Big Ten: Desmond Morgan

Big Ten morning links

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
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Three thoughts, projections and observations from the Big Ten this week:

1. Early look at B1G freshman of the year: Sure, it’s early. But, for fun, we project the offensive and defensive players of the year after Week 1 – so why not take a look at the freshmen? Right now, there are really two players that have made an early impact: Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton. The Buckeyes have only just started to crack open the playbook for Barrett, so we’ve seen little of what the redshirt freshman is capable of doing.

Barrett (226 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) might be the favorite for the honor right now, if for no other reason than the fact he’s starting at quarterback for the Buckeyes. That position carries some weight with this award; just ask last year’s B1G freshman of the year in Christian Hackenberg. And, while you’re at it, ask him about Hamilton. Hackenberg has praised the wideout for his improvement this offseason and, last month, receivers coach Josh Gattis labeled Hamilton “one of the biggest sleepers in the Big Ten.” Hamilton could end up leading a pass-heavy Penn State offense in catches. He already has 11 for 165 yards.

2. Interesting game picks: You might have noticed that over here, at the Big Ten blog, we picked the Oregon Ducks to beat the Michigan State Spartans by a 4-1 count -- although Adam Rittenberg and I picked the game to be decided by a touchdown or less. Our pals over at the Pac-12 blog? It was split at 2-2.

It’s an interesting game -- the matchup of the weekend -- and most of us think it’s going to be a lot closer than Vegas anticipates. It’s pretty clear why. Stanford showed the blueprint on how to beat the Ducks, and Michigan State should come close to matching that with a strong defense and a solid rushing game led by Jeremy Langford. We’ll find out Saturday evening just what happens. I can’t wait.

3. Injuries – what injuries?: Let’s put Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon-Joel Stave daytime drama aside for one moment. It sure looks as if it’s getting harder to obtain reliable injury reports this season. Brady Hoke declined to discuss the injuries of Desmond Morgan, Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt earlier this week: “Well, we’re not going to talk about any injuries.” And Penn State’s James Franklin has a policy not to discuss any injuries at any time.

The policies are understandable, of course. You don’t want to tip off opponents and you want to retain every advantage you can get. Reporting injuries isn’t mandatory in the FBS, after all. But it sure can get annoying. Let’s just hope teams don’t start following the Gary Andersen Book of Injury Reporting. Annoying is one thing; confusing is another.

East Division
West Division

Preseason position review: LB

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Linebacker was arguably the deepest and most talented position in the Big Ten last year. This season, the position takes on a new look, as stars like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Iowa's trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have all moved on.

Who's in the best and worst shape at the linebacker spot? Let's take a look as we continue our preseason position series:

Best of the best: Michigan State
Say what? The team that lost Bullough and Allen is still ranked first here? No, we haven't completely lost our minds. We just believe in the talent on hand -- and especially defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's ability to mold it into something special. Taiwan Jones probably would have started for most other college teams the past couple of years and looks poised to break out as Bullough's replacement in the middle. Darien Harris played well while helping fill in for Bullough during the Rose Bowl and will have an outside spot locked down. Ed Davis is a great athlete who was a third-down specialist last year; he can make up for Allen's absence as a blitzer. Backups like Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke will push the starters. This is not a sure thing, as the group has some questions to answer. But it's a safe bet that the Spartans' linebackers will come through.

Next up: Michigan
The Wolverines return all three starters to a crew that should be their best position group on defense. Jake Ryan might well be the best linebacker in the Big Ten, especially if he returns to his playmaking ways after dealing with his ACL tear recovery last fall. He moves to the middle this year, pushing James Ross III to the strong side. Ross is a little undersized for that spot but could overcome it with athleticism and instincts. Desmond Morgan has been rock solid the past couple of years. We'd like to see a few more big plays out of this group, but Ryan should be able to provide that. Nebraska and Penn State are also contenders for having the best linebacker position this season.

