To many sports fans, the month of March means college basketball is winding down and the baseball season is set to begin.

But this time of year is also vital for college football teams. The season is about six months away, but now is the first opportunity for squads to gather on a field since the bowl season.

On Saturday morning, Michigan held the first of 15 spring practices. And it didn’t take long for the players to get to work. After stretching briefly, they split into groups to work on different drills. On one end of Oosterbaan Fieldhouse, the defensive linemen were working with new defensive line coach Steve Stripling on breaking through blocking, while, in the middle of the field, defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann was telling the linebackers how to use all their strength when hitting the tackling sled. At the other end, quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler worked with freshman Chad Henne on footwork.

The Wolverines return 15 starters from last year’s team, but this year’s transition won’t be easy. Of the seven starters Michigan is losing, a record-high four were All-Americans.

Here’s a look at where the Wolverines stand right now:

Offensive line: Michigan returns four-fifths of its offensive line but must find a replacement for All-American David Baas, who started last season at left guard and moved to center early in the season. Rueben Riley — who started the last seven games at left guard — will spend time at center, as will Jeremy Ciulla and Mark Bihl. Leo Henige, who started two games at left guard last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury, is limited in practice but will be in the mix.

Receivers: Replacing Braylon Edwards, Michigan’s all-time leading receiver, will be difficult if not impossible. That said, the Wolverines have two top receivers in Steve Breaston, who showed in the Rose Bowl what he can do when healthy, and Jason Avant. But finding a third and fourth receiver will be difficult. Carl Tabb, Adrian Arrington and Doug Dutch all have talent, but if they can be reliable threats remains to be seen.

It is also possible coach Lloyd Carr will go with two tight end formations more this season to get both Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker on the field.

Backfield: On Thursday, Carr said he was particularly excited to see the improvement quarterback Henne and running back Mike Hart would make in their first spring with the Wolverines. After the team’s first practice, Carr seemed just as excited about two different players who play the same position.

Quarterback Matt Gutierrez is still recovering from last fall’s shoulder surgery, but he participated in just about every drill. His velocity isn’t all the way back, and his throws will be limited, but Carr said he’s “way ahead of schedule.”

Carr also raved about running back Kevin Grady, who finished high school in December just to be with the team for spring practices, saying he will be well ahead of where he would otherwise be if he had waited until the summer to join the team.

Michigan also lost a valuable player in fullback Kevin Dudley. Candidates to replace him are Brian Thompson, who is sitting out the spring, and Obi Oluigbo.

Defensive line: Tackle Gabe Watson and end Pat Massey are back, and returning starters LaMarr Woodley and Pierre Woods often play as pass-rushing ends in Michigan’s 3-4 defense. The Wolverines often rotate linemen in and out, so Rondell Biggs, Will Paul and Jeremy Van Alstyne will see playing time as well.

A focus this spring will be to find a way to get to the quarterback. For the second consecutive year Michigan struggled up front, managing just 21 sacks last season.

Linebackers: Fifth-year senior-to-be Scott McClintock will lead this unit, which was recently hit by the surprising loss of Lawrence Reid to a neck injury in addition to the departure of Roy Manning.

This may give an opportunity to Prescott Burgess and Shawn Crable, who have talent but have had to sit behind older teammates.

Secondary: This may be Carr’s biggest concern. Michigan lost two All-Americans from this unit in cornerback Marlin Jackson and safety Ernest Shazor, and Carr has admitted that the team’s depth at the position isn’t the best.

Cornerback Leon Hall and safety Ryan Mundy return, and safety Jamar Adams and cornerback Grant Mason will likely join them.

 

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