Big Ten Spring Football Review: Michigan

Brady Hoke's squad went into spring with questions on the offensive line, a reshuffled defensive coaching staff and maybe even a quarterback controversy. How did they come out of it? We take a look.

Quick 2013 review:

Michigan started the season 5-0 and rose to 11th in the national rankings, but the Wolverines won only two of their last eight contests to finish 7-6 overall. At 3-5 in Big Ten play, the Wolverines finished below .500 in conference play for the fourth time in six years and saw their Big Ten championship drought reach nine years, the longest for the school since 1951-63.

Saddled with one of the worst offensive lines in the country, Michigan often struggled to run the ball, and constant pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner took its toll as the season progressed. The Wolverines were average defensively, though more susceptible to the pass than the run per traditional numbers.

Though it's the Football Outsiders numbers that rate the Michigan offensive line near the bottom nationally, the advanced stats paint a more rosy overall picture than do the traditional numbers. The offense was 32nd nationally on passing downs, likely owing to the individual talents of Gardner, receiver Jeremy Gallon and tight end Devin Funchess. The defense ranked 50th overall in defensive S&P+ with a solid ranking of 33 against the run. The Wolverines were more susceptible to "value drives" than big plays but better on standard downs (39th) than passing downs (64th).

Spring game recap:

Gardner completed only 2 of 10 passes in a controlled scrimmage with no scoring while fellow QB Shane Morris was 5 for 11 for 73 yards. On the strength of a 44-yard reception from Gardner, true freshman Freddy Canteen led all receivers in yardage while junior running back Justice Hayes was the top rusher with 33 yards on six carries. Cleveland Glenville grads Frank Clark and Willie Henry each had one of the defense's five sacks on the afternoon while cornerback Jourdan Lewis snagged two interceptions.

Issues addressed:

From the sounds of things, the No. 1 question prior to spring practice -- will the offensive line improve? -- was not really answered.

"Inconsistent," was how head coach Brady Hoke described the line's play in the spring game. "I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with. We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

With both starting tackles from last season out of eligibility, true freshman Mason Cole made a lot of noise, forcing himself into contention for playing time amid a group that returns many of the players who struggled last season because of youth.

"He has a confidence about him," Hoke told GoBlueWolverine about Cole. "He's athletic, nothing seems really to phase him and that's kind of unique."

If the line can get things together this fall, Hoke is excited about the potential of a young stable of running backs that includes Hayes, a junior, and sophomore De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green, while true freshman Freddy Canteen made the case in the spring he can replace the playmaking ability of Gallon, who has graduated.

Although Gardner threw for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, he was plagued by turnovers (11 interceptions), and Hoke insisted he had to hold off Morris for his starting spot heading into his senior season, and the coach would not declare a definite starter when spring was over.

"Shane and Devin both have made remarkable strides but the consistency we need to have at all positions -- but (especially) the quarterback handling ball every play -- that's where you've got to have the right guy in there," the coach said.

Adding to the uncertainty in Ann Arbor during the spring was the addition of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who is not expected to radically change the offense but was brought in to replace an attack that was often stale and predictable the past two seasons. Hoke praised his teaching ability after the spring game.

"Obviously, he is here because we think he is an awfully good football coach in all areas," Hoke said. "It's been a lot for the kids. We have put them in a lot of uncomfortable situations through spring, asked them to learn a lot and see what stuck a little bit. Again, today we didn't do a whole lot, on either side of the ball to be honest with you. He has done a nice job."

As for the other side of the ball, Michigan returns nine starters on defense, including its top three tacklers in cornerback Raymon Taylor and linebackers James Ross III and Desmond Morgan.

The defensive coaching staff also underwent a makeover with Hoke removing himself and coordinator Greg Mattison from coaching the line, a job that fell to former linebackers coach Mark Smith. Mattison replaced Smith while Roy Manning became cornerbacks coach and Curt Mallory went from coaching the whole secondary to only the safeties. Manning was formerly the outside linebackers coach.

What that all means remains to be seen, but Lewis said increasing the defense's physicality was a big emphasis along with more man-to-man pass coverage.

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," said the sophomore who was a four-star recruit at Detroit Cass Tech. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

Though starting cornerbacks Taylor and Blake Countess return, Lewis made a case for playing time this fall with a strong spring.

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