ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — With Devin Gardner at quarterback, a healthy Fitz Toussaint named the starter at tailback and returning All-America tackle Taylor Lewan anchoring the line, the Michigan football team has most of the pieces necessary for its transition back to a pro-style offense for the post-Denard Robinson era.
Still missing is a big, athletic receiver to complement Jeremy Gallon and stretch the field vertically.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke thought the Wolverines found a prime candidate for that role in Amara Darboh, until the 6-foot-2, 212-pound sophomore from Des Moines, Iowa, injured a foot in a scrimmage and the program announced earlier this week he’d have season-ending surgery.
With one week remaining before the opener against Central Michigan Hoke said he isn’t sure there is another single player on the roster ready to fill the void left by Darboh, who claimed the No. 2 spot with strong spring and fall camp play. The third-year coach says he’s comfortable with “the three Js” – redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson, senior Jeremy Jackson and senior Joe Reynolds – rotating at the position. The seniors have 28 combined career receptions.
“Those three guys are guys that really – with Amara being out for the year – they’re going to have to carry a little more of the load,” Hoke said. “All three of them understand the positions pretty doggone well, and can do a lot of things.
“Their hearts are with Amara. But they also know we’ve all got to pull our weight and if somebody goes down, somebody’s got to stand up.”
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who started at Michigan in 1998 and 1999, knows something about big targets in winged helmets. His leading receivers at Michigan were future NFL wide receivers Tai Streets (6-foot-3) and David Terrell (6-2).
Brady stopped in Ann Arbor Thursday before the Patriots’ preseason game against the Lions in nearby Detroit. In a fist-pounding motivational speech to this year’s Wolverines, replayed on the university’s athletic website, the two-time Super Bowl MVP hit on a couple points particularly germane to the new wideout-by-committee approach.
“I didn’t have an easy experience. I didn’t come in as a top-rated recruit. I didn’t come in with the opportunity to play right away. I had to earn it,” said Brady, who played behind Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese before starting his last two seasons while splitting time with Drew Henson.
Of course, the receiver position is not bare for Gardner, who at one time was a 6-foot-4 receiver himself while Robinson was leading Michigan’s spread-option attack. Gallon led the team with 49 catches for 829 yards and four touchdowns last season.
With Gardner starting the final five games at quarterback, the duo hooked up 31 times for 511 of Gardner’s 1,219 passing yards. Good friends off the field, they are so comfortable together that Gardner posted a video on his Twitter account showing himself throwing timing patterns to Gallon with his eyes closed.
The fifth-year senior is far from the big body the coaching staff was looking for, but offensive coordinator Al Borges told reporters earlier in the week Gallon “plays taller than he is.”
“He can win jump balls and he’s about 5-8. He’ll say he’s taller, but he’s lying,” Borges said, noting Gallon’s strengths include playing against bump-and-run coverage, running crisp routes and possessing big-play ability. “When somebody’s bearing down on him, he’ll catch the ball in traffic. He’s just reliable.”
Drew Dileo caught 20 passes in 2012, bringing experience back to the slot receiver position, and Borges says 6-foot-5 sophomore tight end Devin Funchess “is going to be a huge factor in our passing game.” Five of Funchess’ 15 receptions as a freshman resulted in touchdowns.
NOTES: After choosing Fitz Toussaint his starting running back earlier in the week, Hoke held the senior out of Thursday’s scrimmage so he could get a better look at backups Thomas Rawls, Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes. Hoke said he and his staff hope to “get some answers on some rotations or (starting) spots” based on their review of film from that scrimmage. . Hoke announced freshman Shane Morris was officially the team’s No. 2 quarterback. Asked if, in an ideal world, he’d like to get the first-year player some immediate game experience against Central Michigan, Hoke said, “We want to win the first game, so whatever that takes. . I don’t think we live in an ideal world.” . Sophomores Jack Miller and Graham Glasgow will take their competition for the starting center position into the final week of fall camp. . Likewise, Hoke was not willing to name a starter at left guard. Glasgow, redshirt freshman Ben Braden and junior Chris Bryant are vying for that spot. . Sophomore Dennis Norfleet, whose 827 kickoff return yards last season was the second-best in school history, has emerged as the leading candidate to return punts.
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