Michigan Wolverines Football: 5 Position Battles to Be Determined
The 2011 spring game in Ann Arbor sent Michigan fans mixed signals. The fans saw a much-improved defense, but also saw an offense which didn’t look as dynamic as last year’s. Playing in the rain also didn’t make it an ideal day for offense, but it did make for good football weather.
New Offensive Coordinator Al Borges is in the middle of installing his playbook, so the jury should remain out (for now). Running about 25 percent of his playbook, the offense looked very pedestrian. The offensive line was without young-but-promising starting left tackle Taylor Lewan, and Michigan’s new 4-3 defense controlled the line of scrimmage.
Denard Robinson struggled under center and failed to complete half his pass attempts. Devin Gardner displayed a fantastic arm, but at one point tossed back-to-back interceptions. The running backs, for the most part, looked ordinary and struggled to find daylight most of the afternoon. Wide receivers looked the part, but were adjusting routes all day to accommodate for poorly thrown balls
Should Michigan fans interpret this as the defense looking good, or the offense looking bad? To be sure, the defense looked and tackled much better than the group we saw at this year’s Gator Bowl against Mississippi State. And to be doubly sure, the defense will only get better under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
The former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator is making just shy of $1,000,000 per year (including incentive bonuses) to make sure the Michigan defense makes a quantum leap forward in 2011.
Did the spring game create more questions than it answered for Michigan fans? A few of the most important questions lie within the various position battles which are to-be-continued until summer practices start.
Due to offensive and defensive system changes, slot receivers, spurs and bandits now must fit into different position groups. How will these players fare in 2011?
Here’s a look at some of the key position battles heating up going into the summer.
Martavious Odoms came to Ann Arbor in 2008 and led Michigan in receiving as a true freshman, catching 49 passes for 443 yards. The past two years he's declined to 22 receptions for 272 yards in 2009, to 16 catches for 241 yards in 2010.
With the emergence of slot receivers Roy Roundtree and former Wolverine basketball standout Kelvin Grady, Odoms ranked fifth on the team in receptions in 2010.
Gone is the slot receiver position group, and back is the pro-style offense. Where do Roundtree, Grady and Odoms fit now that they'll be competing for snaps with the much bigger Darryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway?
Somewhere out of these five, Borges figures to harness more production in the vertical passing game than Michigan has had over the past three years.
Who will be the go-to guys?
By all pre-season accounts, Junior Hemingway has developed into the best receiver on campus. At 6'1'', 225 pounds, the redshirt senior-to-be, catches, blocks and goes up for the football like a number one receiver should. Although he is faster than he looks, he is not faster than most corners he will face.
So who will be the speed guy?
Senior-to-be Darryl Stonum, at 6'2'', 195 pounds, is the uncontested speed guy in Michigan's very full stable of receivers. It can be argued, though, that he holds just as much value to the team as a kickoff return man.
That said, look for last year's number one receiver, redshirt junior Roy Roundtree, to get a healthy amount of playing time. Will Michigan employ a lot of three-receiver sets to get all three of these formidable receivers on the field? Most signs point to yes.
What of Odoms and Grady? These former slots are too valuable just to sit on the bench, right? Look for them to factor into the return game, but aside from four or five-receiver sets, it is hard to see them getting extended playing time.
Injuries do happen in college football, however, and Michigan has great replacements for almost any injury scenario at receiver.
Cornerback has been a crazy roller coaster of a position at Michigan for several years. When Donovan Warren left for the NFL Draft a year ago, Wolverine fans everywhere wondered who was going to step up and fill his void.
Troy Woolfolk was poised to have a breakout year in 2010 until he dislocated his ankle in the middle of summer practice. With the exception of Mike Martin, he was the one guy the defense couldn't afford to lose. To give Rich Rodriguez his due, he did hold his young secondary together well enough to win seven games.
Five screws and a six-inch plate in his ankle later, Woolfolk is back and faster than ever. Whether he can cut and pivot on his reconstructed ankle is a different matter. Unless the redshirt senior-to-be re-injures that ankle, he's penciled in at one of the cornerback spots. At 6'0'', 200 pounds, Woolfolk has the size to go against most any receiver.
Will the second cornerback be redshirt junior-to-be J.T. Floyd or sophomore-to-be Courtney Avery?
In roughly half the playing time of Floyd, Avery deflected just as many passes (four) and registered 30 tackles to Floyd's 67. Both are well-rounded athletes, with Avery possessing a better vertical leap (a reported 38") than Floyd, and Floyd being a little bigger (one inch taller, and 16 pounds heavier) than Avery.
Walk-on Tony Anderson is the dark horse in the cornerback race, and so far he hasn't backed down from anyone. The California native put himself in position to earn serious playing time in the fall with his hard work this spring.
This will be one of the best positional battles in camp, and it is anyone's guess who starts at this point.
Vincent Smith led all Michigan running backs with 601 yards rushing in 2010, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. At 5'7'', 170 pounds, he was forced into action as the team's feature back after starter Michael Shaw (402 yards, nine TD) was injured.
That was a tall order for the diminutive sophomore, who was coming off ACL surgery the year before.
Throw in the fact that redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint was injured much of the year, and one can see how much of the running back duties were placed on Smith's shoulders.
Smith, however, probably isn't the favorite to start at running back in 2011.
