Opponent Preview: Michigan

Maryland’s (6-4) next opponent, Michigan (5-5), is coming off a bye week after edging out Northwestern, 10-9, back on Nov. 8. The Wolverines will host the Terps Nov. 22 in a 3:30 p.m. bout.

Maryland’s (6-4) next opponent, Michigan (5-5), is coming off a bye week after edging out Northwestern, 10-9, back on Nov. 8. The Wolverines are only 1-3 away from Ann Arbor, Mich., this year, but in the Big House they’re 4-2 and 2-1 in the Big Ten. Under head coach Brady Hoke, Michigan features an offense that ranks 114th in the FBS, but a defense that sits at eighth. The Wolverines will host the Terps Nov. 22 in an afternoon bout.

Offense

When this reporter asked his counterpart at Michigan about the Wolverines’ offense, the response was, “What offense?” Point taken, but regardless of the unit’s viability, the Wolverines do typically employ a traditional pro-style. Michigan will spread the ball out and the quarterback operates from the shotgun once in awhile, but thanks to injuries the Wolverines are mainly sticking to a triggerman under center and two backs behind him.

Michigan’s attack is fairly balanced, though Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would ideally like to have a downhill, clock-controlling rushing attack. The offensive line’s ineffectiveness hasn’t allowed that to happen, however, and the Wolverines have been forced to pass more than they probably want to. (At least against elite competition. Michigan has gotten the running game moving against less-than-stellar defenses). It follows that you’ll see some three-wide sets, but most of the time they use a tight end -- and sometimes two -- with two receivers on the outside.

Michigan, which has run 50 less plays than its opponents, is averaging 20.7 points per game (109th in the FBS) and 322.6 yards of total offense (114th in the FBS). The Wolverines’ backs are picking up 154 rushing yards per game (77th in the FBS), while they’ve they’re throwing for 168.5 passing yards per (112th in the FBS). Michigan holds a slight 30:14 time-of-possession advantage over its foes (60th in the FBS), but the Wolverines convert just 38 percent of third downs (83rd in the FBS) and turn only 66 percent of their redzone opportunities into touchdowns.

Quarterback

When Devin Gardner (Sr., 6-4, 216) is healthy, Michigan can run a spread, allowing the dual-threat triggerman to use his foremost asset: His legs. But Gardner has been hobbled with an ankle injury for over a month, which has sapped his mobility. The bye week should help, but Gardner could still be limited by the time the Terps come to town.

Healthy or not, there’s no doubt Gardner does his best work when he can roll-out and use play-action. It’s when he’s forced to hang in the pocket that difficulties arise. Gardner has fumbled a couple times this year, and he tends to lock onto receivers, which has led to interceptions. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm, either, so defenses don’t have to guard against 50-yard bombs or deep outs. Mainly Gardner operates in the 10-to-15 yard range, his throws often going to the sidelines rather than over the middle.

Some have suggested Gardner has regressed as a passer, and while that may be true, it’s probably not entirely his fault. He’s been hit an inordinate amount of times this year, and he may have developed the dreaded David Carr syndrome. In other words, he looks a little gun shy.

For the season, Gardner has completed 139 of 227 passes (61.2 percent) for 1,557 yards and eight touchdowns against a glaring 13 interceptions. He is averaging 155.7 yards per game and has an efficiency rating of 119.03 (85th in the FBS). On the ground, Gardner has gained 155 yards and scored three touchdowns on 70 carries (he lost 141 yards off his total thanks to sacks).

The backup, Shane Morris (So., 6-3, 204), did start one game this year and played in four others, completing 14 of 40 throws for zero scores and three picks. But Morris isn’t the answer right now, and hasn’t shown enough to supplant a hobbled Gardner.

