Michigan Football 2014-2015 Season Preview

I had this post all ready to go but Brady Hoke insisted on changing his mind about who is starting and I’m sure I’ll have to end up updating this post this week. Anyways, I hate to say it, but this is probably the least optimistic I’ve been for a Michigan football season in a while. Yes, that includes Rich Rodriguez’s tenure because his first year doesn’t count. It’s impossible to be optimistic when you know you’ve got Stephen Threet and Nick Sheridan running a mostly option spread attack on the offensive side of the ball.

To be perfectly honest, the lack of optimism is only due to the offensive line. I think the defense has a chance to be an elite defense, especially because of the massive amount of talent in the front seven. The defensive line and linebacking group are two of the deepest/most talented groups in the Big Ten. They very well could put together a season like Michigan State did last year, where the defense leads the way and the offense puts up enough points to come away with some wins.

Offense
Depth Chart (Official Depth Chart For App State)

Devin Gardner went through some growing pains as a first year starter last year, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of help. Anyone who watched the Michigan State game had to respect Gardner’s toughness and resilience. He got beat up pretty badly that game and still kept coming. Obviously, his effort with a broken foot against Ohio State speaks for itself as well. Gardner certainly has room to improve as a passer, and I think that bringing Doug Nussmeier in as offensive coordinator will help him immensely.

The fact that Gardner didn’t have to identify the MIKE backer before the snap is abysmal. It speaks volumes to how terrible Al Borges is as a coach and coordinator and raises concerns about Brady Hoke as a head coach. Forget about being concerned with whether or not Hoke wears a headset, why did he let his offense go about ignoring identifying defensive pressure at the line of scrimmage for three years? On top of that, why did none of the other assistant coaches speak up about it?

Devin Gardner

If Gardner can improve his accuracy as a passer, it would be big for the offense. That is, if the offensive line can block for him and the young receivers step up. Also, don’t expect to see Shane Morris unless there is a blowout. Shane Morris was the best player in the bowl game, but don’t think for a second there was actually a quarterback competition this fall. Shane can play and adds security, but Gardner is the guy. He had some decision-making issues and accuracy issues at times, but I think those will be solved this year. Bottom line, quarterback is not a position of concern for the Wolverines.

Running back is where things start to get interesting. It looks as though Derrick Green will be the starter with De’Veon Smith getting his fair share of carries and then Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes acting as the third down backs. As you can see, it’s going to be a stable of backs that platoon the workload. I expect them to go with the hot hand a lot because of the offensive line questions. Some fans think that Ty Isaac will get a waiver and be able to contribute right away, but I don’t foresee that happening and I think it would be better for the program if he didn’t. If he does, they’ll have three junior running backs next year and no balance in the classes. You don’t want to have three running backs that could contribute in the same class.

I’m hoping that Derrick Green will be better this year. I’m expecting him to be since he has cut some serious weight and gotten absolutely jacked. Unfortunately, he’s not going to create anything on his own and he’s going to need holes to get opened up for him. At least this group of running backs all have a downhill running style that fits what the offense is trying to achieve.

The wide receiver group has the problematic task of replacing almost 1400 receiving yards they lost when Jeremy Gallon graduated this spring. The good news for Michigan is that they will have Amara Darboh back after he missed all of last season after breaking his Lisfranc bone in his foot. Who knows if Darboh will be as effective as Michigan hoped he would be last year, but it is certainly better to have him than not. Obviously Devin Funchess will see an expanded role at wide receiver and early enrollee Freddy Canteen is expected to make a pretty big impact. From what I’ve seen out of Canteen, he looks like he could be the real deal and should be a big time contributor from day one. I see him a lot like a young Mario Manningham, a guy who can stretch the field and line up in the slot and cause matchup problems.

Some other contributors at wide receiver will be Jehu Chesson, Dennis Norfleet, Da’Mario Jones, walk-on Bo Dever and possibly true freshman Moe Ways. Ways had a huge scrimmage at the public scrimmage and he certainly caught a lot of people’s attention. Chesson was one of the best blocking wide receivers that Michigan had last year and was a starter, so he will be sure to get plenty of snaps (Update: It looks like Chesson will start the year opposite Funchess). When it comes to Norfleet, I would expect most of his contributions to be on special teams. I was actually quite surprised to hear Hoke say that he would start in the slot over Canteen, but Norfleet can make plays. The best part of this unit is their combination of size and athleticism. Only Norfleet and Canteen, are under 6’2″.

