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2014 Fierce 40 Previews: #28 Michigan

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 17, 2014

#28 Michigan Wolverines

 

2013 Recap:

The season started very promising with Michigan winning their first five games and six of their first seven before the wheels came off. Michigan limped to a 7-6 record which included a 31-14 Bowl loss to Kansas State. The Wolverines turned the ball over far too many times and just couldn't score points. In 7 wins Michigan averaged just under 41 PPG, and in the 6 losses 22 PPG. When a team is scoring nearly half as much, wins are hard to come by.

 

Coaching:

Is the honeymoon over with Brady Hoke after three years? This is an interesting year to see whether the Wolverines stick with talented quarterback Devin Gardner or with a recruit like Shane Morris and focus more on defense where they are vastly talented yet inconsistent.

 

Offense

 

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Is Devin Gardner a quarterback that can make it at the next level or will he be like Denard Robinson and go into the NFL and have to change positions? Gardner has the size, strength, and arm, and he will not only be a quarterback at the next level, but he will be drafted in the later rounds. He is similar to a project like Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, who was drafted by Arizona last season, but mostly based on size and potential. Gardner is futher along in his progression as a quarterback than Thomas, as most of Gardner's troubles come from decision making and trying to do too much by forcing the ball into tight spaces and double coverage. Regardless of whether Gardner and/or 5-star recruit Shane Morris is the quarterback, it looks like Michigan needs to get back to running the football.

Derrick Green is the starter now and he had a pedestrian 3.3 YPC as a freshman when he came into the program as the top running back recruit in the country. Green slimmed down a bit and he is the best player in the backfield when it comes to catching the football, so look for him to get involved in the passing game. De'Veon Smith is the backup and look for Justice Hayes to be the third down option as he is the more accomplished blocker of the trio.

Best Draft Prospect: Devin Gardner QB 6th Round 2015.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

We had Devin Funchess listed as an up-and-comer last season saying that he could be the first tight end to come off the board, leaving school early in 2015, and that assessment looks to be dead on. One has to wonder what the position will actually be. With more tight ends splitting out like receivers, Michigan got in on the act and actually had Funchess start at wide receiver over the last half of the season in 2013. Funchess had success and he will start the season there again. He still has the size and ability to be an athletic tight end at the next level and his versatility will only aid in his draft process. Jehu Chesson is going to start opposite Funchess while young Da'Mario Jones could step in and grab at least 35 passes as the third option. A.J. Williams is the primary starter at tight end but don't rule out Funchess playing there from time to time. Williams only had 1 reception a season ago, so being used more as a blocker seems to be the plan for Michigan.

Best Draft Prospect: Devin Funchess TE 1st Round 2015 (Expected to declare as a junior).

 

Offensive Line:

The offensive line really failed to live up to the hype last year even with a pair of terrific tackles that were both drafted last season (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). The interior line was inefficient even though Michigan may have found a budding star in guard Kyle Kalis. Michigan was one of four teams that allowed more than 100 tackles for a loss, and they actually led the nation in that dubious distinction with 114 in 2013. Throw in a number of ill-timed penalties and it's easy to see why Gardner seemed to struggle after a stellar start. He was always playing catch up or faced 2nd/3rd-and-long situations far too many times. Erik Magnusson moves into the left tackle slot while newcomer Ben Braden moves into the right tackle slot. Their play will have fans holding their breath as any type of improvement from last season will be welcomed.

Best Draft Prospect: Kyle Kalis OG 2nd Round 2017.

 

Defense

 

Defensive Line:

One might look at the overall rank for the Michigan defense last year and feel it was not a great year but the contrary would be true. The offensive failures later in the season caused the defense to stay on the field too long and it just became too much for the Wolverines. There is a lot of individual talent and the team is deep at a number of positions. Three of the four starters up front return and it starts with Frank Clark. Clark tied for the team lead with 5 sacks and his 12.5 tackles for loss were tops on the squad. He is a little limited athletically and has had some injury problems in the past though. He will lead his team again, one that also features up-and-comer William Henry at defensive tackle. Henry should see the biggest jump in stats this season while other starters Matt Godin and Brennen Beyer are more than capable. Taco Charlton is another defensive end that could see some time as a reserve linebacker and will be a special teams ace. This is a solid squad that ranks around the middle of the Big Ten mainly because there are a few teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) that have amazing defensive lines heading to the season.

Best Draft Prospect: Frank Clark DE 7th Round 2015.

 

Linebackers:

The back seven is where the Wolverines feature a number of future NFL prospects and it starts at linebacker with James Ross III. 85 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles leaves Ross as one of the players on defense that makes offensive coordinators question how to attack. Ross is just a small piece of the puzzle as Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan offer senior leadership and 109 tackles and 9 tackles for loss between them. Joe Bolden is the top reserve and with 54 tackles and a pair of sacks in 2013, he filled in admirably when called upon. This may be the best linebacker unit as a whole in the Big Ten but if there is one area where improvement needs to be seen it is in pass coverage. The linebackers were definitely not one of the best units in this area and they actually only had 1 interception for the entire season.

Best Draft Prospect: James Ross III LB 4th Round 2016.

 

Secondary:

This area rivals the linebackers for best on defense and this is a group that has built some chemistry. Ramon Taylor is the only senior of the bunch at cornerback and he led the team with 86 tackles a season ago. Usually you don't see corners lead a team in stops but that deals more with the fact that Taylor is really just a sound tackler. While Taylor will have some NFL looks it is his other cornerback counterpart Blake Countess that will attract the most attention from NFL teams. Countess registered 6 picks last year and he brought one back to the house. Countess is a junior but with another strong campaign he may choose to leave this season with Taylor and declare for the draft. Jarrod Wilson is back at free safety and he had a 50 tackle season in 2013. Dymonte Thomas takes over at strong safety and he has big game experience. Expect fellow sophomore Delano Hill to be there if he falters and see some time in different packages. This squad is deep and seems to play the pass a bit better than the run, but they are comfortable defending both.

Best Draft Prospect: Blake Countess CB 3rd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams:

Will Hagerup is coming back at punter after missing 2013, and that is the biggest wild card in the special teams area. The team suspended Hagerup last season and usually it's not a big deal when you do this to a punter, but Hagerup was the Big Ten Punter of the Year in 2012 so it was a weapon that they lost. Matt Wile is the new kicker and Dennis Norfleet will be the primary return man. Norfleet will handle kickoffs while punts will be Norfleet or incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers who worked there in the spring. Pepppers was the top Michigan recruit and the New Jersey cornerback is the star of the future in the secondary.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A

 

Schedule:

The second game of the season on Sept 6th, features the game against Notre Dame which is in South Bend this year. Michigan defeated Notre Dame a season ago so expect the Irish to be hungry for retribution. The two toughest tests on the schedule will be Michigan State and Ohio State, and like Notre Dame, these will also be road games. Michigan will avoid Wisconsin and Iowa this year but they have to steal a road game or two to be in the mix for the Big Ten title.

 

Draft Outlook:

Devon Funchess looks to be the first rounder this year if he declares early for the draft and that is something we could see cornerback Blake Countess also do. The rest of the draft talent here looks to be for the 2016 and 2017 classes if looking at the top of the boards. Michigan will always have 3-5 players drafted every year and they come to the NFL battle tested in the tough Big Ten.

 

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