The big 2014 Michigan football preview: Fragile, volatile, looking for a rebound

Awful offensive line play and youthful defensive mistakes turned a solid start into a feckless finish for Michigan in 2013. Can a more experienced Wolverines squad, replete with a new offensive coordinator, bounce back?

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1. The natives are restless

Because I'm a rather sick person, by the end of each season I have a mental list of teams I cannot wait to preview for the next season. Maybe they dramatically over- or underachieved, and I want to figure out why. Maybe the stats had them ranked much higher or lower than I would have expected. Maybe they have a new head coach or coordinator, and I want to see what difference they can make. Maybe they have a player or a coach I just love to talk about.

Or maybe they had a single unit so inexplicably awful that it damaged both sides of the ball and brought the team to a complete standstill.

The list for that last category starts and ends with Michigan, which fell apart so completely on the offensive line -- and with a first-round draft pick at left tackle, no less -- that it made running impossible, put a flawed, exciting quarterback into continuously awkward situations, and helped to create consistently awful field position for a young, banged-up defense that needed some help. Michigan's offense almost completely stopped moving the ball after November 1, thanks in no small part to a horrific offensive line that was constantly looking for the right lineup that it never found.

It even helped to get offensive coordinator Al Borges fired; Borges did do plenty to help in that regard, of course, and one could certainly assert that a lot of his tactical decisions made the line worse than it otherwise could have been. (We'll get to test that theory to a certain degree in 2014; Borges is gone, but line coach Darrell Funk returns.)

The line's performance was so awful in 2013 that if can simply find a level of general competence in 2014, it could serve as a rising tide for a team that really wasn't that far from being a whole lot better. And that would be a rather welcome development for Michigan fans who are suddenly getting pretty restless after two straight years of regression.

Head coach Brady Hoke engineered an outstanding first season in Ann Arbor. Borges' pro-style tendencies meshed well with read option personnel, and Michigan stayed in the Off. F/+ top 10 while new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison pulled off a miraculous improvement from 104th in Def. F/+ to 18th; the result: Michigan finished 11-2 and ninth in the F/+ rankings. When combined with stellar recruiting and a strong track record, it was easy to assume great things from the Wolverines moving forward.

But as the program has become more of his making and less of Rich Rodriguez's, it has slipped. The bounceback potential is strong here, but I was talking about bouncebacks and planets aligning a year ago. Fool me once, etc.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 37
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Central Michigan 111 59-9 W 39.9 - 15.1 W
7-Sep Notre Dame 26 41-30 W 35.0 - 30.0 W
14-Sep Akron 108 28-24 W 31.2 - 31.4 L
21-Sep at Connecticut 93 24-21 W 20.5 - 20.4 W
5-Oct Minnesota 55 42-13 W 41.0 - 27.8 W 8.6
12-Oct at Penn State 61 40-43 L 21.4 - 20.5 W 3.8
19-Oct Indiana 56 63-47 W 41.2 - 35.6 W 3.9
2-Nov at Michigan State 6 6-29 L 16.1 - 25.0 L 2.2
9-Nov Nebraska 39 13-17 L 11.3 - 17.6 L 0.9
16-Nov at Northwestern 59 27-19 W 22.6 - 19.8 W -1.2
23-Nov at Iowa 29 21-24 L 18.2 - 28.7 L -3.5
30-Nov Ohio State 9 41-42 L 46.1 - 33.6 W -2.1
28-Dec vs. Kansas State 24 14-31 L 26.2 - 31.6 L -1.4
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +5.3% 40 +4.5% 40 +0.3% 61
Points Per Game 32.2 46 26.8 67
Adj. Points Per Game 28.5 64 25.9 48

2. An overnight collapse

Michigan's 2013 season could have gone much further in either direction. The Wolverines played in seven games decided by one possession and managed to win three of them; some luck helped (as you see below, they were plus-3.1 points per game in terms of turnovers luck), but you could certainly make the case that they were a few plays from 4-8 and, with only one regular-season blowout loss, a few plays from 11-1 and a division title.

What we came to know as the Michigan offense didn't really appear until later in the season. Through their first seven games, the Wolverines had averaged at least 6.4 yards per play five times. Sure, there were frustrating moments; the play-calling at the end of the Penn State was maddening, and the offense sure tried to give UConn quite a few opportunities to pull an upset. Still, part of the reason things were so frustrating was because of the upside the offense was showing.

