The consensus among college football prognosticators appears to be that the Ohio State Buckeyes will run away with the Big Ten this season, but the Michigan Wolverines figure to have a say in how things play out as well.
Michigan's 2012 campaign was somewhat disappointing, but a bounce-back year is entirely possible for the No. 17-ranked Wolverines.
In order for that to happen, though, Michigan's senior leaders must step up in a big way.
The loss of quarterback Denard Robinson to the NFL will definitely hurt from an on-field perspective and his departure leaves a sizable leadership void, too. Even so, the Wolverines should have enough motivating forces on the team to have a strong season.
Here are three senior leaders in particular who must make their presences felt this season in order for Michigan to contend for a Big Ten title and BCS bowl berth.
While the play of quarterback Devin Gardner will be very important in terms of Michigan's success this season, senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon can help him immensely as well in that regard.
Gallon took a big step forward last season, as he developed into Michigan's go-to receiver. Gallon finished with 49 catches for 829 yards and four touchdowns. He'll need to be even better this year. With Roy Roundtree having graduated, Gallon is basically the only game in town for Gardner.
Gallon is exactly the type of player who can energize a team, as he performs well beyond his physical limitations. At just 5'8" and 187 pounds, Gallon is a diminutive receiver, to say the least, but he became a big-play threat last season when he averaged nearly 17 yards per catch.
Gallon endeared himself so much to his teammates, coaches and fans last year that he has been given the honor of wearing Desmond Howard's No. 21 jersey in 2013, according to Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.:
Jeremy Gallon to wear the @desmondhoward No. 21 jersey this year (not a surprise). Avery to wear No. 11 (Wistert) Funchess No. 87 (Kramer).— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) August 27, 2013
That says a lot about how important Gallon is to the team. It takes a special player to represent that number. Although all eyes will be on Gardner and even running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to a certain degree, Gallon will have to rally the troops more often than not. If Gardner has a big year, as many are anticipating, there is no question that a sizable increase in Gallon's production will coincide with it.
It seems like offensive linemen aren't talked about much at the college football level, as they aren't really noticed unless they're making mistakes. The very best linemen are basically invisible and that often seems to be the case with Taylor Lewan.
Michigan's left tackle has developed into one of the best offensive linemen in college football, but he rarely receives the credit he deserves. Left tackles are always of the utmost importance, but Lewan will have even more on his plate than usual this year.
As already discussed, Gardner's play is probably the biggest key to Michigan's success this season. In order for him to play well, though, he must remain upright. Lewan had a challenging job of blocking for Robinson last season since he never quite knew what his quarterback was going to do.
Gardner is mobile in his own right, but he's far more likely to remain stationary, so Lewan will have to be a brick wall protecting Gardner's blindside. The coaches clearly believe in him, as Lewan was named a team captain, according to Sam Webb of WTKA-AM in Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Taylor Lewan: being named captain "is the greatest honor I've ever received"— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) August 26, 2013
Lewan was able to handle South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in this year's Outback Bowl, so it stands to reason that there's nothing he can't do. That type of effort elevates the entire team, so even though casual fans may not necessarily fully understand what Lewan is able to do out on the field, his teammates and coaches certainly do.
Michigan's defense may be lacking in terms of big-name star power to a certain extent this season, but it more than makes up for that with non-stop effort and heart.
It can easily be argued that the heart and soul of that defense is senior safety Thomas Gordon.
While he isn't a big-play guy per se, Gordon does all the little things needed to win games. Gordon really came into his own last season when he racked up 81 tackles from the strong safety position along with two interceptions.
Which senior leader will be the biggest key to Michigan's season?
Safety Jordan Kovacs was viewed as Michigan's defensive spirit for the past few seasons, but now that he has moved on to the NFL, Gordon has assumed that role. Even if he isn't the most naturally gifted athlete on the team or the most-productive player statistically, he will prove to be invaluable.
The Wolverines won't have to deal with many elite quarterbacks this season, but they will be tasked with shutting down some premier rushing attacks and that is where Gordon thrives.
Gordon is especially good when it comes to run support, so he'll be a key player for the Michigan defense all season long. There isn't as much attention being paid to the Michigan defense as its offense heading into the season, but if Gordon is able to improve upon his showing from last season, the Wolverines' defense has a chance to be very solid.
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