With spring practice nearing its end and the spring game coming up this weekend, the Daily Football beat breaks down five of the biggest storylines Michigan fans can follow on Saturday.
The Quarterback Battle
Again, the three-headed monster at Michigan’s quarterback position rears its head. But this year, the competition could be closer than ever.
Michigan fans have seen their fair share of sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, as both took significant snaps under center last season. But Saturday will be fans’ first look at electrifying early-enrollee Devin Gardner, whose hype precedes him. Ranked the No. 1 dual threat quarterback in the nation last year by all the major recruiting sites, the 6-foot-4 signal caller has been receiving rave reviews for his competitive nature, and there’s no doubt he’ll have something to prove when Saturday afternoon rolls around. And now, with Forcier’s status uncertain for Saturday’s game, Robinson may have his turn to shine.
But don’t expect Forcier and Robinson to shed the limelight so quickly. The race for the starting spot at the quarterback position is in a dead sprint, especially after Robinson has impressed coaches with his improvement this spring.
One thing is clear. All eyes at the Big House on Saturday will be locked under center.
Cameron Gordon at safety
When redshirt freshman Cameron Gordon arrived at Michigan this fall, he was a 6-foot-2, 210-pound, super-athletic wide receiver.
After redshirting his freshman year, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez decided the team had enough talent at wideout and not enough at free safety. He moved Gordon to safety and, apparently, the switch is working great for everyone involved.
“There’s no question that move was one of the better moves we’ve made, personnel-wise,” Rodriguez said. “I think he’s a natural there.”
Questions have been swirling around the safety position the entire offseason. The collection of safeties who saw the field last year underperformed, and the injury to sophomore Vlad Emilien, who’s in the running for the starting spot, made depth at the position this spring a serious issue.
But Gordon has stepped up and appears to be making a push for the starting job. It will be interesting to see if he appears to be a step up from last year’s starters, as the buzz surrounding his spring seems to indicate.
Spring Game’s surprise player
After watching then-freshman wide receiver Roy Roundtree catch a pinpoint 50-yard bomb from Forcier in last year’s spring game, it was clear that Roundtree was something special. And when all was said and done last season, Roundtree led the team in receiving yards (434) and touchdowns (3), which even the most in-tune Michigan football followers never would have hedged their bets on in the preseason.
So Roundtree’s performance begs the question: Who is this year’s surprise Spring Game performer?
Here’s three players who may surprise you on Saturday:
1. Fitzgerald Toussaint: Despite redshirting last season, Toussaint’s speed is being noticed in a big way. And with Vincent Smith out for the spring with an ACL tear, it could be Toussaint’s time to show that hfill the cleats of departing running back Carlos Brown.
2. Terrance Robinson: They’ve been trying him all over the field in spring practice (at slot, in the backfield, etc.), and the coaches have made it clear they want him on the field. Robinson’s biggest criticism has been his hands, so if he can show an improvement in that category, he may be making plays this fall.
3. Kenny Demens: Senior linebacker Obi Ezeh has had a rollercoaster of a career with the Wolverines, and Ezeh’s loss at middle linebacker could be Demens’s gain this season. The Oak Park native has been the talk of the linebacker position this spring and has all the skills to be a tackling machine at the position.
The stable of running backs
With graduating seniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown gone, the tailback position is wide open this spring with plenty of capable suitors to take their place.
Leading the pack to replace the duo is junior Mike Shaw, who is the veteran of the bunch now, but hasn’t seen enough carries in his first two years on campus to showcase his abilities. Sophomore Vincent Smith is still recovering after tearing his ACL in the 2009 season finale. But he showed flashes in his freshman year.
Also in the mix is redshirt sophomore Mike Cox, who has received praise from the coaching staff this spring. Cox exploded for 82 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns when he got his chance against Delaware State last season. Rodriguez even went as far as to speculate that early-enrolle Stephen Hopkins wouldn’t be redshirted because he fills a role as a bigger back. Toussaint could challenge for carries too.
Hoopla over the 3-3-5
Rodriguez ruffled some feathers when he mentioned a few weeks ago that the defense was working with running a 3-3-5 during spring practice. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson downplayed the idea soon after, but the formation is intriguing for Michigan this year.
The Wolverines have run a bit of the 3-3-5 in recent seasons, and Rodriguez ran it when he was at West Virginia. It gives Michigan a bit of flexibility within the 3-4 scheme that the Wolverines ran predominantly a year ago. Identifying who plays where within the scheme will be interesting. But all in all, it will just be a tweak that Robinson throws in when he wants a faster linebacker, say for example Stevie Brown of last year’s team, to drop into coverage and play like a fifth defensive back.
It gives the defense more flexibility and could help in defending running quarterbacks or spread offenses with more speed on the field. The key will be whether the front six defenders can get pressure on the quarterback when the Wolverines drop into the 3-3-5.