Michigan Football: 5 Players Who Have Surprised Us in 2013
Four up, four down.
Michigan's win-loss record is unblemished, but the perception of Team 134 may be at a season-low after its desperate 24-21 victory Saturday over UConn in East Hartford.
Turnovers have plagued quarterback Devin Gardner, who has eight interceptions this season in four games compared to five picks in five games in 2012.
The offense, at times, has been nothing short of flat and disappointing. After torching Central Michigan 59-9 and outdoing Notre Dame 41-30, the Wolverines' scoring abilities have come into question after a pair of average showings against UConn and Akron (won 28-24).
Problems are on both sides of the ball, as the defense has failed to live up to expectations. Other than Frank Clark, the defensive front has lacked a true playmaker through the first four contests. The linebackers haven't dazzled, but Desmond Morgan emerged as a gamer with a key interception in the fourth quarter versus the Huskies.
That's one of the lone highlights thus far.
A work in progress. That's Michigan football. The good, the bad and the otherwise will be examined in this slideshow. All hope isn't lost for the Wolverines, but serious adjustments during the bye week are necessary if they're going to compete in the Big Ten.
Fitzgerald Toussaint Cracks 100 Yards
With 120 yards Saturday night, Fitz Toussaint almost looked like his sophomore self, which ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2011. Add in a pair of touchdowns—a 35- and 12-yarder—and the senior had himself quite the time in East Hartford.
The bursts for six points were great signs for Toussaint, who hasn't been overly effective this season. He's struggled to gain a vertical approach to running the ball, still slowing himself down with needless lateral cuts.
If you're not going forward, you're going backward. That statement couldn't ring more true for running backs.
Sure, 24 carries for 120 looks pretty solid. It breaks down to five yards per touch, so what's there to complain about?
There's plenty, actually.
Prior to breaking his runs, Toussaint lugged his way to 37 yards on 10 carries. He certainly let loose during his next 14 totes, proving that he has durability and the will to win. Michigan needed Toussaint more than anyone Saturday night. He came through with difference-making scores, so he definitely deserves praise for carrying the Wolverines in the second half, offensively speaking of course.
Toussaint cracking 100 yards is a bit of a surprise. Given the running game's sloth-like presence during the previous three games, there was no reason to forecast Toussaint doing major damage to UConn. Maybe 70 yards and a touchdown, but 120 and two—well, that's going above and beyond.
Sadly, that "above and beyond" was once the norm for Toussaint. Without those two touchdowns, he would have had 22 carries for about 75 yards, give or take a few. He found two lanes at the right time and capitalized. That's what good runners do.
He's been criticized for two years and rightfully so. But this week, Toussaint deserves credit for vaulting a personal hurdle. That elusive 100-yard benchmark is important for confidence.
Where Is Devin Funchess?
As a freshman in 2012, Devin Funchess looked like he was well on his way to becoming a staple of Michigan's offense, one catch at a time.
Hardly a heavily targeted receiver, the tight end is mostly used for blocking. But at 6'5" and 235 pounds, he's an obvious threat to defensive backs.
Funchess had a 14-yard catch against UConn. Prior to that, he had two grabs for 65 yards (long of 48) versus Akron. He's a deep-ball threat who isn't being used enough. The Wolverines are forcing the Devin Gardner-Jeremy Gallon connection, forgetting about other pass-catchers in the process.
Michigan's offense won't be successful unless talented players are allowed to make plays with their talent. That's the bottom line here, folks. Gallon is a great receiver, one of the best in the Big Ten. However, he can't do it all. And if the pro-style offense is to be the mode of operation, Al Borges, the offensive coordinator, may want to find more ways to get Funchess involved.
He's too good not to use.
To no fault of his own, Funchess' stat line through four games—eight catches for 145 yards—pales in comparison to what could be. He's a five-catch-per-game kind of player.
Taylor Lewan Needs to Take Charge
After the Akron fiasco, left tackle Taylor Lewan, an All-American and sure first-rounder, promised that Michigan wouldn't put forth another anemic effort when it played UConn.
Well, that didn't happen. Matter of fact, it was almost worst than nearly losing to the Zips, if that's possible. Other than losing at home to the Zips, things could have been much worse had the Wolverines lost to the Huskies, who added extra seating to Rentschler Field for the event.
This is the time when Lewan has to be the bad guy. As a senior captain, Team 134 is his to lead. His comment after the Akron game should been enough but evidently it wasn't.
Michigan needs to be publicly blasted by its own. Not a coach. Not a school official. A player. And it should be Lewan, who carries heavy influence in the locker room. That may be the only way the younger players fully understand what Michigan football is all about.
Use of Jeremy Gallon Is Interesting
It should come as no surprise that Jeremy Gallon leads Michigan with 22 catches for 328 yards and four touchdowns.
But considering how soft the Wolverines' schedule—minus Notre Dame, of course—was thought to be, Gallon should have at least 400 yards receiving and six or seven touchdowns. The offense relies on Gallon, which is a problem in its own way. Defenses know about him, so capping the 5'8", 187-pound speedster is of high priority.
Against the Huskies, Gardner insisted on going to a dry well, which was Gallon, who had four catches for 31 yards; he was targeted at least 10 times. In Week 2 versus the Irish, Gallon erupted for eight catches and a career-high 184 yards with three scores. But remove that game, and you're left with average at best games for a player who should finish with at least six grabs each night.
Trapped. Michigan can't use Gallon too much, but it can't afford not to use him as often as possible, either. At this point, the Wolverines don't have many threats at receiver.
Saturday was the first time this year that Gallon failed to average at least 10 yards per reception. Part of that was due to UConn's defense, which prevented Michigan from going long.
Devin Gardner Hasn't Been Great
Who would have thought that Devin Gardner could be a liability?
Through four games, the past two in particular, the redshirt junior has teetered on the brink of disaster. He's turned over the ball seven times during the past two weeks. Saturday, he threw two picks and fumbled twice.
Luckily for Michigan, Gardner recovered one fumble deep in his own side of the field. Earlier, though, UConn's Ty-Meer Brown picked one up and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
A pick-six would have completed the trifecta. He threw one against Notre Dame and Akron.
"You can't be loose with the ball," Hoke told MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner after Saturday's victory. "We do that a little bit too much. We've got to keep working."
During his 17-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Gardner recklessly dangled the ball with his right hand while weaving through traffic. Count that as a break.
The fact that Gardner's campaign for All-Big Ten honors has been all but derailed—and it's not even October—speaks volumes. He was hyped. Obviously, he's not living up to that billing. He was supposed to signify a change in the way Michigan's offense operated.
Thus far, he's run plays made for Denard Robinson but with far less success.
Gardner's 294-yard game against the Irish is the high end. Akron and UConn were the low end. Somewhere in the middle is where Gardner lands on the spectrum. He's the No. 1 option. Throwing in Shane Morris, a true freshman, would be a huge mistake. The experience games have come and gone; Morris didn't get a snap. He's in no shape to lead the Wolverines through their Big Ten slate.
Gardner is working with a young offensive line. From left guard to right guard, Gardner's men didn't have starts prior to this season. He's also new to quarterback, kind of. This is his first year as the full-time starter; he's 7-2 as the No. 1.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81