Big Ten: Taco Charlton

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
5:00
PM ET
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. 

Preseason position preview: DL

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
10:30
AM ET
You want to win in the Big Ten? Then you'd better have a strong defensive line.

Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.

Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:

Best of the best: Ohio State

I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.

Next up: Michigan State

Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.
The unofficial start of summer begins this holiday weekend, but we're dreaming about the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/involved in a time-travel mishap, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Our next stop in the series is the Michigan Wolverines.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA lack of depth at the position makes Devin Funchess an invaluable asset to Michigan's offense.
Devin Funchess, WR, Jr.

It's tempting to pick the other Devin here and go with quarterback Devin Gardner. And maybe that would be the smarter call. But Brady Hoke keeps insisting that Shane Morris has made progress and is catching up to Gardner, so the Wolverines could weather a prolonged absence from Gardner. Depth is a much more pressing issue at the position Funchess plays. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation and Jake Butt to injury, Michigan has few other experienced receiving options. Freddy Canteen turned heads this spring but is still just a true freshman, while other players such as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh must prove themselves. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last fall, and the converted tight end is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. His playmaking skills would be sorely missed.

Frank Clark, DE, Sr.

The Wolverines are building talent and depth along their defensive line, but Clark is still the best playmaker up front. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss last season while adding 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has elite athleticism and is looking for a major breakthrough season as a senior. Michigan has other options at defensive end, including Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. But Clark has a chance to be the leader for an improved defensive line that could be the key to the entire defense.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For many months, there has been hand-wringing and consternation about the state of Michigan's offensive line. But what about the other side of the trenches?

The Wolverines' defensive line has produced at a mediocre rate, at best, since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011. That's a fact that has to eat at both Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who are both former defensive line coaches.

[+] EnlargeBrennen Beyer
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMISenior defensive end Brennen Beyer will be a key contributor for the Wolverines in 2014.
But unlike the offensive line, which exited spring with question marks remaining, there is hope that Michigan can turn this position into a strength again.

"I've been here for four years and I've seen three different defensive fronts come through here," senior defensive end Frank Clark said. "And I think it’s the best one we’ve had."

The group blends a mixture of veterans and youth, with many of the young players getting valuable exposure last season. Some of them were hyped recruits who display obvious size and athleticism, such as sophomores Taco Charlton (6-foot-6, 275 pounds), Chris Wormley (6-4, 292) and Willie Henry (6-2, 297). New position coach Mark Smith, who mentored the linebackers the previous three years, was understandably excited for a chance to mold those guys.

"I didn't inherit a bunch of plow horses, now," he said. "I inherited a bunch of thoroughbreds. We look good coming off the bus. We've just got to get the mental aspects of it and our philosophy and the mindset we want up front."

Clark epitomizes the D-line crew in many ways. Long heralded as a star in the making, he started to deliver on some of that promise last season with 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After briefly considering a jump to the NFL, he returned to campus determined to do even more in his last go-round.

"I’m the vet," he said. "I’m the big dog now."

Another senior, Brennen Beyer, will man the other defensive end spot. Beyer has moved around a lot in his career and sometimes is taken for granted. But Smith said Beyer is one of the best players and leaders on the defense.

Then there's Charlton, who has enough potential to make Michigan fans salivate. Given the nickname Taco from his grandmother when he was born prematurely and weighed less than three pounds, he's more like a fully loaded burrito now. Even playing last season as a true freshman, Charlton said he never felt overmatched physically.

"It wasn't really hard because of my body," he said. "But now I feel like a mature guy, and everything is coming more easily. I know what it takes to play, so I can really relax now and just play without much thinking."

"Taco has immeasurable potential," Smith said. "That kid can be as good as he wants."

How good the Wolverines' line will be this fall likely hinges on the inside spots, where the team replaces starters Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington. Henry and Wormley played a lot there in 2013 and should improve after getting a season under their belts.

"Chris Wormley is one of those guys who, when he walks in a room, you go, 'Ooh, that's what it's supposed to look like,'" Smith said. "He's come a long way, but in a lot of ways, he's still figuring out what it takes to be an every-down player here."

Redshirt freshman Maurice Hurst Jr. made a strong impression this spring at tackle, while sophomores Matthew Godin and Ryan Glasgow and early enrollee freshman Bryan Mone also saw a lot of reps. Ondre Pipkins will eventually be back from a knee injury. The coaching staff believes it has now developed depth that will allow it to comfortably rotate several bodies this fall.