Sleeper: Ohio State
Outside of Shazier, the Buckeyes struggled to find standout players at linebacker the past couple of years. So his jump to the NFL stings. Still, the coaching staff is optimistic about the direction of this group. Joshua Perry started coming on late last year, including a strong Orange Bowl performance, and could step in Shazier's shoes as the leader here. Darron Lee is an excellent athlete who made waves this spring. Can senior Curtis Grant finally live up to his potential? If not, true freshman Raekwon McMillan could step into his place in the middle. The talent level here is getting back to vintage Silver Bullets days.

Problem for a contender: Iowa
Not a big problem, per se, as the Hawkeyes like what they have in former top backups Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, along with talented true sophomore Reggie Spearman. Still, any time you lose the experience and production that Iowa did -- the trio of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens combined for 985 career tackles and 105 starts -- the transition to a new era may not always be smooth. The good news is the Hawkeyes' defensive line remains strong, allowing the linebackers more freedom to simply make plays. Don't expect this to be much of a problem for long, if at all.

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
5:00
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Coming at you on Hump Day. As a reminder, we're taking more of your Twitter questions for the mailblog, so keep sending them in! Find us on Twitter here.

What's on your mind?

Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin would gain national respect. Sure, some would point to LSU's personnel losses and potential weaknesses on offense entering the season. But coach Les Miles never has lost an opener in nine years with the Tigers, and his teams have performed especially well in these types of games -- openers at neutral sites against other major-conference teams. Wisconsin has far more question marks than LSU entering this game, and a win would quiet a lot of the skeptics (including yours truly) and put the Badgers in serious contention for a playoff spot, especially with a favorable Big Ten schedule on tap. LSU essentially is the home team in Houston. The Tigers should be very tough on defense. The expectation is that they'll win. A Wisconsin win would and should turn heads.


Eric from Troy, Mich., writes: Everyone seems to be harping on Michigan's offense for the coming season, but I think their real issue is on defense, a topic that doesn't get seem to get a lot of coverage. MSU (my alma mater) and OSU both basically scored at will last year. The Wolverines had 8 games where an opponent scored more than 21 points, and three games where they gave up 40+. But forget all that and just focus on the fact that Akron, a middle-of-the-road MAC team, put up 24 on them! Is there anything to suggest that UofM's defense will be better this year? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe they are going to contend for anything important?

Adam Rittenberg: I agree not enough criticism/analysis is focused on Michigan's defense. The unit looked awful at the end of the season, surrendering 73 points and 946 yards in the final two games (losses to Ohio State and Kansas State). I thought young quarterback Shane Morris played decently in a tough situation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the defense didn't give Michigan a chance against K-State. What can we expect this fall? Michigan shuffled its defensive staff responsibilities, which includes coordinator Greg Mattison directly overseeing the linebackers and the secondary being split between Curt Mallory and Roy Manning. I think Michigan will be better in the back seven. There's good experience at linebacker with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The depth in the secondary might not be quite as strong but I expect big things from cornerback Blake Countess. The key is finding difference-makers up front. Will Frank Clark become a bona fide star? What about Mario Ojemudia, Brennen Beyer and Taco Charlton? Who steps up at defensive tackle? I don't expect Michigan to be a bad defense in 2014, but the line will determine whether it's average, better than average or very good.


Adam Rittenberg: A lot would depend on how the Big Ten performs in nonleague play and whether a Big Ten team runs the table at 13-0. I've written repeatedly that an undefeated team from a major conference won't be left out. The question is whether a one-loss Big Ten team could get in with two SEC teams. I think if Michigan State plays Oregon close and then goes on to sweep the Big Ten for the second straight year, it could get in at 12-1. Could Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin or Nebraska? Depends on what happens elsewhere. In terms of other conferences being left out with two SEC playoff teams, the Big 12 would top my list. Oklahoma might be the only realistic playoff contender entering the season. Maybe Baylor, too, but the Bears must visit the Sooners. I don't think a Big 12 team can afford a regular-season loss and still make the top four. I also think the ACC would be in major trouble if Florida State stumbles. There aren't many other genuine candidates. I like the SEC and Pac-12 to get at least one playoff team this year.


