You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 7:04 a.m.

Michigan opens spring football practice Tuesday; 5 storylines to watch

By Dave Birkett

Michigan holds the first of its 15 spring practices Tuesday, and while 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. 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 He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.



Wed, Mar 17, 2010 : 7:33 a.m.

I'm with 2sweetblue. This article is about Michigan football and this is Ann Arbor. Go read the LSJ if you want to hear the latest on Michigan State. Or are you already doing that?


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 5:43 p.m.

Tater and Wersch I am curious what would you two be saying if this was going on in East Lansing? I have read your post on numerous spartan articles.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 3:41 p.m.

wersch213 No, I call it before its played. No predictions?


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 2:44 p.m.

Facts are facts and it is what it is. Those who annoint a less than worthy king reflect who they are. There is lots of work to be done and that includes dealing the problems RR has brought on the program.

Ted Bundy

Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 2:13 p.m.

Birkett's a MSU fan probably so why wouldnt he take the low blows. Where's the stuff about MSU players getting sentenced for beating ppl up like rabid animals? OSU fans can talk all they want, thy own UM right now, but MSU is still little brother even though they won two years in a row. They need to look at teh overall head to head record and sit down.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

Trigg7 = Monday morning quarterback


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 12:36 p.m.

I echo what other posters have said, you cant even get past the first sentence w/o mentioning the ncaa investigation. dave, we know it hasnt been solved yet thanks to your 4 article 2 stinkin days ago. im sick and tired of reading your garbage about uofm fball. fair and unbiased you are not.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 12:26 p.m.

Denard cant throw and when teams got ready for him to run, he did nothing. Tate or Richard had no presure on him as a fresh.He wont do half of what he did last year. The defense will be not as good as last year but close. All in all, M will finish 7th in BIG TEN. It is what it is. I called the B ball team from day one when everyone was pumped over being ranked.It realy isnt that hard to pick if u watch Football. You know better, state your finish. Talk is cheep.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 12:20 p.m.

#1 storyline to watch: will r.r. continue to wear a RED wristband on the MICHIGAN sideline to call plays? Go BLUE! v


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 12:10 p.m.

azwolverine - the "rules" that were "broken" go unreported by the media of most every major college program in the country. Rich Rodriguez gave the press unprecedented access and they abused it. They singled out true freshman their first few weeks on campus to ask confusing and contradictory questions. Of course the freshman would say the workouts are long and the toughest they've every had (because all the knew before for High School). Of course they don't know what counts as practice and what counts as stretching, etc. etc. When you boil it down Michigan had a few too many staff in non-coaching roles, and Michigan over practiced ONCE by 30 minutes in 2008. The whole idea that everything is okay and should be allowed because of winning is so weak. That argument is thrown around by the media all the time "Just win and everything goes away". Doesn't work that way. Ask Oregon...


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 11:35 a.m.

This article needs condensing... Who will emerge as defensive playmakers? - Who cares! The King's Spread does not require playmakers on defense. Are Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton Big Ten-caliber linebackers? - See first answer above. Is Devin Gardner ready to challenge for time at quarterback? - Definitely. He's faster than Tate, so Tate is out... This should be settled by wind-sprint races between Devin and Denard... whoever wins, there's your QB! Who takes over at running back? - Easy. Whoever is fastest on the team. Does Troy Woolfolk stick at safety or cornerback? - See answer to first question.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:59 a.m.

Wow...if RR were doing his job and Michigan were actually winning, some of our fans wouldn't have to be so overly sensitive and defensive. Tell you what, if RR stops breaking rules, the media will stop reporting on it.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:54 a.m.

