Devin Gardner is the face of the Michigan football program in 2013, but he isn't even the best player on his team.
Can Michigan win first place in the Big Ten in 2013?
The Big Ten is going to be a competitive conference this upcoming season. Brady Hoke's team only won eight games last year, but expectations heading into the 2013 season are high. Many fans believe Michigan has a legitimate shot at winning the conference.
If the Wolverines want a chance at finishing in first place over Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, Gardner needs to play well enough to receive Heisman consideration. That said, there are a few other players who must also have monstrous 2013 campaigns in order to achieve that goal, too.
Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle
Lewan stunned the NFL draft community when he decided to stay in school for his senior season.
If he had decided to head to the NFL, it's likely Lewan would have been a top-10 pick. He would have at least been picked at No. 11 by the San Diego Chargers instead of right tackle D.J. Fluker.
Ryan McCrystal of DraftAce.com gave Lewan high marks after last year:
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan - Might have been best LT in '13 class. Awesome combo of athleticism, strength, tenacity. Needs to stay low.— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) April 29, 2013
An athletic, hard-working offensive tackle who has spent the majority of his career paving massive running lanes for Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint and the rest of the team's running backs, Lewan will now have a chance to prove his worth as a true left tackle as he protects Gardner's blind side in 2013.
If Gardner should go down with an injury because Lewan failed to protect him, Michigan's season will be lost.
Frank Clark, Defensive End
There aren't many 277-pound defensive ends floating around in college who used to be safeties.
That said, there aren't many players in college football like Clark—a former safety turned linebacker turned pass-rushing defensive end in 2013.
According to Andy Staples of SI.com in his latest Top 25 column, Clark hasn't lost the speed he had when he was covering wide receivers in the secondary:
The emergence of Clark—a 277-pounder who teammates say runs as fast as a receiver—should take some pressure off a defense reeling from the knee injury linebacker Jake Ryan suffered in spring practice.
Hoke and his staff are counting on Clark to make a huge impact as the team's weak-side defensive end. Starting right tackle Michael Schofield believes Clark will be the team's top pass-rusher in 2013, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, and all reports indicate Clark has held his own against Schofield and Lewan during practice.
Perhaps Chris Balas of TheWolverine.com said it best:
Word association for the Michigan players: Frank Clark = Freak.— Chris Balas (@Balas_Wolverine) April 13, 2013
Now it's time for this freak to put the entire package together for a legendary season in 2013.
Devin Funchess, Tight End
Funchess is the biggest key to whether or not Gardner has a breakout year.
A big, long, athletic tight end with the size and speed NFL teams covet, Funchess disappeared in 2012 after a monster showing in the team's first game of the season.
Funchess isn't going to excel as an in-line blocker as much as players like A.J. Williams. That said, with Gardner starting at quarterback this year, he'll be utilized much more like an H-back/slot receiver who moves around on offense and creates mismatches.
In his first game last year, that's exactly what happened on his touchdown grab, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke:
Devin Funchess with the best catch by a Michigan player this year. And kudos to Denard for finding the TE/CB mismatch. Michigan up 14-3— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) September 8, 2012
Funchess and Gardner will need to take advantage of his abilities to beat linebackers and safeties with regularity in 2013 for Michigan's offense to be the best it can be.