Big things were expected out of the Michigan Wolverines last season after a BCS trip in 2011, and although Michigan ultimately fell short of returning to a BCS bowl, its fans have high hopes once again this year. The Wolverines didn't lose much from last year's 8-5 squad, so an improvement of some kind seems inevitable.
The one major loss is that of quarterback Denard Robinson, but Devin Gardner became the starter late in the season, and showed some flashes of brilliance. If he can continue his upward trend, the Wolverines will be in good shape. They will need to get some increased production from several players on both sides of the ball, however.
Gardner seems to be the player that everyone is talking about, but Michigan will need more than Gardner to contend for a Big Ten title as well as a BCS bowl berth. Here are three X-factors who can potentially take the Wolverines to the next level during the 2013 campaign.
With second-leading receiver Roy Roundtree having graduated, there is a major hole in the Michigan offense. Leading receiver Jeremy Gallon is still in the fold, but he won't be able to do it all on his own. With that in mind, somebody will have to step up. There are a number of different pass-catchers who could potentially emerge as a safety blanket for Gardner over the course of the season, but sophomore tight end Devin Funchess seems poised for a breakout more so than anyone else.
Funchess only had 15 catches as a freshman last season, but he made them count as he averaged nearly 16 yards per reception for 234 yards and hauled in five touchdowns. Funchess received plenty of accolades for his impressive debut season as he was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America Team, and he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention. Based on that, BTN.com senior editor Brent Yarina believes that Funchess will be the biggest breakout star in the Big Ten this year.
Gardner is still somewhat inexperienced at quarterback, so Funchess could very well be his best friend out on the field. At 6'5" and 235 lbs., Funchess is a big, reliable target who should be one of Gardner's favorites in the red zone especially. The Michigan offense will go through a transitional period this season in all likelihood, but if Funchess is able to step up, he will make life much easier for Gardner and everyone else involved with the Wolverines' offense.
The Michigan defense has been significantly better since Brady Hoke took over as head coach a couple seasons ago, and it could potentially get even better now that some of Hoke's recruits are ready to take on bigger roles. One rising star to watch on defense is junior defensive end Frank Clark. While Clark put up modest statistics last season with 25 tackles, two sacks and nine tackles for loss, all signs point to a possible breakout. According to FOX Sports Detroit, Clark has gained 60 lbs. of muscle in two years at Michigan, so it's safe to say that he's a physical freak.
Clark largely played as a reserve last season; however, he is in line to start this season, so a huge leap in sacks wouldn't be surprising. According to Dave Hogg of FOX Sports Detroit, Clark has not lost any of his speed and explosiveness. When he came to Michigan, he was just 210 lbs., but now he weighs in at 273 lbs., and he still runs the 40-yard dash in an incredible 4.5 seconds. That type of combination is sure to give Big Ten offensive tackles nightmares.
With mobile quarterbacks such as Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez running wild in the Big Ten, a highly athletic pass-rusher like Clark is paramount for Michigan. Defense is often the name of the game in the Big Ten as there are always low-scoring, late-season battles, and Clark could potentially be the difference between a win and a loss on a couple occasions for the Wolverines this season.
Michigan's leading rusher for the past couple seasons has been Denard Robinson, but with the star quarterback now in the NFL, the Wolverines will need to replace his production in the running game. While Gardner has some mobility as evidenced by his seven rushing touchdowns last season, he had just 101 yards on the ground. Gardner is a big quarterback who can excel in short-yardage situations, but he isn't going to run a lot between the 20s like Robinson did. With that in mind, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint must be far more effective this season.
Toussaint was a huge contributor during Michigan's magical 2011 season as he rushed for 1,041 yards while scoring 10 total touchdowns. While Toussaint missed three games last season, his production was nowhere near what he accomplished in 2011. Toussaint rushed for just over 500 yards and scored six total touchdowns. He also averaged a mere four yards per carry after racking up 5.6 yards per rush one year earlier. Despite Toussaint's struggles in 2012, he is expected to start this season, according to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com.
Gardner has plenty of ability, but he can't do it all on his own. His receiving corps is inexperienced, and he absolutely needs Toussaint to take some pressure off his shoulders. Toussaint seemed to lose much of his explosiveness last season, but that may have had something to do with injuries slowing him down. If Toussaint can return to 2011 form, the Wolverines will be a force to be reckoned with.
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