Brady Hoke heads into his fourth season in Michigan teetering between potential breakthrough success and epic failure.
His team is stocked with talented players—attracting recruits to Ann Arbor hasn’t been a problem. But his staff needs to prove that it can mold that talent into an elite team. Last season’s 7-6 collapse has placed the program under the microscope.
Under examination will be an offense that is being rebuilt to run the ball with an offensive line that struggled mightily last season. The team’s best hope for success will be for its defense to stem the tide until the offense can find its way.
Hoke is 26-13 overall during his tenure at Michigan but 15-11 during the last two seasons. The Wolverines have dropped six out of their last eight games. Hoke and his staff need to produce this season to stop the murmurs of discontent in Ann Arbor.
The slide led to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier being hired with a mandate to fix the team’s running attack.
Nussmeier is working with longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson, who has mentored some of the best running backs in team history. With a stable of talented running backs, this season will be his chance to prove that he can still develop elite talent.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk is under scrutiny after his position group struggled last season. The offensive line was one of team’s weakest position groups despite the presence of two eventual NFL draft picks (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). Funk needs to build a stronger line this season or the team will repeat last year's disappointment.
|2014 Michigan Football Staff|
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Brady Hoke||4|
|Defensive Coordinator||Greg Mattison||4|
|Offensive Coordinator/QB Coach||Doug Nussmeier||1|
|Special Teams Coordinator/TE Coach||Dan Ferrigno||4|
|Offensive Line Coach||Darrell Funk||4|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Jeff Hecklinski||4|
|Running Backs Coach||Fred Jackson||23|
|Safeties Coach||Curt Mallory||4|
|Cornerbacks Coach||Roy Manning||4|
|Defensive Line Coach||Mark Smith||4|
Hoke also shuffled his defensive staff. Coordinator Greg Mattison has taken over the linebackers, and the backfield duties have been split between Curt Mallory (safeties) and Roy Manning (cornerback). The backfield move was made to give the players more coaching attention to deal with the proliferation of spread offenses.
What to Watch For on Offense
One of the main problems last year was the inconsistency of the offensive line. Nine players rotated through the five offensive line positions, and Hoke has lost two of his most talented linemen to the NFL. Rebuilding the line is the biggest obstacle Michigan faces while trying to roll out its new offense.
The talk out of camp is that last year’s position group struggled with off-the-field distractions and a lack of senior leadership. This year’s group is more unified and hopes to be greatly improved with another year of game experience and weight training under its collective belt.
The key players to watch are center Jack Miller and tackle Mason Cole. Miller was over his head last season but has improved greatly, according to Hoke. Cole is a true freshman who has seized the starting position at left tackle. If either of these players struggle, it will speak volumes to the level of talent on the offensive line and lack of improvement over last season.
|Michigan Football Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Devin Gardner||Shane Morris||Wilton Speight|
|RB||Derrick Green||De'Veon Smith||Drake Johnson|
|WR||Devin Funchess||Jehu Chesson||Jack Wangler|
|WR||Amara Darboh||Da'Mario Jones||Maurice Ways|
|Slot||Freddy Canteen||Dennis Norfleet||Bo Dever|
|TE||A.J. Williams||Keith Heitzman||Khalid Hill|
|OG||Erik Magnuson||Graham Glasgow||David Dawson|
|OG||Joey Burzynski||Kyle Bosch||Blake Bars|
|C||Jack Miller||Patrick Kugler||Graham Glasgow|
|OT||Ben Braden||Chris Fox||Logan Tuley-Tillman|
|OT||Mason Cole||Kyle Kalis||Dan Samuelson|
|Kicker||Will Hagerup||Matt Wile||Kenny Allen|
|PR/KR||Dennis Norfleet||Jehu Chesson||Jabrill Peppers|
Nussmeier has simplified the playbook in an attempt to jump-start the running game.
Derrick Green (20 pounds lighter than last season) and De’Veon Smith have battled for the starting job all spring and throughout fall camp while being pressed by Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes. Transfer Ty Isaac is also waiting on word of his eligibility. The running game could be back in a big way—if the offensive line can open up some holes.
Quarterback Devin Gardner returns for his senior season while learning the third offensive scheme of his career. Gardner showed his toughness last season playing injured versus Ohio State but will need to show restraint in the new offense. Last season he was the offense. This year he’ll need to become more of a game manager, distributing the ball to his running backs and receivers.
Another huge question on offense is who will emerge in the receiving ranks. Wide receiver Devin Funchess will be Gardner’s top target, and freshman Freddy Canteen has also emerged as a starter. But the graduation of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo along with the injury of tight end Jake Butt has depleted the number of experienced receivers available to Gardner.
There’s a huge opportunity for Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson or freshman Maurice Ways to fill the gap.
What to Watch For on Defense
The defense looks to improve after a lack of depth at key positions contributed to Michigan’s 1-4 November collapse last season.