Over the last six games, there was almost no upside.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Michigan 32.9, Opponent 25.8 (plus-7.1)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Opponent 26.1, Michigan 23.4 (minus-2.7)
    Minus the Ohio State game: Opponent 24.5, Michigan 18.9 (minus-5.6)

The same offense that had averaged 6.4 yards per play against Notre Dame and 9.1 against Indiana (yes, Indiana, but still ... 9.1!) managed just 4.2 against Northwestern, 2.9 against Michigan State, 2.8 against Nebraska, and 2.8 against Iowa. Including sacks, the Wolverines rushed for a combined 56 yards against Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas State. The running game had nothing, and Devin Gardner got no time in the pocket.

When things fell apart, they completely and totally fell apart, and while the defense held steady, it couldn't pick up the slack, and close wins turned into close losses down the stretch.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.21 34 IsoPPP+ 115.4 10
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.3% 76 Succ. Rt. + 101.2 55
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 33.5 117 Def. FP+ 94.4 111
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 42 Redzone S&P+ 107.0 35
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.9 ACTUAL 21 -0.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 87 47 56 33
RUSHING 103 75 77 42
PASSING 51 25 29 35
Standard Downs 58 84 10
Passing Downs 33 25 42
Q1 Rk 9 1st Down Rk 38
Q2 Rk 93 2nd Down Rk 56
Q3 Rk 43 3rd Down Rk 37
Q4 Rk 36

3. Doing your D no favors

For the year as a whole, Michigan's offense still ranked 40th in Off. F/+. It wasn't always as bad as we remember it being in November, and its high points were awfully high.

A lot of Michigan's success was derived from big plays. Devin Gardner is a strong runner at quarterback, and De'Veon Smith hinted at some nice open-field explosiveness. But most of the explosiveness came from receiver Jeremy Gallon and WR-TE-WR-TE Devin Funchess, who combined to 15.4 yards per catch over 10.6 catches per game. Jehu Chesson tossed in a solid 14.7-yard average over 15 catches as well.

The defense was fighting uphill all season, even when the offense was actually gaining yards here and there.

The big plays were awfully big, but the problem was that the small plays were also awfully small. (Case in point: Smith only actually got five yards downfield on seven of his 26 carries.) Michigan went three-and-out far too frequently, and inefficiency, combined with particularly costly turnovers and average special teams, resulted in some serious field position disadvantages. Opponents' average starting field position was the 33.5; compare that to in-state rival Michigan State, which had far less offensive explosiveness but stayed out of its own way, forced more three-and-outs than it committed, and handed opponents an average field position of 25.8. You think 7.7 yards per possession might add up over 10-15 possessions?

That Michigan's defense was able to absorb this and still hand its offense pretty good field position was both impressive and rather tragic. The defense was fighting uphill all season, even when the offense was actually gaining yards here and there.

The good news is that field position is both vital and subject to change. Improve up front, cut down on both turnovers and the magnitude of turnovers, improve a bit on kicks and returns, and hand your defense even normal, average field position, and you could end up flipping the field pretty quickly. I'm not saying Michigan will do this, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Devin Gardner 6'4, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 208 345 2960 21 11 60.3% 34 9.0% 7.1
Shane Morris 6'3, 201 So. 4 stars (6.0) 29 47 261 0 2 61.7% 2 4.1% 5.3
Russell Bellomy 6'3, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Wilton Speight 6'6, 230 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

4. Situation matters

One of my favorite pieces Ian Boyd has written for either Football Study Hall or SB Nation was last December's piece on Devin Gardner.

Gardner found Gallon often enough to accumulate 1,284 receiving yards for the 5'8 target. For the season, Gardner threw for 2,960 yards at 8.3 yards per pass. He threw 11 total interceptions against 21 touchdown passes, but those mistakes are easily forgiven when considered in the context of Gardner running for his life every other snap.

There is good evidence to suggest that the duress Gardner played under took its toll within games. His QB passer ratings in the first and third quarters were 168.0 and 157.2, respectively, while he managed only 127.9 and 115.9 in quarters two and four.

If the physical pounding of being hit after throws or on sacks wasn't enough to beat down the Detroit native, Gardner also bore the burden of carrying the Michigan run game.

In Michigan's discouraging overtime defeat at Penn State, feature back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 27 yards on 27 carries while Gardner toted the rock 24 times for 121. [...]

If defenses simply adjust their response to funnel the ball inside, then an offense has to consider whether they actually want to feature their QB as an inside runner in their offense on a regular basis.

