Michigan's 5 hottest position battles as it opens 2012 football camp
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
Michigan kicks off its preseason camp with a 4 p.m. practice Monday, and does so facing far fewer questions than it did for coach Brady Hoke's first camp a year ago.
Schemes are in place, and 15 starters return to run them. Coaches have a better feel for their players, and players for their coaches.
Eleven wins are in the books, which helps put everyone at greater ease after three disappointing seasons amplified concerns about the program's national relevancy.
Yet, questions remain, even on a team so veteran.
Here's a look at the top-five position battles that will play out over the next four weeks:
1. Joey Burzynski vs. Elliott Mealer vs. Kyle Kalis
Michigan addressed its offensive line turnover by moving two left guards, with fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum sliding to center and junior Michael Schofield to right tackle. But who is left to play left guard?
Fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer appeared to stake his claim to the job early in spring camp, when he earned heavy praise from coaches. But sophomore walk-on Joey Burzynski came on strong, building on his solid scout team performance last fall, and earned the starting nod in the spring game.
The dynamics of that battle will shift over the next four weeks, as true freshman Kyle Kalis is added to the mix. Offensive line is the most difficult position for a true freshman to play, due to physical limitations and the complexity of college coverage schemes, but Michigan would pull the trigger on Kalis if coaches believe he gives them the best chance to win.
This not only will be one of the fiercest competitions in camp, it also likely will be the most important as the Wolverines begin a season without center David Molk for the first time since 2008. Molk was the best center in the country last year and the offense's steadiest leader. Paired with the loss of right tackle Mark Huyge, Michigan features serious uncertainty at offensive line.
The Wolverines rely heavily on the run game, and Molk was a big part of that success. Quarterback Denard Robinson and tailback Fitz Toussaint can hit the hole with the best of them -- with the trick, of course, being there has to be a hole to hit.
2. Jerald Robinson vs. Amara Darboh vs. Jehu Chesson
Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have trumpeted Denard Robinson's offseason progress in the passing game, noting his improved footwork and comprehension of defensive schemes.
But that growth will be mitigated if someone doesn't step up at receiver.
Top receiver Junior Hemingway is gone, as well as projected starter Darryl Stonum. Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon return as starters, but the rest of the receivers combine for 17 career catches.
Sophomore Jerald Robinson and true freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, considered the three leading candidates for the third starting job, combine for zero career catches.
Michigan will need someone to step into the lineup and produce.
3. Thomas Rawls vs. Vincent Smith
The tailback derby was one of the defining storylines of Hoke's first camp -- and now, he could be doubling back even after Fitz Toussaint burst to a 1,000-yard season.
Toussaint was arrested last month on a drunken-driving charge, and his status for the opener against Alabama is uncertain. It's not even clear if he'll practice Monday when the team holds its first workout.
Rawls and Smith already were expected to tangle in a fall-camp battle for the backup job. That clash has since amplified, now that the winner could start in the Wolverines' backfield against the Crimson Tide.
Rawls is considered to have greater upside, and he showed flashes of it as the breakout player of the spring game. Smith is more limited as a rusher, but is Michigan's most experienced back and solid in protection -- a trait that could be valued as the Wolverines break in their new offensive line.
4. Matt Wile vs. Will Hagerup
Will Hagerup was prodigious as a freshman, when he averaged 43.6 yards per punt, the second-best clip in school history. As a sophomore last year, he was suspended four games, saw his average drop by 7.6 yards and led Michigan to a last-place finish in the Big Ten in punting.
Then-freshman Matt Wile, meantime, averaged 41.6 yards per punt as Hagerup's backup. He replaced Hagerup midway through the Sugar Bowl, and could very well do the same on a full-time basis this year.
Hoke already has confirmed there will be a full-fledged competition for this job in camp.
5. Jeremy Gallon vs. Vincent Smith vs. Dennis Norfleet vs. Blake Countess
Somewhat lost in Michigan's 11-2 season -- which featured a highly productive offense and vastly improved defense -- was its anemic kick return game. The Wolverines averaged just 18.4 yards per return, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten.
Only Illinois was worse.
Last year's primary kick returner, Martavious Odoms, is gone. Jeremy Gallon (15. 3 yards per return) and Smith (18.4) are back after playing reserve roles last season, but neither was effective.
True freshman Dennis Norfleet was a late add to the 2012 class, and the speedster from Detroit was brought in partly because of what he can do on special teams. He will receive a long look in camp for this role.
Sophomore cornerback Blake Countess also has practiced here and could be a candidate.
It's a wide-open race, partly because Odoms is gone, and partly because the unit was so bad last year.