The tight end position had a lot of promise entering the spring until Jake Butt tore his ACL. Now the group is limited to AJ Williams, Keith Heitzman and true freshman Ian Bunting, with Khalid Hill and Wyatt Shallman lining up as the likely H-backs. Hopefully Butt can make a Jake Ryan-esque return part way through the season, because AJ Williams and Heitzman aren’t threats to catch passes. Bunting is an interesting prospect, but obviously he’s largely unproven as a true freshman. This is where the major question marks begin for next season.

This offensive line group is problematic to say the least. They got beat up in the spring game and in the fall public scrimmage pretty badly. The lack of development of talent by Darrell Funk is highly concerning; especially when you consider a true freshman is going to start at left tackle. Now, maybe Mason Cole really is that good, maybe he’s the next Jake Long. But the fact that Erik Magnuson or Ben Braden couldn’t play better than him, or that the guards aren’t good enough so Magnuson doesn’t have to get moved inside is a problem.

When Graham Glasgow comes back from his suspension, I would expect him to start at center. If he ends up starting at guard with Jack Miller staying at center, that’s a problem for me. Kyle Kalis may be injured, but he should be able to win one of the starting guard positions no problem once he’s healthy. Recruiting rankings aren’t the end all be all, but there is no way that this many highly rated recruits should be struggling if there aren’t coaching issues along the way. Obviously they burned Kyle Bosch’s redshirt last year to help the offensive line, so he could play again, but I was hoping that guys like David Dawson and Patrick Kugler would be ready to contribute this year along with him.

It just seems that the offensive line should be much further along than they are. Probably because every one is seemingly playing out of position. Ben Braden is built like your prototypical left tackle, but he hasn’t been good enough to be there. Magnuson could have been your left tackle but he isn’t big enough, so he should be sliding to right tackle. Then you’ve got a guy like David Dawson playing tackle because guys aren’t good enough when he is better suited for guard. Realistically, your starting offensive line should look something like this: LT Ben Braden, LG Kyle Kalis, C Patrick Kugler, RG Kyle Bosch or David Dawson, RT Erik Magnuson. But I guess things don’t always work out like you think they should.

Thankfully it’s a young group and they can still develop and learn, but this is going to be a group that struggles this year. You don’t lose a 1st round pick left tackle and a 3rd round pick right tackle and get better when your offensive line had multiple games rushing for negative yards and ranked 102nd in the country rushing.

Defense
Depth Chart
(Official Depth Chart For App State)

Ok. Thank god that’s over. Now here’s the good part: the defensive line is very deep. I think there are about 10 or 11 guys that can contribute without any issues. As I always say (and pretty much everyone else says), football games are won in the trenches. Fortunately, on the defensive side of the ball, they have the guys to do it. I expect the starting group to be Ondre Pipkins at nose tackle when he’s healthy, with Willie Henry at the 3-tech and then Brennan Beyer at strongside defensive end and Frank Clark on the weakside. Until Pipkins is back though, Ryan Glasgow will get the nod to start at nose tackle. It’s definitely a formidable front with another solid four behind them in Taco Charlton, Maurice Hurst Jr., Chris Wormley and Mario Ojemudia. I would also expect some solid contributions from Matt Godin and Henry Poggi. I expected the team to redshirt Bryan Mone with so much depth on the defensive line, but it appears that he is good enough that they want him to play right away.

Taco Charlton will be expected to lineup as a strongside defensive end, but I would expect him to also get some looks inside. He may not be as heavy as you want for a defensive tackle, but he will pose a lot of athletic problems for guards inside. Frank Clark is going to need to have a big year as a pass rusher and get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. The one area of weakness on this defensive line is that outside of Clark and maybe Ojemudia, there aren’t any real pure pass rushers. The defense is going to have to mix in a lot of blitzes and need the defensive tackles to get pressure up the middle to help the pass rush.