Daniel from Robbinsville, N.J., writes: Why hasn't more attention been paid to the addition of Ralph Friedgen in evaluating Rutgers for the upcoming season? His resume as an Offensive Coordinator is overwhelming and he has plenty of returning talent to work with.

Adam Rittenberg: I really like the hire, Daniel. Friedgen's priority will be getting quarterback Gary Nova on track for his final season. Nova had a really nice start to the 2012 campaign but struggled down the stretch and for most of 2013. Friedgen's success is not only with the scheme but in managing quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Shawn Jones and Joe Hamilton. Rutgers' offense returns almost entirely intact and features some exciting pieces like running back Paul James, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft. The key is generating consistent production and more explosive plays. It will be tough with this schedule, but Friedgen is proven.



Adam Rittenberg: I really like King's skill set and potential, and he'll have every opportunity to become a shutdown corner. Iowa has had a really nice run of them with Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater, Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. King, the first true freshman corner to start for Iowa since 2002, could be among the best as he continues to develop. He'll be matched up against top opposing wideouts this fall. His first test comes Sept. 20 when he'll likely go against Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd, who had 1,174 receiving yards as a freshman last season. I'm also interested to see how he fares against Maryland's threats -- possibly Stefon Diggs -- when the Hawkeyes visit the Terrapins on Oct. 18. 
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 4 in the Big Ten:

Iowa PR/WR Kevonte Martin-Manley and CB B.J. Lowery: Here's one way to ring up a bunch of points: Get four combined special teams and defensive scores. Martin-Manley scored on back-to-back punt returns in the second quarter, from 83 yards and 63 yards out, and Lowery brought a pair of interceptions to the house, from 35 and 13 yards away, in the Hawkeyes' 59-3 blasting of Western Michigan.

Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: OK, it was only Florida A&M, which was wildly overmatched in the Horseshoe. Still, we have to acknowledge Guiton's unbelievable run as Braxton Miller's replacement. He set a Buckeyes' record with six touchdown passes while completing 24-of-34 passes for 215 yards in the 76-0 whitewashing. And now it's probably back to being the backup when Miller returns.

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: Subbing for the injured Philip Nelson (hamstring), Leidner set a Gophers quarterback record with four touchdown runs in a 43-24 win over San Jose State. He piled up 151 yards on 24 rushing attempts and was virtually impossible to bring down on first contact. Leidner only completed five passes for 71 yards, but Minnesota hardly needed to throw, as its ground game dominated.

Wisconsin RBs Melvin Gordon and James White: The Badgers' dynamic backfield duo was at it again versus Purdue. Gordon ran 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns, while White added 145 yards on 16 carries, as both averaged better than nine yards per attempt. White also had three catches for 49 yards in the 41-10 conference victory.

Michigan LB Desmond Morgan: He gets a sticker for just one play, but it was a big one. Morgan picked off UConn's Chandler Whitmer early in the fourth quarter and returned it 29 yards to set up the tying touchdown in Michigan's 24-21 escape in East Hartford. That might go down as a season-saving play for the Wolverines.

This is Michigan? Really?

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- This is Michigan.

Where it seems an acceptable explanation for why a player might be a good pass rusher or wide receiver is simply because he is a “Michigan man.”

Where coach Brady Hoke praises his team for its resiliency after a 24-21 victory over UConn. It’s where a team -- ranked No. 15 in the nation -- needed resiliency to put away a team that lost to Towson in Week 1.

It’s where the current team is cloaked in the history of the previous 133 teams. It’s where the quarterback, once shrouded in Heisman hype, is given the No. 98 to honor a 1940 Heisman winner but then ends up turning the ball over eight times the first three games he wears that uniform.

That is Michigan? Really?

“We all are trying to figure out where we’re at as a team,” Hoke said after his team left the field the second week in a row without really being able to celebrate the victory.

It might just be semantics, but “where they are” is not quite “who they are.” It’s two different statements. The latter seems to be the bigger question the Wolverines face right now. They’re staring the Big Ten schedule in the face -- with a bye week to help their bruised bodies and egos -- but they still aren’t sure who they are.

It’s certainly not Michigan to admit that it doesn’t have an identity. Especially this close to the conference schedule.

