Blue Ribbon Preview: Michigan
Editor's Note: ESPN has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 122 FBS teams. To order the complete 2012 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern. (The information in these previews is current through June 25, 2012.)
As debuts go, this one was as smashing as it was satisfying for a Michigan fan base unaccustomed to the poor results and worse defense of the brief Rich Rodriguez era.
Brady Hoke came in and recruited right away, bucking the idea that an off-season hire can't put together a top-10 class. He talked toughness and defense and he backed it up by leading the Wolverines to 11 wins -- just four fewer than Rodriguez had in three seasons -- and a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
Is Michigan back? Did it ever really go away? The winningest program in college football history finally suffered the dip that it hadn't seen since before Bo Schembechler was hired in 1969. But a couple bad seasons don't erase the tradition, resources and fans at Michigan's disposal, and now the Wolverines again have a coach who fits and understands how to win in the Big Ten.
Those fans should probably understand that Hoke may have a tough time duplicating his 11-win debut in 2012. The schedule is tougher and the Wolverines lost some key seniors in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
On the other hand, Hoke has dynamic senior quarterback Denard Robinson back as a third-year starter, and there's hope that another year in the program will help some young players come along and fortify the Wolverines at uncertain spots. As will be the case every year for Hoke, he intends to go after the championship he just missed on in 2011.
"I think we know each other a little better, and I think we know the system a little better in all three phases," Hoke said. "I think we're further along in terms of their mindset, how they condition, how they do things, how they lift in the weight room and how we want to practice. The tempo and those things. I think that part of it is becoming more ingrained every day.
"I don't know if I feel any different than how I felt last year at this time. I think you look at what kind of summer you have. What kind of leadership your seniors give you. The work ethic. The bond and chemistry is an important part.
"So I don't know. I'm sure two weeks into fall camp we'll have a little better idea of where we're at. I think we'll be a young football team in some ways, and that's always good. And I think at the same time, if seniors continue to grow as a class together, then we can be a better football team."
Head Coach: Brady Hoke (Ball State '82)
Record at school: 11-2 (1 year)
Career record: 58-53 (9 years)
• Al Borges (Cal State-Chico '81) Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
• Greg Mattison (Wisconsin-LaCrosse '71) Defensive coordinator
• Dan Ferrigno (San Francisco State '78) Special teams coordinator/tight ends
• Darrell Funk (Colorado State '88) Offensive line
• Jeff Hecklinski (Western Illinois State '97) Wide receivers/recruiting coordinator
• Curt Mallory (Michigan '92) Secondary
• Fred Jackson (Jackson State '72) Running backs
• Jerry Montgomery (Iowa '02) Defensive line
• Mark Smith (Purdue '79) Linebackers
In Denard Robinson (6-0, 195), Michigan has one of the most dynamic players in college football and an obvious preseason Heisman candidate. If Robinson continues to become more of a reliable quarterback in the pocket, Michigan could have something really special this season.
"He's shown some tremendous leadership and I think he's really improved," Hoke said of Robinson, who should smash Antwaan Randle El's Big Ten record for rushing yards for a quarterback (it's 3,895 and Robinson needs less than 700 yards to beat it).
In 2010 as a sophomore starting for the first time, Robinson set the Michigan single-season record for total offense (4,272) and became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 1,500 yards in the same season.
Still, he made too many mistakes, particularly in losses to Michigan State and Iowa, and there were concerns about how he would transition from Rich Rodriguez's perfectly suited spread to Hoke's pro-style leanings -- especially after Robinson struggled in the 2011 spring game.
As it turns out, Robinson was just fine, and Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges were smart enough to tailor their attack to his abilities. His rushing and passing numbers went down from 2010, but he was arguably a better player. And there was no question about that in the final two games of the regular season against Nebraska and Ohio State.
In those two games, Robinson combined to complete 25-of-35 passes for 347 yards and five touchdowns, with one interception. He rushed for 253 yards and four touchdowns, displaying exactly how the Michigan offense wants to operate with him and just how dangerous it can be.
After an offseason and spring drills in which Robinson stepped up his leadership presence in the locker room, Hoke is hoping those two games will eventually be looked back upon as a 2012 preview.
