Monday, August 26, 2013

Michigan football 2013: How Deep is Your Chart?

Not to besmirch the music of a fine group – the BeeGees – but the song to be most associated to the 2013 Michigan football season is paraphrasing one of the BeeGee’s biggest hits. Beginning this Saturday against Central Michigan, every fan should be humming “How Deep is Your … Chart!”
The success of Team 134 will revolve around the quality of depth the Wolverines possess at the most critically important positions. Since injuries have already taken two important pieces of the puzzle (sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh and redshirt junior defensive end Jake Ryan) for an extended period of time, it will be incumbent upon the coaching staff to prep as many replacements as possible to take action at a moment’s notice.
Michigan’s fortunes this season should be bolstered by what has been labeled as one of the program’s new strengths – quality of recruiting. Head Coach Brady Hoke has done an amazing job, according to many national observers, in collecting talent for future campaigns – beginning with the incoming Class of 2013 (and apparently extending for the next two seasons).
However, college football is NOT akin to the modern collegiate basketball model, where one-and-done has become all too normal of a standard operating procedure. At worst, recruits are expected to stay three years and many, like All-American tackle Taylor Lewan, actually want to extend their college football days … because they enjoy it so much and once it’s over, there’s no going back.
Starting this season, almost every member of the Michigan roster is there because of Hoke – just a precious few stragglers from the RichRod era remain. Hoke is attempting to transform the UM program from finesse (as symbolized by the Denard Robinson-led offense) into the old fashioned, punishing smash-mouth version that made Michigan a national powerhouse. And it will be seen on offense AND defense, meaning more personnel will be required to strap it on. Hence, depth becomes the most important factor each week.
On offense, who carries the ball will be the most critical factor for the Wolverines. Last season was a disaster because no one pushed forward to become a reliable short-yardage carrier and too many drives were forced to go to the air for first downs, or they were stopped short of important field position. Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint must have a strong rebound season, from his on-field performance (just 514 yards on 1340 carries) and off-field injury recovery suffered late in the 2012 season.
Toussaint is the ONLY runner with power and speed on the depth chart. Behind him are several unknowns and a couple of “need to fulfill potential” veterans.
Against CMU, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson – a local kid from Pioneer H.S. (across the street from Michigan Stadium) – is the number two runner. He hasn’t had an official carry in a UM uniform although his high school numbers were excellent. Johnson is a track star playing football, which means he might be able to hit the corner on sweeps much faster than others (a missing ingredient last season for everyone other than Robinson).
Then comes Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls, who combined for only 325 yards (on 63 carries) and five touchdowns. Two incoming freshmen, Derrick Green (5-11, 220, Richmond, Va.) and highly touted De’Veon Smith (5-11, 218, Warren, Ohio), round out the chart.
Junior Devin Gardner is the full-time quarterback after assuming the starter’s slot following the ill-fated trip to Nebraska (where Robinson injured his elbow and could not throw for the rest of the season). Gardner finished with 12 touchdown passes and 1,219 yards (75 of 126).
He will see incoming freshman Shane Morris of Warren (Mich.) delaSalle High School as his backup and based on Morris’ press clippings, it wouldn’t take much to see some kind of honest battle for the starting job brew.
As of now, no one else is even in the picture to play quarterback and it was most notable in that Nebraska loss when Russell Bellomy was forced into action and simply was not up to the task. Michigan fans loudly criticized Hoke for not putting Gardner into the game, but he had not taken a single snap in practice under center; playing wide receiver at that time. Hoke simply will not allow players to run his offense cold without having the luxury of sufficient practice time.
What was exposed in Lincoln was the lack of depth at that position, mainly from Hoke’s predecessor, who failed to attract/recruit anyone to play behind Robinson. In college, a team needs numbers and Michigan’s problem was exposed to the tune of an 8-4 regular season.
On defense, Michigan will be rotating many players in and out of Greg Mattison’s hard-nosed, hard-hitting scheme; it will resemble something of a merry-go-round. It will be done to maintain freshness into the fourth quarter and to deploy several formations to confuse opposing quarterbacks. It will be a very physical defense, as was the case in days of old for Michigan; instead of first “string” and second “string” players, fans will see them enter in waves. A player listed third on the depth chart might well see as much playing time as a starter.
The first earnest test comes in just over a week’s time, Sept. 7, with the night game at home against Notre Dame. The other key dates for Michigan will be Oct. 12 at Penn State, Nov. 2 at Michigan State and Nov. 30 at home welcoming Ohio State (perhaps the latest date for the Michigan-Ohio State game in rivalry history).
Injuries are a constant presence for any collegiate football program and the best teams overcome them with its roster depth. It will be the overriding factor in 2013 for Team 134.
Blogger Chuck Bloom, a retired journalist-publisher, can be reached via e-mail as

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