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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Updated: March 16, 9:41 PM ET
Post-Denard era begins

By Michael Rothstein
WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In November, Devin Gardner was asked whether he should remain the starting quarterback if and when Denard Robinson returned.

Gardner said no, explaining that the 2012 Wolverines were "Denard's team" and that would not change.

Devin Gardner, Denard Robinson
The Devin and Denard Show will move forward this spring as a one-man act.
Now, it has. When Michigan takes its first snap of spring practice Saturday, the Denard Robinson era here will have concluded officially, giving way to a new quarterback -- Gardner -- and a whole new set of options.

Robinson's departure signals more, though. Now in his third season, coach Brady Hoke has an influx of players he recruited for his systems both on offense and defense, and this spring more of them than ever will see the field.

So what should fans watch for between Saturday and the Michigan spring game on April 13?

Players to watch

Here is a look at three players -- one from each facet of the game -- who were not among our five players to watch in spring.

Offense: RB Drake Johnson, R-Fr. While the two likely candidates to start at running back for the Wolverines -- senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and freshman Derrick Green -- will not be involved in spring practice, there is an opening for someone to make an impression. Take a peek at Johnson, who played at Pioneer High School across the street from Michigan Stadium. Johnson has track speed -- he was an elite hurdler in high school -- which means he has good fast-twitch fibers. This is imperative when it comes to making sharp cuts. While this job won't be settled until the fall, Johnson can make a push for playing time with a strong spring.

Defense: S Jarrod Wilson, So. He played a bit as a freshman, but with the departure of Jordan Kovacs, Wilson now has a chance to earn increased playing time next to Thomas Gordon in the secondary. He'll face competition from Josh Furman, Marvin Robinson and early enrolling freshman Dymonte Thomas, among others, but Wilson has more game experience than the rest, even at his young age. He enrolled early last year, so this will be his second spring. Now he has a real chance to be a starter.

Special teams: PR Jeremy Gallon, Sr. On signing day, special-teams coach Dan Ferrigno said that while Dennis Norfleet would get a chance to win the punt-returner job, Gallon wouldn't let it go easily. The question here centers on Gallon and whether he -- and Michigan -- can handle being the team's top receiver and the team's best punt returner. What he and Michigan choose to do could shape Norfleet's role in the fall.

Position battles to watch

Rush end: This might be the most stocked position battle, with three returning rotation players in juniors Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and sophomore Mario Ojemudia, plus the addition of early enrollee freshman Taco Charlton. Greg Mattison likes to rotate his defensive linemen, but the competition here might be more intense than any other spot on the field because there are only so many snaps to go around.

Joe Bolden
Sophomore Joe Bolden will be in the thick of the battle to start at middle linebacker.
Center: It might not be a glamorous position, but for Michigan's offense this is one of the most critical positions out there. The Wolverines will have a different center for the third consecutive season after the graduation of Rimington Award winner David Molk in 2011 and Elliott Mealer last season. The main candidates are Jack Miller, who was recruited as a center, along with Graham Glasgow and Joey Burzynski. Don't be surprised if someone else works his way into the competition as well if Miller doesn't win the job by the end of spring. If Michigan can't get settled here, it could hurt the entire offense.

Middle linebacker: While James Ross III and Desmond Morgan will battle at Will linebacker, a gaggle of young players will try to win the spot in the middle. Sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone are main candidates here along with fifth-year senior Mike Jones and redshirt freshman Kaleb Ringer, who is coming off a knee injury. Bolden seems to be the favorite, having taken some time from Kenny Demens last season.

Three questions

How will the offense look?
In the final two months of last season, Michigan received a sneak preview of its future. But now offensive coordinator Al Borges has a month to construct things around Gardner. What, exactly, he will do with the offense is a big question. Michigan will almost certainly veer away from what it had run the past two seasons, but the Wolverines can do a lot with Gardner's passing/running skill set.

Who will lead?
While this is a theoretical question every season, Michigan lost the face of its offense and defense at the same time when Robinson and Kovacs graduated, along with longtime starters Craig Roh and Roy Roundtree and Demens. Gardner appears to be a natural leader for the offense with his personality. On defense, star linebacker Jake Ryan is a possibility, as is safety Thomas Gordon. But Michigan will need to use the spring to identify who will lead the Wolverines into the fall.

Can the defensive line improve enough?
For the second consecutive season, Michigan will have to reconstruct the defensive line, this time after the graduation of Roh and Will Campbell. The Wolverines are in a better position to do so with more depth, but other than tackle Quinton Washington and the aforementioned three-headed rush end, there is not a lot of experience up front. Michigan will have experience throughout the rest of its defense, but as the Wolverines saw last season, if the front four can't get enough pressure in the backfield, there will be issues. A bunch of candidates could end up snagging the tackle spot opposite Washington, as well as strongside end.