Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has his work cut out for him in 2012 if the Wolverines hope to surpass last year's 11-2 performance.
Fresh off an 11-2 season, the Michigan Wolverines return to action in 2012 looking to make a statement. The team looks to build on last year's success and continue its return to being a perennial contender for the national title.
Under new head coach Brady Hoke, the Wolverines enjoyed a big turnaround year in 2011 that ended with a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. Most noticeably, new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison revamped a unit that was among the worst in college football the year before.
2012 poses a difficult schedule for the Wolverines. If they are to contend with the top teams in the Big Ten and the likes of Alabama, Michigan is going to need above-average seasons from key players on both sides of the ball.
Who can take Michigan over the top this year?
Michigan DT Craig Roh will anchor an inexperienced starting defensive front in 2012.
Simply put, if Craig Roh doesn't play like a beast in 2012, the Wolverines defense will face major challenges. As the secondary continues to mature, it is crucial that the defensive line creates enough pressure on the quarterback. If the Wolverines cannot get upfield quickly enough, the young defensive backs will undoubtedly get exposed in coverage.
Roh was part of a quality front last year that included Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and Will Heininger. Even if the numbers didn't show it, Michigan's line was a crucial part of its success in 2011. Surely Mattison's new defensive schemes were a large part of their success.
This year, Roh is the lone remaining starter. And although his four sacks in 2011 were good enough to rank him second on the team (behind Ryan Van Bergen, 5.5), he definitely has room to improve on that number.
For perspective, rival Michigan State DE William Gholston recorded five sacks in 2011, and was major part of why the Spartans defense was so effective. His impact was felt more in his 70 total tackles, good for 38 more than Roh.
Roh is not as premier a talent as Gholston, but will need to be the same type of presence for the Wolverines to have success. 2012 offers a chance for Craig Roh to step out of the shadow of former teammates Martin and Van Bergen.
Having started all three years of his Michigan career, Roh understands the dynamics of the Big Ten. Further, he must understand that a successful Wolverines pass rush will be vital to keep pressure off a secondary that is still maturing in Mattison's system.
Craig is making the move to strong-side defensive end, which will play more to his skills and provide more flexibility for the younger, more athletic bodies on the line to have a bigger impact.
Roh must set an example for incoming starters Will Campbell, Jibreel Black and Brennan Byer. If he can do so, Roh will help cover one of Michigan's greatest holes going into the 2012 season and give the defense a big lift.
In 2011, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint stepped into a major role and had a stellar season; he recorded 187 carries for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns.
Although he cannot be the biggest name on the field as long as QB Denard Robinson is around, I believe he is the most crucial cog in the Wolverines offense heading into 2012. Touissant's play directly correlates to how effective Robinson can be.
If Fitz cannot at least match his productivity from last year, top-tier defenses like Michigan State, Alabama and Ohio State will key in on containing Denard.
Known for his explosiveness as a runner, Robinson will be forced more to rely on his arm if opposing defenses have the luxury of loading their defensive fronts without fear of being burned by another offensive weapon.
Fitz has been a bit of a nuisance off the field this summer, as he was arrested for DUI charges and suspended from Wolverines practice indefinitely. However, as the season approaches, Toussaint's absence in practice will impact the flow of the first-team offense.
Indeed, the running back made his return to the practice field Monday. Toussaint's relatively short suspension following his DUI comes as little surprise. Coach Hoke recognizes the value that his horse brings to the Wolverines offensive production, and the value of significant practice time to strengthen on-field relationships.
FT was a major surprise and success story in 2011. He can and must improve his performance for 2012, and I suspect he will receive an increased share of the play-calling in order to do so.
MLB Kenny Demens wreaked a bit of havoc in 2011. He is on my watch list for Michigan defensive player of the year in 2012
LB Kenny Demens recorded a career-high 94 tackles in 2011. He needs to eclipse 100 and improve on his sack total (3) to anchor the Wolverines defense for 2012.
He will be a senior out of Oak Park, Michigan, and the most important commander of the Wolverines improving defensive unit. Demens will need to more consistently turn in dominant performances like his night against rival Notre Dame (12 tackles).
In my opinion, it is just as important to have a true leader on defense as on offense. Denard is typically the go-to player of the offense; so too must Demens assume that type of mantel. He has started 30 straight games, and his demonstrative efforts should earn him captain status on the squad.
In his second year under Greg Mattison, Demens will have be more aware of the keys to consistently playing (as an individual and a unit) at a high level. Last season the Wolverines displayed tremendous improvement, but again must top their previous numbers to support another stellar campaign.
Demens is the guy that must lead the way.
Michigan QB Denard Robinson must improve his aerial assault of defenses, and can do so by reducing his interception total (15)
I know, it wouldn't be a Michigan football conversation without highlighting QB Denard Robinson. However, I include him because I really feel he hasn't fully achieved his highest level of play.
"Shoelace" led the team in rushing with 221 carries for 1,176 yards, as well as in passing with 2,173 yards and 20 touchdowns. He took the team to the Sugar Bowl, and delivered a win over Virginia Tech 23-20 in OT.
So how can he overachieve in 2012 if he turned in such explosive numbers in 2011? Simple, his play against top-tier defenses needs to greatly improve. This year, the Wolverines kick off against Alabama and must utilize the opportunity to make a quality first impression.
The offense has been centered around Denard for two full years, but his success at Michigan will be truly determined on his senior season. He now has had the chance to grow and learn in offensive coordinator Al Borges' system over a full season.
Looking ahead, Denard has key games against Alabama (9/1 at Texas Stadium), at Notre Dame (9/22), hosting Michigan State (10/20) and closing the year at Ohio State (11/24). He's proven he can torch the average defense, but Robinson will need to step up his efficiency in big games.
I think that he should turn more of his ground presence over to the aforementioned Touissaint. That will allow his rushing attempts to be more improvised and harder to defend.
His success will fall on the output he can gain from his throwing arm. Robinson can improve by limiting his interceptions (15 last year). Surely, if he protects the ball better the Wolverines will have a more balanced attack that doesn't force him to try to run to victory.
This mentality has proven ineffective against the Big Ten's best. Against Michigan State in 2011, Denard rushed 18 times for a measly 42 yards.
He can definitely improve his pocket presence and ability to read opposing defenses, admittedly no easy task. But as he grows more comfortable in Borges' system, he will elevate the talent surrounding him (think, senior WR Roy Roundtree, QB Devin Gardner) to its best level of play in years.
This is a very steep task for the Michigan quarterback. Many teams await "Shoelace" with specific strategy to slow him, and he carries the most pressure of any player for the Wolverines.
Yet, he is the biggest star Ann Arbor has to lean on at the moment. And he must play better than ever for his team to contend with the nation's best.