Walking down the hallowed hall of The Big House, it's almost impossible for any player not to feel the ghost of Denard Robinson.
One of the most decorated players in the school's history, Robinson's name appears 158 times in the Michigan record books—either as an all-time leader or somewhere among the leaders. His 2010 season was one of the best non-Heisman years in recent memory, wherein he set an NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback and became the first player in history to rush and pass for more than 1,500 yards.
Robinson is a legend in a program that reserves that adjective only for the all-time greats. Robinson is also a Jacksonville Jaguar now. He's one of 10 starters who the Wolverines will attempt to replace in 2013, as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2012 campaign.
Michigan, coming off an 11-2 season and returning a good deal of its starters, finished a frustrating 8-5 last season in Brady Hoke's second year wearing the maize and blue. Where his first go-around led to a Sugar Bowl championship and a bevy of honors, his second finished with consecutive losses and the near-decapitation of one of his players by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Though still among the nation's most talented teams, Michigan was done in by a myriad of injuries—most specifically to Robinson. The dual-threat quarterback was rendered unable to throw by an elbow injury, forcing him to miss two games and only sporadically appear in others. A major factor in Michigan's regression in 2012, Robinson's injury may have been a blessing in disguise for this year's bunch.
It was in that time the Wolverines found the man who fans hope will fill Robinson's massive shoe(laces).
Converted back over to quarterback after a stint at receiver, Devin Gardner was a revelation over the final five games of last season. The redshirt junior, who was granted an extra year of eligibility this spring for medical hardship, threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions, leading Michigan to three straight wins before the late downfall.
Gardner should vastly improve with a full offseason to work on getting better under center. His presence will make losing Robinson a net-push through the air, especially considering the latter's junior and senior seasons were mired with interception issues. With Taylor Lewan surprisingly eschewing the NFL draft to return for his senior season, Gardner should have top-notch protection and be among the best passers in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines' offensive success, however, is predicated on their ability to replace Robinson on the ground. Shoelace rushed for 1,266 yards and seven touchdowns despite those injury issues, dwarfing the production of any other Wolverines rusher.
While Gardner can run—he was converted to receiver, after all—we know for a near fact he probably won't sniff half those numbers. He rushed for only 101 yards last season, though it's fair to point out he did have five touchdowns, and Robinson sometimes came in on Wildcat sets.
But Gardner's preferred method of quarterbacking seems to come inside the pocket. He likes using his feet as a tool to buy time and scramble for extra yards rather than going on a ton of designed runs.
And that's just fine with the coaching staff. Hoke has long been a proponent of more pro stylings he ran at Ball State and San Diego State, and it seems like the Wolverines have already gone about implementing more of those looks.
According to Dustin Hockensmith of PennLive.com, Lewan believes Gardner's presence will be a good fit for the coaching staff:
We’re a lot more under center. We’ll still have spread schemes here and there, but I think we’re doing what these coaches want to do, in the fact they want to run a pro-style offense.
Hoke corroborated those quotes at Big Ten media days late last month. The Michigan coach acknowledged you'll see Gardner under center more in 2013 but also made it clear there would be no abandonment of the spread, per
Devin was recruited to run the spread. Philosophically, we’ll be much more downhill running team. Philosophically, we’ll be under center more. But the spread will still be in place, keeping some people honest. So that will still be part of it.
While that's a relief to those who were afraid Michigan would start embodying the boring, slow tactics that often draw ire from Big Ten detractors, having "some" spread doesn't suddenly fix a running game. Gardner might be a more polished passer, but Denard Robinson was a runner he is not. You don't replace the quarterback version of Mike Hart overnight.
The Wolverines ranked No. 41 nationally in rushing but were far more efficient than that lets on. Football Outsiders' S&P rankings measured Michigan as the 14th-best running team in the nation in 2012, a ranking that would have been higher had Robinson been in the lineup. They had ranked fourth a year prior.
The problem for Michigan is that this team has no ready-made replacement in that category.
Incumbent starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint returns for his senior season but is coming off a nightmarish junior season. He was suspended for the opener for a DUI charge, and it seems that one Saturday off left him a shell of himself. A season after busting out for over 1,000 yards and averaging 5.6 yards per carry, Toussaint's 2012 campaign ended with less than half his total from a year prior and a broken leg.
He just finally returned to contact drills Saturday (h/t Kyle Austin of AnnArbor.com). There is no guarantee that he'll return to the starting post—or any guarantees whatsoever about the position. Here is Hoke talking about his running back situation earlier this month, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com:
Fitz comes back, we've got some guys (who are younger), Drake Johnson's a guy we redshirted who we really liked during bowl practice. Justice Hayes had a tremendous spring. ... (True freshman) Derrick Green's a young man who we signed a year ago, and (classmate) DeVeon Smith are guys who we think are great football players.
That's a lot of names. And Hoke doesn't even mention Thomas Rawls, who was the team's third-leading rusher last season. The running back depth chart, while filled with players who have talent, is a borderline mess at this point. Hoke will have a ton of work to do over the next fortnight to figure out who offensive coordinator Al Borges will be making his workhorse.
The answer to that position battle may define Michigan's season. The not-so-secret secret in Ann Arbor is that Michigan needs a very good, if not elite, running game.
Gardner will be just fine this season under center, but he's not going to start flinging the ball around like Geno Smith or Matt Barkley. The reality is that Gardner has a five-game sample of being a solid quarterback, but no one really knows whether he's merely above-average or on the verge of something special.
For a team with hopes of unseating rival Ohio State, that's an awfully big question to leave lingering this close to the season.
Finding balance is the only way this team can guarantee offensive success. With a solid offensive line led by Lewan and a more downhill approach to running the football, the possibility is there. But until the coaching staff figures out how to find consistency on the ground, it's fair to have skepticism about Michigan returning to BCS bowl contention this season.
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