The players just have to prove themselves on the field and show they can apply pressure on the quarterback without help, something that has been problematic the past couple of seasons.

"We have a multitude of pass rushers, and we've got physical guys in the middle," Clark said. "If four can rush the passer and let everybody else drop into coverage and do their jobs, that’s when you have a great defense."

Michigan hasn't reached that level in a while. The potential of the defensive line at least offers some hope of returning there.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
9:00
AM ET
The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:00
PM ET
I've got less than a week left in my 30s. No time for pithy intros. Hit me:

Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?

Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.

But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.


Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: To preface this, I recently graduated from MSU, had season tickets and loved the football program, so this isn't coming from jealousy. It seems the tone from you, Adam, and Spartans fans in general that people believe the offense will carry the Spartans this year. I just don't see their offense being that good. Looking back at the championship game and the Rose Bowl, MSU was very lucky that their offense didn't cost them those games. Cook made quite a few poor decisions that hit defenders in the hand. If they had held on to those balls, MSU's season does not end the way it did. It seems that because MSU won those games, people are willing to forget how close the offense was to losing those games. The MSU offense will be better than at the start of last year, but I believe it is more likely to be in the bottom half of the B1G than the top.

Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.

Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.

And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."


Patrick D. via Twitter writes: Who sees more snaps at QB for #IUFB in 2014? Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld?

Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.


Nick H. via Twitter writes: Thoughts on the Minnesota quarterback situation? Does Mitch Leidner stay the starter through the full year or does Chris Streveler dethrone him?

Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.


Tom from North Jersey writes: We all know Rutgers has gaps to fill to catch up to most of the Big Ten teams on the field, but based on your time with the Big East blog, what improvements do they need to make to catch up?

Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”

Video: Michigan DE Taco Charlton

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
1:00
PM ET

Michigan sophomore defensive end Taco Charlton talks about his development and the Wolverines' defense this spring.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
5:00
PM ET
Spring practice is in full swing around the Big Ten, and we've got you covered. Be sure to check us out on Twitter.

Mail call ...

Lance from Mooresville, N.C., writes: Some hypotheticals for you in regards to the 2013 Spartans: 1. If Le'Veon [Bell] would have stayed, would MSU have won a national title? Or would MSU have used him as a crutch like it did in 2012. 2. If MSU would have beat tOSU in the BIG CCG by 20-plus points and not given tOSU the lead back in the third quarter, would it have gone to the NCG? 3) How crazy is it that the BCS came a year too late for U of M and they didn't get an outright national title, and the playoff came a year too late for MSU, and it didn't get a chance to play for one either.

Adam Rittenberg: 1. I don't think Le'Veon Bell, as good as he is, would have been the difference in Michigan State winning a national title. And as you note, it might have changed how the coaches approached the quarterback position. MSU needed to lean more on its QB, partly because Bell wasn't there, and it allowed for Connor Cook to emerge. 2. Maybe if Missouri had beaten Auburn, MSU could have vaulted into the No. 2 spot. There was a strong push to get the SEC champ in the game after the run of national titles, but Missouri didn't have the backing that Auburn did. 3. I guess the college football powers-that-be are anti-Mitten State. It's really too bad MSU didn't have a chance to participate in a playoff last year.

 




Puck from Chesapeake, Va., writes: What impact does Taco Charlton make the for Wolverines this fall? I want him to be a game-changer!

Adam Rittenberg: Puck, few young players impressed me more physically on my spring trips last year than Taco Charlton. Freshmen simply don't look like that very often. He got a small taste of game action last fall, appearing in 10 games as a reserve and recording two tackles. I'm interested to see if he makes a significant jump in Year 2. Michigan needs more pass-rushing production, and while Charlton is behind Brennen Beyer, he could have a bigger role. Frank Clark and Mario Ojemudia are on the other side and boast more experience, but I don't know if any Michigan defensive end has Charlton's physical gifts.

