With quarterback John Navarre and running back Chris Perry
— two major components in Michigan’s run to the Rose
Bowl last year — departing due to graduation, the biggest
question marks surrounding the Wolverines heading into this
year’s spring practice revolved around the offense.

And while Saturday’s Spring Game couldn’t possibly
answer all of those questions, the Michigan offensive units showed
that there are several players at both the quarterback and running
back positions who are ready to step into the vacated roles.

Perhaps no one turned more heads on Saturday than senior running
back David Underwood — one of Perry’s backups last year
— who looked very effective during his stints with the
first-team offense. Underwood opened the exhibition by breaking a
45-yard run down the right sideline. He would add several more
solid runs, including a 35-yarder later in the afternoon that was
called back by a penalty.

“You can always improve,” Underwood said. “I
hope (I’m a big part of this offense). As far as
competition-wise, every day a gazelle gets up in Africa and
he’s running because a lion is after him and needs to eat. So
I look at it in that type of aspect.”

Underwood split time in the backfield Saturday with fifth-year
senior Tim Bracken and sophomore Jerome Jackson — who, thanks
to a cutback move that freed him up to the outside, scampered for a
20-yard touchdown run to cap off his solid day.

“Jerome has had a very good spring,” Michigan coach
Lloyd Carr said. “David Underwood has had a very good spring,
and Tim Bracken has had a very good spring.”

The other positional battle in the spotlight is the one to
replace Navarre under center. Junior Matt Gutierrez — the
backup to Navarre last season — is believed to have the
inside track on the job over sophomore Clayton Richard and incoming
freshman Chad Henne, and his performance on Saturday did nothing to
sway that opinion.

Gutierrez looked poised in the pocket and mobile outside it,
leading several drives on offense. A potential touchdown pass
during the exhibition’s opening drive was dropped by tight
end Tim Massaquoi.

Still, Gutierrez was impressive, and he bounced back in his
second drive by avoiding the rush and hitting wide receiver
Jermaine Gonzales over the middle for 18 yards and a first
down.

“(The coaches) want me to be disciplined and do what
I’m coached to do in the pocket,” Gutierrez said.
“But if the play breaks down, they give me the freedom to try
to make something happen, as long as I’m smart with the
ball.”

Richard, meanwhile, showed flashes of solid play, and his day
was highlighted by a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver
Braylon Edwards, who had beaten cornerback Marlin Jackson on the
play.

“There’s been constant improvement (for me) all
spring,” Richard said. “I’m definitely more
comfortable. We have a receiving corps that’s second to
none.”

The Edwards-Jackson matchup pitted the Wolverines’ top two
weapons against each other in a showdown that was a highlight of
the day. Edwards caught several passes, including the score from
Richard, and induced a pass interference penalty against Jackson,
as well.

The matchup was possible because both players announced earlier
this year that they would return for their senior seasons, and
Jackson was subsequently moved from safety to cornerback, where he
excelled during his first two seasons at Michigan.

“Marlin declared he was coming back before I did,”
Edwards said. “And when he declared, I was ecstatic because
it helped me to know what I wanted to do. We battle in practice all
the time — when you have two good guys who are competitive,
it’s a pretty heated battle. He wins his fair share, and I
win my fair share.”

With Jackson’s move back to corner, there is competition
for the starting free safety spot — strong wanted to do. We
battle in practice all the time — when you have two good guys
who are competitive, it’s a pretty heated battle. He wins his
fair share, and I win my fair share.”

With Jackson’s move back to corner, there is competition
for one of the free safety spot — strong safety is locked
down by senior Ernest Shazor. Joining Shazor on the first-team
defense on Saturday was youngster Ryan Mundy, who has impressed
Carr throughout the spring, making him the clear-cut favorite to
win the position.

Michigan was hit with one piece of bad news during the week.
Carr announced after the game that defensive lineman Jeremy Van
Alstyne had injured his knee last Tuesday in practice. Though the
injury was initially thought to be minor, it was later learned that
Van Alstyne — a starter last season — would require
reconstructive surgery that will prevent him from playing in
2004.

“Jeremy Van Alstyne was a starter on this team, and was
one of the better football players on this team, even though
he’s still a young guy,” Carr said. “The good
news is, he’ll be back next spring, and he’ll still
have two years of eligibility left.”

Several other Wolverines, including expected secondary
contributor Leon Hall and starting offensive lineman Adam
Stenavich, were held out of yesterday’s practice.

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