- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It has been a productive day here on Michigan's campus as I visited with new Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke, coordinators Greg Mattison (defense) and Al Borges (offense), Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Denard Robinson and others.
I enjoyed re-connecting with Hoke, who remembered me from my early ESPN.com freelancer days as we visited on the Mid-American Conference weekly coaches' calls. The new coach seems to be well received by his new players and most Michigan alumni, but as he knows better than anyone, he needs to win games to maintain the good will.
A few notes before I make the drive north to Sparta:
Robinson is aware of the need to stay on the field this fall, but he'll be fighting his natural aggressiveness at times. The quarterback never felt seriously injured last season, though he was banged up enough to miss stretches in several games. "That's something I have to start doing, just going out of bounds, sliding, which I don't like doing," Robinson said. Sliding? Robinson hasn't been practicing it this spring, and Borges isn't going to keep his quarterback from doing what he does best. "I can tell him to [slide], and he won't do it anyway," Borges said. "We're still going to be very running quarterback oriented. We still have maintained anywhere from five to seven plays in our offense that still feature the quarterback as a runner."
So "Shoelace" -- who was unlaced during our interview Wednesday -- will still be on the move this fall, but Michigan wants to put more of the rushing load on its running backs. No position group could be impacted more by Borges' offense than the backs. Borges made it clear that he wants a bell cow in the backfield, but none has created separation this spring. And while Michigan wants to have a downhill running attack this fall, the coaches don't necessarily need a prototypical power back to carry the rock. That's good news for a guy like Vincent Smith, who checks in at 5-6, 180. "They don't give you any more yards because you weigh 20 more pounds," Borges said. "Whoever can gain the yards is the guy who will play. We're cognizant of how big they are, but when we watch video of high school backs, the thing we're interested in, assuming they're not teeny, is if they can gain yards. If they look like they can break tackles and make people miss in the open field and have some acceleration, size is important but secondary to that."
One area where size matters -- both this season and in future recruiting -- is along both lines. Michigan needs to get bigger up front, especially along the defensive front, to hold its own in the Big Ten. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen told me that several Big Ten teams "outmanned us because of their size." Having an extra defensive lineman on the field this fall should help -- defensive tackle Will Campbell, at 335 pounds, will beef up the front -- but Michigan is definitely trending toward bigger players. "There's some body composition that we've got to continue to change and strength gains that we need to make," Hoke said. "On both sides of the ball, that will be an emphasis in this year's [recruiting] class."
It's hardly a secret that Hoke spends most of his time in practice with the defense, and specifically the linemen. "It's important," he said, "and it also is my sanity because I'm a teacher, first and foremost, and love to teach the game." The linemen aren't starved for attention this spring with Hoke, Mattison and D-line coach Jerry Montgomery attending to them. "I have 38 years of coaching and 28 of them are defensive line," Mattison said. "Brady's coached defensive line 28 years, I think, and Jerry Montgomery is an excellent young defensive line coach."
Some of the players recognized by the coaches for their spring performances include cornerbacks Courtney Avery and Greg Brown, safety Carvin Johnson, linebackers Cam Gordon and J.B. Fitzgerald, and wide receivers Roy Roundtree, Darryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway. Both Borges and Hoke really like what they have at receiver, and Borges noted that Roundtree has really stood out this spring.
The strongest theme that came across Wednesday was Michigan getting back to its roots. Whether it's stressing rivalry games with "Ohio" -- Hoke isn't the only one who leaves off "State" -- or embracing the defensive tradition or reflecting the values Hoke and Mattison saw here in the 1990s, Michigan players and coaches sense a need to re-establish their identity.
I'll have more Michigan coverage later this week and especially early next week, so stay tuned.
10mSam Khan Jr.