It’s a make-or-break year for the Michigan football program. The Wolverines haven’t won a Big Ten championship since 2004, with large swaths of mediocrity filling the past 15 years.
For head coach Brady Hoke, January could bring a different job. His win totals have dropped from 11 to eight to seven. Dave Brandon, Michigan’s unpopular athletic director, is already dealing with declining attendance. If the man he hired to return Michigan football to prominence flounders, even more venom will reign down on Brandon.
And then there’s Devin Gardner, the person who can make everything return to normalcy in Ann Arbor – or be the cause of more consternation. Many believed Gardner was set for a breakout year after taking over for Denard Robinson during the second half of 2012. But it never materialized last season. Despite all the gaudy statistics, there were still shortcomings in his game.
In the spring, Hoke said Gardner and backup Shane Morris were competing for the starting job. It acted as more of a warning to Gardner than anything. He’ll be Michigan’s starting quarterback. And he’ll do so at 100 percent health.
After a Herculean effort against Ohio State – 32-of-45 passing for 451 yards and four touchdowns – Gardner sat out the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl with a broken foot. Any lingering pain is gone. Now, it’s just about improving his accuracy and limiting turnovers.
That didn’t happen in the spring game, when Gardner threw an interception on his first pass. He finished the game completing just two of 10 passes for 53 yards, with 44 coming on a single play. It didn’t sully Hoke’s impression, though.
“I think Devin had, really, a pretty good spring," Hoke said. “He became more consistent on a daily basis, I guess, is the best way to put it. He’s always been kind of a football junkie, but I think he’s worked at it more so this spring.”
There are two major factors at play in 2014: a new offensive coordinator and the same porous offensive line.
|9/6||@ Notre Dame|
|10/25||@ Michigan State|
|11/29||@ Ohio State|
Doug Nussmeier comes from Alabama with a large quantity of credibility and his game plan for Gardner is similar to what he did with A.J. McCarron. There will be reduced quarterback runs with a focus on limiting hits.
“That’s what Coach Nuss is always talking about even when we have read plays where I’ll read the defensive end,” Gardner said. “It used to be if it’s a question, we’ll take it and go. Now if it’s a question, we want the running back to hold the ball and to continue to run.
“The threat is always going to be there. I feel like that’s going to keep defenses honest. I’m pretty sure they have me on film running before. I feel comfortable with it. It keeps me a little healthy toward the end of the season.”
While Michigan’s offensive struggles were well documenting, the firing of Al Borges still came as a shock. Hoke is immensely loyal to assistants, and he and Borges’ history went back to San Diego State. But the level of offensive ineptitude demanded a change.
With Nussmeier, the Wolverines have a no-nonsense coach with a history of producing national-championship offenses. There’s a lot of Nick Saban in Nussmeier. A play might gain 12 yards, but that doesn’t mean there will be a smile on his face or any hint of satisfaction.
“He’s insane,” Gardner said. “He demands perfection. That’s his personality.”
Don’t think Gardner isn’t aware this is his fifth and final season in maize and blue – he does. Leaving a positive legacy is something that drives the immensely competitive Gardner. Whether the offensive line keeps him upright could determine how many wins Michigan has in 2014.
Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, the Wolverines’ top two linemen on a woeful unit a year ago, are gone. The line’s collapse down the stretch was a contributor in Michigan’s 1-5 record in its last six games. No other team gave up more tackles for loss than Michigan.
It trickled into the run game, where the Wolverines only averaged 125 yards per game. Back-to-back games of negative rushing yards in November represented rock bottom.
“We know we don’t have the option to not get better,” guard Kyle Kalis said. “It’s getting to that point where we can’t really say we’re young anymore, because next year, no one is going to want to hear that. So we have to all come together.”
Running backs Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes and wide receiver Devin Funchess should help elevate what was the nation’s 86th-ranked offense last season.
The defense is also eyeing improvement, though Greg Mattison’s unit was better than perceived. When paired with an offense that didn’t put them in great position, the Wolverines tended to wilt. But a wealth of experience returns.
“The thing that people don’t realize is that so many of our kids played at a young age and with that is why you lose games by a separation of 11 points,” Mattison said. “But now these are kids who are veterans, and they’ve had a lot of experience. That’s going to be a positive thing for us.”
Jake Ryan, Frank Clark and Blake Countess are the headliners. Many believe five-star cornerback Jabrill Peppers could be an immediate impact player.
Mattison is a believer in the entire unit.
“The thing that I’m excited about is watching our kids work out this summer – they remind me of the old Michigan groups that we had,” Mattison said, referring the teams from 1992-96, during his first stint at Michigan. “The thing that’s exciting is that there’s competition at every position.”
Michigan needs that competition to translate to on-field results.