As spring practice concludes Saturday and the sun sets on the first 15 practices of the Brady Hoke era, fans will get their first glimpse of the new-look Wolverines. Daily Sports Editor Tim Rohan breaks down five of the biggest storylines to follow this Saturday.
Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner in the new pro-style offense
Throughout the spring, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have raved about junior quarterback Denard Robinson’s arm and throwing ability in the pro-style offense they brought with them from San Diego State. According to the coaching staff, Robinson is making all of the throws, timing everything well with the receivers and making strides in picking up the footwork.
But there are still questions that remain: How will he fair against live-action defenses, dropping back and throwing? Will the offense handicap his ability to be a lethal threat on the ground?
And redshirt sophomore Devin Gardner may be more built in the prototypical passer mold, as a 6-foot-4 quarterback who has also picked up the new offense well this spring. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can push Robinson sooner than everyone else in Ann Arbor thinks.
Borges has made it completely clear that he wants to throw the ball and he wants to throw it downfield. Make no mistake about it, there’s no quarterback controversy, but keep an eye on both signal callers.
Stephen Hopkins and the battle at running back
The same five running backs from a year ago are still in the mix. Some things haven’t changed.
But the offense has, and with a new emphasis on the position, it will be extremely important to find a No. 1 and No. 2 back for Hoke before the fall rolls around.
Think back to the days when Mike Hart and Chris Perry carried the ball 20-plus times a game, and Lloyd Carr was able to hitch his wagon to his running back and run to victory — that’s what Michigan’s running game will look like once again.
Hoke has said that Stephen Hopkins has been the most consistent running back this spring, but Vincent Smith has also drawn praise from Borges.
Hopkins is a big back who hits the hole hard, according to Hoke, which is why Hopkins has played some fullback this spring.
See if you can call which one of Hopkins, Smith, Mike Shaw, Mike Cox or Fitz Toussaint will be the next Mike Hart.
The defensive line
They may not be the four Horsemen of Notre Dame lore, but Mike Martin, Craig Roh, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Campbell will surely be fun to watch under Hoke and Greg Mattison’s tutelage.
For one, they’re back playing in a defense (the 4-3) that emphasizes and thrives on the play of its defensive line. As a former defensive line coach, Hoke has put more pressure on his defensive line to be the strong point of his defense. He wants to win in the trenches.
And for the Michigan defense to make a turnaround, it has to start up front.
They’re a deep group, too. Jibreel Black is slated to be a dangerous pass-rusher and Quinton Washington and Will Heininger are big bodies who can fill in at times.
Imagine trying to run through Martin and Campbell or standing in the pocket waiting for Roh to come off the edge like Terrell Suggs — just watch on Saturday.
Spring Game’s surprise player
Denard Robinson burst onto the scene during last year’s spring game and it spilled over into a productive summer where he developed into a new-look passer.
And Roy Roundtree has had two successful spring games in a row. But which potential unknown will step up in the 2011 version of the game?
1. Cam Gordon: Gordon has had more hype than any other defensive player over the past year and he has moved onto another position — this time it’s linebacker. And Mattison, in particular, has been drooling over Gordon’s potential since the beginning of the spring. Gordon’s an athletic player, but only time will tell if his latest position change will pan out.
2. Carvin Johnson: Johnson has been one of the safeties who has stuck out this spring. Earlier this week, Hoke said that Johnson has been one of the defensive players who has been vocal at the back end of the defense, helping get other players aligned. He started out his true freshman season as a starter and he could be the starting safety, next to Jordan Kovacs, this fall.
3. Will Campbell: He barely saw the field last year, then decided on his own to switch to the offensive side of the ball. Now, he’s decided to come back, and the big defensive tackle probably made the right decision. He’s working hard and developing into a player who can be counted on to contribute.
The kicking game
If you have four kickers, do you really have one?
Brendan Gibbons, Seth Broekhuizen, Kris Pauloski and Jeremy Ross are competing for the spot and it will be interesting to see if there has been improvement since last season.
Rich Rodriguez basically gave up on the kicking game and had one hand tied behind his back when it came to play calling in the opponents’ territory.
Make no mistake about it, a good kicking game may go unnoticed, but a poor kicking game truly hurts.
The poor weather expected to come on Saturday won’t help, but it won’t be hard to top Gibbons’ and Broekhuizen’s 4-for-14 performance last season.