Michigan football will go as far as Devin Gardner takes it in 2013, and expectations are as high for the program this season as they've been in years.
Gardner, as the team's quarterback, is certainly the most important single player on Brady Hoke's roster this season. That said, he's not the only key player who will determine whether the Wolverines succeed or fail.
Football is certainly a team sport, and it takes a team-wide effort to consistently win games. That said, these upcoming players will shape Michigan's fortunes positively or negatively, depending on how they play in 2013.
Devin Gardner, Quarterback
One of the biggest reasons so many analysts are high on Michigan as a legitimate challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten is that Gardner is expected to break out in a big way in his senior season.
Fox Sports recently revealed that Gardner was its top choice as the No. 1 breakout player in college football—a declaration Michigan was all too happy to share:
In a recent discussion with ESPN's Joe Schad, Gardner compared himself to Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers:
Yes, expectations are indeed high for Gardner and the Wolverines.
And if he lives up to them, Michigan has a chance to not only win the Big Ten over Ohio State, but it could also legitimately challenge the top teams in the SEC for the national championship.
On the other hand, should Gardner struggle throughout the 2013 season, Michigan could easily replicate its 8-5 record from last year.
No pressure, right?
Taylor Lewan, Left Tackle
Truthfully, it would't be wrong to say that the team's entire offensive line must have a stellar year for Michigan to succeed. That said, Lewan is unquestionably the leader of this group, and the senior left tackle will be responsible for the health and well-being of Gardner as his blindside protector.
Lewan is one of the top offensive linemen in the country, and he has the potential to become the first offensive tackle selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. NFL.com's Gil Brandt has him as his No. 2 senior tackle behind Jake Matthews, and he'll likely be one of the top picks in the draft:
He's quick, athletic, strong at the point of attack and agile enough to get out in front of screen passes and toss-sweeps to his side of the field.
All of his talent will mean absolutely nothing, however, if Lewan and his teammates allow another incident like the one that occurred last year when Jadeveon Clowney was allowed to run unblocked into the backfield to destroy Vincent Smith.
Should Gardner get hit like Smith did on that play, the team's season could go down the tubes in a heartbeat. If Gardner has time to throw and doesn't suffer an injury, however, then Michigan could shock the world in 2013.
Frank Clark, Defensive End
Michigan has struggled to bring consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks for the past few years. Last year, linebacker Jake Ryan led the team in sacks with just 4.5, and Michigan only generated 22 total sacks (No. 78 in the nation).
This lack of production from the team's pass-rushers was a big reason why Michigan allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60 percent of passes and only intercepted seven passes all year long.
Pressure forces turnovers, and Michigan's defense struggled to produce both last year.
Clark is a player who could make a significant difference in 2013.
Taylor Lewan has been talking him up of late, according to Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News, who reports Clark sometimes beats Lewan in one-on-one drills: "Frank has done some unbelievable things athletically," Lewan said. "I'm excited for him this season. I think no doubt in my mind he's an All-Big Ten guy, if not more."
Should Clark come through in a big way and turn his freakish athleticism into double-digit sacks, Michigan's defense will be in great shape to shut down the high-powered offense of Ohio State—among others.
Thomas Gordon, Safety
Dominant defenses typically feature a strong pass-rushing component and a solid secondary. If Clark and his teammates can generate pressure up front, Gordon could have a huge season from his safety spot.
Gordon is unquestionably the leader of the team's secondary, and with Jake Ryan out with an ACL injury, his leadership will be even more valuable to Michigan in the early part of the season.
But leadership isn't the only thing Michigan needs from Gordon.
He must have a stellar year on the back end in order for the Wolverines to win the Big Ten. Last year, Gordon tallied 81 total tackles, one sack, two interceptions and four passes defended from his free safety spot.
Gordon is likely moving to play on the strong side in 2013, where his strong tackling and nose for the ball will be even more evident.
Should he have a stellar season, Michigan's secondary will be rock solid. Should he struggle, then so will the secondary.
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