The Michigan Wolverines are in the midst of a resurgence in the Brady Hoke era. This could be the year they finally break through the barrier to regain their dominance in the Big Ten.
But in order to usurp the rival Ohio State Buckeyes and remain ahead of the curve—and ahead of teams like Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska—Hoke needs his best offensive weapons to step up in a big way.
Denard Robinson departed for the NFL draft this offseason, and with his exit, Michigan now boasts a well-defined depth chart of offensive players ready to make up for the production that left with him.
Quarterback Devin Gardner is in for a massive season at the helm of the offense, but he’ll need some help along the way.
Let’s take a look at Gardner’s 2013 prospects, as well as those of his top receiving targets and the man tasked with anchoring the running game behind Gardner.
Wide receiver may be an area of concern this season as Michigan looks to some fresh faces to pick up the pace, but there’s no denying who will be Gardner’s top target in 2013.
Jeremy Gallon caught 49 passes for 829 yards and four touchdowns last season, leading the team in each of the first two categories. Only Devin Funchess caught more touchdowns last season (five), but he did so as primarily a red-zone target, having recorded just 15 receptions on the year.
Gallon has the speed and quickness to make a sizable impact from anywhere on the field, and after averaging 16.9 yards per catch last season, he’s also in line to be Gardner’s top deep threat in 2013.
With Robinson under center, Gallon’s talents were largely masked by the dual-threat quarterback’s inability to get the ball downfield consistently. That all changed after Gardner took over.
Gallon recorded 31 catches for 511 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s final five games of the season, proving he is more than capable of shouldering the load as the Wolverines’ top receiving threat. And with a full offseason to work with Gardner, the duo should be as formidable as any in the Big Ten this season.
Projection: 68 receptions, 1,075 yards, eight touchdowns
It’s hard to get a good read on what Michigan’s running game will look like this season. Gardner is fully capable of doing damage with his legs, but Hoke will likely rely on his signal-caller less as a scrambling threat and more as a pro-style passer, especially with so many unproven players behind Gardner on the depth chart.
As such, Fitzgerald Toussaint will be expected to shoulder a heavy workload out of the backfield in 2013. The only question is his health.
Toussaint broke his left tibia on November 17 and missed the rest of the season as a result. He’s had plenty of time to recover from that injury, but a broken leg isn’t exactly an easy ailment from which to return.
Michigan will have some options should its No. 1 rusher not make a full recovery, but experience at the position is severely limited. As is the case with their receiving corps, the Wolverines have some questions to answer at running back.
But if Toussaint is healthy, he’ll have the reins in the backfield. In Hoke’s pro-style offense, experience is as much a factor as anything else, especially in the pass-protection facet of the game.
Still, Toussaint struggled at times last season (514 yards, five touchdowns in 10 games) and may not be 100 percent after his injury. Expectations for his 2013 production should be tempered at this point.
Projection: 185 carries, 820 yards, seven touchdowns
If nothing else, the best rivalry game in football is going to be a fun game to watch.
When Michigan and Ohio State square off, two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation are going to have a chance to shine. And if all goes according to plan, that game could also be a highlight for the pursuit of a Heisman Trophy for either Gardner or Braxton Miller.
Before getting to that point, however, Gardner is going to have to prove he has what it takes to lead a winning football team to a potential Big Ten title.
Gardner was fantastic in the final five games of Michigan’s 2012 schedule, throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. To take nothing away from Robinson’s versatility under center, Gardner was simply a much better quarterback.
The strong-armed signal-caller won’t be questioning his role entering the 2013 season. Michigan’s pursuit of a Big Ten title starts and ends with Gardner, and if last season was any indication, he’ll be up for the task.
Again, Michigan’s receiving corps and running game are big question marks at this point, but Gardner can negate both of those issues with a tremendous 2013 campaign—something Wolverines fans should anticipate with cautious optimism as the season draws near.
Projection: 2,630 passing yards, 532 rushing yards, 34 total touchdowns