"Well I think there was a big learning curve from a year ago," Hoke said. "You look at his performance in the last two regular season games, I thought he played awfully good football. His preparation was very good. We really thought he played in the Nebraska and Ohio game as well as he played all year. And that consistency within fundamentals and techniques, I think, is a big part of it. It's great to have him."
The matter of who will back up Robinson was the subject of some speculation in the spring, with junior Devin Gardner (6-4, 205) getting some work at wide receiver. Gardner did not play well in the spring game, increasing the speculation about a switch, but Borges made it clear that Gardner is still a quarterback and that he actually played well for most of spring ball.
Gardner saw action in seven games in 2011, rotating for stretches with Robinson midway through the season to give opponents different looks. At times, Gardner would move behind center and Robinson would split wide. Gardner completed 18-of-33 passes for 261 yards with two touchdowns and a pick.
Michigan is excited about the potential of No. 3 quarterback Russell Bellomy (6-3, 189), a redshirt freshman.
Entering last season, the Michigan coaches didn't have a great feel for who might emerge behind Robinson in the backfield. By the end of the season, junior Fitz Toussaint (5-10, 195) had taken full control of the job and announced himself as the primary ball carrier for the next two seasons.
Toussaint had just one 100-yard rushing game in the season's first seven weeks. He missed it just twice in the final six, with monster games against Illinois (192 yards), Purdue (170) and Nebraska (138). He finished with 1,041 rushing yards -- just 135 fewer than Robinson.
Having an every-down, reliable, downhill runner to complement Robinson from the start of this season should benefit the Michigan offense.
"I think that's important," Hoke said. "We really think Fitz did a tremendous job of becoming a complete running back. When you look at the protection schemes that he has to be a part of, when you look at catching the ball out of the backfield. And then obviously I think he did a nice job being a 1,000-yard rusher. And I think he learned how to play running back in this league. And that's an important thing -- the maturity I think he really came along with."
Toussaint is the main guy, but he has some talented reserves worthy of carries.
Senior Vincent Smith (5-6, 172) is a little jet who ran for 298 yards, averaging 6.0 a carry. Sophomore Thomas Rawls (5-10, 219) got just 13 carries but has a lot of potential and runs with the bruising style this staff likes. And speedy Justice Hayes (5-10, 176) is available as a redshirt freshman.
Stephen Hopkins (6-0, 228), a junior, was considered a major contender for the No. 1 running back position entering last season, but he has switched to fullback after rushing 11 times for 43 yards as a sophomore. Hopkins could make the fullback more of a presence and more of a threat in the offense in 2012.
Big, physical, clutch Junior Hemingway will be missed in this offense after he led the Wolverines with 34 catches for 699 yards. Those are not the receiving totals of a No. 1 receiver, but Hemingway averaged a whopping 20.6 yards a carry and made huge plays downfield -- particularly in an improbable early-season comeback win over Notre Dame.
"Losing Junior is obviously a big deal because he was such a big, strong receiver," Hoke said. "But at the same time, I think Roy moving into that spot, I think he can do an awful lot."
That would be fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree (6-0, 177), a gifted player who has yet to fully realize that talent. He caught just 19 passes last season but got 355 yards (18.7 per catch) and two touchdowns out of them. He started every game and will do the same this season -- with more chances to make an impact on those games.
The leading returning receiver is junior Jeremy Gallon (5-8, 185), who grabbed 31 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. No one else who made a significant impact last season is back, but Hoke has some guys he thinks are ready to do more.
"I think Jerald Robinson [6-1, 206] is a guy who's improved, he's a guy who can get down the field," Hoke said. "I think Drew Dileo [5-10, 172] and Jeremy Jackson [6-3, 198], I saw the improvement in them, doing a good job of finding the areas they need to settle in. We've got some freshmen coming in I think that will get great evaluations early in camp and see where they're at. But I think there's enough guys there."
The freshman class includes a pair of pass catchers with good size in Amara Darboh (6-2, 190) and Jehu Chesson (6-3, 182) -- an indication of the ongoing changeover from spread personnel to pro-style personnel.
