Last season’s disappointing 7-6 record forced Brady Hoke to make big offseason changes to get Michigan back on track. Gone is offensive coordinator Al Borges, replaced with great fanfare by Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama. He also shuffled the responsibilities of his defensive coaches in hopes of solidifying a defense that surrendered late leads to Penn State and Iowa besides giving up over a hundred combined points to Indiana (63) and Ohio State (42).
Here’s a look at Michigan’s strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons heading into the 2014 season.
Michigan has legitimate all-conference talent at all three levels of its defense.
Talented linebacker Jake Ryan is fully recovered from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the early part of last season. Ryan is moving to the inside linebacker position to get him involved in more plays. Hoke believes that teams purposely ran plays away from him when he was lined up at outside linebacker last season.
Defensive end Frank Clark was All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) last season with 43 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles. Opposing teams will need to account for Clark on every play or pay the price.
Defensive back Blake Countess was also All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) with 46 tackles, 2.0 TFLs and one interception returned for a touchdown last season. Expectations are high for Countess, and he has been awarded the hallowed No. 2 jersey made famous by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.
Add to the mix top recruit Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan defense is prepared to carry this team while the offense develops.
Running Back Depth
Last season, Michigan’s best running play was quarterback Devin Gardner scrambling for his life. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint was technically the top running back, but the running attack didn’t really find balance until Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith joined the fray late in the season.
This year, both Green and Smith are poised to battle for carries at the top of the depth chart, with Justice Hayes positioned to be the third-down back. All three backs have shown the potential to run the ball with power and speed with Hayes being the surprise of the spring scrimmage.
There’s no word yet on whether transfer Ty Isaac will be eligible this season. If he is, the battle at running back could be a four-player race.
Michigan has strong leaders on both offense and defense who can inspire their teammates to battle back from last season’s collapse.
Quarterback Devin Gardner played most of the second half versus Ohio State with a leg injury that ended his season and put him on crutches for nearly two months. He also was mercilessly pounded behind an offensive line that could be best be described as porous. Gardner may struggle with the new offense, but he is the unquestioned leader of this team.
Linebacker Jake Ryan’s recovery last season from a spring ACL injury was practically miraculous. He’s a great player but his hard work to overcome an injury that would have caused most players to miss the entire season was an inspiration for his teammates.
The schedule-makers did Michigan no favors this season sending the Wolverines on the road to face all three of its major rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State). Michigan has struggled on the road under Hoke and will face an uphill struggle to change that trend this season.
Rolling out a new offense is always a challenge, but offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has several hurdles to clear this season.
While quarterback Devin Gardner is the unquestioned leader of the team, he needs to show that he’s fully recovered from a leg injury that caused him to miss the bowl game. Gardner looked a little rusty during Michigan’s spring scrimmage, and he needs to prove that he's the best quarterback for the new offense.
The team also needs to completely restock at the wide receiver position with Devin Funchess being the sole returning healthy player with significant receptions from last year. Tight end Jake Butt’s loss to injury will be felt both as a receiver and a blocker until his expected return by the start of the Big Ten schedule.
And these are just minor problems compared to…
But the biggest weakness of this team is the offensive line. The position group struggled last season and now needs to replace its two best players, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who have gone on to the NFL.
The offseason has not been kind, with expected starter Graham Glasgow’s arrest causing him to be suspended for the season opener and the loss of Chris Bryant to career ending injuries.
Brady Hoke needs to find some combination of Erik Magnuson, Glasgow, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis, Mason Cole and Ben Braden that can run block and protect quarterback Devin Gardner as he acclimates to the new offense.
Running Back Justice Hayes
Hayes isn’t mentioned much, with most of the attention going to fellow backs Green, Smith and the newly transferred Ty Isaac, but his blocking ability could make him a significant factor as Michigan attempts to reestablish the run game. With expected problems on the offensive line, blocking might be the deciding factor that determines reps at running back.
Wide Receiver Freddy Canteen
Canteen dominated spring practice and looks poised to seize reps at wide receiver. The true freshman made a strong impression on coaches and fellow players alike. Until tight end Jake Butt returns from injury and with Devin Funchess expected to draw the bulk of defensive attention, Canteen should have the opportunity to gash opposing defenses.
Recruit Jabrill Peppers
It’s hard to call one of the most highly touted recruits in the country a secret weapon, but the question may be where he makes the biggest impact. Peppers is expected to play safety and see time on special teams and offense. With a strong defensive secondary already in place and a lack of returning receivers on offense, Peppers may find himself getting reps at slot receiver sooner rather later.
All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.
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.