Running Backs

Michigan’s running game has picked up the pace recently, rushing for 147 yards against Northwestern and 184 the week prior against Indiana. For the season, Wolverines’ backs are averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 154 yards per game (77th in the FBS), and have produced 14 touchdowns. The unit took a significant blow, however, when starter Derrick Green (So., 5-11, 220) went down after six games with a broken clavicle. Green was picking up 5.7 yards a tote, and had gained 471 yards and scored three touchdowns, so his loss obviously hurt. Hoke has suggested Green could return this year, but the media members have surmised he won’t be back in 2014.

With Green out, the majority of the carries have gone to De’Veon Smith (So., 5-11, 220), a traditional bruiser who can push the pile. Smith has some speed to him, and he can rip off a long run, but he’s mainly a between-the-tackles grinder with plenty of power. This year Smith has 95 attempts for 487 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and six scores. He is averaging almost 50 yards per game and has a long of 61.

The No. 2 back is Drake Johnson (So., 6-1, 211), who is a change-of-pace runner that just emerged onto the scene. He’s a slasher, one-cut type with deft feet, good vision and some shake to him. Johnson can make the first defender miss and burst by the initial line of defense, giving the Wolverines something they’ve lacked this year. Johnson’s not a true home-run hitter, but he’s the fastest healthy back Michigan has right now. He has carried the ball 31 times for 193 yards and two touchdowns thus far, and is averaging a team-high 6.2 yards per carry.

The third-down back, meanwhile, is Justice Hayes (Jr., 5-10, 194). Hayes has 41 touches for 169 yards so far, but his main calling card is pass protection on third downs.

Michigan’s fullback, Joe Kerridge (Jr., 6-0, 244), doesn’t touch the ball and is used primarily as a blocker. He’s done an adequate job, but he missed a key fourth-and-1 block against Northwestern and has been up-and-down in terms of effectiveness this year.

Receivers

Michigan’s receivers are averaging 11 yards per catch and just 168.5 yards per game, but top wideout Devin Funchess (Jr., 6-5, 230) could very well be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Funchess may not be a 4.3 40-yard dash speedster, but he covers ground quickly with his long strides and can go up and get the football. He’s a matchup problem going one-on-one against a cornerback, and has been known to make spectacular circus catches overtop defenders.

That said, Funchess has had some consistency issues; basically, he can make the unbelievable plays and flub the easy ones. Funchess, who mainly lines up out wide but can move to the slot occasionally, has also been dealing with a couple nagging injuries, which may be affecting him. So far in 2014 Funchess has a team-high 50 receptions for 595 yards and four touchdowns, with a long of 43.

No. 2 wideout Amara Darboh (So., 6-2, 211) has been described as a poor man’s Jason Avant, and that’s to be taken as a compliment. He’s a possession receiver with reliable, consistent hands, but Darboh has solid athleticism as well. Michigan can move Darboh around to take advantage of matchups, and he typically comes through. In fact, he’s been Gardner’s go-to guy as of late. Darboh is second on the team with 30 receptions for 403 yards and two scores.

The slot receiver, Dennis Norfleet (Jr., 5-7, 169), is pretty quick, though he’s not going to take the top off the defense or grab a slant and go 80 yards. But Norfleet is shifty, agile and effective in the open field. He has 14 catches for 102 yards in 2014.

The fourth receiver, Jehu Chesson (So., 6-3, 197), is a possession receiver, but he hasn’t contributed much this year. More was expected of him coming in, and thus far he hasn’t done enough to warrant an increase in snaps. Chesson has 14 catches for 154 yards, but has not reached the end zone.

Tight Ends

Michigan’s main tight end is Jake Butt (So., 6-6, 249), who is known for his receiving skills but is a good blocker as well. Butt hasn’t repeated his standout 2013 campaign, mainly because he hasn’t been targeted as much, but he’s a threat if given the opportunity. Butt has solid athleticism and speed, can get down the seam, and possesses soft hands. He’s pulled down 13 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown in 2014.

