Now comes the encore. And there are many reasons for Michigan fans to be excited for the Wolverines’ 2012 prospects. Here are 10 of them.
1. Denard Robinson. There isn’t a more deadly or dangerous player in America. “Shoelace” is the quintessential big-play-waiting to happen who can score every time he touches the ball and is a top Heisman candidate. Robinson finished with 1,176 yards rushing in 2011. Is the senior a great passer? No, as Robinson had 15 interceptions last year and has spotty decision-making skills in the pocket. But he may end up being the most prolific rushing quarterback in college football history, needing 1,252 yards to pass West Virginia’s Pat White’s mark of 4,480.
2. Fitz Toussaint. Offensive coordinator Al Borges knew Michigan needed a back it could rely upon to take pressure and burden off of Denard Robinson. Toussaint emerged as one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2011. After two injury-marred seasons, the junior finished with 1,041 yards rushing, giving Michigan two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time since 1975. If Toussaint becomes a better blocker and receiver out of the backfield, he will be even better this fall for a running back corps that is deep with talent like senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls.
3. Greg Mattison. Is there a better defensive coordinator in the Big Ten? Maybe Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi, but it’s close. In one season, Mattison transformed a moribund Wolverine defense, as Michigan ranked second in the Big Ten and sixth in the country in scoring defense (17.4 ppg). The Wolverines also paced the conference in fourth-down conversion percentage (38.1), red zone defense (68.3 percent scoring efficiency), turnovers forced (29) and fumbles recovered (20). Want more? The Wolverines ranked third in rushing defense (131.7 ypg), third in third-down conversion percentage (36.4) and fourth in total yards (322.2 ypg). Well-done, Mr. Mattison.
4. Linebackers. Yes, coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about how this group must tackle better and improve as blitzers. And everyone needs to get tougher. Still, there are the makings for a strong corps. All three starters are back in sophomore Jake Ryan, senior Kenny Demens and sophomore Desmond Morgan. Keep an eye on true freshman Joe Bolden, who arrived early and could claim a starting job.
5. Secondary. This could be a special group, as great talent and depth make it the top unit on this defense. Sophomore cornerback Blake Countess looks like the next great one and is the defense’s best player. Senior J.T. Floyd will join him to form a nice corner tandem. And staffers like the safety duo of senior Jordan Kovacs and junior Thomas Gordon.
6. Big mo. As in momentum. Michigan is coming off a surprising 11-win season that was capped by a big victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. This is a team and program that feels good about itself. And that’s good, since the Wolverines will face one of the nation’s most challenging schedules, beginning with a season opener vs. defending national champ Alabama in Arlington, Texas. There also are trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, as well as visits from Michigan State and Iowa. Ugh.
7. Big uglies. Even without Rimington Award winning center David Molk, this still could be one of the Big Ten’s top fronts with three starters back led by star tackle Taylor Lewan. The junior is a dominating blocker who could be a first-round NFL draft selection. The right side returns intact with senior guard Patrick Omameh and junior tackle Michael Schofield.
8. Brady Hoke. The guy is on fire. First, he makes Ball State relevant by forging a 12-1 mark in 2008. Next, Hoke revives a moribund San Diego State in just two seasons, closing with a 9-4 record in 2010. Then, in one season, he returns Michigan to national prominence with an 11-2 record. What’s next? A national title? Hmmm.
9. Kicking it up. Brendan Gibbons’ career looked to be in peril under Rich Rodriguez. But Brady Hoke revived the junior, who hit 13-of-17 field-goal attempts last season to give Michigan’s already deadly offense another weapon.
10. Devin Gardner. The guy may be the ultimate wild card this season. Is he a quarterback? Is he a receiver? Like last season, look for coaches to get the uber-talented junior on the field in tandem with Denard Robinson. And Gardner also may see some duty at receiver to take advantage of his immense athletic skills, giving the Wolverines one of the Big Ten’s most unique weapons.
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