But some time after Under the Lights and during the Akron Hangover and the East Hartford Horror, Michigan was supposed to look like a complete team. And it hasn’t.

Michigan, right now, is Jekyll and Hyde -- a team making highlight reel plays one down and making bad teams look dominant the next.

It has succeeded in making wins embarrassing -- something few former Michigan players would’ve ever thought possible.

If there is a silver lining it’s that they know what they want to be. And at their best, that’s what they are.

But the downfall comes in the distance between how good their good is and how bad their bad is, and that fact that it should never be this hard to find their good against subpar teams.

Playing down to the level of competition is a trait of the decent, of the mediocre.

Not of Michigan.

Michigan knows it wants to be a team that pounds the ball down defenses’ throats. And against UConn, the run game showed some life. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

Want to know who did better?

Towson’s Terrance West in Week 1. He rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns against UConn. And in week two Maryland’s C.J. Brown rushed for 122 yards last weekend (though he only scored one TD).

Michigan wants to be a good passing team with a pocket presence and a quarterback who makes solid decisions. But Gardner threw for 97 yards and was 11-of-23 with two interceptions and no passing touchdowns.

Take a guess (or two) at who did better.

Towson’s Peter Athens threw for 192 yards and one touchdown with just one interception and finished the day 13-of-20. Maryland’s Brown finished his day against UConn with 277 passing yards and one touchdown as well as just one interception and a 15-of-28 performance.

Michigan wants to be great -- or at least better than its equivalents at Towson and Maryland.

It wants a stout defense and at times against UConn, it looked that way. But it also gave up big plays -- a rush of 16 yards, passes of 18, 19 and 26 yards. They’re not deal breakers by any means. But a Michigan defense shouldn’t give those up to UConn offense.

On Saturday, Michigan needed its defense to come up big and it did. The defense coming up big isn’t the problem, it’s the fact -- once again -- that Michigan needed it to.

After spotting UConn a 21-7 lead, the Wolverines needed to claw their way back. And late in the fourth quarter, they were finally hitting their stride.

Linebacker Desmond Morgan came up with a huge one-handed interception in the fourth quarter while the Wolverines were down seven.

“That was pretty spectacular,” Gardner said of the play. “That’s going to be replayed a long time in Michigan history.”

And it will. It was full of athleticism and perfect timing. Morgan should be proud of that play and Michigan needed it. On its own, that play was beautiful.

But the surroundings of that play will spoil it for those who remember.

Because the greatest plays in Michigan football history, the ones that are replayed for a long time, aren’t supposed to come against UConn.

Charles Woodson’s famous interception was against Michigan State. Desmond Howard’s pose came in the Ohio State game and “The Catch” came against Notre Dame. Braylon Edwards' famous grab was in a Michigan State game in triple OT.

That’s when great Michigan men are made. Not in East Hartford, Conn. Not against Akron. Not when so many holes are evident.

At some point, the Wolverines will need to look complete. At some point, they need to find an identity. At some point, they need to be this “Michigan” that is preached about if they want to be relevant.

And Hoke believes they can get there, he believes they can be who they want to be.

“I know our team, we know our team,” he said. “They realize the things that they need to do better and we’ve got to give them the tools to do those things better, that’s our job and we’ll do that.”

That, apparently, is Michigan. At least for right now.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- James Ross III didn’t expect to play much the first game last season. Special teams, sure, but on the actual defense against Alabama, the linebacker’s head was stuck in high school.

So imagine his surprise when his coaches turned to him during Michigan’s season-opener last season and told him he was going in.

This was his introduction to college football, complete with moments that still stick out almost a year later as he moves from a situational role player to a full-time starter on Michigan’s defense.

James Ross
Lon Horwedell/Icon SMIJames Ross III was able to rely on physical tools as a freshman in 2012. Now he is focusing on a better understanding of Michigan's schemes.
“I’m on the sideline and the coaches tell me to get in,” Ross III said. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I just look around the stadium and it’s packed. Has the big old jumbo screen going on. Ahh, it was, I don’t know.