The second tight end, A.J. Williams (Jr., 6-6, 260), is used as a blocker and has just three catches for 21 yards this year. He’s brought in when the Wolverines employ specialty packages, and has held his own acting as another lineman.

Offensive Line

Michigan’s offensive line has been much maligned, and while a team’s success or lack thereof rarely comes down to one unit, it’s hard to argue the Wolverine’s front five hasn’t been at the root of the offense’s struggles. It’s been difficult for Michigan to develop any sort of consistency, running or passing, because the line just hasn’t been in synch. On top of that, the Wolverines lack depth and only go about six deep up front.

For the season, the group has surrendered 18 sacks, while the rushing attack has produced 1,541 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a tote. The Wolverines have done better opening up running lanes as of late, but against top Big Ten foes with stout, deep defenses, Michigan’s line has not fared well.

The left tackle, Mason Cole (Fr., 6-5, 292), is a true freshman, making him the school’s first ever starting frosh blindside blocker. Cole, who is considered a better run blocker than pass protector at this point, has been lauded for his footwork and fundamentals, but he is just a freshman and has had his share of growing pains. Which you could probably say about the rest of the group as well.

Left guard Graham Glasgow (Jr., 6-6, 311), center Jack Miller (Jr., 6-4, 299), right guard Kyle Kalis (So., 6-5, 298) and right tackle Ben Braden (So., 6-6, 322) have all had unsteady seasons. The main rotational lineman, Erik Magnuson (So., 6-6, 294), can play guard or tackle, but has also been used as a tight end in certain packages. Miller, a returning starter, is considered the leader of the line and perhaps its most reliable player, although he hasn't exactly been a bulldozer up front. Glasgow is a former walk-on who shifted over from right guard; he has looked OK against teams not named Michigan State or Notre Dame. Kalis, a former five-star recruit, hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far. And while the right tackle Braden’s athleticism stands out (he’s a former hockey star), he’s had issues containing elite pass rushers.

Defense

Perhaps the main reason Michigan is 5-5 and in position to go to a bowl game is its defense under former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines are allowing just over 20 points per game (18th in the FBS) and 300 yards of total offense (eighth in the FBS). They’re giving up only 2.8 yards per carry and 103.2 rushing yards per game (seventh in the FBS), while the pass defense is surrendering 197.6 yards per game (24th in the FBS) and 13 touchdowns. Foes convert only 38 percent of third downs against Michigan (49th in the FBS), while the defense has kept offenses to a 48-percent redzone-touchdown conversion rate. Moreover, the pass rush has generated 27 sacks, which puts the Wolverines 32nd nationally.

The Wolverines operate out of a base 4-3 and rarely vary the scheme. You might see them go nickel against offenses that use four receiver sets, but they don’t use many exotic coverages (arguably because the secondary doesn’t have the manpower or effectiveness to allow them to).

Michigan has had problems on the back end, but the front seven has been quality this year, although there isn’t much depth in the linebacker core, which hurts against better teams. Even so, it’s a disciplined, gap-control unit that wraps well and doesn’t surrender many momentum-changing plays. Michigan has had varying degrees of success when blitzing the linebackers, but the Wolverines really haven't needed to bring additional pressure, because the down linemen generate a potent pass rush all on their own.

Defensive Line

Michigan’s defensive line is the team’s standout unit, boasting a stout front four and plenty of depth behind the starters. Defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer were the two mainstays, but Clark (Sr., 6-2, 277) was just dismissed from the team due to an arrest following a domestic violence incident. He was considered a complete end who could stop the run and rush the passer. Clark had terrific athleticism for a down lineman, and used an array of rush moves to press the pocket. Clark, who still may project as an NFL prospect, had 42 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two breakups, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.

But even without Clark, the rest of the line works in a steady rotation, with little lost in the way of effectiveness regardless of who’s on the field. Brennen Beyer (Sr., 6-4, 256) plays the strong-side end spot. He’s probably not a future pro like Clark would have been (could still be?), but he’s a serviceable college player who has held up well. Beyer is considered an equally strong run stuffer and pass rusher, and it shows in the stats he’s registered this year: 32 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.