 




Leo from Philadelphia writes: I grew up in close proximity to both Maryland and Rutgers. I feel like I know what both schools represent (having lots of friends from each), and I can't see either being a rival to Penn State (for obvious reasons). I understand why people from those schools try to justify it, but in reality Penn State has no true rival in the B1G. Ohio State might be the closest thing, but at the end of the day it's not (for obvious reasons). If the Big Ten caters to it, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State have serious potential (mainly Nebraska). Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Leo, the only way Maryland or Rutgers becomes Penn State's rival is if one or both start beating the Lions on a regular basis. James Franklin's connection to Maryland makes that series more interesting, but I can't call it a rivalry until the Terps start winning. Penn State will see Ohio State, Michigan and MSU annually in the East Division, but all three programs have bigger rivals. A lot of Penn State and Nebraska fans wanted to see that series continue annually, but the division realignment makes it tough. Penn State might never have a true Big Ten rival. At least Pitt returns to the schedule in 2016.

 




Stephen from Mount Prospect, Ill., writes: Where do you stand on conference games beginning from Week 1? I think one of the more overlooked parts of the early part of the schedule is the effects it has on rankings and conference prestige. More early conference games will truly show who are the top teams. Look at the Michigan game when it lost to App State. It was the first game of the year, and the Wolverines were ranked fifth. It was a huge deal that they lost, and the perception was that the Big Ten was bad that season. If they played them at the end of the season with three losses, it wouldn't have been as big of a story.

Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, some really good points here. I've long been in favor of earlier conference games because they add some spice to those September Saturdays. No one like the Big Ten's MAC/FCS Invitational, which seems to take place one Saturday per season. Sprinkling in earlier league games, as we'll see in the near future, ensures the league remains somewhat relevant in the national discussion. But your point about early league games shedding light on which teams are good and which teams are not is very valid. I hate preseason polls and early-season rankings, but they would be slightly more accurate if teams faced stronger competition in September.

 




Al Baker from Lincoln, Neb., writes: It's Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, not Edwardsville, a much smaller satellite campus.

Adam Rittenberg: Actually, the Illinois state senators were referring to the Edwardsville campus, in the context of having a Big Ten candidate closer to a larger media market (St. Louis). Carbondale brings nothing to the Big Ten in terms of market. Same goes for Illinois State, Northern Illinois and most of the highly unrealistic candidates for Big Ten expansion. SIU-Edwardsville at least has location in its favor, but not much else.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
5:00
PM ET
Send in or tweet your questions for our Big Ten player chats as Nebraska CB Ciante Evans, Penn State G John Urschel, Northwestern QB Kain Colter and Wisconsin LB Chris Borland will join us during the live blog Wednesday.

For now, you'll have to deal with me. Let's go ...

Mike from Novi, Mich., writes: Coming into last season, Michigan had to replace the interior of the offensive line. And the offensive line was mediocre in creating holes game after game. For this coming season, Michigan again has to replace the interior of the offensive line, only this time Hoke's highly rated players are the new faces. On the other side, Michigan has been mediocre in generating a pass rush the past two years. Frank Clark has been hyped up but he only started 4 games last year. Your prediction: will the OL or DL be better this coming season?

Adam Rittenberg: Really good question, Mike. There are some highly rated young guys on the defensive line, too -- Taco Charlton is a monster -- but certainly more on the offensive side of the ball. I think both units will be a bit better this season, although I wouldn't put either group among the elite of the Big Ten. Michigan's youth on the interior line will show up at times, but the line will get better as the season progresses. I definitely like Clark's potential at defensive end, and the overall pass rush should be better. But Michigan hasn't had an impact defensive tackle since Mike Martin, and I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with the guys occupying the interior this year.



Kevin from Chicago writes: Basic Question here. What backfield do you think is the most exciting. Talking in terms of excitement. Id like to say its between Colter/Mark and Martinez/Abdullah. Just always fun to watch Colter do his thing and short Venric Mark just run past defenders. On the other hand Martinez is just a playmaker on the ground and Abdullah is just as good.

Adam Rittenberg: Both are great choices, Kevin, but I'd give the edge to Northwestern's Colter and Mark when it comes to pure excitement. When they get the zone-read game going, they're nearly impossible to stop, and both are dynamic open-field runners. Martinez certainly brings more to the passing game than Colter does, and both Martinez and Abdullah have great speed. Nebraska has more overall big-play ability than Northwestern on offense, but the combination of Colter and Mark and the special things they can do when they find a rhythm gets my vote here.



Greg from NYC writes: Adam my dude, the steam picking up about the power conferences splitting from the non power ones is fascinating...say the split does happen..are we about to eliminate playing outside the power conferences..say you play your 9 (just a number) conference games and then 3 from the other power conferences? or how would it work? or does anybody know?