I was going to write something profound about where I though Mich football should be in 2010 until it finally dawned on me that the Mich coaching staff has been recruited (just like the student athletes) and the reality, those recruited coaches earn $millions to make bottom line decisions; they are the true subject matter experts. After all I am and always will be; just a Mich Fan. BUT I do know for certain that the Buckeye program developing in Columbus is more than awesome and will be worth flipping channels to watch. We will just have to wait and see if the Mich vs OSU contest in Columbus this year, will decide the Big Ten Championship/National Championship berth or will any Mich Fan care (sort of like it was in 2009). (I recall the whole excitement of last year's OSU vs Mich game was whether or not Denard Robinsion would get the chance he deserved. You will recall even the TV announcers were rooting for Denard's opportunity to showcase his skills infront of millions of TV watchers from all around trhe world. They underscored that he is/was the fastest student athlete in all of 2009 college football. Not to happen, he sat on the bench until the humiliating game was practically over. Hmmm) Giving up before the season opens? Not at all. For 2010 I have decided that I should not use Mich football to sublimate, its like Toyota, its not what it used to be. That's not good and that's not bad; it is what it is. I suppose I should choose to be entertained (as though I were sitting in Ford Field) and not get my blood pressure worked up to stroke mode as my Blue blood churns through my Maze veins - sideline coaching. Leaders at Best? Let the show begin!!!


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:49 a.m.

I am new to the site and wondered who this Birket is.Yesterday he had 4 articles on tthe NCAA stuff.Now he mentions it again.Too bad he couldn't give a deeper analysis on the subject, so I will. 1) defensive playmakers:OK Graham was one of the all time greats but all the good teams lost all time greats: OSU lost Gibson and PSU lost Bowman and Lee. We have Lalota, and freshmen Talbot and Black.They all have size and speed and quick 1st steps.The rest of hte line is back intact each with a year of experience.Campbell can be one of the best run stuffers in the Big Ten now that he realizes this isn't HS anymore.He was starting to play better in the last 3 games and big improvement is expected. 2) Mouton and Ezeh couldn't adapt to the 3-4 system but a year should make a big differance.Many pro teams use the 3-4 and a year of adjustment shouldn't be too much to ask.Fr Jake Ryan is one to watch on the outside and he is 30 Lbs heavier than Leach and faster too. 3) Gardner will be the backup that Forcier lacked last season and hopefully will get mop-up time in some of the expected blowouts.He will have just as much experience as Forcier had when he started last fall and won 4 straight until Molk went down.He lacks Forciers elusiveness and accuracy but is bigger, tougher and faster on a straight line. 4) There is a plethora of RBs because Drob should take over that spot,along with Toussaint.With Gardner at backup QB there is no reason to waste the talent of Drob and the slot is filled.Hopkins will play in two back situations. 5) Woolfolk likes safety and with Turner and the freshman there should be no reason for him to move back to corner.The safety position is loaded so Dorsey will play CB.Look for Furman to play the "Box" safety position,a huge upgrade from tryer Kovacs.The increased speed should make the DBs the srtongest area on the D. Warren was hurt last year and Brown didn't make a really big play all year and was out of position most of the time.Happy trails to both.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:44 a.m.

BIRKETT!! Although this is just like the 100 other "5 Things To Watch From Michigan This Spring" articles.......I APPLAUD YOU FOR ACTUALLY USING DEMAR DORSEY'S NAME AS IT SHOULD BE!!!


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:34 a.m.

Rich Rodriguez needs to take the "BO" stance with the media. Lock them out and get rid of their distractions. It is a privelige to cover Michigan football, not a right like most think.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

"Michigan was flat-out awful on defense last year..." Of course they weren't as good as past Michigan defenses, but "flat-out awful" seems a bit strong. I think this piece should be clearly marked as "Opinion".


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

I'm anxious to see the newly recruited talent that Coach Rodriguez and staff have aquired. These, added to a better conditioned and more experienced team from last year, should prove to be the turning point for the program. Go Blue!


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 9:45 a.m.

Birkett is a Sparty. You knew he wouldn't be able to play real journalist for long before sneaking in the cheap shots.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 9:44 a.m.

I see Boulder's point, but there really is no need to mention the NCAA allegations in this story at all, let alone in the first sentence. As for the rest of the story, there's nothing here I haven't already seen covered in much greater detail elsewhere. No actual insight, just vague speculation.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 9:43 a.m.

I see Boulder's point, but there really is no need to mention the NCAA allegations in this story at all, let alone in the first sentence. As for the rest of the story, there's nothing here I haven't already seen covered in much greater detail elsewhere. No actual insight, just vague speculation.


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 9:20 a.m.

There's really only one storyline to watch this season, and that's how long the blind support for Rich Rod will continue. If and when Michigan gets sanctioned by the NCAA, I only hope David Brandon will discover his spine and rid us of this mess. Domino's is not the only organization that needs a new recipe.