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.
Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 5 p.m.
Has Denard's passing game improved to the point where teams will pay the price for putting 8 men in the box to defend the run? If Denard has become more consistent in the passing game and is able to make better decisions under pressure, the U-M offense has a chance to be awesome. However, if he still has the tendency to throw jump balls under pressure and force balls to receivers who are not open, it might get ugly against teams like Alabama.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 7:34 p.m.
Although Borges has a role in teaching Denard how to handle the blitz and make other decisions, in the end it is Denard who decides whether the primary receiver is open, the secondary is open, or whether he should tuck the ball and run. It is in the area of decision-making under pressure where I hope Denard has improved. Borges has influence but (thank goodness) he is not wearing a helmet making the reads on the field.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 7:05 p.m.
The question should be, has Borges figured out how to beat the blitz? It takes more than just DR improving on passing.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.
How about COACH Al returns punts himself. He'd BULLdoze em!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEEANchigan football is back in the hunt!! As BULLDOZER AL returns that punt!!!
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 3:26 p.m.
I wouldn't be surprised if Kalis ends up being the starter this season. Once he learns the basics, he's going to be tough to keep of the field. Michigan's really going to miss Junior Hemingway this season. Hopefully one of those guys (Darboh, Chesson, or Robinson) can emerge as the glue-handed receiver Hemingway was. I think Hagerup will emerge as the best punter if he can get past his off-field issues once and for all. Michigan's kick return game hasn't been the same since Stonum played. Gallon and Vincent Smith just don't have the straight line speed to be successful. Longer term, I think Norfleet or Drake Johnson will be the guys.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 2:55 p.m.
I'm hoping for someone else to get a serious turn as kick retruner besides Gallon. We heard the phrase "Gallon is just poised to break off a long return" over and over, but we never really saw it. I'm starting to think its not going to happen. Makes one miss Stonum even more.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 11:36 p.m.
Gallon is rock solid as a punt returner. He had very good numbers there and broke a couple. Kid is a good football player.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 2:50 p.m.
I think Justic Hayes is also going to be competing for kick return. I would be surprised if he weren't a factor this fall.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 2:02 p.m.
What about the QB? I don't think that is settled yet? Denard can Run but he cannot pass unless you call "chucking" the ball in the air down field passing?
Tue, Aug 7, 2012 : 6:04 p.m.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.
he's on the Heisman watch list...I'm guessing if he's good enough to be on that, he's good enough to start.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 3:02 p.m.
If you really paid attention to those jump balls he threw, you would realize that they were designed and a result of lots of practice. There's a reason our receivers came down with those balls more often than not - they trained for them. What you call 'chucking", the coaches call a designed play...that most often worked.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.
It's too bad you missed the Ohio State game. It was really exciting.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 1:10 p.m.
Kyle, You didn't mention Devin Gardner in the battle for receivers. Do you anticipate his presence in this battle for playing time at this position?
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 4 p.m.
SFK, no one knows how much Gardner will play at receiver. It likely will hinge on two things: How good he is at the position (and I'm hearing he looked strong in the spring), and the development of Russell Bellomy. If Bellomy is good enough to back up Denard, and Gardner good enough to play regular snaps at WR, then you could see him play regularly there. If either of those things doesn't happen, then I think he'll play WR just situationally. If I had to guess, I'd pick the latter scenario.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 3:45 p.m.
Maybe he can be Tannenhill 2.0
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.
Gardner = Guttierez? Didn't he play some time at receiver? Or Diallo Johnson too? (I forget some of these names, but it's not unprecedented). And Antonio Bass probably would have had some time there had he not gotten so horribly injured. And let's not forget Jay Reimersma who successfully went from QB to TE and had a long pro career.
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 : 2:52 p.m.
I dont think the coaches are thinking of Gardner as a threat to supplant another in the receiving corp, just as an ancillary receiver to use in certain situations. He will not be a multiple-down receiver, in other words. This all changes, of course, if he tears it up as receiver in practice and we have another very viable option at QB (WOTS is this is the case).