“That offensive line was a pretty big deal, too. It’s real.”

Ross III, an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11, already had this experience down. A month earlier at the start of fall camp, he looked at Michigan’s offense and saw offensive linemen all standing 6-foot-3 or bigger and realized he wasn’t playing in Michigan’s Catholic League anymore.

Plus, his knowledge of what defenses Greg Mattison wanted to run was minimal and it ended up being somewhat surprising Ross III played much at all. He was able to mask his lack of understanding by his instincts. He didn’t know all the plays, but he listened to what former Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens recited in the huddle, repeated it as if he knew what he was doing and then would go and try to make a play.

By the end of the season, Ross III said he knew about 75 percent of what Michigan was doing.

He had 36 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. He also started two games when Desmond Morgan was injured and made enough of an impact that the coaches moved Morgan to middle linebacker this spring to make sure Ross III played more this fall. Beyond that, Michigan’s coaching staff is pressuring him to be more active than last season and make sure he understands things better.

“He has, I think, pretty good instincts,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “… I thought, we thought, that there’s more we could get out of him so we’re putting a lot of that pressure, a lot of the challenge to him to do a little better job getting off blocks and there’s times when you don’t need to take on the block.

“So just making the football itself the issue.”

Last season it wasn’t. There were playbook and communication issues and there was the adjustment to college football in general. Thus far this fall, the adjustments have been more subtle.

Instead of understanding the concept of the plays, he has focused on making sure his alignment is correct. Instead of relying on his teammates to announce and break down the play, he is starting to grasp everything on his own.

He’s even learning to use his size -- strong but short -- to his advantage.

“Being able to read a little better,” Ross III said. “Just like it’s difficult looking at a smaller running back, you can’t really see him so you can get lost a little bit in the shuffle. But those guys, we are shuffling downhill and trying to maintain our gaps so we aren’t shuffling around them.

“We have to go through them.”

Doing that isn’t an issue for Ross. He has always been a big hitter and strong for his size. His body, which didn’t look like a typical freshman when he entered camp a year ago, has continued to improve.

Now everything else is catching up.

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.
We've taken a look at some offensive milestones and which Big Ten players are likely to reach them in 2013, including 1,000 yards rushing, 1,000 yards receiving and 3,000 yards passing. But what about the defense?

Defensive statistics are a little harder to predict, and there aren't as many readily identifiable milestones. One such marker, though, is 100 tackles. On the one hand, tackle numbers can sometimes be a bit misleading, since one good player on a bad defense can pile up numbers, or a defense can funnel plays to certain areas. But if you've reached 100 tackles, odds are you're a pretty good player.

And unlike the 3K passers or 1K receivers, the Big Ten is flush with returning 100-tackle men. Here's the rundown of players who reached triple digits in stops last season and will look to do it again in 2013:
All are solid bets to repeat the feat in '13. Here are some other guys to watch for the century mark:

Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: Could the Hawkeyes really have all three linebackers go over 100 stops? They very nearly did it last year, with Kirksey finishing just five tackles short, and getting back to a bowl game would aid the cause. Then again, Iowa would love to see its defensive line make more plays so the linebackers don't have to clean everything up.

Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, and Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Ariguzo had 91 tackles last year, while Campbell had 89. Both will be anchors for the improving Wildcats defense again this year.

Greg Heban, S, and David Cooper, LB, Indiana: Heban somewhat quietly had a really strong 2012 with 91 stops and should be even better this year. But the Hoosiers would like to see fewer opposing players get to the safety level. If so, Cooper (86) might be the statistical beneficiary.

Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, LB, Penn State: With Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti gone, the Lions will need someone to pick up the slack for two guys that combined for 205 stops last year. Carson registered 85 tackles last year and will be the most experienced member of the linebacker group, while Hull could be the next star at the position.

Ethan Armstrong, LB, Wisconsin: Borland and Mike Taylor formed a dynamic duo the past couple of years at linebacker for the Badgers. Could it now be Borland and Armstrong? The latter had 93 tackles a year ago in his first year starting.