Is the speedy Shaw ready to handle the job as a feature back in a pro-style offense? The 6'1'', 187-pound senior-to-be has had a hard time staying healthy during his time in Ann Arbor.
What of Toussaint, who's just two years removed from running a 10.6 100 meters? Well, he's been hurt even more than Shaw has.
Freshman Stephen Hopkins ran for four touchdowns in limited duty last year, showing both great power and a tendency to fumble.
Lastly comes Mike Cox, the team's best blend of size and speed at 6'1'', 211 pounds. When he gets the chance to run in blowout wins, he looks like a world-beater. Even with all the injuries last season, he didn't get a single meaningful carry.
Is this a situation where there is a lot of parity, or is the whole stable of running backs just mediocre?
Pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate Denard Robinson's 256 carries from the quarterback position equalled the total carries of Smith, Shaw, Hopkins and Toussaint combined in 2010. Robinson outgained the four running backs by 461 yards.
The new offense should cut Robinson's carries in half, and theoretically, give more work to the running backs. But are any of the returning backs up to the task?
If they aren't, Michigan has freshmen Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes coming to campus in a few months to compete.
At 5'10'', 210 pounds, Rawls is a physical back with 4.5 speed (think Jon Vaughn) and Hayes is about the same size as Michigan receiver Kelvin Grady, and he possesses a similar skill set to the former all-state running back from Grand Rapids as well.
It is often said that running back is the easiest position to start at as a freshman—Rawls and Hayes will certainly test that theory. But will they beat out the five running backs on the roster?
We'll find out this summer.
Michigan graduates two starting offensive linemen this year, right tackle Perry Dorrestein and Stephen Schilling. The line will miss the leadership of the redshirt seniors on what is still a young football team.
Three three talented linemen are fighting for their two starting positions, and thanks to an injury to starting left tackle Taylor Lewan, the coaches had more of a chance to evaluate the potential replacements against the number one defense.
Mark Huyge, at 6'6'', 306 pounds, is rangy and versatile. The redshirt senior-to-be can play either left guard or right tackle (or left tackle), and has starting experience. Huyge is more of a technique blocker and not a road grader.
He'll be a threat to win either the left guard or right tackle position. Even if he doesn't start the first game, his versatility will all but insure he's the first offensive lineman off the bench—unless the injury is to center David Molk, in which case redshirt junior to-be Rocko Khoury will fill in.
Ricky Barnum, although a bit undersized at 6'3'' and 285 pounds, is the odds-on favorite to win Stephen Schilling's vacated left guard position. By all accounts, Barnum could be just as good as his predecessor was this year.
Barnum has Schilling's intensity and versatility (like Schilling, Barnum can also play right tackle) and athletic ability, and has been chomping at the bit for playing time since Michigan virtually stole him from Florida just before signing day in 2008.
The 6'7'', 293-pound Michael Schofield is competing for Dorrestein's vacated right tackle position. One of his jobs over the summer is to breach the 300-pound threshold—as is, he looks like a blocking tight end or a power forward on the basketball team.
Looks can be deceiving, though, as Schofield is a nasty, prototypical right tackle in the making. The Illinois native was recruited in the same class as Lewan, and many in Ann Arbor looked to the two as the bookend tackles of the future. Unless Huyge can hold off Schofield during the summer, the future will be 2011 for the redshirt sophomores-to-be.
The safety positions have been major problem areas at Michigan for years. With a change back to the 4-3 defense, the Wolverines will field a strong safety for the first time since 2008.
The 3-3-5 defense had a "spur" position, assumed strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid responsibilities.
Who will play this position in 2011? It appears true freshman Carvin Johnson locked up the starting free safety spot, and most signs point to last year's starting spur, Jordan Kovacs, sliding into the strong safety position.
From a stats point of view, the 6'0'' 196-pound Kovacs had a really good year in 2010. The former walk-on made 112 tackles and snagged a pair of interceptions. His play improved from the year before, when he was pressed into duty as a redshirt freshman, but he was targeted by teams with athletic tight ends in the passing game.
His lack of foot speed (4.7+ in the 40) hurts Michigan in the passing game, and affords him no mistakes in judgement when taking tackling angles in run support. But, until someone in Ann Arbor outplays him, the strong safety position is his to lose.
Marvin Robinson was anointed the strong safety of the future as a sophomore at Lakes Region High School (FL) by many Michigan fans in the know.
Were it not for the unexpected emergence of Kovacs two years ago, he just might have started as a true freshman—but he didn't. At 6'2'', 200 pounds, Robinson has a bodybuilder's physique and is more fleet afoot than Kovacs (4.6 in the 40).
A violent hitter, Robinson has an enforcer's mentality to the point where he's constantly in the conversation for a position switch to outside linebacker. It would be somewhat of a surprise if unseats Kovacs by the fall, but there are plenty of Wolverine fans who all but expect it to happen.
Redshirt sophomore-to-be Thomas Gordon is the dark horse in this strong safety race. At 5'11'' and 210 pounds, he's hardly a physical prototype on paper. One look at his bulging biceps and washboard abs tells a different story, though.
Gordon, who was converted from a high school quarterback to the "bandit" (outside linebacker) position once he got to Michigan, has been moved by the coaching staff to strong safety to compete for playing time. He shows a good nose for the ball and is the kind of player a coach wants to have on the field—somewhere. Will it be strong safety in 2011?