Michigan suffered a big loss at tight end in Kevin Koger, who was third on the team with 23 catches and tied for first with four receiving touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior Brandon Moore (6-5, 255) is next in line after seeing action in 12 games last season. Fifth-year senior Mike Kwiatkowski (6-5, 257) also will compete, but junior Ricardo Miller (6-4, 234) may be the key to continued downfield production at the position.
David Molk departs after battling through injuries, leading on the field and in the locker room, and winning the Rimington Award as the nation's top center. That's a loss.
So is right tackle Mike Huyge. So Michigan's depth is going to be tested this season, before some of the linemen recruited by Hoke are ready to contribute.
Still, the Wolverines have an extremely gifted left tackle in Taylor Lewan (6-8, 302), a fourth-year junior who is getting a lot of play in the 2013 NFL mock draft first-round projections.
"Taylor, we think as he continues to mature physically will keep moving forward," Hoke said. "We feel good about him."
Senior Ricky Barnum (6-3, 286), who got the other three starts at left guard, has moved over a spot to replace Molk, and Hoke said he "had a good spring in there."
The big mover in the spring, though, was sophomore Joey Burzynski (6-1, 284), who emerged as the top guy at left guard.
"I want to say it's a surprise, but at the same time, down on our demonstration team, he did a tremendous job when he was down there," Hoke said. "He's a guy that plays with some natural leverage. He'll finish on blocks, and we were really pleased with his development."
This could be the key to Michigan's season. Hoke, a defensive line coach by trade, likes the potential but wanted to see more during spring ball. Certainly, the Wolverines will miss Mike Martin, the centerpiece of last season's line -- and defense. Another four-year starter, Ryan Van Bergen, is gone, along with starting tackle Will Heininger.
That's a lot of beef to replace.
"I would tell you I think we were a little soft in the middle during the spring," Hoke said. "And that's a place we've got to get a lot better." Michigan has a quality senior in Craig Roh (6-5, 269), who is moving to strong-side defensive end. But Michigan badly needs someone to step up inside, and the top candidate is fifth-year senior Will Campbell (6-5, 322).
Campbell was a five-star recruit from Detroit who came to Ann Arbor with mammoth expectations. He has not approached them in three seasons and did not help his public image when he was charged in May with misdemeanor and felony destruction of private property. Those charges are not expected to keep Campbell off the field in 2012.
And the hope at Michigan is that he'll finally be a force on it.
"I know that I loved the improvement he had during the course of the spring," Hoke said. "I think there's got to be a consistency with it. But in Will's defense, he's played offense, he's played defense. The guy really has settled in now to being that guy up front. He's taking great pride in how he goes to work every day and where he wants to end up."
Junior Jibreel Black (6-2, 260) joins Campbell inside after switching from end. He is a bit undersized to play the 3-technique but showed in the spring that he can handle it. Hoke also likes the look of reserves Quinton Washington (6-4, 302), a junior, and sophomore Richard Ash (6-4, 301).
Sophomores Brennen Beyer (6-3, 225) and Frank Clark (6-2, 228) are battling at the rush end spot. Junior Nathan Brink (6-5, 263) backs up Roh, and young players such as freshman tackle Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 235) and freshman end Mario Ojemudia (6-3, 215) could have a shot to play.
The Wolverines need this group, which returns all three starters and has some quality backups pushing, to compensate for the rebuild on the defensive line. Michigan improved to respectable against the rush last season, giving up 131.7 yards a game and 4.0 per rush.
Middle linebacker Kenny Demens (6-1, 248) is back as a fifth-year senior after leading Michigan with 94 tackles. Sophomores Jake Ryan (6-3, 230) and Desmond Morgan (6-1, 220) man the outside positions, but junior Cam Gordon (6-3, 222) is making his case and could supplant Morgan.
"I think Cam really had a good spring," Hoke said. "He got dinged up a little bit early in the season a year ago, so it was good to see him bigger and stronger, and playing with more of a physical-ness. Jake is a guy who is probably the most unorthodox football player I've seen, but he has a knack for getting to the ball and making plays. Kenny Demens had a very good spring."
