During his career at Michigan, Jordan Kovacs became a fan favorite, an underdog that everyone wanted to see succeed.
From walk-on to All-Big Ten safety, Kovacs embodied the strong work ethic required by Wolverines coach Brady Hoke.
This fall, new candidates will line up for the role of the unsung hero, the working man’s working man. The high-prolifers—such as quarterback Devin Gardner, receiver Jeremy Gallon and left tackle Taylor Lewan—will most certainly live up to their duties.
However, Hoke has others primed to make an impact. Some are younger players who’ve clawed their ways into the rotation, and some are veterans who have the chance to make their presence known during their last year in Ann Arbor.
Underdogs on Offense
Wide Receiver, Anyone?
A year ago, they were names on a depth chart. While preparing for the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, they created a buzz by virtue of strong practices.
Now receivers Amara Darboh, a sophomore, and Jehu Chesson, a redshirt freshman, are getting more attention. Drew Dileo and Gallon will likely be Gardner’s primary targets, along with tight end Devin Funchess. Darboh, though, impressed the Wolverines' staff enough to be considered the No. 3 receiver, per MLive.com’s Kyle Meinke.
Expect the unexpected from Darboh. At 6’2” and 213 pounds, the former 4-star recruit, per Rivals, gives offensive coordinator Al Borges another deep-ball threat to consider.
Chesson is fast. Really fast. With his 4.5-second 40 speed (a popular thought is that he’s a 4.4 guy), he’ll act as a 6’3”, 193-pound dart speeding down the field after catching a pass from Gardner. Combined with Darboh, Michigan’s offense has two big-bodied options to complement Gallon and Dileo, who are a few shades smaller.
O-Line Has Someone
Anchoring the offensive line with Lewan, a fellow senior, will be a monumental task for Michael Schofield. He’s started 10 games at left guard, so, should Lewan fall to injury, Hoke may decide to call upon Schofield.
As the starting right tackle, Schofield probably finds himself in a friendly rivalry with Lewan. Which side will be better: the one protected by an All-American who will certainly be a top pick in the 2014 NFL draft, or the side shielded by a somewhat unheralded player such as Schofield?
For that reason, Schofield’s play may jump up a few levels. If Michigan is to contend for a Big Ten championship, the players up front have to own the line of scrimmage. Schofield will be just as important as Lewan in that respect, minus the duties of covering Gardner’s blind side.
The Wolverines’ rushing attack still needs work. If there are two reliable pillars opening holes—Lewan and Schofield—production should increase. In 2012, Michigan couldn’t find a steady rhythm on the ground.
But with returning experience paired with incoming talent, this fall could be exactly the opposite.
Fitz Toussaint, the No. 1 option, failed to get his wheels moving prior to suffering a horrific leg injury Nov. 17 against Iowa, forcing him to miss the final three games—including two in the regular season and the Outback Bowl. Had the offensive line been stronger, Toussaint, as well as the other running backs, could have established some type of consistency.
It seems that freshmen Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden will get thrown in the middle, along with sophomore center Jack Miller, putting more pressure on Lewan and Schofield to hold steady. Facing that type of challenge could define Schofield’s career.
He has underdog written all over him.
Underdogs on Defense
Will Gordon Leave a Mark?
Cameron Gordon’s time at Michigan has been full of surprises. He was recruited as a wide receiver, moved to linebacker and shifted to safety.
He’s battled back problems, seemingly never getting a break. This year, the former 4-star recruit, per Rivals, has another hurdle to clear: Playing in place of linebacker Jake Ryan, the best defender on the team.
Gordon’s story is ripe with underdog qualities. He’s started just 13 times. Now a senior, he has the potential to end his collegiate days on a high note. It’s more than a test on the field; his senior season will be a test of will.
Who will be the underdog-turned-hero?
It comes down to being remembered. Playing the role of hero while an All American-caliber star recovered from ACL surgery could be Gordon’s legacy.
While at Lexington High in Ohio, Courtney Avery started at quarterback. Now a nickel/cornerback, Avery’s record-tying 83-yard fumble return in 2011 against Minnesota is his four-year highlight.
He’s become a more complete defensive back under the tutelage of coach Curt Mallory and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Like most underdogs, he started low on the depth chart before earning playing time based on hard work.
Michigan had a vulnerable secondary when Avery arrived. But like the unit as a whole, Avery has steadily improved each season. Closing out his tenure as a key senior contributor would be the ideal ending for Avery.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81