By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published July 9, 2014
The Preseason Watch Lists for the National College Football Awards Association awards come out from July 7 to July 18. This list will be updated to include all Michigan players as they are named.
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Senior defensive end Frank Clark, Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and Bronco Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player): Clark has struggled with inconsistency for parts of his career, but he earned All-Big Ten second-team honors last season. He made 43 tackles and led the team with 12 tackles for loss while starting all 13 games. His 4.5 sacks were second on the team to linebacker Cam Gordon, and his two fumble recoveries were first.
The 6-foot-2, 270-pound Cleveland native topped his freshman and sophomore years combined last season in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, putting his name on the list of 76 players to watch for the nation’s best defensive player.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Jake Ryan, Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Bronco Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), Butkus Award (best linebacker) and Lombardi Award (best lineman/linebacker): Ryan also made the watch list for best defensive player despite missing the first five games last season with a torn ACL he suffered last spring. He managed to play in the last eight games, however, starting five and making 30 tackles, 4.5 for loss.
Ryan made a name for himself as a redshirt freshman in coach Brady Hoke’s first season, playing in every game and starting 11. He then broke out in 2012 with 88 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, the last of which ranked third in the Big Ten.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner, Maxwell Award (college player of the year) and Davey O'Brien Award (most outstanding quarterback): Gardner enters his second full year as a starter with 16 starts under his belt. He started 12 games last year, missing the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl with injury, and he earned All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media.
He passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns last season and added 483 rushing yards and 11 more scores on the ground. His 376 total yards and five total touchdowns against Notre Dame earned him Maxwell Award Player of the Week honors, and he set a program record with 503 passing yards against Indiana. This year, he’ll cap a career that he started as a third-string quarterback in 2010 and continued as a starting wide receiver in 2012 before assuming the starting quarterback role late in 2012.
Junior wide receiver Devin Funchess, Maxwell Award (college player of the year) and Biletnikoff Award (most outstanding wide receiver), Walter Camp Award (most outstanding player): Funchess will officially move to wide receiver this year after appearing in every game and starting 15 at tight end his first two seasons. Last season, he caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media. His 748 yards were a program record for a tight end.
This season, he figures to step into a starting role at wide receiver to fill a need. The Wolverines lose wideout Jeremy Gallon (1,373 yards) from last year’s team, and the top returning receiver is redshirt sophomore Jehu Chesson, who caught 15 passes for 221 yards last season.
Redshirt junior Blake Countess, Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back) and Bronco Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player): Countess inspired hope for the future when he started six games and made 44 tackles as a true freshman in 2011. But a torn ACL suffered in the 2012 season opener against Alabama set his career back a bit.
He got back on the field last season after a redshirt year, making 46 tackles and intercepting a conference-best six passes. The media elected him first-team All-Big Ten after he started every game, and he should be poised to take on a bigger role on defense this year.