Michigan Football: Rodriguez-Hoke Transition Full of Surprises

Joel GreerCorrespondent ISeptember 13, 2012

Joe Bolden (35)
Joe Bolden (35)Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

The major concern when Brady Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez was how long it would take to pick up the pieces.

The Michigan football program sank to new lows under the Rodriguez regime, reaching bottom during the 52-14 Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi State at the conclusion of the 2010 season.

Probably the two biggest surprises of Hoke's inaugural campaign was the immediate resurgence of the much maligned defense, and an offense which retained the familiar look of RichRod's read-option attack.

Hoke had promised a return to smash-mouth, I-formation football, a style that's been used throughout the Big Ten, and especially during the Lloyd Carr era at Michigan.

But a funny thing happened when Hoke arrived on campus. Already there was a read-option quarterback named Denard Robinson, who recently captured the Chicago Tribune Silver Football, emblematic of the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player.

As it turned out, the offensive transition had to wait. In fact, it's been noted that Michigan's offense during last week's 31-25 win over Air Force came from something similar to Rodriguez' playbook.

Defense has been another matter. Hoke brought in Greg Mattison from the Baltimore Ravens to junk the ineffective 3-3-5 scheme and installed a popular variation of the 4-3.

With it came respectability to the defense, even though it was still manned by RichRod's former players.

Michigan was able to finish the 2011 season (11-2, 6-2) with wins over Ohio State and Virginia Tech, but it was obvious the Wolverines weren't ready to join the nation's elite. The message came through during the 2012 season opener, when defending national champion Alabama steamrolled Michigan, 41-14.

Although the loss to Alabama shouldn't be a huge cause for concern, a subtle makeover of this season's team is already underway.

It won't be done with extensive scheme changes, but it will be done by Hoke leaning on his first full recruiting class. A dozen freshmen received playing time against Air Force with several playing key roles. In fact, a few of them are competing for starting jobs.

Mattison spoke specifically about a few of them during Wednesday's press conference. "Joe Bolden and James Ross went into the game and gave you a spark and made some plays," Mattison said. "They keep getting better and better, and yes, they're definitely in the mix." 

Three other freshmen—WDE Mario Ojemudia, DT Ondre Pipkins and FS Jerrod Wilson—also received plenty of minutes.

Speedster Dennis Norfleet already looks like a veteran kick returner and Devin Funchess appears to be a future star at tight end. 

Several of the freshmen will get extensive playing time Saturday when Michigan faces 46-point underdog UMass at The Big House. Even more interesting will be the starting lineup the following week when Michigan travels to Notre Dame.