Entering 2013 spring football, Michigan begins life without Denard Robinson at quarterback. Luckily, they sort of got a head start on it in 2012.
When Robinson hurt his arm with four games left in the regular season, Devin Gardner switched back from wide receiver to quarterback. He was the guy the rest of the way; Robinson would only throw one pass as the Wolverines went 3-2 down the stretch, with Gardner putting forth strong efforts in each outing. Maize N Brew broke down the quarterbacks on the roster in 2013, and had good things to say about the rising junior:
The future is bright for Gardner. Stepping into the starting quarterback role after playing receiver all season is extremely tough to pull off, yet he still managed to account for more touchdowns in Big Ten play than Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. His accuracy still needs work, but I expect it to improve with a full off season taking snaps as the starter. His pocket awareness was surprisingly great for most of the time that he played, and it can only get better.
Gardner isn't the same quarterback as Robinson, which is a good thing and a bad thing. He's not an explosive runner like his predecessor, who is trying to prove he can be a wide receiver or running back in the NFL, but Gardner can still move -- he ran for seven touchdowns in his five starts. And although it's not great, his throwing accuracy is well ahead of his predecessor's. Even through his senior season, Denard couldn't figure out how to avoid throwing interceptions, and while Gardner tossed one in all of the games he played quarterback, it was balanced against 11 touchdowns, while Robinson threw nine picks against nine touchdowns.
With Gardner at the helm, there's work for Michigan to do. It was nice to go 11-2 and win a BCS bowl game in Brady Hoke's first year, but the second wasn't as pretty: the team lost badly to Alabama and came up short in two of the school's biggest rivalry games, against Ohio State and Notre Dame. The doldrums of the Rich Rodriguez era are gone, and now Michigan is expected to be competitive -- not just on a conference level, but nationally.
It's only been two years since the new divisional setup, but the team has yet to go to the Big Ten Championship Game. A run to Indianapolis this year and possibly a conference ring would be a strong 2013.
Spring practice start date: March 16
Spring game date, location: April 13, Michigan Stadium
Approximate returning starters: Offense: Five, six if you count Devin Gardner. The Wolverines were lucky to retain Taylor Lewan, the left tackle who would've been a surefire top-10 pick, but decided to return to Michigan for his senior year. He'll be important with Gardner under center, as he's more of a pocket passer. Fitzgerald Toussaint also returns for a senior season at running back, although he's coming off a mediocre season. Also returning: WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, RT Michael Schofield.
Defense: Six. Strongside linebacker Jake Ryan's the stud of the defense going forward after making second-team all-conference as a sophomore with 16 tackles for loss. Also returning: DT Quinton Washington, DE Brennen Beyer, LB Desmond Morgan, CB Raymon Taylor, FS Thomas Gordon.
Biggest addition: Michigan had arguably the best recruiting class in the Big Ten, and six of them are on campus already as early enrollees.
Biggest loss: Obviously Denard Robinson. He was Michigan's offense for 3.5 years, scoring on his first snap from quarterback as a true freshman and averaging over 100 yards on the ground in the three games after returning from injury his senior year.
New players? Among those six early enrollees, all four-star players per Rivals: tight end Jake Butt, defensive end Taco Charlton, offensive tackles Kyle Bosch and Logan Tuley-Tillman, and defensive backs Ross Douglas and Dymonte Thomas. The one with the most ability to contribute right away could be the 6'6 Charlton, with Craig Roh having graduated. Here's a highlight video:
As for post-spring enrollees, Derrick Green was the top running back in the nation -- perhaps he'll take some snaps from Toussaint.
New coaches? After Chip Kelly's departure from Oregon, Michigan is one of only five teams to retain the same coaching staff three seasons in a row.
New schemes? It's not really a new scheme, but Michigan's offense won't be the same with Gardner at quarterback. More pocket passing, more throws downfield, more runs with the tailback, and fewer quarterback runs. Al Borges had to reshape his team's offense on the go last season, and it didn't end up horribly, but with an entire offseason, Michigan should be better adjusted for Gardner.