On the interior, Ryan Glasgow (So., 6-4, 296) is a former walk-on who has developed into a reliable tackle. Glasgow may not be a backfield buster, but he excels against the run. A plugger, road grader type, he takes on blocks and actively clogs lanes. For the season he has 20 tackles, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Fellow defensive tackle Willie Henry (So., 6-3, 293) is big and athletic, someone who is mainly a run stuffer but can get to the quarterback as well. He’s been a dependable performer up front, and possesses an excellent motor. In eight games Henry has 19 stops, 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and a pair of quarterback hits.

One of those previously mentioned rotational guys is end Mario Ojemudia (Jr., 6-2, 251), who would be a starter on many other lines. Ojemudia has 24 stops, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a quarterback hit.

The others to note are end Taco Charlton (So., 6-6, 275), tackle Matt Godin (So., 6-6, 286) and tackle Chris Wormley (So., 6-4, 295). Charlton only has 14 tackles, but 4.5 of them were behind the line of scrimmage, and 2.5 resulted in sacks. Godin, meanwhile, has just six tackles, but, ironically, he’s recorded one of the team’s five interceptions this year. And Wormley has 15 stops, five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2014. Like Ojemudia, all three of these latter linemen would probably start at many of the Big Ten’s middle to lower tier.

Linebackers

The Wolverines don’t have as much depth at the second level as they do up front, but their starting linebackers are key cogs in a defense that allows just 2.8 yards per carry.

Weak-side linebacker Joe Bolden (Jr., 6-3, 231) is a first-time starter, who has steadily improved as the season has moved along. He’s considered an above-average run defender who tackles well and allows little leaky yardage. Bolden has had issues in coverage, however, and has to continue working on his technique. He is second on the team with 79 tackles, four tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and a pass breakup.

MIKE linebacker Jake Ryan (Sr., 6-3, 236), meanwhile, has a future on Sundays. It took him awhile to adjust to middle linebacker, but after 10 games he’s got it down pat. Ryan, like the rest of the front seven, is a sound tackler and a thumper, but he’s adept in pass defense as well. Ryan’s one of those linebackers who sniffs out plays and always seems to be around the ball. He leads the team with 90 stops, 13 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pick, two forced fumbles and six breakups/pass defenses.

The outside linebacker, James Ross III (Jr., 6-1, 227), is the odd man out when Michigan uses its nickel package, but he’s mainly on the field considering the Wolverines typically stick to their base. Ross isn’t the biggest backer out there, but he’s athletic and has a nose for the ball. He’s known as a strong run stopper and an adequate pass defender. Ross has 26 stops and two tackles for loss this year.

The first man off the bench is outside backer Royce Jenkins-Stone (Jr., 6-2, 234), who started two games this season. He hasn’t been on the field much lately, and has eight tackles so far. Ben Gedeon (So., 6-3, 240) does see some snaps as well, but he hasn’t received too much time during conference play. Gedeon has tallied 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a sack. And we’ll mention Mike McCray (Fr., 6-4, 241), because while he’s only recorded two tackles all year, he does have one of the squad’s two blocked kicks.

Defensive Backs

The Wolverines have a stout defense, but opponents have had some success attacking their secondary. Michigan doesn’t really allow receivers to get behind them (thus, they give up less than 200 passing yards per game), but the corners and safeties do surrender their share of catches and yards-after-the-catch. Moreover, Michigan’s defensive backs have produced only two of the team’s five interceptions this year, compared to 16 picks for the Wolverines’ opponents.

