A sure highlight of the offseason, the Michigan Wolverines are most likely looking straight ahead to National Signing Day.
Never mind the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 vs. Kansas State—blazing-hot sauce doesn’t smell quite like Pasadena Roses. Win or lose, it’ll just go down as another game, not one of championship caliber.
Maybe next year.
But before coach Brady Hoke can plan for the fall of 2014, he must first tie up loose ends on Feb. 5 by signing his stellar class of commitments.
What are the most important questions heading into NSD?
Depth at quarterback will be addressed by the addition of Wilton Speight, a 6’6”, 220-pound pro-styler who has Peyton Manning size and a skyscraper-high ceiling of potential. The Collegiate (Va.) star is set to join Derrick Green, a sophomore-to-be who also fine-tuned his skills in Richmond, giving the Wolverines an adequate quarterback-running back combo for the future.
Throw in Shane Morris, who’ll be a sophomore, and Devin Gardner, who’ll be a senior, and the offense will have no less than three options for next fall. Morris and Gardner will likely duke it out for the top spot, but don’t forget about Speight—he could make things interesting come time for camp.
In essence, National Signing Day is the draft for Hoke—minus the agents and the players’ lack of having a choice in destination, of course. The point of signing the top talents available is to fill internal roster needs.
Thus far, Hoke has a great track record of producing top-10 recruiting classes. Wolverines fans are still waiting to see what that talent does, but that’s another story.
Depth and talent usage are just two areas that need attention.
Grip on Peppers?
Report: Visits elsewhere 'very doubtful' for Michigan commit Jabrill Peppers http://t.co/kFBYrvLqyK— Wolverines News (@WolverinesMLive) December 15, 2013
Jabrill Peppers’ relationship with Michigan is the storyline of the offseason. That won’t change until Feb. 5—the day Peppers, for Hoke’s sake, chooses the Wolverines over other suitors.
Initially, Peppers was classified as an athlete and defensive back by 247Sports, which now tags Peppers as an athlete and running back.
It’s not clear whether or not Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges view Peppers as a ball-carrier—but why not?! Team 134 certainly had issues running the ball; it only picked up the pace during the final weeks of 2013, in which Green and DeVeon Smith, also a freshman, injected a breath of fresh air into the huddle.
With athleticism teeming from his pores, Peppers will instantly add a level of skill to any position he undertakes in Ann Arbor. First and foremost, he’s a defensive back. Michigan’s secondary could use help, so he fits there.
But what about in the backfield? What about as a return man? A wideout?
Peppers hasn’t been shy about his desires and expectations when it comes to college football. He may be a bit over the top in some cases, namely the Charles Woodson comment, but his talent can’t be denied—he’s absolutely the cornerstone of the 2014 haul.
Keeping Peppers close should be Hoke’s sole mission in life. Forget wings, carrot slivers and logs of celery—it’s all about the Peppers.
Will Recruits Strengthen D-Line?
Mone, a husky, 6’4”, 338-pound defensive tackle, carries a 4-star rating from 247Sports. The Salt Lake City Highland senior is the No. 4-ranked DT of 2014 and, due to stature, has lofty goals to reach. He has a loose connection to Greg Mattison, who’s renowned for his four-man front.
Mone is a match, and he attended the same high school as Baltimore Ravens DT Haloti Ngata, who was coached in the NFL by Mattison.
Hoke recently shared a meal with the Mone family, which was a promising sign. Keeping tabs is the name of the game.
According to NCAA.com, the Wolverines ranked an embarrassing No. 78 in terms of sacks per game, averaging just 1.69 per outing (22 on the year). Mone may not be a sack artist, but he’s certainly capable of separating offensive lines so that linebackers and ends can take down quarterbacks.
Marshall, coincidentally enough, is an end who excels at compromising quarterbacks. The 6’3”, 225-pound Southfield (Mich.) berserker has a 4-star rating and is ranked as the No. 10 wideside DE of his class.
Mattison has yet to have a true bull-rushing prodigy. Assuming Ondre Pipkins, who tore his ACL in October, returns healthy, Mattison will have enough options this fall to assemble a legitimately threatening pass-rush corps.
As a junior, Frank Clark, an end, led the team with 12 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Similar contributions will be necessary next year. Despite a touted offseason, Clark and Jibreel Black failed to wreak havoc on the Big Ten. Black, a senior, started in each game but tallied just 2.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss.
Between the two, the conservative preseason prediction for the pair was around 10 sacks and 25 TFL. Was that too much to ask for? No, not at all. Those weren’t astronomical numbers to forecast, just the solid would-be stats of a like-talented tandem.
Mone and Marshall could evolve into a 10-and-25 duo. Hoke needs to remind them that they’re part of the master plan. They’re ideal for Mattison’s defense and embody the type of defenders that the Wolverines need to advance up the Big Ten ladder.
Team 134 exhibited traits of a train wreck. It got to the point where watching Michigan football was in the same league as cruel and unusual punishment. Watching Gardner get mercilessly charged and drilled got old.
Watching the line fold under pressure, snap after snap, quickly grew tiring.
There was little to no continuity on the offensive line. But there were plenty of “we’re learning” excuses. Results didn’t follow, so the talk can be filed under “empty promises.” A weak line was the demise of Michigan this past season. Clearly overmatched, Hoke should have realized that his first line of defense was his biggest liability.
Gardner was sacked 34 times, the third-most in the FBS—it’s a statistic that just won’t go away. It’s worth mentioning on a regular basis because of the “wow” factor—as in “Wow, Michigan really let that happen?”
Yes. It happened. And it can’t be repeated.
In order to avoid another mess next year, Hoke and his staff must dedicate as much time allowable by the NCAA to pound the fundamentals into their linemen’s heads. Taylor Lewan won’t be there next year to be the line’s spokesman, and Hoke won’t have Michael Schofield, who also graduates this year.
That leaves a young mid-section that didn’t hold up too well (see the official Week 14 depth chart, via MGoBlue).
Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, Erik Magnuson and Chris Bryant, along with Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch, have more film to watch and more reps to take before they’re considered as the backbone of the offense.
Getting that properly aligned is another head-scratcher that needs to be resolved.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81