Bringing Michigan back from the depths of Rich Rodriguez’s regime hasn’t been easy.
But head coach Brady Hoke has done an admirable job, winning 19 of 26 games since taking over in January, 2011. Michigan traveled to a pair of bowl games, defeating Virginia Tech in last year’s BCS Sugar Bowl, before suffering a disappointing loss to South Carolina in this week’s Outback Bowl.
Over the last two regular seasons, Michigan split with Notre Dame, Michigan State and arch rival Ohio State.
Unfortunately for Hoke, Michigan is perceived as an elite college football program. The Wolverines captured 11 national titles and a league-best 42 Big Ten championships, while being the first major football program to surpass 900 victories.
Patience, however, is beginning to wear thin. Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 2004 and its last national title came in 1997.
So to say Hoke’s honeymoon is over just might be a huge understatement.
With the graduation of read-option quarterback Denard Robinson, Hoke will finally unveil his power-I, ball-control offense in 2013. Devin Gardner, who subbed for the injured Robinson late this season, has all the tools to run the new offense.
On defense, Michigan has come a long way under coordinator Greg Mattison, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Michigan is a ways away from the shut-down defensive units exhibited under former coaches Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr.
The Wolverines return with seven starters from the squad that finished 16th nationally in scoring defense (18.75 points per game), but occasionally lost leads late in games.
Michigan will continue to run its base 4-3 under defense, while occasionally switching to the 3-4.
Let’s take a look at how the 2013 defensive depth chart should appear when spring practice begins in March.
Starter: Ondre Pipkins
Backups: Maurice Hurst
(3-tec) Defensive Tackle
Starter: Quinton Washington
Backups: Willie Henry, Henry Poggi
Strong-side Defensive End
Starter: Jibreel Black
Backups: Keith Heitzman, Chris Wormley, Matt Godin
Weak-side Defensive End
Starter: Frank Clark
Backups: Brennen Beyer, Mario Ojemudia, Tom Strobel, Taco Charlton*
Still the most unsettled and frustrating area of the defense is the front four. Pressure on the quarterback was especially missing from the interior line all season, as Quinton Washington and Will Campbell each managed one sack, while Jibreel Brack could muster only three.
Black (6'2" 279-lbs) is undersized for the tackle slot, so he may shift back to the strong-side end position vacated by the graduation of Craig Roh.
Washington, who spent much of 2012 at nose tackle, could move to defensive tackle since Ondre Pipkins and incoming freshman Maurice Hurst may fight over the nose.
Redshirt freshmen Willie Henry and Henry Poggi will battle Washington for reps at tackle, while redshirt freshmen Chris Wormley and Matt Godin will join Black and Keith Heitzman at strong-side end.
The weak-side end was manned by committee as Mario Ojemudia, Brennan Beyer and Frank Clark all shared reps. Beyer had the majority of starts with nine while Clark had four. Clark, who had nine tackles for loss, may have the edge going into spring practice, but all three will play.
Jake Ryan (47)
Starter: Jake Ryan
Backups: Cam Gordon, Ben Gedeon
Starter: Joe Bolden
Backups: Mike Jones, Kaleb Ringer, Michael McCray
Starter: Desmond Morgan
Backups: James Ross III, Royce Jenkins-Stone
With Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan returning and Joe Bolden stepping in for Kenny Demens, the linebacking corps should again be the team's strength.
Ryan, who led Michigan with 88 tackles including 16 for loss, is rapidly gaining superstar status. A second-team All-Big Ten selection as a redshirt sophomore, Ryan added 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles to his resume.
Morgan, considering he is also a sophomore, continued his dependable play with 81 total tackles.
Bolden, who's been selected to ESPN's All-Big Ten freshman team, appears to be another star in the making.
Adding depth to the group of promising linebackers are redshirt seniors Cam Gordon and Mike Jones.
Starter: Blake Countess
Backups: Terry Richardson, Ross Douglas*, Channing Stribling
Starter: Ramon Taylor
Backups: Delonte Hollowell, Dennis Norfleet, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill
Starter: Courtney Avery
Michigan loses starter J.T. Floyd, but regains Blake Countess who was lost for the season due to an ACL injury in the Alabama opener. Countess, who started as a true freshman in 2011, will cover the opponent's best receiver and has the ability to become an All-Big Ten or All-America selection.
On the opposite side, Ramon Taylor will have a year of solid experience behind him, after jumping in for the injured Countess. Taylor's rough outing against South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders in the Outback Bowl can only be seen as a positive.
Courtney Avery, who spent much of the season as Michigan's fifth defensive back in obvious passing situations, will also spell both Countess and Taylor.
Backups Terry Richardson and Delonte Hollowell have another year with the program, while early enrollee Ross Douglas will get a good look at spring practice.
Kick returner and running back Dennis Norfleet was impressive during the Outback Bowl practices, but at 5'7" has limitations.
With taller receivers becoming the norm, Michigan has reacted by bringing in a couple of taller recruits. Channing Stribling (6'2") and Delano Hill (6'1") will get plenty of attention next fall.
Starter: Jarrod Wilson
Backups: Marvin Robinson, Allen Gant, Dymonte Thomas*
Starter: Thomas Gordon
Backups: Josh Furman, Jeremy Clark
Michigan will certainly miss strong safety Jordan Kovacs, who provided leadership both on and off the field. With 68 tackles in 2012, Kovacs totaled 334 in his career, 12th on the all-time Michigan list.
Inheriting his position will be current freshman Jerrod Wilson, senior-to-be Marvin Robinson or redshirt freshman Allen Gant.
Wilson, a scout.com 4-star recruit from Akron, Ohio, had sufficient playing time this season to move into Kovacs’ slot. Robinson, who will be entering his senior season, gets his final chance at becoming a starter, while Gant brings plenty of athleticism and pedigree to the table.
From nearby Sylvania, Ohio, Gant was a three-sport star at Southview High School where he also competed on the basketball and track teams. His father, Tony, played safety for Michigan from 1982-86.
Thomas Gordon, who was a high school quarterback at Detroit Cass Tech, had a breakout season in 2012 as Michigan’s free safety. With two interceptions and 81 tackles, Gordon is destined for post-season honors in 2013.
Backups Josh Furman and Jeremy Clark add speed to the position.