Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Five Questions for the Spring Game

Michigan fans should keep a close eye on sophomore safety
Carvin Johnson (#13) this Saturday

Everybody else is doing it, so I might as well join.  These are the five things I'm most interested to see on Saturday.

1. Who will play free safety?  And will they be any good at it?
I am on the record as thinking Ray Vinopal should be the starting free safety in 2011.  Of course, Vinopal transferred to Pitt a few weeks ago, and now there will be another brand new starter at FS this year.  Nobody appears to want the starting job; the punishment for earning the job is a broken ankle (Troy Woolfolk), transferring to a Big East school (Vinopal, Ryan Mundy), or public embarrassment and a forced position change to linebacker (Cam Gordon, Steve Brown).

Sophomore Carvin Johnson will be the likely starter at FS on Saturday.  He hasn't quite earned the hype that Gordon earned in spring last year, but that didn't turn out so well for Michigan, so maybe practice observers are showing some restraint when evaluating the safety position this year.  I have some questions about Johnson's long-term viability at the FS position - he's more of a strong safety, in my opinion - because of his speed.  But Brandent Englemon wasn't particularly fast, either, and I would be ecstatic if Johnson played as well as Englemon did in 2007.

2. Which of the running backs emerges from the pile?
I'm also on the Michael Cox bandwagon, which you probably know if you've ever visited the site before.  Last year Cox was the most impressive runner in the spring game (unofficially, he had 6 carries, 38 yards, and a 22-yard TD run).  For some reason unbeknownst to me, the number of carries he got in the spring game matched his entire 2010 regular season total, too (6 carries, 56 yards).  In competitive situations, that gives Cox approximately 25 carries, 207 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 rushes of 20+ yards (I don't have stats for the 2009 spring game).

But I've been touting Cox as the team's best runner since late 2009, so my opinion clearly doesn't carry much weight with the coaching staff.  Other options include Stephen Hopkins, who has reportedly shared first team duties this spring with Cox; Michael Shaw, who's really fast and not much else; and Vincent Smith, who's average at everything except height.  I don't really know which one will come out of the spring looking the best, and the coaches have essentially stated that nobody has separated himself from the pack.  For now I'm expecting to see Cox have the most impressive day, but I'm trying to have an open mind.

3. Who's going to play WILL?
Maybe I'm the only one, but I'm pretty nervous about the weakside linebacker position going into the 2011 season.  For all the criticism of Jonas Mouton the past couple seasons, I think he would have been perfect as an inside linebacker in this defense.  Unfortunately, he's graduating just as a suitable defense and coaching staff gets installed.  Meanwhile, his potential replacements include converted safeties, a transfer, and a guy poking his head out of the doghouse.

The starting WILL seems to be redshirt sophomore Mike Jones, a 208-pounder who looks like a safety walked up to the line of scrimmage.  But no, really, he's a linebacker.  In case you're wondering, that's approximately seven pounds lighter than Steve Brown was back in 2009 when he was an undersized outside linebacker.  Brandin Hawthorne, another converted safety, has seen some time at WILL but is even smaller at 203 lbs.  Marell Evans transferred back to Michigan from Hampton and has one year of eligibility left.  And finally, redshirt sophomore Isaiah Bell has seen a bit of playing time on the weakside, but he doesn't seem to be like a viable option.

Evans might be your starting WILL in September, but with incumbent MIKE starter Kenny Demens out this spring with a shoulder injury, the Hampton transfer has reportedly been the #1 middle 'backer.  I'll be curious to see how Jones and the others stand up to linemen and fullbacks, but hopefully they can channel some Ian Gold and Larry Foote action.

4. Will we see any positive signs from William Campbell?
In all honesty, Campbell ought to have been a redshirt freshman in 2010.  If that were the case, it wouldn't be quite so concerning that he hadn't done much on the field yet.  But now he's going to be a junior, and he had better start producing soon if it's going to happen.  I really can't think of a better staff in college football to get the most out of Campbell, so if it's going to happen for the big guy, this is his chance.  I'm not that familiar with defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, but head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison both have outstanding track records with defensive linemen.

I mean no offense to Ricky Barnum - or whoever's lined up opposite of Campbell - but if there's anyone I hope to see get destroyed on Saturday, it's him.  If Campbell can turn into a playmaker at the 3-tech DT position, that takes some of the pressure off Michigan's rush ends and undersized weakside linebackers.  I have a hard time seeing someone with Campbell's outsized body and personality fade into obscurity, so let's hope his play matches his gusto.

