As spring football season draws to a close across the country, BlueandGold.com will be providing a breakdown of how things wrapped up for each of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents courtesy of the reporters that cover them on a regular basis.
Denard Robinson and running back Fitz Touissant give the Wolverine's a potent running combination in 2012.
Sept. 22, 2012 — 7:30 p.m. EST
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
Head coach: Brady Hoke (11-2 record entering his second season)
2011 record: 11-2
Michigan overachieved in 2011 with a first-year head coach and an electric playmaker at quarterback. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison revived one of the worst Wolverine defenses in recent memory to provide Denard Robinson with enough space to wiggle his team into a spot in the Sugar Bowl, which they won in overtime.
Robinson is back and will again be the focal point of the Michigan offense. He will lose a few impact players around him, but still has a proven running back in junior Fitz Toussaint and an experienced offensive line. The Wolverines are searching for a home run hitter in the passing game, and the departure of Junior Hemingway adds to their lack of size there.
The back end of Michigan’s defense is almost fully intact from last season, led by safety Jordan Kovacs who is finishing up his storybook career in 2012. The defensive line that was at the heart of the group’s makeover last season is completely gone. Several position switches during the spring make the line a big uncertainty heading into the summer months.
Still, year two under a new coach means a more familiar feeling and a more productive spring. The worried feeling many players took into the summer last year has been replaced, according to Chris Balas from The Wolverine.
“I think they feel better because they got a lot more accomplished because they knew the coaches better,” Balas said. “It was the second year in the system. They felt like they really learned a lot more than they had in the first spring. It wasn’t the basics anymore, it was kind of the next step. I would call it cautious optimism.”
Biggest Strength After Spring: Quarterbacks
Robinson is a bona fide superstar in Ann Arbor. He ran for 1,176 yards last year and threw for 2,173 while trying to learn a system not well-suited for him. Balas said this year offensive coordinator Al Borges has eased off of the transition to a pro style offense and is letting Robinson play more to his strengths.
“It was really his decision making last year when he’s throwing off his back foot [that gave him trouble],” Balas said. “He was probably a better passer two years ago when he was playing in the spread than he was last year. They brought him along slowly in that respect. Of course, making good decisions in the spring is a lot different than making them in heat of battle.”
Robinson threw 15 interceptions last year, but he reportedly sliced his turnovers in the spring into a quarter of what they were at this time last year.
Junior Devin Gardner appeared in nine games at quarterback in 2011, including some times when both he and Robinson were on the field together. Balas said he is one of the top three athletes on the team, and the Wolverines will be looking for ways to get him on the field. If he isn’t needed at quarterback, he will play some wide receiver instead. Russell Bellomy, a redshirt freshman from Texas, also had an impressive spring season to fill out the third spot on the quarterback depth chart.
Biggest Question Mark After Spring: Tight Ends
One reason that Borges has put a temporary halt on his pro style offense is a complete lack of productive tight ends on the roster. Senior Kevin Koger graduates this year. He made only 23 catches last season, but leaves a huge gap in the Michigan passing attack.
Redshirt senior Brandon Moore will likely fill that spot when Michigan puts a tight end on the field, but he has yet to prove himself as a viable option on a regular basis. The Wolverines will likely have to stick with a majority of three wide receiver sets in order to move the ball. A few incoming freshman could eventually help move the offense forward, but they aren’t expected to contribute much this season.
“If there is one weakness on this team more than any it would be that they just don’t have the tight ends to play the way that they really want to play,” Balas said. “They’re going have to do some things differently until they get those tight ends in.”
Biggest Surprise of the Spring: C Ricky Barnum
Barnum, a redshirt senior, got comfortable in his new job as a starting center much sooner than expected. Michigan graduated the best center in the country last year in Rimington Award winner David Molk. With a fairly experienced group around him, Barnum needed to step up to keep the group together without Molk.
By all accounts, the 6-3, 292-pounder had a promising spring. Barnum has started sparingly at both guard and tackle during the last three years, but didn't take much time to adjust to being the centerpiece.
“As much as he picked it up and as well as he picked it up, they absolutely needed that to happen,” Balas said.
Summer Storyline: Growing in the trenches
Even with Barnum filling in the offensive line is still as thin on the depth chart as it was a year ago. Last year they were fortunate to remain healthy, but once again any major injuries could spell major trouble for Michigan. Developing depth along the line of scrimmage is a top priority on both sides of the ball.
The defensive side lost starters Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen this season. Senior Craig Roh moved from weakside to strongside defensive end and will need to add about 15 pounds this summer to be effective there. Jibreel Black, who switched from end to defensive tackle this spring, is only 260 pounds and will also need to beef up to be an impact player in the middle. The biggest question mark is still 6-foot-5, 322-pound Will Campbell. The former five-star player has yet to give the consistent effort needed to live up to his potential.
If Campbell can help erase the soft spot in the middle of Michigan’s defense, they could be poised for another double-digit win season in 2012.
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