It wasn’t supposed be this way. After Brady Hoke’s first season in Ann Arbor resulted in a BCS bowl bid, fans hoped that by this time in his tenure, the team would be competing for a national championship.
Instead, Michigan returns after a disappointing 7-6 record that included losses to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State as well as a finish that left the team mired in the Legends Division cellar.
Last season, Michigan was plagued by an inconsistent offense that forced Hoke to fire offensive coordinator Al Borges and replace him with Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. Nussmeier brings a national championship pedigree and experience working with top recruits.
Hoke also shook up the defensive staff, announcing that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison would take over the linebackers in addition to overall responsibility for the defense.
“Greg and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle,” Hoke said.
Michigan enters spring practice with significant questions on both sides of the ball, but with none more important than how to improve the offense.
The following players have an opportunity to move up the depth chart—or slide back down depending on their performance—during the spring.
QB Shane Morris
Quarterback Devin Gardner’s season ended with a gutsy performance versus Ohio State where he almost rallied Michigan to a stunning upset. However, he injured his foot during the game and backup Shane Morris replaced him for Michigan’s bowl game.
Hoke has said that Gardner will continue to be limited during spring practice as he returns from injury, providing Morris with an opportunity to showcase his skills for Nussmeier.
It’s unlikely that Morris could displace a healthy Gardner, but no one knows exactly which quarterback best fits the new offensive scheme. A stellar spring by Morris could put pressure on Gardner heading into fall practice and provide Michigan much-needed depth at quarterback.
DB Brandon Watson
Excitement abounds for incoming recruit Jabrill Peppers, but he’s not on campus yet. Meanwhile, Watson has enrolled early and will take part in spring practice.
Last season, the Michigan defense did a lot of bending and too much breaking during a 1-4 November that saw the team dive from Big Ten title contention to the bottom of the Legends Division.
Watson has an opportunity work his way into the defensive back rotation with a great performance during spring practices. With coaches Roy Manning and Curt Mallory splitting up responsibilities for cornerback and safeties, instruction should be available for the newer players to quickly refine their game.
Watson can make an impact on defense before Peppers even arrives in Ann Arbor.
WR Drake Harris
Harris is a top recruit who missed his entire senior season of high school football with a hamstring injury. The graduation of last season’s leading receiver, Jeremy Gallon, and recent injury to tight end Jake Butt mean that Michigan quarterbacks need new receiving targets for next season.
Harris has enrolled early, and according to Hoke, “He’s ready to play football again. He's excited.”
Harris is the most hyped new receiving recruit, but will be competing with fellow early enrollee Freddy Canteen and recruit Maurice Ways, who will be on campus in the fall.
With Jehu Chesson and the expected return of Amara Darboh contributing to a traffic jam on the depth chart at wide receiver, Harris can put to rest questions about this injury and make a run for playing time with a strong spring.
RB Derrick Green
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is gone and the battle to replace him is between Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Last season, Green was dinged up in fall camp and had trouble adjusting to the collegiate game after being a dominant high school player.
Green’s talents and performance late last season seem to make him a good fit for the inside zone running play that Alabama ran frequently under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
WR Amara Darboh
Darboh was expected to be in the mix at wide receiver last season before an injury in fall camp forced him to miss the entire season. The arrival of highly touted recruit Drake Harris along with Freddy Canteen and Maurice Ways means there will be no shortage of competition at wide receiver come fall.
The return of Jehu Chesson and possibility of Devin Funchess lining up at various receiver positions put pressure on Darboh to recapture some of the hype he had before being injured last season.
A strong spring could solidify his return as a contributor on offense before the incoming recruits can make their mark.
TE A.J. Williams
Last season, tight end Devin Funchess lined up in every receiver position while tight end Jake Butt played traditional tight end. Both had stellar campaigns. However, the news that Butt is out indefinitely provides Williams with an opportunity move up the depth chart.
The Michigan offense worked best with Funchess lining up outside, but for that to work, the team needs a replacement for Butt.
Recruit Ian Bunting won’t see the field until fall practice and Williams can do himself—and the team—a huge favor by putting a together a strong spring to show that he can replace Butt.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.