Desmond Morgan, LB, Michigan: After an 81-tackle season a year ago, Morgan will likely start this year at middle linebacker. Someone will have to increase their production while Jake Ryan is out; it could be Morgan or James Ross III.

David Santos, LB, Nebraska: The Huskers replace all three starting linebackers from last year, including 110-tackle guy Will Compton. Perhaps Santos or one of the new starting safeties will lead the way.
2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 26, 2013
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One month until these guys are back. I can't wait.

RecruitingNation links: Big Ten edition

April, 22, 2013
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BuckeyeNation

Austin Ward writes: Jeff Heuerman’s performance this spring turned a lot of heads.

Brad Bournival writes Insider: OSU might have only one ESPN 150 commit right now, but no one believes its 2014 class will have anywhere near that number when all is said and done.

NittanyNation

Josh Moyer writes: While the receivers look capable of big things, no one has separated himself at quarterback.

WolverineNation

Michael Rothstein writes: Desmond Morgan is eager for his move in the fall to his more comfortable spot at middle linebacker.

Chantel Jennings writesInsider: 2015 OLB Ricky DeBerry took quick visits to Michigan and Michigan State over the weekend in his continued effort to visit as many schools that offer as he can.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 25, 2013
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Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle in the Sweet 16. You had that, right?

Michigan's Jake Ryan tears ACL

March, 20, 2013
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Michigan has suffered a huge setback early in spring practice, as the team announced Wednesday that junior linebacker Jake Ryan tore his ACL during Tuesday's practice.

Ryan is the team's top returning defensive player, having led the Wolverines last year with 88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. We named him to our 2012 All-Big Ten team and rated him No. 17 in our Big Ten postseason player rankings.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan's knee injury leaves a hole in the Michigan defense that will be difficult to fill.
Michigan officials said Ryan is out "indefinitely." If there's any bright side to this injury, it's that it happened on March 19. Typical recovery time for torn ACLs is generally said to be between six to nine months. We don't know how severe Ryan's injury is -- whether it's a complete or partial tear, for instance, or whether there's damage to other ligaments -- but if he were to meet the most optimistic side of that recovery timetable, then he could possibly still come back and play for the Wolverines by midseason. But again, that's if everything goes perfectly.

There have been success stories of athletes recovering quickly from torn ACLs. The most notable one is Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing last season after suffering his ACL tear on Christmas Eve 2011.

"I know he will attack his rehabilitation just like he does everything else and will be back when he's ready," head coach Brady Hoke said in a statement.

Linebacker also looks to be Michigan's deepest position. Hoke told ESPN.com last week before Ryan's injury that "we feel a little stronger at that position" and that he expected great competition. Desmond Morgan, who started at weak side linebacker last year, had been working out at the middle linebacker spot to allow him and rising star James Ross to play at the same time. The Wolverines also have sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, senior Mike Jones and incoming freshmen Mike McCray II and Ben Gedeon to compete for snaps.

However, most of those guys -- with the exception of McCray -- profile more as middle or weak side linebackers, and lack the size to play the strong side spot that Ryan occupied. That puts more pressure on senior Cam Gordon -- Ryan's backup -- to play a bigger role. Gordon has appeared in 33 career games, and Hoke praised his winter workout efforts in his interview with ESPN.com last year. But Gordon has yet to show that he can be a star or a major disruptive force the way Ryan has been. Make no mistake about it: this is a big, big loss for Greg Mattison's defense.

The Wolverines have plenty of time to figure out some answers, but it remains to be seen if they can find anyone to fill the playmaking shoes of Ryan. It's the first real negative of the offseason for Michigan, which got great news when Taylor Lewan returned, when Devin Gardner got his extra year of eligibility, and of course on signing day.

Time will tell how well the team will fill in for Ryan, or whether he can return at all for 2013. But until then, the guy with the flowing golden locks and penchant for making impact plays will be sorely missed.
Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

What are the main things you're looking for this spring?

Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.

Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.

You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?

BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.

Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?

BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.

Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?

BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.

What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?

BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.

Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.

Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?

BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.

How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?

BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.

We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.

So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.

Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?

BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.

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