Michigan had little choice, as they couldn't get their run game going between the tackles without the advantage of leaving a defender unblocked to be read by Gardner. Against Michigan State and Nebraska, when Gardner was stuffed, Michigan could mount absolutely no ground game at all and finished with dismal games.

It's astounding that Gardner survived the pounding he took over the course of the season and managed to start and finish each of Michigan's games.

Gardner was Michigan's quarterback and star running back. Michigan gave him Tom Harmon's jersey number, then proceeded to find every possible roadblock to keep him from looking like Harmon. And he eventually broke down, missing the bowl game with a broken foot. And if not for a spectacular game against Ohio State (32-for-45, 451 yards, four touchdowns on a broken foot), it would have been hard to argue against the thought that Gardner was a worse quarterback at the end of the season than at the beginning. That's not the way things are supposed to work.

One of the spring story lines in Ann Arbor revolved around how Gardner wasn't a slam dunk to start his senior season. He and blue-chip sophomore Shane Morris traded blows this spring in a battle that will continue into the fall. Morris was less effective than Gardner (and less mobile) in fewer opportunities last year, but considering he was a freshman, that probably doesn't mean much.

Honestly, I hope Gardner holds onto the job for one more year, just to see what he's capable of in a more stable setting. His own instability -- his once-per-game "Oh, Devin, no" mistake -- cost him, but in a lot of ways he made mistakes the way David Carr made mistakes for the Houston Texans or Patrick Ramsey for the Redskins or Blaine Gabbert for the Jaguars. He was to blame for some of his problems, but it was impossible to figure out how much was on him and how much was on the circumstances and the supporting cast.

Hoke replaced Borges with Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who spent the last couple of seasons building a rather unique pro-style offense, one that utilizes every inch of the field. Nussmeier inherits an offense with recruiting rankings similar to Alabama's but minimal proven production. If he can bring stability to the line and general philosophy, then Gardner could benefit.

Of course, so could Morris.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Fitzgerald Toussaint RB 185 648 13 3.5 4.4 29.2%
Devin Gardner QB 6'4, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 131 748 11 5.7 5.7 47.3%
Derrick Green RB 5'11, 240 So. 5 stars (6.1) 83 270 2 3.3 3.7 25.3%
De'Veon Smith RB 5'11, 224 So. 3 stars (5.7) 26 117 0 4.5 6.4 26.9%
Devin Funchess WR 6'5, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 6 34 0 5.7 2.8 66.7%
Dennis Norfleet WR 5'7, 169 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 4 53 0 13.3 18.0 50.0%
Shane Morris QB 6'3, 201 So. 4 stars (6.0) 4 43 0 10.8 32.5 25.0%
Justice Hayes RB 5'10, 192 Jr. 4 stars (5.9)
Ross Douglas RB 5'10, 186 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jeremy Gallon WR 137 89 1373 65.0% 37.1% 56.7% 10.0 300 9.8 208.0
Devin Funchess WR 6'5, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 92 49 748 53.3% 24.9% 50.6% 8.1 92 8.0 113.3
Drew Dileo SLOT 30 16 174 53.3% 8.1% 55.6% 5.8 -40 6.1 26.4
Jake Butt TE 6'6, 237 So. 4 stars (5.9) 27 20 235 74.1% 7.3% 26.9% 8.7 9 11.3 35.6
Jehu Chesson WR 6'3, 196 So. 3 stars (5.6) 24 15 221 62.5% 6.5% 36.4% 9.2 37 9.1 33.5
Fitzgerald Toussaint RB 20 18 203 90.0% 5.4% 31.6% 10.2 16 8.5 30.7
Jeremy Jackson WR 10 6 71 60.0% 2.7% 33.3% 7.1 -4 6.1 10.8
Joe Reynolds WR 7 4 69 57.1% 1.9% 66.7% 9.9 17 4.2 10.5
Justice Hayes RB 5'10, 192 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 7 6 40 85.7% 1.9% 50.0% 5.7 -24 6.9 6.1
Dennis Norfleet SLOT 5'7, 169 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 6 6 46 100.0% 1.6% 50.0% 7.7 -14 7.5 7.0
A.J. Williams TE 6'6, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 2 1 2 50.0% 0.5% 100.0% 1.0 -12 1.1 0.3
Keith Heitzman TE 6'3, 271 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Amara Darboh WR 6'2, 212 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Wyatt Shallman HB 6'3, 237 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Khalid Hill TE 6'2, 258 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Da'Mario Jones WR 6'2, 192 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Drake Harris WR 6'4, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Freddy Canteen WR 6'1, 170 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Ian Bunting TE 6'7, 223 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 83.2 2.19 2.8 34.5% 52.0% 29.9% 68.5 6.2% 10.8%
Rank 118 126 107 111 120 126 112 102 107
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Taylor Lewan LT 48 All-American, 1st All-Big Ten
Michael Schofield RT 36
Graham Glasgow C 6'6, 308 Jr. NR 13
Kyle Kalis RG 6'5, 302 So. 5 stars (6.1) 9
Erik Magnuson LT 6'6, 295 So. 4 stars (5.9) 7
Jack Miller C 6'4, 297 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 4
Kyle Bosch LG 6'5, 301 So. 4 stars (5.9) 3
Chris Bryant LG 2
Joey Burzynski LG 6'1, 288 Sr. NR 1
Erik Gunderson RT 0
Ben Braden RT 6'6, 318 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Blake Bars RT 6'5, 291 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Patrick Kugler RG 6'5, 295 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Chris Fox LT 6'6, 310 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
David Dawson LG 6'4, 295 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Logan Tuley-Tillman LT 6'7, 290 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Dan Samuelson RG 6'5, 283 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Mason Cole LT 6'5, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)