Adam Rittenberg: It's way too soon to tell, Greg, but it's a good question to ask. The power conferences are recognizing the value in upgrading schedules, especially from a TV perspective. We've seen the Big Ten take positive steps lately, and other conferences like the Pac-12 have done the same. I'm not sure I see the day when teams are only playing power-conference opponents because of the budgetary demand for teams to play so many home games, among other factors. But a division consisting only of power-conference teams likely would create more attractive schedules overall.



Chris from Monticello, Ill., writes: Adam, What kind of impact can Illinois fans expect Bill Cubit to have? Tim Beckman and a fairly inexperienced staff stumbled on and off the field last year. Can Cubit be a calming influence when things start moving quickly?

Adam Rittenberg: I think he can, Chris, and he'll need to be as Illinois must establish its identity on offense early this season to have any chance of real improvement. Illinois goes from two unproven coordinators (Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales) and a bizarre, built-to-fail play-calling system to a veteran coordinator who had some success as Western Michigan's head coach before things went downhill. There will be no gray area with Cubit, no questions about who is really in charge of the unit. He has a plan and will try to execute the plan. Whether he has the players to do it remains to be seen, but Illinois should have an easier time establishing something that works on offense. The big challenge is how fast Cubit wants to play on offense -- quarterbacks are expected to get rid of the ball within 2.2 seconds -- and whether players can adjust to the desired tempo.



Cameron from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: It may seem callous for me to say this but I don't care if current or former college players get a dime from the O'Bannon lawsuit. What they fail to see is that they are college students just as much as they are athletes and personally the fact that other college students get jobs (athletic training), unpaid internships (playing football, basketball, etc.) should not go overlooked. They whine and cry and ask for a handout when any college student graduating with a mountain of debt would trade places with them leaving school debt free. They need to wake up and realize what a gift an athletic scholarship is and use it to get an education that will benefit long after their playing days are over.

Adam Rittenberg: Cameron, thanks for your note, and you're not alone in your beliefs. The counterargument is that major college football players aren't normal college students. They generate way more money for their universities than you or I did for our alma maters, and that money is going into coaches' pockets and elsewhere rather than to the guys on the field. Sure, they're getting a free education that shouldn't be discounted, but many of them are limited in their opportunities for both education and jobs/internships while in college because of their sport demands. College football truly is a year-round deal with the training regimen, and there aren't too many John Urschels out there. I don't think a full-blown pay-for-play model works where individual athletes negotiate their own deals through agents, but I absolutely think the value of the scholarship should go a little further, especially when certain schools and leagues are willing to do so.



Kevin from Cincinnati writes: Let's say Maryland is forced to pay the full $50 million (or as much as possible) to leave the ACC and Virginia and the N.C. teams aren't going to risk that. Does Delany just throw his hands up and move on, or would he and the B1G give an invite to teams like Old Dominion or East Carolina on very strict rules and guidelines? I'll be the first to admit it sounds very, very farfetched, but Rutgers surprised the snot out of me.

Adam Rittenberg: Rutgers was a geographically strategic addition, plain and simple. Although Rutgers has dramatically improved its football program in recent years and has potential to be a bigger factor in the New York sports market, the Big Ten, as I wrote last fall, is really gambling more on its existing product resonating in a new, attractive market, than the boost it could or could not get from Rutgers. Jim Delany hasn't written off the possibility of further expansion, but the ACC's grant of rights agreement really reduces or eliminates the pool of attractive candidates from the region (East Coast) the Big Ten now covets. The Big Ten won't add East Carolina or Old Dominion for numerous reasons -- how much time do you have? -- and I'd be surprised if the league expands beyond 14 before the next TV contract, which is really what this is all about.



Kelle from Boulder, Colo., writes: Hey Adam, Do you think the Aaron Hernandez backlash had anything to do with Urban Meyer's quick discipline of Roby and Hyde? Also, is there any chance either of them misses any relevant game action due to their arrests?

Adam Rittenberg: No. Meyer had to act quickly no matter what as both incidents became public and, in Roby's case, an arrest was made. Meyer's response came about as quickly as you would expect, so I don't see any effect from the Hernandez case. To answer your second question, Hyde certainly could miss significant time -- he could even be dismissed from the program -- depending on how his case plays out. But if he's not charged, I don't see how he can be suspended for much or any of the season. Roby's situation also is unfolding but I'd be surprised if he misses many games.
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.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.