5. Will Denard tie his shoelaces?  How close will the quarterback competition be?
I have no doubts that Denard Robinson will be the starting quarterback on Saturday.  You don't bench a Heisman candidate that quickly, no matter how good the backup plays.  I didn't believe the Devin Gardner hype in spring 2010 because true freshmen simply aren't very good, but now . . . I might put some stock in it. Gardner has always seemed to be a better fit in a pro-style offense than the spread, so I think this offense suits him more than Robinson.  Denard's decision-making and accuracy scare me a little bit, although I admit his improvement from 2009 to 2010 was pretty incredible.  There's a possibility that he will make a similar leap in 2011, but last year's spring practice reports about Denard were glowing.  This year's . . . not so much.

Gardner has the stature, the arm, and the poise to be a franchise quarterback.  In the long run, I fully expect him to be a better signal caller than Robinson.  Whether that happens in 2011, 2012, or beyond, I think #7 will carry on the tradition of great Michigan quarterbacks.  The problem with the QB situation is that even if Gardner proves to be the best quarterback on Saturday (and in August practices), Michigan doesn't have the depth at the position to move Robinson to running back or wide receiver.  Perhaps the two best athletes on the team are Michigan's only two quarterbacks.  I can think of worse problems.


  1. The LBs and DBs still sound pretty bleak. And with the offense getting a makeover, this could be another really miserable year.

  2. No mention of Fitz Toussaint as an option at RB? Oversight or...something else?

  3. @ Anonymous 8:36 a.m.

    I'm not too worried about the SAM and MIKE (likely Cam Gordon and Kenny Demens). The WILL is the big question mark for me.

    Defensive backs...yeah, that might be a problem. Hopefully Woolfolk can return to form.

  4. @ Anonymous 9:09 a.m.

    Toussaint is an option at running back, but frankly, I haven't heard much talk about him running with the #1 offense.

  5. I have pretty much written off Toussaint in my head. Some guys are just cursed. Injury-prone players, unfortunately, stay injury-prone.

  6. Minor (no name-play intended) quibble on Shaw: In addition to his speed, I think he's a better-than-average open-field runner (in terms of escapability/moves/whatever).

    Still, calling him Carlos Brown II makes lots of sense.

  7. In a few carries last season, and in a couple clips I've seen of Shaw from spring practice, he looks to have added some power into his running. Maybe it's just against weak competition, but he looks a bit thicker and seems to run in a more run through the defender manner.

  8. Shaw showed some power occasionally last year. He broke a few tackles and he usually falls forward. Against UConn, he had a nice TD run where he was hit at the 2 yard line and still spun his way into the end zone. His problem seems to be his instincts. I like him but his mediocre stats compiled over three years against good competition don't lie.

  9. I think Question #5 is underrated, so I'm glad you asked it. Borges has said Denard is our starter (as he should be) but I really wouldn't be THAT surprised if Gardner is under center by the end of the year. There's an appropriate amount of talk on how much Denard will translate but not enough on how Gardner, still raw, will naturally fit this offense.

  10. Despite reports of our DL not getting much pressure in the spring, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Keep in mind that our OL, even the backups, are an exceptional and experienced units and the QBs aren't exactly easy targets.

    Campbell is the only question-mark on that line and I'll echo Thunder's cautious optimism of talent + this staff = production. We might have the conference's best DL unit.

    I also agree with the concern about the WILL but I think SOMEONE from that large group will step up. It may take a few games but seriously, between Fitzgerald, Jones, Bell, Evans, Herron, and the incoming Freshman there has to be one serviceable LB in the group.

    As for the secondary - I think we'll be OK. Woolfolk and Avery should be at least average B10 CBs. Thats an enormous upgrade right there. Kovacs and Johnson at Safety should be adequate as well. I also like the positive reports of Thomas Gordon as a nickleback. It won't be a standout unit but when your baseline is the '10 secondary its going to look glowing.


  11. @MetsMaize - you know Gardner played out of the shotgun in high school and has less experience in anything resembling a pro-style than Denard right?

    I know he's tall and can 'see over the pocket', but people are jumping the gun on proclaiming him to be a 'natural' for this offense. To me, he looks almost exactly like Vince Young, who was anything but.