5. The line won't be worse

Whoever ends up starting at quarterback will have plenty of potential stars around him but few known quantities. Derrick Green was a five-star steal for Hoke but provided little to no efficiency or explosiveness. De'Veon Smith broke a couple of solid runs with the same minimal efficiency. Reserve Justice Hayes and redshirt freshman Ross Douglas each have four-star pedigrees.

Meanwhile, Funchess returns as the go-to guy, and while this seems to change periodically, he is currently listed as a wideout. He could form a nice combination with Jehu Chesson, slot receiver Dennis Norfleet, and whichever wideouts emerge from a pretty large pool of four-star youngsters -- Amara Darboh, Drake Harris, spring star Freddy Canteen, etc. At tight end, Jake Butt tore his ACL in February and is questionable for the season, but there appear to be other decent options, including Wyatt Shallman, who could be useful in situations that require an H-Back.

But really, none of this matters if Michigan can't straighten out its issues up front. We knew the line would be young in 2013 -- in a massive understatement, I called 2013 a "transition year" for the line in last year's preview -- but I still imagined the floor being much higher than it was.

Tackles Taylor Lewan and Mike Schofield started every game, but the interior line was shuffled on five separate occasions, and each combination seemed less effective than the last. Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, and Kyle Kalis started the first four games on the inside, then it was Chris Bryant, Glasgow, and Kalis for two. The Joey Burzynski-Glasgow-Erik Magnuson combination lasted one game before giving way to a Kyle Bosch-Glasgow-Magnuson trio for three. Magnuson, Glasgow, and Kalis teamed up for the final three games, which did include the resurgent performance against Ohio State.

A complete lack of confidence and continuity on the interior resulted in some of the worst line stats you'll ever see from a major-conference (blueblood, no less) offensive line. The Wolverines were in the bottom 10 in terms of Adj. Line Yards and bottom 15 in Adj. Sack Rate. Linemen got little help from running backs (none of whom were incredibly assertive) or Gardner (who, like so many mobile quarterbacks, takes far too many sacks), but backs and Gardner got no help from the line.

Six players return with starting experience, and three of them are former four- or five-star recruits. There's a four-star sophomore and four four-star redshirt freshmen in the mix as well. It's hard to assume this line will actually be good in 2014 -- not without Lewan and Schofield -- but it was almost impossible to be this bad last fall. Improvement toward simple competence is both likely and gravely necessary.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.09 43 IsoPPP+ 103.3 43
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.6% 64 Succ. Rt. + 103.1 48
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 32.1 26 Off. FP+ 105.5 9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.8 22 Redzone S&P+ 119.2 14
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.9 ACTUAL 26.0 +7.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 41 43 48 51
RUSHING 29 33 36 22
PASSING 66 54 64 82
Standard Downs 39 46 36
Passing Downs 64 50 70
Q1 Rk 40 1st Down Rk 63
Q2 Rk 15 2nd Down Rk 45
Q3 Rk 76 3rd Down Rk 28
Q4 Rk 88

