Spring is a time of renewal across college football, and there is no team more in need of that in the Big Ten than the Michigan Wolverines. As Brady Hoke and his staff get the 2014 spring practice season started on Tuesday, change is the theme of the season.
After a 7-6 season, things clearly needed to change. Hoke did enough soul-searching to realize he needed more out of his offense, and that meant replacing longtime friend and assistant Al Borges with Doug Nussmeier of Alabama.
With eight starters to replace across the board, Michigan also faces some severe challenges in replacing the biggest playmakers from the last few years.
Michigan has not won a conference or division title in a decade, and there is a list of things the Wolverines need to do this spring in order to reverse those trends.
Will Anyone Step Up on the Offensive Line?
At times, watching the Michigan offensive line was painful, at other times it was laughable and still other times it was like watching a horrible game of red rover on the playground. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't pretty.
Michigan finished 11th in rushing yards in large part due to an offensive line that couldn't find any chemistry, despite about 100 different combinations of players.
So it turns out that the Michigan offensive line was really bad last year. Dead last nationally in two categories. http://t.co/MamSOziFla— Michael (@BravesAndBirds) February 18, 2014
Things got so bad for Michigan's offensive line that it ended up with back-to-back games of negative rushing as a team for the first time in program history. Not exactly the program history anyone wants to make, right?
Perhaps the scariest part of it all was that it all happened with two likely 2014 NFL draft picks bookending the line.
Entering 2014, it may be wise to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. What was missing more than anything else was chemistry, and that needs to be shown no matter what five players are around to get the job done.
Unfortunately, likely starting left tackle Erik Magnuson won't see action this spring thanks to a left shoulder injury.
It would be nice to see guys like Kyle Kalis, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Bosch step up after rocky first seasons as sometime starters.
Spring football will only be a success if Michigan can identify a starting five (or at least four with Magnuson out) that can be productive heading in to the fall. At least it will get to compete against a decent defense all spring to accomplish that feat.
Put Up or Shut Up at Running Back
Michigan has been a longtime recruiting darling under Hoke. One of the "prized" players of Michigan's 2013 class was 5-star running back Derrick Green, who saw action throughout 2013 despite the presence of senior Fitzgerald Toussaint.
However, Green's debut season wasn't exactly the awe-inspiring effort one would expect from a 5-star prospect. Green ended 2013 with 270 yards and two touchdowns, averaging just 3.3 yards a carry as well.
Not all of it was on Green, to be sure. You know, since the offensive line failed to open anything resembling a hole for the tailbacks all season long.
But pinning everything on the O-line is to ignore some of the issues Green had as well.
He appeared slow to recognize what was happening on the line and didn't have great vision. Additionally, he seemed to lack the power that should've come with a 240-pound frame.
Green won't be handed the running back job this spring, as he will need to battle fellow sophomore De'Veon Smith for the starting job.
There needs to be something more dynamic from the run game, and Green needs to prove he's closer to being a playmaker than a bust this spring.
Musical Chairs on the Defensive Staff Must Work
There is one area Michigan hasn't struggled in under Hoke, and that's producing productive linebackers. However, there's been one thing missing from a decent defense under Greg Mattison—a pass rush.
Hoke noticed it too, making linebackers coach Mark Smith the defensive line coach for the 2014 season. He has some good talent to work with, especially end Frank Clark, who was second on the Wolverines squad last year with 4.5 sacks.
Linebacker Cam Gordon, with five sacks, led the team last year and that needs to change if Michigan is going to be an East Division contender.
Michigan and Smith must find a way to also replace both starting tackles (Jabreel Black and Quinton Washington).
There is no doubt that there are solid players on the Wolverines D-line, but if the group wants to jump into the elite level in the conference, becoming more dynamic playmakers will help. Smith's shift to the D-line could be just what is needed to get the most out of a talented group.
Can Anyone Catch a Ball?
While there won't be a huge role for Devin Gardner at quarterback this spring, there is a massive need to find a playmaker or two at wide receiver. That idea took a hit before spring practices ever started in Ann Arbor thanks to a torn ACL from tight end Jake Butt.
That could put a damper in the potential move of Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Funchess exploded on to the scene last year, catching the second-most passes last year with 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns.
He's the leading returning receiver on the Wolverines roster, and that means there's a giant hole for someone, anyone to step in to.
Jehu Chesson is the leading actual wide receiver coming back to the Wolverines, with 15 receptions for 221 yards and one touchdown. Chesson started one game last year, and is the only receiver on Michigan's spring roster with a collegiate start to his name.
That means there are a lot of spots up for grabs in the spring. Look for names like Amarah Darboh and Dennis Norfleet to get long looks at wide receiver and slot positions this spring (if the slot is something Nussmeier will even run).
Other names that could jump out of nowhere to take on roles this year could be redshirt freshmen Jaron Dukes and Da'Mario Jones, as both have the size you like to see out of wide receivers.
Two early enrollees join in the fun in Drake Harris and Freddy Canteen, and both could be the game changer that is missing with Jeremy Gallon graduated.
As much as the offensive line is an unknown, the wide receiver group is about as big a tossup as there is on the Michigan roster entering spring.
If we are talking about the unknown wide receiver group coming out of the spring, that could be trouble no matter who is passing them the ball or protecting for said quarterback.