- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2013
It was Central Michigan. This wasn’t Notre Dame, or a Big Ten opponent. What we learned about this Michigan football team on Saturday in its first game of the year might not hold true once conference play starts, or even when the Fighting Irish come into town this weekend.
Still, there are some takeaways from Michigan’s 59-9 drubbing of the Chippewas. Just don’t be surprised if Devin Gardner looks more like Chad Henne than Denard Robinson next week.
It’s the Five Things We Learned, Week 1 edition:
1. Gardner’s offense isn’t dramatically different from Robinson’s.
After spending an entire summer hearing about a new, traditional pro-style offense, Michigan’s first two drives had Gardner take snaps entirely from the shotgun formation. By the end of the day, Gardner ran seven times for 52 yards and two touchdowns. Only one of them was a designed run.
This offense wasn’t an under-center, run-the-ball-down-your-throat classic. It had a reverse, plenty of different formations, and a quarterback that could break free for a long run even when every avenue was seemingly shut down.
This offense was the norm when Robinson was still in Ann Arbor. It was supposed to be different this year, but in the end, it wasn’t all that different.
Yet, Gardner’s scrambles still look different than Robinson’s — more controlled and fluid and less like a mad dash. Gardner’s decision making is going to be tested every weekend, where tucking the ball and pirouetting through the defense isn’t going to be as easy. Gardner’s two interceptions on Saturday weren’t pretty — one was well overthrown and one was a poor read in the opponent’s red zone. Notre Dame is going to punish those mistakes a lot more than Central Michigan did.
One thing is for sure — this offense isn’t going to be traditional. There will still be a quarterback running the ball this season, even if he’s bigger and doesn’t have dreadlocks.
2. Extra pounds or not, Derrick Green will be a factor.
The No. 1 running back recruit in the nation showed up to training camp more than a few pounds overweight, to the point where Michigan coach Brady Hoke had him listed in a positional battle for the fifth running back spot on the first depth chart of the year alongside fellow freshman De’Veon Smith.
Green entered the game in the third quarter, when the game was already well out of reach, but still looked impressive. He finished with 58 yards on 11 carries and scored the first touchdown of his career. He still looked big, but if Hoke and Co. have anything to do with it, he won’t be that big all year.
Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint has the starting job locked up. Green won’t be challenging for that spot any time soon. But after backup Drake Johnson was lost for the year with an ACL injury, Green has a good chance to see the field when the game is still close.
3. The kids are alright.
This team is going to be a strong national contender within the next two years, regardless of how this season goes. That’s how good these freshmen could be, especially when the highly-ranked recruiting classes of 2014 and 2015 join.
Including Green, 13 freshmen or redshirt freshmen played on Saturday. They made an impact from the get-go, when Dymonte Thomas blocked Central Michigan’s first punt attempt and fifth-year senior Joe Reynolds returned it for the first touchdown of the game. Channing Stribling had the second-most tackles on the team, while Smith and Green split 10 carries on a 55-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Hoke also got backup quarterback Shane Morris some much-needed game reps. Morris had a tipped interception in the third quarter that was inches away from being a fantastic pass to fellow freshman tight end Jake Butt.
That pass, like the rest of these young players, will come with time.
4. The depth is there.
Michigan’s defense was missing three of its starters and the unit still only allowed nine points. Again, it was Central Michigan, but it’s still a good sign.
Next week, fifth-year strong safety Thomas Gordon is back from a suspension, but senior free safety Courtney Avery will miss another week or two, and captain Jake Ryan is out until mid-October.
And yet, some of their replacements were key players on Saturday. Fifth-year senior Cam Gordon had two sacks in place of Ryan, while redshirt junior Josh Furman and sophomore Jarrod Wilson did a solid job from the safety spots.
The defensive line rotated more than 10 players throughout the game, confirming defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s idea that he could go three-deep on the defensive line. Many of the defensive linemen are inexperienced, but it’s still a talented group that will consistently rotate enough guys to stay fresh.
This team’s depth is inexperienced but talented, and could be a big factor late in the season.
5. Bold Prediction: Dennis Norfleet is going to win a game for Michigan this year.
Man, he’s fast, and man, can he read the field. In the first quarter, the sophomore wide receiver/kick returner took a reverse handoff on a 38-yard gallop, and late in the game, he had a long punt return that was called back because of a block-in-the-back penalty.
It still doesn’t seem that Michigan is entirely certain how to use Norfleet yet. He caught two passes along with his reverse and came close to breaking a kick return on more than one occasion.
He might not be a factor in every game, but he’s too quick to not turn a game at one point this season. It might not be against Notre Dame, but before the season ends, a game will belong to Dennis Norfleet.