  12. @ Anonymous 10:25 a.m.

    I think Shaw is a better fit in an I-formation type of offense than in the spread. He's not really the type of back who can plant a foot in the ground, turn 90 degrees, and go. He's a sprinter. Put him in the I-formation or as a single back and let him get downhill. I have seen some additional power from him this spring, but I also saw it a little bit last year, too. There were times he ran recklessly like Brandon Minor used to do, although he didn't do that with any consistency.

  13. @ Lankownia 12:01 p.m.

    I'm not sure why that matters. Denard took snaps exclusively from under center when he was in high school, and he's not that great of a passer from under center or from the shotgun. Gardner looks like a better, more comfortable passer, period.

  14. @Thunder

    Well, its a matter of opinion who looks more comfortable I suppose. I just don't see how you can make conclusions about poise from a guy who has hardly played. Denard has superior arm-strength and a significant advantage in experience against Big10 defenses. Theres something to be said for having already learned some major lessons over his last two seasons. I think that has more value than a subjective take on Spring Games.

    Regarding Shaw - yeah, he's fast but he goes down easy, which doesn't say downhill runner to me. Just my opinion, but if you want a downhill I-form guy he has to be able to run through some tacklers. Have to admit I haven't watched the spring carries very closely, but I'd be pleasantly surprised to see POWER from him. He's still young though..wait no he's a senior. If he's the featured back again I'm going to join up with the others who are crossing their fingers in hopes that Rawls and/or Hayes can be the position's savior.


  15. @ Lankownia 2:50 p.m.

    I'm talking about comfort/poise in the pocket. Denard constantly pats the ball and gets happy feet. That's not something I see much from Devin.

    I don't think Shaw is going to break a ton of tackles, but he can break some. The thing is, if he's fast enough to hit the hole and gain 5 yards before somebody hits him, then he doesn't have to break tackles all the time. There have been a few runs (against EMU, OSU, and ND, to name a few) that have shown me he has the ability to be a downhill runner.

  16. I still think that when all is said and done, Woolfolk ends up at safety. We have tons of corner depth (albeit guys who aren't very good) and some decent recruits coming in who can probably do more as true fresman CBs than a slow position switcher can do at free safety.

  17. @ Anonymous 4:24 p.m.

    Now that Vinopal is gone, I do certainly think chances have increased that Woolfolk will be our free safety in September. We'll see how Carvin looks on Saturday. If he looks decent, maybe we can keep Woolfolk on the corner.

    One thing to keep in mind is that we'll almost definitely see more man coverage in 2011 than we did the past couple years, so we can't afford to have crappy corners this year. Bad cornerback play can be mitigated by a Cover 3 defense, but not in Man Free coverages.

  18. Shouldn't Woolfolk be at FS leaving Carvin to back up the SS and FS spots? We have 2 competent Big 10 corners but not a competent FS so I'd rather spread the wealth then have a talented DB on the bench and a huge hole at FS (especially considering Kovacs lack of speed!).

    I thought someone like Furman or Robinson would have won the WILL spot by now. They are both over 210 and fast right? I know both were seen as Safety/Linebacker tweeners but wouldn't they be ideal as a WILL?

    If Campbell does fail at DT would RVB move inside?

  19. Thunder, looks like Cox validated your support of him during the spring game today.

  20. @ KB 11:42 a.m.

    I'm completely open to Kovacs being surpassed by Marvin Robinson or Josh Furman if they're good enough. Kovacs' lack of speed is going to be trouble, in my opinion.

    But if Carvin Johnson is one of your best 11 guys, he shouldn't be backing up both the FS and SS. I would rather have a solid corner (Woolfolk) and a solid safety (Johnson) than a solid safety (Woolfolk) and a bad corner with a good guy sitting on the bench. Safeties can play an entire game or virtually an entire game, so keeping Johnson as a backup wastes him for the vast majority of the game.

    I think Furman should be a WILL, but I think Robinson is a strong safety.

    Van Bergen COULD move inside, but I doubt that will be necessary. I think Campbell or Washington will be able to play well enough at 3-tech to prevent any rejiggering on the DL.

  21. @ Anonymous 5:57 p.m.

    I don't know that Cox has proven me right, but...well...he certainly didn't prove me wrong. He looked pretty good on Saturday.