The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.

"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."

The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.

Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.

"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."

[+] EnlargeFrank Clark
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Big Ten foes will be going up against an even stronger Frank Clark in 2013.
The lesson for Clark?

"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.

Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.

"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.

There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.

Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.

When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.

"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.

"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."

Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.

They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.

"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.

"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."

Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.

There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.

"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."

Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.

After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.

"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
10:45
AM ET
It was a big Saturday of spring games around the Big Ten, and we're recapping all of them today. Let's take a look at how the Michigan Wolverines wrapped up their spring session at the Big House.

You can find coverage of Michigan's spring game here and here and here and here.

Star of the game: The Wolverines' offense kept things very vanilla, but the defense more than held its own and sophomore linebacker James Ross III showed why he'll likely be a big factor in the fall. Ross played the entire scrimmage and logged a game-high eight tackles, including two for loss. Linemen Frank Clark, Jibreel Black and Taco Charlton also stood out for the defense.

How it went down: Michigan fans didn't learn a ton about the 2013 team as the offense, as expected, was "very vanilla, very basic," as starting quarterback Devin Gardner put it. The Wolverines are going back to their traditional pro-set structure and operated mostly under center in an I-formation.

Gardner completed 11 of 16 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown and displayed the vertical pass game we saw last fall after he became the starter in finding Devin Funchess and Amara Darboh for gains of 35 and 33 yards. Backup Brian Cleary got in a bit of work along with Alex Swieca.

The defense had the edge in the spring game, starting at the line of scrimmage. The most telling matchup pitted Michigan's defensive front against an offensive line looking for starters at both guard spots and at center. Although the young offensive linemen showed flashes, the defensive front carried the day, getting consistent penetration with players like Clark, Black and Charlton, a man-child freshman at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds.

"We moved and established the line of scrimmage today, and I think that is one thing that we haven't seen in a while," senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "But what we do in the summer and do in fall camp is really going to define us as an offensive line."

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan recorded only 22 sacks last season. If Saturday's scrimmage is an indication, the Wolverines will be heating up the pocket more this fall.

"We've got some young kids who have some ability," head coach Brady Hoke said. "With Greg and his passion with how he teaches rushing the passer ... the guys are excited about it. They know what we want to do. We've worked on it. We're not near what we can be and will be, but I think we’re a little better at it."

The interior offensive line will continue to be a major storyline throughout fall camp, and Hoke wants to see Michigan run the ball more effectively. Thomas Rawls had a 14-yard touchdown run in the scrimmage and led the offense with 32 rush yards on six carries.

The best news for Michigan came off of the playing field as Hoke said running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (leg) and cornerback Black Countess (knee) both are on track to return for the opener, and linebacker Jake Ryan, who recently underwent ACL surgery, could be back by mid October. Michigan also picked up a commitment from wide receiver Drake Harris, who originally pledged to rival Michigan State.
The Jake Ryan replacement project is under way at Michigan.

Ryan, the team's top defender in 2012, left a significant hole at the strongside linebacker spot after suffering a torn ACL last week in practice. The Wolverines expect Cam Gordon to step in for Ryan, but they need more bodies at the position.

That's why junior Brennen Beyer has been moved from defensive end to outside linebacker, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Tuesday. Beyer played linebacker in 2011 but moved to rush end role last season and started eight games, recording 19 tackles and a forced fumble.

Mattison said Beyer will play linebacker only until Ryan returns to the field. The coach is pleased with Beyer's performance in his first few practices in his new/old spot.

Mattison also sounds confident in Gordon, who started all 13 games in 2010 at safety and linebacker but has had a reduced role in each of the past two seasons. He recorded three tackles for loss and a pass breakup last fall.

"Right now for the first time, and it was starting to happen last year, he's really getting confidence and he can kind of look in the mirror and say, 'I am an outside linebacker,'" Mattison told reporters Tuesday in Ann Arbor. "It's not, 'I wonder if I can do this.' He knows he can do it, now he has to get better and better at it."

Beyer's move also makes sense because Michigan has much better depth at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Clark made four starts last season and had nine tackles for loss and two sacks. Ojemudia recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble in nine games as a reserve, while Charlton is a true freshman.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12