Michigan Football: Top Players to Watch in Spring Practice

Phil CallihanContributor IFebruary 19, 2014

Michigan Football: Top Players to Watch in Spring Practice

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    How long until QB Devin Gardner returns form?
    How long until QB Devin Gardner returns form?Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    After a disappointing 7-6 campaign in 2013 which culminated with the team losing five out of its last six games, next season can’t come soon enough for Michigan. The epic slide dashed any hopes that Brady Hoke had for his team to make the Big Ten championship game and resulted in the dismissal of offensive coordinator Al Borges.

    Borges was replaced by Doug Nussmeier, who held the same post at Alabama under Nick Saban. Nussmeier is tasked with creating an offensive identity for Michigan, which struggled with consistency all season.

    As Hoke enters his fourth season in Ann Arbor, he’s under pressure to beat rivals Michigan State and Ohio State—which battled for the Big Ten championship last season—while Michigan lurked in the Legends division cellar.

    Preparation for winning the Big Ten starts with spring practice, and these are the players to watch.

QB Devin Gardner

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    QB Devin Gardner
    QB Devin GardnerTony Ding/Associated Press

    Quarterback Devin Gardner piled up statistics last season on the ground (165 rushes for 483 yards and 11 touchdowns) and through the air (208-of-345 passing for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns) but those numbers are eclipsed by the team’s final record (7-6).

    Gardner notably failed to rally his team to victories against Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State. He missed the bowl game because of a foot injury that occurred against Ohio State. As reported by MLive's Nick Baumgardner, Hoke said Gardner will be limited during spring practice, though he has recently started running again.

    Gardner is the unquestioned leader of the Michigan offense, but his injury has given backup Shane Morris valuable practice time during the bowl preparation to make up ground.

    Will Nussmeier begin his tenure with a proven but dinged up Gardner or someone new at quarterback?

    A solid return by Gardner would help quiet the speculation.

RB Derrick Green

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    RB Derrick Green
    RB Derrick GreenCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    With the graduation of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (185 rushes for 648 yards and 11 touchdowns), Michigan loses its top ground threat from last season. Toussaint gained those yards behind an offensive line that struggled—plagued by poor play and injuries—for most of the season.

    Green (83 rushes for 270 yards and two touchdowns) was injured during fall camp last season and didn’t get significant opportunities to run the ball until late in the season.

    Green needs to enter spring practice in top physical condition and improve his pass blocking to compete for the top spot on the depth chart.

LB Jake Ryan

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    LB Jake Ryan
    LB Jake RyanMatthew Holst/Getty Images

    Jake Ryan missed the beginning of last season, and the defense missed him immensely. When he returned, he made his presence felt with some big plays but struggled to regain form.

    He still managed 30 tackles, but could easily triple that total if he stays healthy for a complete season.

    Ryan needs to stay injury free during the spring while working back into top form and helping the younger members of the defense. His leadership is crucial toward Michigan improving on defense next season.

TE A.J. Williams

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    Can AJ Williams make up for the loss of #88 Jake Butt?
    Can AJ Williams make up for the loss of #88 Jake Butt?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Michigan offense caught lightning in a bottle last season when TE Devin Funchess was moved outside in formations to take advantage of his size (6’5”) versus smaller cornerbacks.

    The emergence of TE Jake Butt (20 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns) made the move possible and Nussmeier would probably want to keep Funchess outside again this season if not for Butt’s recent ACL injury, which makes his availability next season unlikely.

    Can A.J. Williams step up and allow Funchess to move outside again this season? He’ll need to improve on his lone reception from last season to give Nussmeier that option.

WR Amara Darboh

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    #82 Amara Darboh
    #82 Amara DarbohMike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    The graduation of Jeremy Gallon (89 receptions for 1,372 yards and nine touchdowns) and Drew Dileo (16 receptions for 174 yards and two touchdowns) leaves a lot of opportunity at the wide receiver position heading into next season.

    Amara Darboh injured his foot during fall camp and missed all of last season. Prior to his injury, Hoke had praised his work ethic and he was anticipated to get significant playing time.

    Can he return from injury and show the necessary playmaking ability to contribute at wide receiver? His progress returning from injury will be closely monitored during spring practice.

OL Ben Braden

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    Who will replace #77 Taylor Lewan?
    Who will replace #77 Taylor Lewan?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Michigan offensive line struggled last season, and the graduation of tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield leave both tackle positions vacant heading into spring practice.

    Lewan spoke highly of Ben Braden’s potential and, now, it's time for him to fill one of the open spots on the offensive line.

    With practically every position on the line up for grabs, it’s crucial Nussmeier finds the right group of players quickly—a major factor in last season’s poor play was the constant shuffling up front. Braden can help by seizing one of the tackle positions early in spring camp.

LB Michael Ferns

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    One of the most intriguing members of incoming recruiting class is Michael Ferns, who enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

    He has the speed and agility to contribute as a freshman. As a high profile recruit Michigan was able to lure from the state of Ohio, he has the potential to help Michigan make inroads with other recruits if he is successful.

OG Chris Bryant

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    #58 Chris Bryant
    #58 Chris BryantTony Ding/Associated Press

    Chris Bryant was injured for most of the last two seasons, and Michigan needs him more than ever heading into this campaign.

    With the specter of last season’s offensive line struggles hanging over the team—coupled with the need to replace Lewan and Schofield—a healthy Bryant could help fill another gap on the offensive line.

    If Bryant can’t return from injury this season, he may never be a regular contributor for Michigan—a strong spring would help dispel that concern.

WR Drake Harris

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    Along with top recruit Jabrill Peppers, Drake Harris is anticipated to have a major impact on Michigan this season, if he can return from an injury that forced him to miss his senior season of high school football. 

    The graduation of Gallon and Dileo leaves playing time at wide receiver for anyone who can seize the opportunity. Harris enrolled early to help recover from his injury and participate in spring practice. 

    Can Harris be an immediate impact player on offense? A strong, injury-free spring would make him a top option heading into next season.