If a team isn’t improving, it’s getting worse—that’s the conventional wisdom that surrounds football. And in all likelihood, that thought has crossed the mind of Michigan coach Brady Hoke at least once.
Heading into his fourth season with the Wolverines, he faces the challenge of replenishing an offensive line that was already spotty at best, and he’ll be without Fitz Toussaint, his most experienced running back.
Oh, and he has to find a way to plug in someone for Jibreel Black, a solid pass-rushing force now bound for Sundays.
The O-line certainly has the most to prove, that much is clear. However, there are other areas that could use a little remodeling before Team 135 takes the field. The line of "too much talent to fail" applies here. At this point, there isn't a valid reason behind Michigan's failures.
Talent is there. But can the coaches reap the rewards of A1 recruiting?
First thing's first: The offensive line isn't where it should be at this point of Hoke's tenure. Honestly, this unit should have at least two years of solid dominance on its résumé.
Well, it just had two tackles—Taylor Lewan (LT) and Michael Schofield (RT)—taken in the 2014 NFL draft. That counts for something, doesn't it? Bad lines with OK talent don't send two guys to the League, do they? Especially not within the first three rounds.
Lewan was picked No. 11 overall (Tennessee), while Schofield went a bit earlier than expected at No. 95 overall (Denver). Plus, since Hoke's arrival, Michigan has stacked high-end O-linemen with relative ease. The difficult part has been getting them integrated into the scheme and set up for success.
Erik Magnuson is the perceived heir to Lewan's former post. As for Schofield, well, that's not so easy—and it won't be simple for the rest of the line, which consists of a handful of guys with a handful of combined starts from which to choose.
No more All-American. No more all-conference-caliber right tackle—just underclassmen looking to make a name for themselves. David Dawson, Mason Cole, Ben Pliska and a host of others have their backs against the wall. It's either produce or get out of the way.
Without Jeremy Gallon, the onus is on Freddy Canteen to provide energy and production at the slot position. As the situation stands now, Canteen, a true frosh and early enrollee, is up for the task. He impressed during the spring game and has the classic "I can do it" attitude.
Devin Gardner remains in pursuit of perfection. It's been a long road for the senior, but he has luck on his side. With Devin Funchess at wideout, Gardner should benefit from having a 6'5," 235-pound NFL prospect catching passes. He should also have freshman Drake Harris (hamstring) complementing a roster full of 6'0"-plus targets. Jehu Chesson, a sophomore who stands in at 6'3" and 195 pounds, is one such option.
Quarterbacks seem to love those types.
However, if he's to stay at No. 1, Gardner must use his surroundings to his advantage. Should the need arise, Shane Morris, a sophomore, is patiently waiting to take over the starting position.
Once Jake Butt returns healthy, add a dynamic, on-the-rise tight end to the mix. The sophomore is among the Big Ten's under-the-radar talents looking to emerge this fall and turned a few heads with a three-catch, 33-yard showing during a 31-14 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State.
A pair of sophomores resides in the backfield, and Doug Nussmeier, the new offensive coordinator, finds himself looking for the right fit. In 2013, the Wolverines were dreadful on the ground, averaging a paltry-for-Michigan 125.7 yards per game.
Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith, both consensus 4-star recruits, represent the immediate future for the Maize and Blue's rushing attack. Neither one took the world by storm as a freshman, but they each showed improvement as the year progressed.
Willie Henry and Ondre Pipkins are the ones. There's really not much else to say here. And without Black, the Wolverines need someone to clock in as a blue-collar pass- and run-stopping hero. Henry and Pipkins should apply enough pressure to the middle, but Brennen Beyer, who also plays outside linebacker, could be extremely valuable to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison this fall.
Might as well toss Frank Clark into that discussion too. He'll be setting an example for youngsters such as Lawrence Marshall, who is another one of those "high-end" signees referenced earlier in this piece.
The secondary is coming together. Maybe a little sooner than expected, which is always a positive for a defense in need of continuity across the board. Led by Jake Ryan, a senior, the linebackers are the obvious strength of Mattison's defense.
However, once Jabrill Peppers makes his way to the backfield—joining Dymonte Thomas, Jourdan Lewis and Ray Taylor, among others—sit back and watch the magic unfurl. Peppers should give Michigan one of the better sets of DBs for the next three years.
Who's going to kick those field goals now that Brendan Gibbons is gone? Kenny Allen? Matt Wile? Andrew David?
As always, feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section. Which group do you feel has the most to prove in 2014?
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81