LARRY LAGE,AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan expects to have one of its best players on both sides of the ball back when the 2013 season starts.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who broke his left leg five months ago, and cornerback Blake Countess, who tore a knee ligament in last year’s opener, have recovered well enough to make coach Brady Hoke very optimistic about their chances to play Aug. 31 against Central Michigan.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Hoke said.
Both players were able to participate in non-contact drills this spring, but were not cleared to play in Saturday’s situational scrimmage in front of an announced crowd of 18,000.
Standout linebacker Jake Ryan had major knee surgery last month, but Hoke said he could possibly return by mid-October.
The banged-up Wolverines seemed to get through their final spring practice without another key player getting seriously hurt. Tight end Devin Funchess, though, went to the sideline with a limp and was later walking gingerly.
“He’ll be all right,” Hoke said.
If an inexperienced offensive line with three new starters can keep quarterback Devin Gardner healthy next season, Michigan might have a very potent offense.
“I push and motivate them every day,” Gardner said. “I make sure they know their job is to protect me.”
Gardner had enough time to throw deep on his first attempt when he threw a perfect pass of 30-plus yards to Amara Darboh from his end zone. Later, he made two straight throws for first downs to Jeremy Gallon and Jeremy Jackson on the outside.
Gardner created some space with play-action passes and rollouts, showing Michigan has a mobile QB to replace speedy Denard Robinson.
“Devin is a special breed of athlete,” said offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, who turned down a chance to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft to stay in college. “If we give him the opportunity to make plays, he’s going to make those plays. I have 100-percent faith in him.
“It’s tough to see a guy like Denard go, but it feels good that you get this kind of talent here. One guy leaves and another guy steps up and that’s what I’m expecting with our interior guys.”
Below-freezing wind chill and 20-plus mph gusts didn’t seem to affect Gardner’s ability to connect with receivers and tight ends.
“Devin naturally throws a tight ball,” Hoke said. “When you throw a tight ball, and he’s got good arm strength, and he has good velocity on it, you can cut through the wind pretty well.
“He’s always thrown the long ball pretty well. I think he had a good day.”
Gardner believes he’ll have a good year in part because he filled in for an injured Robinson at quarterback last season, throwing 11 touchdowns and running for seven scores over the last five games of the season.
“I think that’s going to help me a lot because you simply can’t simulate game speed on State Street,” said Gardner, referring to the road that runs alongside Michigan’s practice fields. “Now, I know what to expect. The biggest things for me to work on is reading defenses and leading our team on and off the field.”
Gardner was recruited to Michigan by former coach Rich Rodriguez after helping Inkster High School win a state title as a junior and finish second as a senior. He played sparingly as a freshman — when Tate Forcier and Robinson were on the roster – when a back injury gave him an extra year of eligibility in 2014. After he barely got on the field as a sophomore, Michigan’s coaches wanted to get him on the field last season. Gardner was moved to receiver and flourished with four touchdowns receptions over the first five games of the season.
In his first full spring as a No. 1 QB, Gardner has shown he belongs under center.
“Devin is a gamer,” receiver Drew Dileo said. “He was really good in high school — as everyone knows — and you just don’t lose that just because he didn’t play for 2 ½ years.”
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