Michigan heads into its spring game with mixed expectations looking ahead to next season. The diehard fans who pack Michigan Stadium to watch the high-profile practice are likely expecting the Wolverines to bounce back, but the mainstream view is more conservative.
Last season, they were among the top teams in the country (No. 8 in both preseason polls) and were receiving a lot of early hype. They went on to win just eight games and ended on a low note with losses to Ohio State and, in the Outback Bowl, South Carolina.
The road to redemption continues at Saturday's spring game. Let's analyze three players Brady Hoke and his coaching staff will be watching closely to see what type of progress has been made. It will also show how much work is left to do before the new season begins.
How confident are you that Gardner will improve in 2013?
Gardner did a solid job after taking over for Denard Robinson last season. He limited his turnovers, which was one of the biggest issues with Robinson, and showed enough promise to think he could make major strides in a full season under center.
It won't be an exact replica of what he'll face come August. Michigan is forcing its quarterbacks to wear no-contact jerseys during spring due to an injury to backup Russell Bellomy, reports Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports. The team can't afford to lose another player at the position.
Still, there's little doubt about Gardner's ability to evade the pass rush. The biggest key for him is improving his accuracy. If he can improve on his 60 percent completion rate from last season, the Wolverines' offense has the tools to make major strides.
Rawls remains an intriguing player. He possesses tremendous natural power and had a strong spring last year. Once the season started, however, he faded into the background behind Fitz Toussaint. He finished with 57 carries for 242 yards and four touchdowns.
The eventual arrival of highly-ranked recruit Derrick Green is going to cause a logjam in the Michigan backfield. So the spring game serves as a golden opportunity for Rawls to prove he deserves to make a bigger impact next season.
His strength means he should already be slated to see the field in short-yardage situations. On Saturday, Rawls needs to display a little more versatility, whether it's added elusiveness or making plays out of the backfield, to earn more looks comes summer.
A lot has been made about the loss of linebacker Jake Ryan and rightfully so. He was a major piece of the Michigan defense, but the Wolverines have several players capable of stepping up to fill the void. Beyer is one of them.
Beyer is a natural strong-side linebacker and will return to that position, at least until Ryan is fit to return, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. His previous experience on the outside should allow for a pretty smooth transition.
The quicker Beyer shows he's comfortable at the linebacker level, the better his chances of cracking the starting lineup. The coaching staff will be looking for quick breaks off the edge, helping to contain the run and covering in space, when necessary.