Brady Hoke pulled the plug on the annual spring game, instead, treating fans to watch a typical practice and scrimmage at Michigan Stadium.
The offense squared off against the defense in a battle of situational football with no special teams or scoring allowed. Hoke was seemingly bound and determined to show little, if any, of Doug Nussmeier’s new offense.
While no official depth chart has been released, it’s no secret some fierce positional battles are underway.
But for a fan base eager to forget last season’s 7-6 debacle, even a brief scrimmage is a godsend. Many hoped to see Nussmeier's new offense, but instead, saw some of the same offensive problems—interceptions and a porous offensive line—that derailed last season.
Devin Gardner talks like he’s the starting quarterback, while admitting that he faced fierce competition during spring practice. But his performance during the scrimmage was less than impressive (2-of-10 passing for 53 yards) and throwing an interception on his first attempt. His backup, Shane Morris, (5-of-11 for 73 yards) wasn’t much better on a day the offense looked even worse than last season.
On the Big Ten coaches teleconference, Hoke called the battle ongoing.
"I think that's going to continue as a competition," Hoke said. "I don't think Devin played as well Saturday as he had during the course of spring football.”
Based on experience, Gardner is clearly the frontrunner, but he didn’t look too secure during the scrimmage.
Michigan has more depth at quarterback than last season, but with a new offense being installed and increased competition, the position still seems up for grabs.
No position group seems more energized by the new offense than the running backs. In previous seasons, Michigan would feature a single back. Under Nussmeier, the way now appears paved for multiple backs to get playing time.
While Derrick Green’s weight loss and the slashing runs of De’Veon Smith have drawn the most attention this spring, Justice Hayes showed some impressive power carrying the ball during the scrimmage. Hayes finished with six carries for 33 yards and showed the running back battle is a three-player race.
Michigan looks to have good depth at running back heading into next season, which is good news if the offensive line can improve.
Devin Funchess is the leading returning player at this position and hopes to cause mayhem again next season using his size to cause matchup problems for opposing defenses. Michigan will miss Jake Butt at tight end and is hoping A.J. Williams can perform while Butt's return is up in the air.
While the saying goes that potential just means you haven’t done much yet, it’s hard to not be excited by the players Michigan has in the mix at slot and wide receiver.
Freshman Freddy Canteen is drawing rave reviews and had the play of the scrimmage, a 44-yard reception that electrified the crowd. Dennis Norfleet, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are leading targets for whoever plays quarterback next season.
Someone needs to step up besides Funchess; the good news is Michigan is developing good depth at receiver. The surprising emergence of early enrollee Canteen is a huge bonus.
Last year, Michigan’s offensive line was a disappointment all season long. This spring, the position group needs to replace its two most consistent players lost to graduation (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield) and build a new line while implementing a new offense.
The results so far haven’t been promising. Expected starters Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski missed all of spring practice because of injuries, and Graham Glasgow was suspended for a few practices because of discipline problems.
Freshman Mason Cole looked lost at times at left tackle, but what in the world is a freshman doing breaking into the starting lineup?
It all adds up to continued trouble up front.
Michigan needs to find some consistency among Ben Braden, Jack Miller, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Kalis and the aforementioned Magnuson, Burzynski, Glasgow and Cole, or this season could be worse than last. Chad Lindsay, recently graduated from Alabama, may also be part of the solution.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now directly responsible for the linebackers and has moved Jake Ryan inside to maximize his impact.
The linebackers look to be Ryan, Morgan Desmond and Royce Jenkins-Stone backed up by Joe Bolden, Ben Gedeon and James Ross.
The group has the depth to be a major factor next season if Ryan can successfully transition to the inside. During the spring scrimmage, he still appeared to be learning the position, something Mattison must correct.
Defensive tackle Frank Clark looks like he’s ready to dominate next season. Of course, he has been playing against Michigan’s offensive line that continues to struggle. Clark put in a good performance during the scrimmage and will team up with Brennen Beyer at the end.
Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry will hold down the middle of the defensive line.
Last season, this group wore down as the season progressed. Now with more experience, this group looks to be much improved. With Taco Charlton and freshman Bryan Mone as backups, the unit is developing much-needed depth.
Defensive Backs and Safeties
Michigan has the makings of an extremely good defensive backfield. Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess are solid at cornerback, and Jourdan Lewis looked impressive during the spring scrimmage (two interceptions, returning one for 20 yards).
Add Delano Hill and Jarrod Wilson at the safeties and the addition of 5-star recruit Jabrill Peppers, and the secondary could be the strength of this team.
The Michigan secondary struggled last season, as the team faded due partly to loose coverage.
”I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year,” Lewis said. “We are playing more man-to-man, and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it.”
The addition of Peppers could make this unit stellar.
Spring statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.