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Five things to watch for in Saturday's Spring Game

Marissa McClain/Daily
Junior quarterback Devin Gardner might get a chance to see time at wide receiver. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 12, 2012

Spring has sprung in Ann Arbor, so get out those spring checklists. Tuesday provided the obligatory April snow. Now, the hippies and haze of Hash Bash have departed, so just one thing remains.

On Saturday at noon, the Michigan football team will play its annual Spring Game at Michigan Stadium. Michigan's “Team 133” will officially introduce itself to the world with a series of 60 or so plays of smash-mouth (read: inconsequential) football.

Okay, so the Spring Game is a glorified practice, and the score doesn’t matter. But keep an eye out for these five things that actually do matter:

PLANTING GARDNER AT WIDEOUT?

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was wracking his brain for a name on Thursday. He was asked about the development of his receivers and his answer came quick. He rattled off the names of four wideouts who all saw action last season.

But for 10 seconds, a fifth name escaped him.

He wasn’t actually going to say it, was he? Was he about to put junior backup quarterback Devin Gardner in the list?

“Who am I missing?” Hoke asked.

Someone in the press corps helped him out — the name in question was that of redshirt sophomore Jerald Robinson.

So for the moment, one of the worst-kept secrets in the history of worst-kept secrets remained exactly that. Still, the major question heading into the Spring Game is whether Gardner, still listed as the backup to senior quarterback Denard Robinson, will see time at wide receiver.

Though Hoke said he has experimented with Gardner in spring practices, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges likely won’t want to reveal much on Saturday.

Still, the 6-foot-4 Gardner has the speed and athleticism required to make the switch. And if he does split out wide for a few plays, that could signal more consistent time in the fall. So keep an eye out for No. 7 along the line of scrimmage on Saturday.

THE CENTER OF ATTENTION

Expect fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum to be the Goldilocks of Michigan centers.

Then-redshirt junior Rocko Khoury was too erratic in three forgettable plays as the emergency center in the Sugar Bowl in early January. And in all likelihood, Rimington Award-winner Dave Molk’s performance last season was too strong to replicate.

That means Barnum will likely fit in somewhere in the middle — just right.

Barnum converted to center after Molk’s departure left the depth at the position alarmingly thin. Last season, Barnum started in three games and played in nine, at both guard and tackle.

Hoke praised Barnum’s development on Thursday but said he still had to work on the consistency of his snaps. As Molk’s three-play injury in New Orleans made painfully clear, a liability at center can derail an offense.

INSIDE MAN

Can junior defensive lineman Jibreel Black transition to the interior alongside senior defensive tackle Will Campbell?

The undersized Black, who will move from the edge to tackle after the graduation of three starting defensive linemen — Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and Will Heininger — is listed at 260 pounds. Compare that to Martin, the nose tackle last season, who was listed at 304. (And analysts still consider Martin undersized entering the NFL Draft.)

Hoke said he likes the speed that Black injects into the defense, but he concedes that he will be more effective in the fall after adding more weight and strength. Black substituted in at defensive end in 13 games last season during which he collected 18 tackles and a sack and a half.

Black gets his first test against upper-echelon Big Ten talent on Saturday, when he tries to clog up the middle against redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Up next after that? Alabama on Sept. 1. Better to get your reps in early.

DEFENSIVE END COMPETITION

With Black moving to the interior and senior defensive end Craig Roh playing the strongside end, sophomore defensive linemen Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark have been fighting to earn the starting spot at weakside defensive end.

Clark appeared in 12 games last season but didn't make much of a splash until he intercepted a pass from Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas in the Sugar Bowl, which led to the Wolverines' second touchdown of the game.

Beyer played in 11 games, flip-flopping between defensive end and reserve linebacker, and collected 11 tackles.

The two have remained relatively even in spring practice. Hoke said one player has the edge one day, then it switches the next. The Spring Game will be an opportunity for one to establish himself as the presumptive starter over the summer.

PROM KINGS

Michigan’s early-enrollees can’t bring a date, but Saturday will have to substitute for a high school rite of passage.

“If you think about it, they’d be going to prom,” Hoke said.

Hoke was referring to freshmen Joe Bolden and Jarrod Wilson — listed as four-star recruits — and Kaleb Ringer, a three-star. Each graduated early for a chance to join the Wolverines this semester. Each arrived in Ann Arbor in early January, began taking classes and have joined the team for the duration of spring camp.

Hoke said that he is “proud” of the way each has transitioned, but Saturday will be the first real test for the freshmen. Bolden and Ringer each play linebacker, and Wilson will take reps at safety.