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 104.6 3.02 2.92 36.8% 69.8% 18.5% 95.8 4.1% 6.4%
Rank 45 73 26 41 82 76 67 72 71
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Frank Clark DE 6'2, 273 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 31.5 4.5% 12.5 5.0 0 1 0 1
Willie Henry DT 6'2, 297 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 23.0 3.3% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brennen Beyer DE 6'3, 256 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 21.5 3.1% 4.0 2.0 1 1 1 0
Jibreel Black DT 13 20.5 2.9% 7.5 2.5 0 2 1 0
Mario Ojemudia DE 6'3, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 16.0 2.3% 1.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Chris Wormley DT 6'4, 292 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 14.0 2.0% 4.5 2.5 0 1 0 0
Quinton Washington NT 13 12.0 1.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Keith Heitzman TE 12 5.5 0.8% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ondre Pipkins DT 6'3, 315 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 5 4.0 0.6% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Matthew Godin DE 6'6, 280 So. 3 stars (5.7) 7 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Richard Ash NT 8 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tom Strobel DT 6'6, 268 So. 4 stars (5.8) 1 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Taco Charlton DE 6'6, 275 So. 4 stars (5.8) 10 1.5 0.2% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Glasgow NT 6'4, 297 So. 2 stars (5.2) 13 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Henry Poggi DE 6'4, 271 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Maurice Hurst Jr. DT 6'2, 277 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Bryan Mone DT 6'4, 315 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

6. More mundane, please

Michigan's defense was sound in 2013, with all of the forehanded and backhanded compliments associated with that adjective. The Wolverines certainly held up well and produced solid red zone results, and their ability to flip the field on opponents after receiving woeful field position was pretty impressive. But for the most part, the Michigan defense was simply good at most things and great at none.

Considering the inexperience on last year's team, maybe that was to be expected. Five of the top six tacklers on the defensive line, six of the top seven linebackers, and five of the top seven defensive backs return, and that level of continuity tends to portend improvement.

It wouldn't be a bad thing for that improvement to start up front. Frank Clark had a lovely breakout year, but if he or linebacker Cameron Gordon didn't get to the quarterback, nobody did. Meanwhile, last year's tackles were just too young and banged up to succeed. A foursome of sophomore tackles and five-star junior Ondre Pipkins have all the potential in the world, but if they can take some pressure off of the linebackers, Michigan will become far more efficient.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
James Ross III SLB 6'1, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 12 65.5 9.3% 5.5 1.5 0 2 2 0
Desmond Morgan MLB 6'1, 232 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 59.5 8.5% 4.5 1.0 1 3 1 0
Joe Bolden WLB 6'3, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 41.0 5.8% 4.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Cameron Gordon SLB 12 31.0 4.4% 8.5 5.0 0 2 1 0
Jake Ryan MLB 6'3, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 8 26.5 3.8% 4.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Ben Gedeon WLB 6'3, 236 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13 14.0 2.0% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Royce Jenkins-Stone SLB 6'2, 221 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Mike McCray MLB 6'4, 242 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Michael Ferns LB 6'3, 235 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Chase Winovich LB 6'3, 216 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

7. Hello again, Old Jake

There was a lot of message sending in spring ball this year. Willie Henry spent part of the spring on the third string, and linebackers Desmond Morgan and James Ross spent a lot of time on the second string. Depending on whether you're an optimist or pessimist, you could see either shaky leadership or great depth from that.

Photo credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

One thing we should see for sure in 2014: a healthy Jake Ryan. That's very good news. After recording 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three break-ups, and four forced fumbles as a sophomore, Ryan injured his knee last spring and missed half of the season. After his return, he was still the best play-maker in the linebacking corps (he had 4.5 TFLs in eight games, and nobody else had more than 5.5 in 12), but his frequency was down. We'll see how he handles a move to middle linebacker, but he's a rare combination of steady and aggressive, and with him as the anchor, Michigan can experiment with other potential play-makers like Ross, Morgan, and Royce Jenkins-Stone.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Raymon Taylor CB 5'10, 183 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 73.5 10.4% 1.5 0.5 4 9 0 0
Thomas Gordon SS 12 45.5 6.5% 2 0 3 2 1 0
Jarrod Wilson FS 6'2, 200 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 39.0 5.5% 2 0 2 2 0 0
Blake Countess CB 5'10, 182 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 36.0 5.1% 2 0 6 4 0 0
Courtney Avery FS 11 22.5 3.2% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Jourdan Lewis CB 5'10, 174 So. 4 stars (5.9) 13 15.5 2.2% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Channing Stribling CB 6'2, 176 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 15.0 2.1% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Josh Furman SS 8 9.5 1.3% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Dymonte Thomas SS 6'2, 190 So. 4 stars (5.9) 13 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Delonte Hollowell CB 5'9, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Terry Richardson CB 5'9, 172 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jeremy Clark FS 6'4, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Delano Hill SS 6'0, 205 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Reon Dawson CB 6'2, 178 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Brandon Watson NB 5'11, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Jabrill Peppers DB 6'1, 210 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)

