As far as debuts go, Brady Hoke’s was a hit at Michigan. Hoke sauntered into Ann Arbor and ripped off a stunning 11-2 mark, finishing second in the Legends Division and capping the remarkable season with a triumph over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. It almost made memories of the mercurial three-season Rich Rodriguez tenure vanish. Almost. Now, the question begs: What will Hoke do for an encore? I talked to three top writers who cover Big Blue to gather their thoughts on Michigan’s to-do list this spring.
A little primer: The Wolverines have holes to answer. The most prominent ones are along a defensive line that lost three starters. And who will fill out a receiving corps that aches for a game breaker? Want more? Ok. Can Denard Robinson become a better passer and trim that hideous interception total?
Mark Snyder, Detroit Free Press | Read more from Snyder | Follow @freepwolverines
“The defensive line is why they had so much success last year. They need guys capable of filling those gaps. That’s the focus of (Brady) Hoke and (defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison, which is the background for each guy. They lose three of the four starters. Will Campbell is a former five-star guy who has been there. He never has reached the potential many feel he has. He has the athletic ability and size (6-5/333) to really be a beast in the middle. They are trying to find others this spring. Craig Roh could make an impact. They are moving him around to see where he’s best suited. But beyond that, it’s an experimentation process. Jibreel Black hasn’t played as much as they had hoped so far. (Mike) Martin and (Ryan) Van Bergen played their whole careers. And (Will) Heininger worked his way up and emerged as a reliable person. The line was maybe the strength of last year’s team.
“The passing game is an issue and was erratic last year. They relied on a lot of big plays and they came through. But I think they’d like some more consistency because it allows the running game that is so important to Brady Hoke to have some room to operate. The more things they can do in the running game makes things a lot easier for them to operate elsewhere.
“They lost their best receiver in Junior Hemingway. So some of the receivers need to emerge as threats. But (Denard) Robinson’s accuracy and decision making was limited. He made some poor decisions. Look at his interception total (15), which was one of the highest in the country. If he cuts that in half, that offense becomes stunningly more productive just by not giving the ball away.
“There has been a lot of talk about (quarterback) Devin Gardner working at receiver. He’s very athletic. Last year, they did a lot with Robinson at receiver and Gardner under center. This year, they could do the opposite, as well. They need to get the best players on the field, and they believe he’s one of the best players and athletes. He’s 6-4, a big threat. The other receiver is Jerald Robinson, who also has some size to him. So he could make an impact, as well.
“Having to replace the best center in the country is a big deal. (David) Molk was a great player who did everything right all the time. Even if he had a physical limitation, he was able to overcome it with his strength. He was everything to that offense. He controlled Robinson, the line. They need a capable center to be strong up the middle. They always say games are won by being strong up the middle. Ricky Barnum may be the heir apparent.”
Kyle Meinke, AnnArbor.com | Read more from Meinke | Follow @kmeinke
“I think they need to focus on the offensive and defensive lines. Coaches always say games are won in the trenches, and I think that’s particularly true of this Michigan team going into next season. They look good in the back end at linebacker and in the secondary. But they are losing two of five offensive linemen and three of four defensive linemen. Those are big losses because those position groups weren’t that deep to begin with. Center and defensive tackle are the positions in particular to watch. Still, I think next year, with the schedule they have, I think the defense may take a step back because of that line issue.
“I also think they need to find some consistency in the passing game. For as good as Denard Robinson is as a playmaker, he always has been pretty erratic when it comes to the passing game. They lose Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum, so they need to find some consistency at wideout. Roy Roundtree needs to find his sophomore season form.
“I know Denard is focusing this spring on cutting down his turnovers and that is something that really plagued him last year. He had 15 interceptions and he knows that’s too many. Denard will win games for you, but he needs to take the next step as a passer.
“Devin Gardner is working out at receiver. At 6-4, he would be Michigan’s biggest wide out. I don’t know if this is an experiment or if they will keep him at quarterback and throw him out there for a few snaps each game or make him a full-time wideout. But I think finding a use for him out there would be to their advantage because they lost two wideouts and still need a third. Gardner is an athletic guy who was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the country coming out of high school. He has spent more time with a clipboard than a helmet the last few years.”
Chris Balas, TheWolverine.com | Read more from Balas | Follow @Balas_Wolverine
“Given how important the tight end usually is in an Al Borges’ offense, keep an eye on that spot. They just don’t have anyone there. Brandon Moore hasn’t caught many passes and he’s battling with walk-ons now. Chris Eddins is one and Ricardo Miller, who came in as a receiver. He has to do a lot better with his hand in the dirt. They won’t be able to develop any depth until the fall when these freshmen get here. And they still need to address it on the recruiting trail because they would like to do more with their tight ends but don’t have the numbers or talent to do what they want to do.
“On defense, the line is a concern. They have moved some guys. Jibreel Black has moved inside and Craig Roh has shifted from weak side end to the strong side. They want to be more disruptive up front and use their skill sets in those positions to get to the quarterback a little more. And that goes hand in hand with the development of Will Campbell at the nose. He really needs to develop into that every-down player. Some of his former teammates say he is at his best when his back is against the wall. He understands that he has to be the guy. He stepped up in the Sugar Bowl and got better. The line must gel.
“The defense also needs depth at linebacker. Having some young kids come in early has helped. You’ll see Joe Bolden the true freshman make some players. I think you’ll see him run with the (first team) sometimes. Kenny Demens is the returning middle linebacker. You’ll see Bolden play and play well throughout his career. Desmond Morgan stepped up as a freshman at the Will spot, but they need depth behind him, as well.
“They need to develop some receivers. They moved Roy Roundtree outside to flanker from the slot. There is a reason why they are practicing Devin Gardner there. They talk about Jerald Robinson, who has shown some glimpses but never has contributed but will get an opportunity. This is not your typical crop of Michigan receivers. You don’t really have a true No. 1 there. And I don’t think they did the last couple of years. They need to find ways to get these guys more involved to take some pressure off Denard Robinson as a runner. He’s improving as a passer and they like what they have seen so far this spring. He had 15 interceptions. He understands that’s unacceptable. Priority No. 1 is limiting turnovers. But a lot of that will depend on how these receivers develop.”
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com and will post his Daily Links on weekdays. You can subscribe to the Daily Links RSS here, find Dienhart’s work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his overall RSS feed.