What to watch for in Saturday's Spring Game

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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 3, 2014

Michigan coach Brady Hoke must like almost everything about his team, except for maybe his team as a whole.

Since practice began in February before Spring Break, Hoke has taken an optimistic look on each player and each position group, before saying “we’re a long way from being any good” as a team Thursday.

Nearly every player has a chance to start, and the team has long since moved past last season’s disappointing 7-5 finish this spring.

Though it may not feel like spring yet, the Michigan football team is set to host its final practice of the year before summer.

“It won't be a game, it'll be more like a practice," Hoke said. “We need reps. You go through our roster, we need as many reps and teachable moments with situational football — red zone stuff, third-down stuff.”

The Daily previews which storylines to keep an eye on in the annual spring practice Saturday.

1. Which running back will impress the most?

The better question might not be who impresses the most, but can anyone impress at all?

A nightmare season for the Wolverines’ ground game was only compounded by the loss of its No. 1 back in Fitzgerald Toussaint and senior tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Now, a contingent of inexperienced and young backs takes over behind an equally inexperienced offensive line.

But enter Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and his new running back-by-committee system he plans to begin implementing this season. Nussmeier will bring a system from Alabama that has utilized multiple running backs.

Nussmeier and Michigan will lean heavily on a pair of power backs — sophomores Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith — and make use of redshirt junior Justice Hayes on third downs for a change of pace.

“De’Veon has had a very good spring, Derrick has had a better spring than he did in the fall,” Hoke said last Thursday. “Justice Hayes has done some really good things, and I’m really proud of him, both carrying the ball and in the protection game. It’d be nice to get Drake (Johnson) back and put him in the mix.”

Green and Smith are both physical backs, weighing more than 220 pounds, but Green’s physicality is beginning to show through after he was considered the No. 1 running back coming out of high school by Rivals.com.

“He looks better, his balance is probably better, vision is better, just more quickness through coming out of the holes,” Hoke said.

2. Is the offensive line stronger without Lewan and Schofield?

The obvious answer seems like a no. Lewan is projected in the top 20 in this May’s NFL Draft and Schofield should also be picked somewhere on the final day.

But a young group figures to be stronger, thanks to more chances to bond and work together.

“I think the five of us all being young is really allowing us to mesh and come together the way we didn’t last year,” said redshirt sophomore guard Kyle Kalis. “I think we’re going to be pretty good this year.

“Having (Lewan and Schofield) was crucial for helping us grow and stuff, but it’s a totally different experience now.”

But everyone figures to be in the mix, according to Hoke, including early enrollee Mason Cole. The freshman out of Florida has impressed teammates and coaches this spring, so much so that he could be in the mix.

But whatever happens Saturday may have little effect on the end result, after Hoke changed his line for at least half of the season.

3. The defense is changing positions

Speaking of change, Saturday will be the first chance to get a look at a linebacking corps that rotated returning starters.

Fifth-year senior Jake Ryan has moved from the outside to the inside, while senior Desmond Morgan has moved from the outside to the inside.

Ryan joins junior James Ross III in the middle, where he figures to be more involved and active in the plays, as opposed to being left alone and left to choice.

"Now, I'm in the middle of everything,” Ryan said. “As Coach Hoke said, I'm more prolific (there), I guess."

Ryan won’t get a chance Saturday to fully show off how far he’s come in the transition, but after he managed to record 30 tackles last season in limited time, his increased reps should only bring improvement.

4. Keeping up with Canteen

There’s been a lot of buzz about freshman wide receiver Freddy Canteen being the fastest man on the team.

Canteen clocked a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash entering spring practice, and has presented one of the more explosive options off the line of scrimmage Michigan has seen in quite some time.

But very few people have talked about Canteen’s ability to run routes, except Hoke.

“(Canteen is a) good route runner, a guy who is entrenched in trying to be the best he can,” Hoke said. “He learns well, he listens well and truly has a passion for the game.”

Canteen figures to see time in the slot this season, replacing Drew Dileo and providing a taller option than junior Dennis Norfleet. At 6-foot-1, Canteen has an extra six inches over Norfleet and has the speed that redshirt sophomores Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson don’t quite have on the outside.

Canteen could be in the mix on special teams this season, but watch closely to see just how big of an effect his speed has in practice.

5. Can Norfleet finally break one off?

Dennis Norfleet has had one stat looming over his head for the past two seasons: zero kickoffs returned for a touchdown.

But he can certainly take solace in approaching the record for number of returns and return yards. With 229 more yards, the junior will break the program record of 1,993 set by Steve Breaston.

“This year, it's time for one to come home,” Norfleet said. “That is the big goal this year, to bring a couple back.

“It's kind of frustrating, but at the same time, it’s something you just have to deal with. It's hard to return a kick — a lot of things have to happen. So, I’m just looking to put the team in good position and get as many yards as possible.”

After two years of adjustment from high school, look to see if “Wood,” as Nussmeier recently nicknamed him, can put all the pieces together.

Daily Sports Editors Alexa Dettelbach and Max Cohen contributed reporting