Michigan Football: Improvements Wolverines Must Make After Spring Game
The Michigan football program has a chance to greatly improve upon last year's disappointing 8-5 record in 2013, but a few bugs must be worked out before the season begins.
This program is on its way up, according to many experts. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach recently ranked the Wolverines No. 9 in his latest top 25—a huge step in a positive direction from where this team was less than a year ago.
Brady Hoke and his staff have been working diligently with their players to improve on both sides of the ball, and from what we saw at the spring game, this team is on the right track.
Quarterback Devin Gardner looks ready to break out with a huge season. His emergence as a big-time playmaker has everything to do with Schlabach's reasoning for placing the Wolverines as high on his rankings as he did.
He had a nice showing at the spring game, according to Big Ten Football on Twitter:
MICH Spring Game: QB Devin Gardner completed 11-of-16 passes for 142 yards and 1 TD; RB Thomas Rawls had a 14-yard TD run.— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) April 14, 2013
That said, this team isn't ready for prime time just yet, and it will need to improve in a few key areas before the real action begins later this year.
Keeping Gardner healthy will be a top priority for the Wolverines in 2013—especially after Russell Bellomy suffered an ACL injury that will keep him out for the season. Brian Cleary isn't a viable replacement, and the only chance this team has of making noise in the postseason is if Gardner is playing.
Aside from Taylor Lewan, the offensive linemen on this team are young and inexperienced. Guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis have looked good at times, but the youngsters have also struggled against the team's defensive linemen during drills, according to MLive.com's Kyle Meinke.
The offensive line must become a cohesive unit before the season begins, or Gardner may not have enough time to make big plays in the passing game.
Fitz Toussaint's broken leg should have given one of the team's other running backs a chance to impress coaches this spring, but that's not yet happened.
Nobody has emerged as the team's featured running back in his stead (h/t Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), and the offense won't function properly without a consistent rushing attack.
Will Toussaint be able to come back and duplicate his 2012 success?
Of the four running backs who have been fighting for a chance to shine—Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, Drake Johnson and Dennis Norfleet—you'd think at least one would have emerged as a go-to guy for this offense by now.
But it hasn't yet happened.
At this point, it seems safe to say Toussaint will be handed the starting duties once he's healthy, which isn't a huge mark in the plus column for this team. Competition breeds success, and though Toussaint is certainly worthy of starting, it would have been nice to see him get pushed by one of the young guns this summer.
Tight End Production
Devin Funchess will need to be a big part of the Wolverines' offensive attack this year if Gardner is going to reach his full potential.
Funchess is a big, athletic tight end with the raw speed to stretch the field. If he can tap into his potential and break through with a big year, it will significantly affect this team's ability to score points.
Tight ends are key players in a pro-style offense, but Funchess and Gardner failed to develop chemistry last year. After getting off to a hot start in the beginning of the year, Funchess caught just seven passes in the team's final seven games—five of which Gardner started.
These two seemed to have a nice rapport at the spring game, connecting on a gorgeous 35-yard pass over the middle. They'll need to continue working on forging this relationship because Gardner will struggle in 2013 without a reliable target in the middle of the field.
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