Everything will be on the line in 2014 for Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke.
He’s safe for his fourth year, according to Athletic Director Dave Brandon, but anything beyond that will most certainly be determined by how Team 135 performs next fall.
The climb is uphill—an icy hill, that is. And Hoke seems to be wearing skates. Another slide backward will almost certainly be enough for Michigan to reconsider its relationship with its head coach.
The Wolverines are losing seniors on an already ailing offensive line, and they’ll also be forced to live without several key seniors at skill positions.
Hoke has a lot of work to do during the offseason if Michigan is going to rebound from yet another five-loss year and weak finish in the Big Ten.
Losing an MVP is cause for any team to worry, especially when that MVP served as the safety net for his nerve-rackingly inconsistent quarterback.
With a team-high 80 catches, 1,264 yards and nine receiving touchdowns, there’s no questioning Gallon’s value to the offense, or to his team. The senior speedster was the play when no plays were to be made, serving somewhat as another version of Denard Robinson.
Like Robinson, Gallon had the opportunity to stretch the field for a gaudy gain each time he touched the ball. He wasn’t as dynamic as Sholeace—not many players are or ever will be—but Gallon was often the lone bright spot.
Sound familiar? That was Robinson for three years.
|213 (Gallon had 80)||3,025 (Gallon had 1,264)||21 (Gallon had nine)|
Player stats via ESPN profile
The logical successor to Gallon’s role of MVP is Devin Funchess.
But Funchess doesn’t fit the role of replacement at the slot position. At 6’6” and 235 pounds, he’s far too large for that designation. Leave that to Dennis Norfleet or another finesse receiver—that’s not Funchess’ style.
Grade Hoke through his first three seasons...
Funchess was Gardner’s top big-play, back-against-the-wall option. Gallon’s production can’t be denied, but don’t discount Funchess’ ability to essentially guarantee a red-zone touchdown under the right circumstances.
Those circumstances, of course, were often compromised due to shoddy blocking and overthrows.
However, when dialed in, Gardner and Funchess made for a dangerous combo. Conditions were made possible because of the O-Line’s late awakening. Toward the end of the year, the bigs up front finally came around and played like a cohesive unit, allowing for Gardner to further develop with his tight-end-turned-wideout.
Grooming Funchess won’t be a problem. He’s clearly on the path to stardom. The trick for Hoke will be to coach up Funchess, who’ll be a junior, in order for a successful leadership transition to take place.
Hoke has to stress the importance of being mentally stable, in addition to being physically stable. Gardner's going to need a reliable set of hands now that Gallon's taking his with him.
Adios, Taylor Lewan. Good-bye, Michael Schofield.
Hello will-be-sophomores Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden?!
Magnuson could be the one to take over Lewan's coveted left tackle job. Braden could slide into Schofield's former trench. It's early to speculate on the state of next year's line. That'll be a developing story throughout the offseason and into spring.
Mid-section woes were common for Michigan, which used no less than six combinations at right guard, left guard and center. The chaos made for troubling times. Gardner was sacked 34 times, the third-most in the FBS, making him among the most-abused signal-callers in the country.
Getting the line squared away is necessary. Hoke can't go yet another fall with a failing lead front.
The following chart illustrates possibilities and depth on the line.
|RT||Braden (SO)||Logan Tuley-Tillman (SO)/David Dawson (SO)|
|RG||Kalis (SO)||Blake Bars (SO)|
|C||G. Glasgow (JR)||Patrick Kugler (SO)/Jack Miller (JR)|
|LG||Kyle Bosch (SO)||Chris Bryant (JR)/Mason Cole (FR)|
|LT||Magnuson (SO)||Dan Samuelson (SO)|
MGoBlue team roster, MWolverine.com
Trending downward each week, Michigan's pass rush hobbled through 12 games in 2013. There were the occasional solid efforts, but for the most part, the D-Line did little to intimidate the opposition.
Michigan finished ranked No. 7 in the Big Ten with 23 sacks. However, pressure put on passers afforded the secondary to come away with 17 interceptions, the second-most in the conference.
Fueled by Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer, Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's four-man front could experience a boost in 2013. Henry is an up-and-comer, and Pipkins, who tore his ACL in October, should be fully healthy...
Or as close to it as possible.
Defense, obviously, is Mattison's department. But as the head coach, Hoke oversees everything. Plus, he's a defensive-minded guy. Noticeable improvement starting in Week 1 of 2014 is a must. The Wolverines' front four was far too lethargic this past fall.
It can't be easy weathering the "fire coach" talk. Hoke didn't really receive an extreme shelling, but he endured a considerable amount of criticism from fans and media as Team 134 spiraled to a 7-5 finish.
Hoke's staff was questioned, namely offensive coordinator Al Borges, who actually opened up the playbook against Ohio State. Gardner threw for 451 yards and the offense kept pace during the 42-41 loss. It even showed a bit of comeback gusto, as Gardner hooked up with Funchess late in the fourth quarter.
It could have been a blowout for the Buckeyes, who led 35-21 in the third. Borges' play-calling and execution made "The Game" a game. He looked like the offensive coordinator he was while at Auburn.
Keeping recruits close fits under the umbrella of "stay afloat." Hoke recently visited Jabrill Peppers, the gem of Michigan's 2014 class. Peppers, a 5-star prospect out of Paramus Catholic (N.J.), expressed the desire to look elsewhere, despite his verbal commitment to Hoke.
But that was about two weeks ago. Since then, Peppers has issued reassuring tweets to Wolverines fans, so it sounds like he'll likely stay true to Hoke.
That, of course, is the storyline of the offseason.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81