Five things we learned: Appalachian State

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 1, 2014

Entering Michigan football’s season opener against Appalachian State, there were numerous questions about how it would respond to last year’s mediocre 7-6 season. With new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier making his debut, the offensive was a mystery.

Though Michigan likely didn’t display the full breadth of its offense in the 52-14 rout of the Mountaineers, some things can be gleaned about the team from the victory.

1. Devin to Devin is the next big thing:

It started on Michigan’s first offensive play, an 11-yard screen pass from fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner to junior wide receiver Devin Funchess. The chemistry between Gardner and Funchess was evident throughout the entire first half.

The duo combined for seven receptions — three of which were touchdowns — and 95 yards in the half. The Mountaineers had no match defensively for Funchess, perhaps best displayed on his third touchdown catch. Gardner threw the pass to the back of the end zone, where Funchess made the catch over the outstretched arms of defenders.

Wherever Gardner threw the ball, Funchess caught it. The pair cited improved chemistry and extra work in the offseason as the key to their success. Last season, graduated wide receiver Jeremy Gallon was Gardner’s favorite target. It appears the role has transferred to Funchess, the converted tight end, this season.

2. Norfleet will finally be a regular part of the offense:

For two years, junior slot receiver Dennis Norfleet has displayed tantalizing shiftiness and speed for Michigan as a punt and kick returner. He appeared sparingly on offense, though usually in specialized packages and formations.

Norfleet was listed as the team’s starting slot wide receiver before the season, but it was unclear how he’d be used. Saturday, Norfleet was part of many of the Wolverines’ offensive packages, catching three passes for 30 yards.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke commended Norfleet’s blocking after Saturday’s game. Monday, Hoke said Norfleet has matured dramatically since last season, leading to the extended playing time.

“He just is one of those infectious guys that has great energy, and you want a guy like that on the field,” Hoke said.

3. The cornerbacks will press more:

Throughout the offseason, Michigan’s defensive players emphasized that they wanted their defense to be more aggressive. It manifested in the season opener when the cornerbacks covered the receivers off the line of scrimmage. They pressed frequently at the line of scrimmage, helping shut down Appalachian State’s passing game.

The Mountaineers passed for 127 yards in the game at a rate of just 3.8 yards per pass. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Monday that the new strategy stemmed from a lack of aggressiveness the coaching staff noticed in last year’s game tapes.

Mattison said he expects cornerbacks pressing to be a staple of his defense, but admitted it could be problematic against strong-armed quarterbacks, such as Notre Dame’s Everett Golson. Still, expect the strategy to be prominent as the season progresses.

4. The offensive line is still in a state of flux:

After the debacle of the 2013 season, Michigan’s offensive line was the team’s biggest question mark going into the season. The line got the job done in the season opener, but how it will look in the future is unclear.

Fifth-year senior Joey Burzynski started at right guard, but was relieved by redshirt sophomore Kyle Kalis in the first half. The offensive line was more effective once Kalis was inserted. Hoke said Monday that he doesn’t yet know who will play the position in the next game, but that he had a plan. He didn’t care to divulge that plan to the media.

There is a similar conundrum at the center position. Redshirt junior Jack Miller started and played the entire time the starters did. But redshirt junior Graham Glasgow returns from suspension for the Notre Dame game, putting the position in flux. Glasgow started nine games at center in 2013 while Miller started four.

Once again, Hoke said he has a plan for incorporating Glasgow, but didn’t want to share how or if he will incorporate Glasgow with the media.

5. Very little:

Though the early returns were positive, the season opener should be treated as what it was: a game against an inferior opponent. Michigan dominated last year in its season-opening win last season, too, a 59-9 victory over Central Michigan. The win wasn’t indicative in any way of the rest of the 7-6 season, which included close calls against lowly Akron and Connecticut.

Notre Dame has served as a traditional benchmark for the Wolverines early in the season. Much more will be known about just how competitive this Michigan team is in one week.