Michigan Football: 7 Players to Watch in Wolverines' Spring Game
The last time Michigan played on its home field it suffered a bitter 42-41 defeat to rival Ohio State on the way to a 7-6 finish that would cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job.
Now, the team returns to Michigan Stadium with Brady Hoke’s coaching tenure hanging in the balance. Michigan needs a strong season to erase any doubt about his immediate future in Ann Arbor.
Hoke had announced the spring game will be more of an open practice and not a split-squad competition, but fans will be watching for signs that new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has improved the offense.
The disappointment of last season and the building pressure to win a Big Ten title has placed a spotlight on key players who will need to perform will if the team hopes to be a force in the Big Ten next season.
All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department website.
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.
Quarterback Devin Gardner
Devin Gardner had solid statistics last season in passing totals (208-of-345 for 2,960 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) and in the ground game (483 yards and 11 touchdowns), but his injury versus Ohio State and extended rehab coupled with the dismissal of Borges opened the door for competition at the quarterback position.
The word out of spring practice is Gardner was facing fierce competition from Shane Morris and Wilton Speight, but Hoke recently dismissed speculation of a quarterback battle by saying Gardner would be his starter with Morris as the backup.
Still, it’s important for Gardner to perform well heading into his senior campaign. His extended rehab gave Morris a chance to get valuable reps with the first team during bowl preparations. If Gardner stumbles, Nussmeier may be tempted to go with Morris, a player with a full three years of eligibility remaining.
Running Back Derrick Green
Fans might not recognize Derrick Green. He has transformed himself since last season dropping 20 pounds and appearing noticeably leaner.
“I feel a lot faster, stronger. My body feels a lot better than last season,” Green said when asked about how his new physique translates to performance on the field.
Green, the top returning running back from last season (83 carries for 290 yards and two touchdowns) also declared, “Michigan is about running the ball, and this unit is going to bring it back.”
Last season, the Michigan running attack depended far too much on Gardner until Green and De’Veon Smith broke through near the end of the season.
Michigan needs to have a strong, balanced running attack to get turn things around this season.
The spring scrimmage will be the first opportunity for fans to see if Green can deliver.
Running Back De’Veon Smith
While Green has been dropping weight, Smith (29 carries for 119 yards) has been battling him for the top position on the depth chart.
Both running backs should benefit from the new running attack featuring inside and outside zone running plays Nussmeier brings with him from Alabama, but it remains to be seen which player will be the primary back next season.
As a 5-star recruit, Green had the most accolades coming in, but Smith showed flashes of brilliance last season and is excited about the changes so far.
“It seems a lot easier than last season’s offense,” Smith said. "It’s very high tempo, lots of energy.”
Unlike Borges, Nussmeier seems genuinely open to using multiple backs, “You look at the pounding the running backs take these days and how physical the game is. One back carrying the load all the time makes it awful difficult to stay healthy and sustain success over a season.”
Smith is poised to be part of Nussmeier’s desired one-two punch at running back. A great performance during the spring scrimmage might vault him to the top of the depth chart.
Linebacker Jake Ryan
Hoke shuffled his defensive staff after last season making Greg Mattison directly responsible for linebackers in addition to his duties as defensive coordinator.
One of the first changes he made was moving Jake Ryan to inside linebacker, where he can have a better chance to be involved in every play. Mattison believes teams ran away from Ryan last season in certain situations.
Spring practice will be the first opportunity to see how Ryan is performing after the move. He missed the beginning of last season recovering from an ACL injury, and his presence was sorely missed.
A strong return in his new position would bode well for next season.
Wide Receiver Jehu Chesson
The graduation of receivers Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo has opened up the competition at wide receiver. Jehu Chesson (15 receptions for 221 yards, one touchdown) is the top returning wide receiver from last season and entered spring practice with the inside track at securing the starting position.
But earlier this spring, Hoke said the wide receivers are having difficulty adjusting to the changes in Nussmeier’s new offense, which has made the competition hard to call.
One thing is certain, freshman Freddy Canteen has seized the opportunity and is drawing rave reviews. Chesson could benefit from a great spring game performance or risk being eclipsed by the dynamic freshman.
Wide Receiver Drake Harris
All the news about Drake Harris was good until last week when Hoke reported he would miss practice due a tender hamstring.
For most players, missing practice would be a minor footnote, but for Harris, a top recruit who missed his entire senior season of high school football with a hamstring injury, the news sounded ominous.
Hoke denied Harris’ injury was serious, but Harris could allay the fears of many fans and stake his claim on a position on the depth chart with a strong performance in the spring game.
Center Graham Glasgow
Graham Glasgow has been in the news for the wrong reason, lately.
He has returned to practice after a brief suspension, “…for a violation of team expectations.” He will also sit out the season opener versus Appalachian State.
The offensive line absolutely needs to improve if Michigan hopes to bounce back from last season’s disappointing finish. Glasgow’s brief suspension adds to the loss of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski (both out with injuries) as the team works to replace tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who are preparing for the NFL draft.
Glasgow’s absence comes in the wake of Hoke's acknowledgement the team “would investigate” the possibility of transfer Chad Lindsay joining the team to compete at center. Lindsay, who has graduated from Alabama, would be immediately eligible to play.
Glasgow would like to play in the spring game to prove he’s part of the solution on the offensive line—at center or guard. While Hoke hasn’t decided if Glasgow’s troubles will prevent him from playing in the spring game, there is no doubt a strong performance would help him solidify a claim on a starting position next fall.