Willie Henry and Maurice Hurst Jr. looked good in the spring game and the fall scrimmage. They both have developed quite nicely as players and I expect Henry to have a big time impact. Both of them could make the rest of the defenses job easier by getting pressure up the middle. Hopefully Pipkins won’t have any lingering problems with his knee after tearing his ACL last year, because he looked good before he got hurt. This group is young and talented and even though it’s not very experienced, they will have a big impact this year.

The linebacking group has done some serious shuffling, moving Jake Ryan to the MIKE linebacker spot. James Ross III is solidly set as the starter at SAM and he is one of my favorite players on the defense. He may struggle in coverage sometimes, but he’s very good at attacking the ball carrier and he doesn’t hesitate. The WILL linebacker spot will be between Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden and I would guess there will be a healthy rotation between the two. Bolden struggled a lot last year but has apparently been very good in practice and camp this year. Personally, I hope that’s the case because he showed a lot of promise as a freshman but was a liability on defense last year. Morgan has been a very sturdy player and even though he’s not flashy, he’s reliable.

Backups-wise, Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray and Royce Jenkins-Stone will contribute a decent amount too. Gedeon was very good last year as a true freshman and he will rotate in for Jake Ryan in the middle. RJS will be the backup SAM backer, but I would expect James Ross and Jake Ryan to play the majority of the snaps in their two spots. Hopefully the defensive line will live up to expectations and allow the linebackers to run free on blitzes. Playing Ryan in the middle of the field isn’t a move that I love, but nothing bad can happen from having your best defensive player in the middle of all the action.

The secondary is where the issues come back into play. Not at cornerback, but at safety. Cornerback is quite deep and there are about five guys that I have no problem with getting significant playing time. I expected Jabrill Peppers and Blake Countess to be the starting two corners and then when they go to a nickel set, they would move Peppers inside and then slide Raymon Taylor opposite Countess. Apparently, that isn’t going to be the case.

Countess and Taylor have the experience, so I have no problem with them beginning the year as the starters, but I don’t expect that to last for long. Peppers will be very effective in the nickel, far more than anyone else. He’s athletic enough to cover anyone and he’s the best tackling corner that they have. Once he gets more comfortable in his role, I would expect defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to expand it to a starting one. I would also expect Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling to get a significant amount of playing time, Lewis in particular. He has great catch up speed as a corner and his coverage ability has definitely improved. Meanwhile, Stribling is built like the exact prototypical corner that you want, tall and athletic. The future is very bright at the cornerback spot.

I think that Countess and Taylor, are both very solid corners, but at the moment, neither is a true number one. I think that Taylor gets a bad rap from a lot of people and that Countess can be a bit overrated, but neither is a slouch by any means. They both have their lapses in coverage, but it’s definitely a better pair than most teams have. Hopefully Peppers can emerge as the true #1 that the defense needs.

Jabrill Peppers

Safety is where the problems begin and end on defense. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Michigan run a lot of single high safety cover 1 sets with 3 or even 4 cornerbacks (a 4-3 under front with a corner walking down instead of a strong safety as a base package, if you will). Jarrod Wilson is the premiere example of inconsistency and since Delano Hill has a broken jaw, Jeremy Clark will likely start the year as the starting strong safety. That’s not ideal because Clark is a free safety and not built to be a strong safety. It would be better if Dymonte Thomas had developed more so that he could be the starting strong safety, but apparently that wasn’t in the cards. Hopefully Delano Hill gets cleared to play so that he can start against Appalachian State.

Special Teams

Jabrill Peppers

Will Hagerup is back punting after his year-long suspension for smoking too much marijuana and failing drug tests. Matt Wile will now assume kicking field goals full-time and I have full confidence in the two to do their jobs effectively. Dennis Norfleet is going to be the kick returner and Jabrill Peppers was named the starting punt returner. They need to get the ball in his hands and get Peppers on the field and that’s exactly what they’re going to do. I would expect some gadget plays with Peppers on offense to happen at some point during the year too. Hopefully Norfleet can finally take a kickoff back to the house, lord knows they’re going to need the points this year.

