Michigan opens spring football practice Tuesday; 5 storylines to watch
Michigan holds the first of its 15 spring practices Tuesday, and whileÂ an NCAA investigation still hangs overhead, the focus - for a month at least - will be on football.
Coming off consecutive losing seasons, the Wolverines have plenty of issues on both sides of the ball and plenty of ground to cover to get back in bowl contention. AnnArbor.com beat writer Dave Birkett looks at five pressing questions facing Michigan football this spring.
Who will emerge as defensive playmakers?
Michigan was flat-out awful on defense last year, and the Wolverines lost their best player (Brandon Graham), top cornerback (Donovan Warren) and No. 1 linebacker (Stevie Brown) to the NFL. Finding replacements won’t be easy, but Rich Rodriguez and his staff better develop a few over the next month or Michigan will be in for another long fall.
Ryan Van Bergen (five sacks in ’09) is expected to fill Graham’s role at defensive end, but it will be a unit effort to replace Graham’s production (a nation-leading 26 tackles for loss). Mike Martin and Craig Roh are givens up front, but is Will Campbell ready for a bigger role? How about J.T. Turner in the secondary? And just who besides Troy Woolfolk will make plays in the back seven?
Are Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton Big Ten-caliber linebackers?
If you watched them play last year, you probably have your doubts. But there’s a reason Ezeh and Mouton started most of the season. Both are talented players who struggled at times in defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s system. Ezeh has some shortcomings in pass coverage and was benched late last season in favor of Kevin Leach, but he’s the same guy who was honorable mention all-conference as a sophomore. Mouton caught more flack than he deserved for Michigan’s struggles. He flashed an occasional big play and finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles and second with two interceptions, but needs to be more consistent or Michigan’s defense will get gashed again.
Beyond Ezeh and Mouton, this is a big spring for J.B. Fitzgerald and Kenny Demens. Fitzgerald played some as a backup in the final two months and Demens was a special-teams contributor, but the starting inside spots are up for grabs and either could grab one with a strong spring.
Is Devin Gardner ready to challenge for time at quarterback?
Seven true freshmen are on campus for spring practice, including Gardner, a blue-chip quarterback from Inkster. Tate Forcier is your likely starter - he held his own as a true freshman last year - but Garder’s development is critical to the long-term success of the program.
First, his presence will keep the heat on Forcier, who wore down last year and never really was challenged for the starting job. Second, if Gardner proves adept enough in the offense, Michigan may feel more comfortable expanding backup Denard Robinson’s role as a wildcat. Robinson is too good an athlete to keep on the bench, but without a reliable backup for Forcier, Michigan has no other choice. Gardner has the physical tools to push for playing time as a freshman, he just needs to devour the system and iron out some mechanical flaws.
Who takes over at running back?
Michigan hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2007, and while it’s true the Wolverines divvy carries up more under Rodriguez, fact is no running back the last two years has proven worthy of a feature role. Brandon Minor was the closest thing, but injuries took their toll on the physical back.
Minor and Carlos Brown, Michigan’s top two rushers a season ago, are gone, and Vincent Smith is out for the spring after tearing his ACL against Ohio State. That means junior Michael Shaw, sophomore Michael Cox, redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint and true freshmen Stephen Hopkins and Austin White are competing for the starting job. (Smith should be back in the mix come August, too.) People who saw Toussaint practice last year said he could be Michigan’s next special running back. This spring, he’ll have a chance to prove that out.
Does Troy Woolfolk stick at safety or cornerback?
Woolfolk has a starting spot wrapped up somewhere in the secondary, and where Michigan decides to play him will go a long way towards setting the depth chart come fall. If Woolfolk plays safety, where he started the first half of last season, Michigan will pin its hopes at cornerback to a slew of young talent. J.T. Floyd is the only other experienced cover man, while Turner and incoming freshmen Demar Dorsey, Cullen Christian and Courtney Avery could be in the mix. If Woolfolk plays corner, Vlad Emilien, Cam Gordon and Jordan Kovacs are your likely top safeties, with Dorsey and/or Turner possibly switching positions, too.
Regardless of the setup, Michigan needs a better performance out of its secondary this fall. The Wolverines got beat deep easy and often last year, and are bound to have some growing pains ahead.
Dave Birkett covers University of Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.