Gauging the success of the Michigan Wolverines football team is no easy task In 2014.
Will new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and offensive line coach Darrell Funk fix a broken offensive line?
Will the running game improve enough to keep Devin Gardner off the seat of his pants?
Better quarterback play
And will Gardner himself correct a few technique flaws, in order to make three and four-hundred yard passing games the rule, rather than the exception?
And what about the defense?
Can Michigan produce a pass rush with the front four alone?
Will the linebacker corps be as good as advertised with Jake Ryan at middle linebacker and with talented Jabrill Peppers patrolling the secondary?
Close to an 11-1 season?
Looking back at last season, optimists point out that Michigan (7-6, 3-5 Big Ten) was only 11 (or so) points away from an 11-1 regular season. Pessimists seem to recall only the 29-6 loss to in-state rival Michigan State and the embarrassing 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the BWW Bowl. Never mind that Michigan gained -48 yards rushing (sack yardage included) and -21 yards rushing on successive November Saturdays.
With the offense still an enigma, expect the most improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Look no further than the arrival of coveted freshman Jabrill Peppers. He’s already been compared to the legendary Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and has been penciled in as the starting nickelback and primary punt returner.
Like Woodson did before him, it’s not unlikely that Peppers will eventually check the opponent’s top receiver, handle kickoffs, and even appear on the offensive side of the ball.
A track star too?
“He’s done a lot before he even got here on big stages, head coach Brady Hoke said, “He ran track at national events, and the way he led Paramus Catholic (High School) as a football player.
“Watching him over the last 27 days, watching him practice, field punts, be in (tough situations), the confidence he has … it gives me confidence.”
“He’s played tremendously fast and he’s played with great confidence,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison added. “He’s a very confident young man.”
Joining Peppers in the secondary are several athletes who can play, too. Jourdan Lewis, a sophomore from Detroit Cass Tech, has been pressuring Blake Countess for the fieldside cornerback slot. Countess, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, returned last season to earn All-Big Ten honors while snaring six interceptions. Either Lewis or Countess may move over to the boundary side to challenge Ramon Taylor, who had four interceptions and led the Wolverines in tackles with 86.
Nickel and Dime
Add cornerback Delonte Hollowell to safeties Jarrod Wilson and Jeremy Clark and you have the makings of a stout “dime” package.
The real depth this year is at linebacker, where five starters are listed for three spots. Ryan, who moved to MIKE this spring to take advantage of his blitzing and run support skills, only had five starts a year ago because of an ACL injury in spring practice.
Desmond Morgan, who started every game last season will play both MIKE and WILL, while SAM linebacker James Ross, III had nine starts. Royce Jenkins-Stone could make his first start Saturday.
While Mattison likes the depth in the back and at linebacker, he sees the depth and talent up front to be even better. “You look at, and I don’t want to miss names, but you look at the three-technique position and you’ve got Willie Henry, Matt Godin, you’ve got Chris Wormley and not miss anybody but the nose position’s the same way. You go right down the line.”
Isaac must sit
Henry, WDE Frank Clark and SDE Brennan Beyer are expected to have banner seasons.
So how good can Team 135 be? While the defense could be very good, you might wonder if the young offensive line can make progress.
Michigan did get some disappointing news earlier today (Aug. 27) when it was learned that running back Ty Isaac will have to sit out 2014 due to the NCAA transfer rule. Isaac, who played for Southern Cal last season applied for a hardship waiver since his mother can’t fly from her home in Illinois to Los Angeles to see him play.
Assuming Michigan can get past Appalachian State Saturday (U-M is a 35-point favorite), the first real dress rehearsal comes the following week at a Notre Dame. The Irish have been plagued by an academic investigation.
The real tests, of course, will be at Michigan State (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 25).
While a few prognosticators (including U-M Heisman Trophy winner and ESPN GameDay commentator Desmond Howard) predict a Big Ten title and a trip to the national title game. Las Vegas oddsmakers list the Wolverines as a 50-1 shot to win it all.