Top linebacker Jake Ryan has been moved to the middle and should benefit, along with fellow linebackers Desmond Morgan and James Ross, from Mattison taking over the position group.
|2014 Michigan Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DT||Ondre Pipkins||Bryan Mone||Maurice Hurst Jr.|
|DT||Willie Henry||Chris Wormley||Ryan Glasgow|
|DE||Frank Clark||Taco Charlton||Henry Poggi|
|DE||Brenne Beyer||Mario Ojemudia||Matthew Godin|
|SAM LB||James Ross||Royce Jenkins-Stone||Allen Gant|
|MIKE LB||Jake Ryan||Ben Gedeon||Mike McCray|
|WILL LB||Desmond Morgan||Joe Bolden||Michael Ferns|
|CB||Blake Countess||Jourdan Lewis||Terry Richardson|
|CB||Raymon Taylor||Channing Stribling||Delonte Hollowell|
|SS||Delano Hill||Jeremy Clark||A.J. Pearson|
|FS||Jarrod Wilson||Dymonte Thomas||Shaun Austin|
|Nickel||Jabrill Peppers||Jourdan Lewis||Delonte Hollowell|
The defensive line is solid with Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer at the ends, and Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry at the tackles. The team needs a solid season from backups Bryan Mone, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton. The defense weakened last season when the line wore down as the season progressed. The ability for the backups to improve and pressure opposing offenses will be vital.
The most interesting position battle on defense will be in the backfield, where Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor are being tested by Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and top recruit Jabrill Peppers for playing time. Peppers will start the season at nickel but will soon challenge the incumbents for time at corner.
At safety Delano Hill and Jarrod Wilson will be pressed by Dymonte Thomas and Jeremy Clark.
Overall the defense is expected to very good and possibly great if Peppers can fulfill his potential and the defensive line can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The loss of Butt at tight end is a serious blow to an offense low on experienced receivers. His rehab is going well and his return is expected by the start of the Big Ten season. Until then A.J. Williams will need to fill in as a receiver and blocker supplementing the offensive line.
|Michigan Football Injuries|
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Delano Hill||Broken Jaw||Notre Dame|
|Press Conference Notes|
Hill broke his jaw during summer drills, but the safety expected back by the start of the season. Don’t be surprised if he returns for the Notre Dame game.
Peppers is one of the most talented, explosive players on Michigan’s roster. Despite being a true freshman, he started fall camp at nickelback and has already begun getting reps at corner. He’s also been working at returning kicks.
Hoke has been tight-lipped about plans to use Peppers on offense, but it’s a tantalizing possibility. He’d be devastating coming out of the backfield.
Expect Peppers to be everywhere by midseason.
|2014 Michigan Football Schedule|
|August 30||Appalachian State||Ann, Arbor, MI|
|September 6||Notre Dame||South Bend, IN|
|September 13||Miami (OH)||Ann Arbor, MI|
|September 20||Utah||Ann Arbor, MI|
|September 27||Minnesota||Ann Arbor, MI|
|October 4||Rutgers||Piscataway, N.J.|
|October 11||Penn State||Ann Arbor, MI|
|October 25||Michigan State||East Lansing, MI|
|November 1||Indiana||Ann Arbor, MI|
|November 8||Northwestern||Evanston, IL|
|November 22||Maryland||Ann Arbor, MI|
|November 29||Ohio State||Columbus, OH|
Michigan plays all of its key rivalry games on the road—Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Hoke’s track record versus these schools (4-5) coupled with the way his teams have struggled when leaving Ann Arbor (7-11) doesn’t bode well.
There’s a lot riding on Michigan’s second game of the season versus Notre Dame. It’s the last time that these two storied programs are scheduled to meet, and Michigan would like to smack the Irish, who bailed out of future meetings.
The last time Michigan played at Notre Dame Stadium the Wolverine offense fell into a funk that torpedoed the entire season. It was also the beginning of a baffling two-year offensive stretch that would ultimately cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job. A win could exorcise of a lot of demons.
The next key game is versus Michigan State in East Lansing (October 25), where Michigan has been completely dominated on its last two visits.
The Spartans will likely be heavily favored in this game. Hoke may deny that moral victories exist, but if his team can’t win, it needs to show that it can hang with its in-state nemesis. The hammer and nail aren’t rivals—and Michigan has been the nail when playing in East Lansing. Hoke needs to put a stop to it.
If Michigan could somehow sweep these games, the team would be a virtual lock to compete for its first Big Ten Championship under Hoke. If the unthinkable happens and Michigan loses all three, Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor will be in serious jeopardy.
Michigan has announced special uniforms for its night game versus Penn State.
If Michigan can beat Notre Dame it could go 9-3 this season. Unfortunately, two of its three losses will be to Michigan State and Ohio State, sinking any chance of playing in the Big Ten title game.
|2014 Michigan Football Predictions 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)|
|Appalachian State||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Notre Dame||South Bend, IN||W|
|Miami (OH)||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Utah||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Minnesota||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Penn State||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Michigan State||East Lansing, MI||L|
|Indiana||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Maryland||Ann Arbor, MI||W|
|Ohio State||Columbus, OH||L|
Most teams would be pleased with 9-3, but losses to two key rivals and no Big Ten title will cause a lot of heartburn in Ann Arbor.
Hoke promised the return of Michigan football when he was hired. He needs deliver on that promise or at the very least show significant progress this season.
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.