By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Traditionally known as a perennial football powerhouse, Michigan has faded in recent years, looking particularly paltry next to in-state rival Michigan State, which won the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl last season.
As would be expected, one of the key players for Michigan will be quarterback Devin Gardner, who looked downright heroic in the team’s final regular season game, completing 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns – plus a score on the ground. Injured in that game, however, Gardner missed Michigan’s bowl game, and the Wolverines lost the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl to Kansas State.
Gardner’s decision-making looked suspect at times last season, but Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said the quarterback has done a better job recently of throwing the ball away when he needs to instead of trying to force passes. Gardner has also impressed Hoke by how he runs the team.
“Getting us in good plays, being a little more assertive at the line of scrimmage,” Hoke said. “Motivating guys. His demeanor has been really positive when things aren’t going well, which is good because I think body language, there’s a lot to that.”
Hoke spoke more about Gardner on Monday and praised the quarterback’s interaction with teammates.
“I think his leadership in the huddle is a hundred times better,” Hoke said. “And his leadership overall on the team is 100 times better.”
Teammates have evidently noticed the same kind of improvement Hoke noticed.
“Devin is a very talkative guy – I think you guys know that,” running back Justice Hayes said with a smile. “I feel like as a team we’re buying into it more. When Devin tells us to do something, we do it, as opposed to in the past, he would say things but I feel like we didn’t have the success to want to listen to him all the time. But we’re [buying into] Devin, Coach Nuss, Coach Hoke, everybody. We’re ready to roll and get things going in a positive manner.
“I feel like we’ve always listened to him,” Hayes added, “but we’re just fired up. We haven’t had the success that we wanted in the past, and we’re ready, and we’re ready to bring that tradition back to Michigan.”
While Gardner made more than his share of ill-advised throws in 2013, he also suffered an unconscionable number of sacks – 14 between consecutive games at one juncture – behind a leaky offensive line. As always, that unit will go a long way toward determining Gardner’s success or failure this season.
The offensive line competition is mostly settled right, with freshman Mason Cole at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson at left guard, redshirt junior Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Ben Braden at right tackle. Hoke said last week – and an “or” between names on the depth chart confirmed – that redshirt senior Joey Burzynski and sophomore Kyle Busch continue to compete for the starting role.
The group’s lack of experience could pose a problem, but Hoke said last week that the offensive line created some holes for running backs during the team’s recent scrimmage.
The team released its depth chart Monday, naming Derrick Green the starting running back, but fellow running back Justice Hayes noted new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s propensity for using multiple backs and said the system should make Michigan’s offense trickier for defenses to handle this season.
“It’s very different,” Hayes said. “Last year, actually, we only played one or two guys, which was kind of difficult and frustrating with the guys that weren’t playing, but this year, Coach Nuss, he plays four to five running backs, and that brings a little difference, and that’s hard for defenses to get a scheme for us. I feel like that’s going to be an advantage.”
Michigan’s defense had its struggles last season, allowing 43 points against Penn State, 47 points against Indiana, 29 points against Michigan State, 42 points against Ohio State and 31 points against Kansas State.
The Wolverines do return two defensive players whom ESPN named to its preseason All-Big Ten team – senior linebacker Jake Ryan and junior cornerback Blake Countess. What the defense as a whole can do against other teams remains to be seen, but so far the group has at least made life difficult for the Michigan offense during practices.
“Because of the experience that we have on defense with older guys and the leadership, the defense has been ahead,” Hoke said. “[Defensive coordinator] Greg [Mattison] doesn’t make it easy for them. They’re not just sitting there in a 4-3. There’s linebackers coming from all over the place, and that can slow you down a little bit.”
Hoke added Monday that he expects increased depth to make a difference for the defense this season. Included in that depth is five-star recruit Jabrill Peppers, who will start at cornerback as a freshman.
“We’ve got depth when you look at the linebacker position, up front defensively, we’ve got more depth at corners,” Hoke said. “The one place that our depth isn’t as good as we’d like it still is at the safety position. The way the guys have practiced, I think how they’ve really competed, and you guys are going to get tired of hearing that … that part of it is what is so good, and the leadership they have with each other.”
The Wolverines hope for a redemptive season after finishing 7-6 in 2013 and losing to both rivals – Michigan State and Ohio State.