This much is certain: the interior of the Michigan football team’s offensive line will wear facial hair and eat breakfasts at Benny’s Family Dining in Ann Arbor. That leaves, well, just about everyone as options.
After a disappointing season on the ground in 2012, the Wolverines will unveil a new, and likely very young, interior line at Saturday’s Spring Game. Any of the three eventual starters, in all likelihood, will see their first game action in the fall.
This spring, the offensive linemen have grown facial hair as a team-building exercise. Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner often takes the group out to breakfast.
The hope is that the closer the group is, the better it will be. Aside from former quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan’s backs struggled to gain much on the ground last year. Then-redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint didn’t do much to create his own space, but often, he had no holes to choose from.
Redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis should be a near-lock to start at guard. At center, redshirt sophomore Jack Miller will likely get the start.
The real competition is at the other guard position, between redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant and redshirt freshman Ben Braden. Freshmen Kyle Bosch and Patrick Kugler could challenge for the starting spot, but the transition from high school to Division I lineman is a very slow process. Bosch has the advantage of enrolling early, but he remains a longshot.
Bryant had a promising future until tearing his anterior cruciate ligament prior to last season and could have an edge over the freshmen. The 6-foot-6, 314-pound Braden has the most impressive frame, and likely would’ve challenged for the starting tackle position had fifth-year senior tackle Taylor Lewan gone pro. But can he translate that to guard?
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has recruited the line heavily, and that should start paying off in 2013.
WANNA SEE IF YOU CAN RUN IT, RUN IT: The competition at running back could be the top storyline of the Spring Game, if only the top two competitors were playing. After a regression at tailback in 2012, the position this year is even more uncertain.
Toussaint hasn’t returned to full-contact drills after fracturing his leg on Nov. 17. Derrick Green, perhaps Hoke’s most highly-touted recruit, remains in high school.
Neither promises a return to the ground-game success of 2011 immediately. Yet the rest of the field hasn’t exactly seized the opportunity. Hoke has praised the remaining backs — junior Thomas Rawls, redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes, sophomore Dennis Norfleet and redshirt freshman Drake Johnson — yet no one has separated.
And the praise isn’t exactly rousing. “Justice has really done a nice job,” Hoke said after practice on April 4. “Thomas, too.”
Dennis Norfleet, on the other hand, has run well inside “in spots.”
Michigan ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rushing with 2,389 yards in 2012, but more than half of those yards came from Robinson. If no one impresses in the Spring Game, Michigan fans better start hoping Green is as good as advertised and Toussaint’s leg heals soon.
BETTER WATCH YOUR (QUARTER)BACK: Speaking of less-than-high praise, here’s Hoke on quarterback Brian Cleary.
“Has a good arm,” Hoke said. “I’m not going to say he’s throwing bullets, but he’s got a good arm, good accuracy.”
Yes, that’s Brian Cleary, a non-scholarship redshirt freshman and the current backup to the most important position on the team. The former backup, redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy, tore his ACL earlier this spring. And here is where the previous two storylines converge. The development of the interior line is so important because Gardner needs all the protection he can get. Finding a power back is crucial to take the heat off Gardner.
Yet even if the linemen exceed expectations and a running game emerges, Gardner will likely get dinged up here and there. If Cleary becomes a serviceable backup, Michigan can redshirt incoming freshman Shane Morris.
Cleary’s first chance to show the public his worth comes Saturday.
LOOK OUT FOR CLARK: The Wolverines’ last impact pass rusher left after 2009. His name was Brandon Graham, and Michigan hasn’t had a player like him since.
Enter Frank Clark. The junior defensive end has a long, long way to go to attain Graham status, but he has earned the highest praise of any single player this spring.
Hoke said Clark is “unusual,” noting that “Frank has an ability, a God-given ability.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that Clark “thinks about football day and night.”
Lewan named Clark as the player he least likes to see in one-on-one drills. Clark said that he lines up against Lewan 20 times per day, calling it their “project” to go against each other as much as possible.
Even last year, the matchup would have been one-sided. Clark showed improvement throughout the 2012 season after being suspended for the opener. He finished with 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. When left unblocked, he hit people, and hard.
Yet he had to fight for playing time. This year, Clark has beefed up to 274 pounds, up about 50 pounds from his freshman year.
Clark still has a lot to prove, but he’s the most likely to turn heads on the end.
LAST OF THE RECEIVERS: Gardner’s favorite target, fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon, exploded late last season. The diminutive wideout blossomed into a viable threat. But take a good look Saturday, he’s likely the last of a dying breed.
Smaller receivers like Gallon fit in former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense. But the offense of Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges favors a more traditional look with bigger receivers.
Meet the pass-catching future: 6-foot-2, 213-pound sophomore Amara Darboh and 6-foot-3, 193-pound redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson.
Chesson, Borges said, has speed. Darboh is more elusive. Both are big.
The current offense features Gallon (5-foot-8) and Drew Dileo (5-foot-10). Roy Roundtree, last year’s No. 1 receiver, stood at 6-feet tall.
“We wanted to get some bigger kids in there, knowing that the little guys have done a great job for us, but we did want to give a little more range to the position,” Borges said.
“We’ve won a few jump balls,” Borges continued, then paused. “Lost a few, but haven’t lost them all.”