The main standout, however, is Jourdan Lewis (So., 5-10, 175), who is the squad’s only reliable cover corner. A sticky-fingered lockdown type, Lewis plays bump-and-run and can shadow wideouts throughout their routes. He’s athletic, physical in coverage, excels in the air and does the little things well. Lewis isn’t a thumper out on the edge, but he will come up to make a tackle if needed. He has 34 stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and five breakups this year.

The second corner, Raymon Taylor (Sr., 5-10, 184), mainly plays off coverage and has floundered at times. Taylor does do a good job of keeping receivers in front of him, and he doesn’t get taken to task often, but he’s not going to jump a route or make a game-changing pick. He’s adept at tackling in the open field, but the problem is Taylor gives up too many completions. He’s recorded 29 stops, a tackle for loss and six breakups so far.

At free safety, Jarrod Wilson (Jr., 6-2, 205) has been serviceable and hasn’t really been beaten deep. Wilson’s a heady player who sets the secondary, makes the calls and typically positions himself well. But while he’s a sound tackler and dose a decent job picking up receivers, Wilson will allow his share of receptions. Wilson has 42 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble.

Jeremy Clark (So., 6-4, 205) has been listed as the starter at strong safety, but he’s been working in a rotation with Delano Hill (So., 6-0, 205). Neither one has been particularly impressive this year as the Wolverines are still trying to find stability at that spot. Of the four secondary starters, Clark, who has had issues with his fundamentals, is the most likely to give up a big play. Hill, for his part, lined up with the first team during Michigan’s last game and could be the starter moving forward. He’s made a few nifty plays, but surrendered his share of long receptions as well.

Clark has tallied 18 tackles and a breakup, but hasn’t produced much else in the way of impact plays. Hill has 15 tackles and a fumble recovery in 2014.

The nickelback, Blake Countess (Jr., 5-10, 180), is a former standout from Good Counsel (Olney, Md.). He hasn’t really lived up to expectations at Michigan, though, and has struggled at times in coverage. Michigan doesn’t use it’s nickel much, and some of that is because the defense is probably more effective with an extra linebacker on the field rather than another corner or safety. Countess has 19 tackles and two pass breakups this year.

One rotational cornerback to note is Dymonte Thomas (So., 6-2, 193), who has 22 tackles and a forced fumble in eight games. Thomas did start once this year and will see some snaps subbing in for either Taylor or Lewis. He has solid upside potential given his length and athleticism, but hasn’t done enough to push into the starting lineup as of yet.

Special Teams

Michigan’s special teams have not performed poorly this year, though no one is having a truly standout campaign.

Kicker Matt Wile (Sr., 6-2, 219) started off abysmally, missing three field goals in the first two games, but since then he’s rebounded. He has a pretty strong leg with range out to 50 yards, while his accuracy has noticeably improved. Wile seems to have found his rhythm and is considered a reliable booter.

He has connected on just 12 of 17 attempts, although two of his boots were blocked and the rest of his wayward kicks were all beyond 40 yards. Wile has a long of 48 this year, which he nailed during the Michigan State game. On kickoffs, 20 of Wile’s 44 kicks have gone for touchbacks.

The punter, Will Hagerup (Sr., 6-4, 225), sat out last year, but has had an up-to-snuff 2014. Once in awhile he’ll have a dud or shank a punt, but Hagerup’s been on-point most of the time. Possessing a potent leg, he’s averaging 43 yards per boot and placed 20 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

With returns, Dennis Norfleet (Jr., 5-7, 169) brings back both kids and punts, though he’s more adept at the former than the latter. Norfleet actually holds the school return for kick return yards and is averaging 23.8 yards per bringback this year, with a long of 42. He hasn’t made an impact in the punt return department, however, picking up only 2.6 yards per on eight total returns, with a long of nine yards.

As for the coverage units, Michigan did give up a return touchdown this year and ranks near the bottom of the FBS in defending punts (12 yards allowed per bringback). The Wolverines' kick coverage, though, is middle of the pack as Michigan surrenders a respectable 21.56 yards per return.

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