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Thursday, April 19, 2012
It's Big Ten title or bust for Michigan, Hoke

By Brian Bennett

Brady Hoke
The goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

Craig Roh
Craig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."