part of our defense this year. He's really smart and can run. He is someone who will respond very well to our excellent defensive coaching.

Wolverine Man

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 5:52 p.m.

I agree with both, Devin and Jake. I wonder why we haven't switched Cam Gordon back to wide receiver? Any thoughts?


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 10:31 p.m.

The way, Is that the Socratic method of debate? If so I'll stick to outright arrogance.

Wolverine Man

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 9:53 p.m.

Stupid? Why? Because he has been so effective on defense? Nope. I'm a big fan of Cams and don't want him to get lost in the shuffle. He was a receiver first.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 6:38 p.m.

Because that would be stupid.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 5:49 p.m.

1. Not-as-big Will: the spotlight is on him, no longer playing behind Martin. Also, Bama's O line will take him to school, they will put in application what Mattison put in theory, then it will be down hill from there. 2. Barnum: center/qb exchange and picking up A gap blitzes to help protect DR. 3. Smith: kickoff and/or punt return, and 3rd down or long yardage situations for pass protection, screen plays and check-down receiver.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 4:22 p.m.

The best thing for Michigan would be Big Will having a breakout year. He is without a doubt the key to our D being good, vs. serviceable. I don' t think there is another position on the field that is more worrisome, other than Barnum staying healthy at the center spot.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 3:44 p.m.

two words. Big words. BIG WILL

John K

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 2:44 p.m.

Thomas Rawls should be on the list somewhere. Cannot say i disagree with the players chosen. I expect rawls to carry a good bit of the running work load. From sheer size and build alone hes getting mike hart comparisons.. Now i wanna see it come to fruition. Go blue! Idc who the breakout stars are as long as we have some and we get the Ws.. Really excited for next years team. Hopefully we finally go back to a almost all pro style offense


Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 12:07 p.m.

I like this Rawls kid, I'm not sure about the Mike Hart comparisons, but I think he can be very productive for us in the future. I believe he will remind us more of Leroy Hoard before it is over with which I have no problem with at all!


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 10:54 p.m.

I think he's got the skills but guys who run like Rawls go down in a hurry with injuries. His odds of making it through a season are much lower than Touissant.

Nick Baumgardner

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 2:58 p.m.

I thought on Rawls for quite a bit, John. And, honestly, the one thing I kept coming back to was the opener. If Toussaint sits and Rawls plays, Rawls will have to have a huge showing against the defending national champions in order to really create a running back controversy. He's got a shot, but if he doesn't produce early, he won't steal a ton of carries, IMO.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 2:33 p.m.

Great story. The Jake Ryan story is awesome. If not for Michigan he'd be playing in the MAC, Gardner is that massive receiver just waiting to happen. Michigan's version of Calvin Johnson. Like Mr. Borges said.... it's painful to see such a magnificent athlete standing on the sidelines. There is a reason Calvin Johnson just received a $138 million contract. It isn't because wide receivers aren't good enough to play QB. The QB's aren't good enough to play wide receiver.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:26 a.m.

Yost, I guess we have to wait and see. I admit that I have seen similar forty times on other recruiting sites, but from what I have seen on the field I have my doubts.

Yost Ghost

Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 4:46 p.m.

@MassMittenz, While I don't disagree Megatron is a freak, Scott makes a valid point. Devin, beacuse of his amazing athleticism and size which everyone recognizes, could be the biggest weapon on the field this year if he can get on the field enough and can live up to the hype. BTW, Devin runs a 4.57 - 40 (per Scout).


Wed, Aug 22, 2012 : 12:02 p.m.

Scott, I like Devin Gardner too, and I hope he can make the transition to WR and be productive. But he's not very quick, nor does he have outstanding straightline speed. He does have great heigth and I hope his hands are solid, which would make him a good possesion reciever. Lets be clear, he's no way in the same realm as Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson is a 6'5 233 lbs WR that can run under a 4.4 sub forty, that's freakish. Gardner is probably around the mid 4.7's. This will never procure him a WR position in the NFL because his measurables are very average. (Unless, he has magnificent hands, which he doesn't or he would have been a WR last year.)


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 10:50 p.m.

The way, Well yes, no one is Calvin Johnson. But he is closer in height athleticism and running ability than he is to Roy Roundtree. No knock on Roundtree but Gardner is 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier (despite the fact that he is two years younger. So Gardner is a 8 year 60-80 million dollar receiver if he focused on it. At QB he a long shot that he could even make a team. The successful NFL QB's are 95% plus drop back guys with pin point accuracy whose goal is not to run (Brady, Manning(s), Stafford, Luck, Henson,Rodger,Rivers, etc. etc. None of these guys are the athletes Gardner is. .


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 6:37 p.m.

Devin Gardner is nowhere near the athlete Calvin Johnson is. Pump the breaks a little.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 5:24 p.m.

Nick, Michigan have a go-to receiver ( RR ), they just have to go-to him. :-)

Nick Baumgardner

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 4:06 p.m.

Scott -- A lot of how much time he sees over the course of the season will depend on how quickly he adapts to the position. It's not easy, and no one should ever think that it is. But if Michigan struggles to find a go-to wideout, the opportunity will be there for Gardner -- whether he's ready or not.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

How does Will Campbell not make this list? I see him as a breakout season. Denard should be a no brainer after Year 2 under Borges, but Will Campbell on defense who hasn't lived up to expectations, I think will turn things over dramatically and be a force.

Nick Baumgardner

Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

There's a bit of truth in Scott's comment, to be honest. In that it's been several years and we've just never seen anything from Campbell to prove he can do it. The same, though, could be said for Gardner. Campbell will almost have to have a breakout season if Michigan wants success. And if he doesn't, another DL will have to have one himself.


Tue, Aug 21, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

You never bet on a horse that never placed.