Freshmen To Watch

Normally I would take my time and explain who the possible freshman to contribute will be, but there will be far fewer true freshman contributors. It’s quite obvious that there are going to be three guys with a major impact and in marquee roles. Jabrill Peppers, Freddy Canteen and Mason Cole are all going to get major playing time from the jump and have been mentioned non-stop all summer. Cole is obviously starting at left tackle and Peppers and Canteen will probably be starters before the year is over. By now, you should know what each brings to the table if you’ve made it this far into this post.

The only two other players I think that could get playing time would be Ian Bunting and Maurice Ways. Bunting is a skinnier version of Jake Butt (6’7″ 227 lbs), and far less polished as a blocker at this point. I like to think of him as a Jimmy Graham-type player who will cause major mismatches with his athleticism. They could use his pass catching ability on offense since AJ Williams and Keith Heitzman don’t have nearly the physical tools or catching ability that he does. Maurice Ways could step up and get some playing time at wide receiver, but I wouldn’t count on it. Ways tore it up at the fall scrimmage, but that may not be enough to get them to burn his redshirt with so many players ahead of him on the depth chart. In any case, Ways is 6’4″ 195 lbs with fantastic hands. He’s a viable deep threat option and will definitely win most jump-ball situations.

UPDATE:

I didn’t have Bryan Mone listed here because I figured that they would redshirt him, but apparently this won’t be the case. Mone is 6’4″ 312 lbs and he’s very quick off the snap given his size. He’s also very good at using his size to get leverage, and I’m guessing that he’s shown enough of this power and speed that they can’t afford to redshirt him.

I’m surprised that Ian Bunting is going to redshirt, but I guess that means Jake Butt will be back this year.

Bold Unbiased Prediction Based On Zero Games Played

Date Opponent / Event Location Time / Result
Sat., Aug. 30 vs. Appalachian State TV W Michigan Stadium 12:00 p.m. ET
Sat., Sep. 6 at Notre Dame TV L South Bend, Ind. 7:30 p.m. ET
Sat., Sep. 13 vs. Miami (Ohio) TV W Michigan Stadium 3:30 p.m. ET
Sat., Sep. 20 vs. Utah TV W Michigan Stadium TBA
Sat., Sep. 27 vs. Minnesota * TV W Michigan Stadium TBA
Sat., Oct. 4 at Rutgers * TV W Piscataway, N.J. 7:00 p.m. ET
Sat., Oct. 11 vs. Penn State * TV L Michigan Stadium 7:00 p.m. ET
Sat., Oct. 25 at Michigan State * TV L East Lansing, Mich. TBA
Sat., Nov. 1 vs. Indiana – Homecoming * TV W Michigan Stadium 3:30 p.m. ET
Sat., Nov. 8 at Northwestern * TV W Evanston, Ill. TBA
Sat., Nov. 22 vs. Maryland * TV W Michigan Stadium TBA
Sat., Nov. 29 at Ohio State * TV W Columbus, Ohio TBA

Prior to the Notre Dame suspensions and Braxton Miller getting hurt, I had this team slated for 8-4 at the absolute best. Now with Miller going down, I’m thinking 9-3 with a decent chance of ending up 10-2. They have a real shot at beating Notre Dame too, but Everett Golson returning is going to cause problems for the defense. Perhaps the lack of weapons at other positions and the problems on defense will allow Michigan to squeak out a win in South Bend. Since it’s the last game of the series for the forseeable future, I would love it if they could take care of business.

If they do end up beating Notre Dame it could set the tone for the rest of the season in a very positive way. It’s a young team and momentum will be big. The coaches say they have leadership from every class, but the fact that they haven’t named any formal captains yet seems a bit odd to me. Perhaps, it’s just a new coaching tactic they’re trying? Rich Rodriguez did it for the team back in 2008 and nothing good seemed to come from it. Michigan is, after all, desperate for a successful season so they might as well try anything. My advice to fellow Michigan fans? Get used to a lot of close games and pray…a lot.

As always, let’s hope this team proves me wrong.

[Photo via: USA Today]
[Photo via: Gamedayr]
[Photo via: Fansided]
[Photo via: Zimbio]
[Photo via: mlive]
[Photo via: The Majors]

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