8. Too many glitches

Michigan's secondary provided the requisite havoc numbers last fall; Ray Taylor and Blake Countess combined for 10 picks and 13 break-ups at the corner position, and Thomas Gordon and Jarrod Wilson combined for four tackles for loss, five picks, and four break-ups. Considering Wilson and Countess were sophomores and quite a few freshman backups got experience, it would seem this secondary is in pretty good shape with only Gordon and safety Courtney Avery gone.

The Wolverines had a bit of a big-play problem in the back, however. They allowed 121 passes of 10+ yards (88th in the country), 42 of 20+ yards (69th), and 10 of 40+ (73rd). Taylor and Countess got burned from time to time (frequently by Kansas State's Tyler Lockett), and safety help perhaps wasn't quite strong enough.

But youth does become experience, and Taylor and Countess could get help from spring star Jourdan Lewis. Throw in five-star do-it-all Jabrill Peppers, and you've got a potentially excellent secondary that is still rather young overall.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Matt Wile 6'2, 216 Sr. 61 40.6 2 12 16 45.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Matt Wile 6'2, 216 Sr. 76 59.8 37 4 48.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Brendan Gibbons 44-44 10-12 83.3% 5-8 62.5%
Matt Wile 6'2, 216 Sr. 5-5 2-2 100.0% 1-3 33.3%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Dennis Norfleet KR 5'7, 169 Jr. 40 23.5 0
Drew Dileo KR 5 19.2 0
Jeremy Gallon PR 7 4.6 0
Drew Dileo PR 6 7.3 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 61
Field Goal Efficiency 62
Punt Return Efficiency 41
Kick Return Efficiency 55
Punt Efficiency 60
Kickoff Efficiency 91
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 87

9. Ode to the greatest field goal ever

Michigan's special teams unit was almost perfectly average in 2013, unspectacular in place-kicking, punts, and kick returns, a hair above average in punt returns, and below average on kickoffs (despite lots of touchbacks). Michigan needs to find some new return men, a new place-kicker, and a new holder, but instead of talking about that, let's just watch the greatest hurried field goal attempt of all-time.

Drew Dileo's slide really was the best part.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Appalachian State 123
6-Sep at Notre Dame 25
13-Sep Miami (Ohio) 124
20-Sep Utah 45
27-Sep Minnesota 73
4-Oct at Rutgers 78
11-Oct Penn State 37
25-Oct at Michigan State 13
1-Nov Indiana 47
8-Nov at Northwestern 50
22-Nov Maryland 51
29-Nov at Ohio State 4
Five-Year F/+ Rk 11.9% (25)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 17
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 5 / -3.1
TO Luck/Game +3.1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (6, 8)

10. A low-variance schedule

Michigan faces only three teams projected better than 37th, and they're all on the road. The Wolverines face seven teams projected between 37th and 78th, and five of the seven are at home. And 2014 Appalachian State is in no way 2007 Appalachian State. This is about as low-variance a schedule as you'll ever see. Whether Michigan ranks 20th or 45th, the easiest result to project is about 9-3.

Things could certainly go off course. An early loss to Utah or Minnesota could send the team into a spiral, just as a win over Notre Dame could prompt a 7-0 start before the trip to Michigan State. This was a relatively fragile, volatile team a year ago, one that nearly lost to Akron and nearly beat Ohio State, so having a staid schedule probably doesn't do much for Michigan fans' anxieties.

Still, I find myself gravitating toward this team. Perhaps it's just a need to double down on last season's optimism, but I feel like last year's biggest issues -- awful offensive line play, inexperience on defense -- will be rectified to some degree. And if they are, then Michigan is suddenly flipping the field on opponents, preventing easy scores, and giving Devin Gardner (or, yes, Shane Morris) infinitely easier down-and-distance situations. Michigan was dragged pretty far down by a couple of fixable issues, and if Doug Nussmeier is able to find a rhythm for this offense, this could pretty easily be a top-15 or top-20 team again.

And if it isn't a top-20 team again, the hot seat talk could be pretty impressive in the offseason.

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