Spring practice has begun in Ann Arbor, Mich., but you wouldn’t know it by the weather. An early start combined with the lingering effects of the polar vortex has Michigan practicing indoors as snow and ice remain piled up outside.
The uncharacteristic sub-zero temperatures match the general mood after last season’s 7-6 finish.
What is Michigan's biggest challenge on offense?
Hoke responded to the disappointing finish by firing his offensive coordinator and shuffling his defensive staff. He also made the decision to begin spring practices prior to spring break.
“It gives us a little more time at the back end,” Hoke told reporters on Tuesday.
We have so much new stuff. New offense, when you look at terminology and all those things that are important. We thought these first two days—non-padded—we could get a lot taught, a lot of the base things that are in the offense, and we’re doing a few things on defense differently.
So while many teams treat spring practice as an extended conditioning session while experimenting with possible replacements for graduated seniors, Michigan is overhauling its offense and tweaking its defense.
“When they come back, hopefully they’ll be in a groove with what they’ve done so far,” continued Hoke.
It’s just not the players that need to be in the groove. The one-week break will also provide Hoke with a chance to evaluate how new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is meshing with returning players like quarterback Devin Gardner and offensive line coach Darrell Funk.
1st day of spring ball today! Can't wait to get back on the field with my brothas!! http://t.co/HKdSK0ZMZj— Devin Gardner (@DevG98) February 25, 2014
Gardner’s injury and extended rehab has opened up the quarterback competition to Shane Morris. Gardner surprised coaches and teammates by practicing last week and should be the starter for next season.
However, he knows what it’s like to be the hungry backup working to displace the returning veteran—there was a time when he thought he had beaten out veteran Denard Robinson at quarterback. If Gardner can remain healthy, his talent and drive will make him difficult to displace.
The progress of the offensive line is harder to judge. Last season’s offensive line woes resulted in the firing of Al Borges and Hoke luring Nussmeier from Alabama to Ann Arbor. Nussmeier is a rising coaching talent and can only burnish his reputation by engineering a quick turnaround of the Michigan offense.
With that said, it’s imperative that he and Funk are on the same page in generating a new offensive line that lost two of its top performers from last season.
Plans took a hit when the team announced that injuries have ended the career of offensive guard Chris Bryant, once expected to be a starter, and knocked offensive tackle Erik Magnuson out until fall practice.
If the offensive line struggles like last season, it won’t matter who plays quarterback.
Beyond quarterback and offensive line, Michigan needs to replace wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, sort out the running back battle between Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith, and decide if Devin Funchess is a tight end or wide receiver.
Expect Hoke and Nussmeier to spend this week going over the performance of every player and coach on offense. The players may be on spring break, but the work is just beginning for the Michigan coaching staff.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.