Senior Brandin Hawthorne (6-0, 214) provides depth, and redshirt freshman Antonio Poole (6-2, 212) is coming on. Freshmen Joe Bolden (6-3, 230) and Kaleb Ringer (6-1, 225) enrolled early in January and impressed Hoke as well. Bolden, out of Colerain High School in Cincinnati, was rated by ESPN as a four-star recruit and the No. 5 insider linebacker in the country. Ringer, from Northmont Senior High in Clayton, Ohio, was tabbed by ESPN as the No. 23 insider linebacker in the 2012 class.
Troy Woolfolk is the only departure for a group that improved significantly in 2011 and should keep coming. The four who started the Sugar Bowl are all back -- safeties Jordan Kovacs (6-0, 197) and junior Thomas Gordon (5-11, 208) and corners J.T. Floyd (6-0, 185), a fifth-year senior, and sophomore Blake Countess (5-10, 176).
Kovacs is a fifth-year senior who keeps getting better and more vocal for the Wolverines. A terrific blitzer, he was second on the team with 75 tackles, including four sacks.
"He's a leader in all aspects, from running the back end to getting guys lined up to how he prepares and how he works every day," Hoke said. "And I think Tom Gordon had a good spring and we're really excited for him back there at the other safety position."
Junior Marvin Robinson (6-2, 200) provides quality depth at safety and Hoke liked the look of early enrollee Jarrod Wilson (6-2, 190) as well. ESPN ranked Wilson the No. 13 safety nationally and a four-star recruit. He's from Akron's Buchtel High School.
Martavious Odoms departs, leaving a wide-open race at kick returner. Vincent Smith is a top candidate along with Jeremy Gallon and perhaps some youngsters. Gallon is back on punt-return duty after averaging 10.1 per return last season, but Drew Dileo is after that spot.
Junior Brendan Gibbons (6-1, 241) finally put an end to Michigan's placekicking woes in 2011, after he was 1 of 5 as part of an overall and dismal 4 of 14 in the previous season.
Gibbons was 13 of 17 in 2011 to stabilize the position. He was automatic where a kicker should be automatic (5 of 5 from 20-29 yards, 6 of 8 from 30 to 39) and his long was 42 yards. He had one kick blocked.
Matt Wile (6-2, 208) returns to kick off after collecting 19 touchbacks as a freshman.
Will Hagerup (6-4, 225) did not have as strong a sophomore season as hoped after he averaged 43.6 yards a punt as a freshman. He averaged 36.0 last season, putting five inside the opposing 20. Matt Wile, who handles kickoffs, also did some punting and averaged 41.6 yards per punt. This is a competition, and Wile may have the upper hand.
Hoke came in and immediately made a huge splash with his first recruiting class. The class was ranked among the top 10 in the nation on the strength of such catches as offensive lineman Kyle Kalis (6-5, 302), who was rated by ESPN a four-star recruit and the No. 10 guard in the nation, and defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins. ESPN also anointed him with four stars and rated him No. 16 at his position.
Linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone (6-2, 215) may be too talented to keep off the field for long. He's yet another of ESPN's four-star recruits who was ranked the No. 9 outside linebacker nationally.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Wolverines will be on full display right away. In a tremendous opportunity -- or an assignment that is too much for this team, depending on your perspective -- the Wolverines will take on defending national champion Alabama in the season opener, Sept. l in Arlington, Texas.
The Crimson Tide lost a lot of key players to the NFL but still look loaded. An upset for Michigan would put Hoke's team immediately into the national conversation. A respectable loss still could be a building block.
But there are other tough games. Michigan has to travel to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and all three will be looking for revenge. The Wolverines do host Michigan State -- and will be looking to end a four-game losing streak in the series -- in what could be the key game in the Legends Division race.
If Robinson can have a huge senior season and find another playmaker downfield, and that defensive front seven can locate more punch, Michigan should be right there contending for the Legends title and a spot in the second Big Ten championship game.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- NC State's Byrd gets 6th year of eligibility
- Ex-Fiesta Bowl chief gets 8 months in scheme
- A&M, UCLA agree to home-and-home series
- Wife believes Sandusky 'definitely' innocent
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
BLUE RIBBON: BIG TEN PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each Big Ten school. Take a look: