Michigan Football: Players Who Must Step Up for Wolverines to Win Big Ten
Heading into the 2013 NCAA football season, Brady Hoke and the Michigan Wolverines are expecting nothing less than a Big Ten title.
It's a goal that's easier said than done—especially with an absolutely loaded Ohio State team that many experts believe will make it to the BCS title game standing in the way.
Obviously, players like quarterback Devin Gardner, offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, running back Fitz Toussaint and safety Thomas Gordon will have a lot to say about how well the Wolverines perform this season.
In order for Michigan to reach its full potential, however, there are a few under-the-radar players who will determine the outcome of this upcoming campaign.
Devin Funchess, Tight End
Every quarterback needs a security blanket for when the going gets tough.
For the Wolverines, Funchess has the talent to not only become a solid go-to receiver for Gardner in the middle of the field but become one of the nation's top playmakers at any position.
At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Funchess isn't just a big body in the middle. In addition to his prototypical size, the tight end possesses elite speed and athleticism.
Will Funchess live up to expectations this year?
He's capable of becoming a big-play machine, as was evidenced last season when he broke out against Air Force with four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown.
However, Funchess' immense potential was rarely again seen after his breakout performance, and he finished the 2012-13 season with just 15 catches. It's worth noting that five of his receptions turned into six points, though, which further illustrates what kind of playmaker he can become.
The Wolverines expect big things from Funchess in his sophomore season. Hoke recently told reporters that the tight end "will be more dangerous this season, noting a big improvement at the line of scrimmage, as shown by the team's official Twitter account:
Hoke: Devin Funchess has grown -- will be more dangerous this season. Now, better at the line of scrimmage. #Team134Camp— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) August 11, 2013
That's bad news for the rest of the Big Ten, but it's terrific news for Michigan.
If Funchess can become a reliable target for Gardner, then the offense will run much smoother than it did a year ago.
Cam Gordon, Linebacker
While Jake Ryan continues to recover from his unfortunate ACL injury, the Wolverines will count on Gordon to pick up the slack in his absence.
One reason to believe this is the fact that Gordon was named as one of four team captains recently, as noted by the team's Twitter account:
According to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com, Gordon was impressive in the team's first scrimmage, making plays "all over the field." Baumgardner also noted that the senior linebacker looks more comfortable this summer than he has since his freshman season when he notched 77 tackles and three interceptions.
With an inexperienced group of defensive linemen taking the field in 2013, it'll be imperative for Gordon and the team's linebackers to play with focus and discipline this season.
Frank Clark, Defensive End
Dominant defenses almost always feature stars on the defensive front, and Michigan will be counting on Clark to become such a player this year.
The junior pass-rusher hasn't yet lived up to his potential, but the team's coaching staff is extremely high on his potential to become a human wrecking ball this season against opposing offenses.
A former safety, Clark, now at 275 pounds (or so) of pure muscle still runs like he did when he showed up on campus at 217 pounds, according to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who spoke to reporters about his prized pupil, via Baumgardner:
He's running 40 yards down the field, and the first thing, you look up and see a 275-pound rush end—that used to be 217 pounds when he got here—running with the guy. He's not chasing him, he's getting up there with him.
He's so much stronger. Frank Clark was a safety, outside linebacker, out of (high school) at 217 pounds. Now, he's a rush for his third year at (273) pounds...(He's a) guy that I've noticed noticeable strength gains (with).
The freakish athlete has reportedly been clocked running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, as noted by Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, and his strength is such that he's being moved all over the line during recent practices, as noted by MLive.com's Twitter account:
Taylor Lewan said Frank Clark ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash this offseason. Frank Clark weighs 277 pounds.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) July 25, 2013
Frank Clark, Blake Countess among Michigan defenders getting practice time at multiple spots http://t.co/3SubpHfjCz— wolverines (@wolverines) August 22, 2013
Based on potential alone, Clark should dial up at least 10 sacks this season.
He'll need to do so if Michigan's defense has any chance of shutting down Braxton Miller and the offense of Ohio State when the two teams meet up in the final game of the regular season—a contest that could determine the winner of the Big Ten.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78
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