1. That Devin Gardner's ACL stays intact. Michigan has already lost two players to ACL tears this spring (linebacker Jake Ryan and backup quarterback Russell Bellomy). An injury to Gardner would be catastrophic, since redshirt freshman walk-on Brian Cleary is the current backup and Shane Morris won't arrive until June.
2. The interior offensive line. Michigan's defensive line should be playing at a pretty high level because of the guys who return on that side, so will the three "starters" at left guard, center, and right guard get the job done? Those three positions seem to be held by Ben Braden, Jack Miller, and Joe Burzynski currently, but there are a few players hot on their heels.
3. Who's next at wide receiver? We know Jeremy Gallon can be an explosive player, and we know what Michigan has in Drew Dileo and Jeremy Jackson. Redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson has made some nice plays in practice, and sophomore Amara Darboh has done the same. At least one of those two guys needs to step up by the fall if Michigan wants to have a high-powered offense.
4. Adequate Michigan running backs. The chance that we see a stellar performance from any of the currently available running backs looks slim. With fifth year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint out with a broken leg, the job comes down to junior Thomas Rawls, redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes, sophomore Dennis Norfleet, and redshirt freshman Drake Johnson. Rawls and Hayes have been unimpressive in their live game action so far - although Rawls did have a long touchdown in garbage time last year - and Norfleet was mostly limited to kickoff returns last season. Drake Johnson has earned praise from the coaches at times, but he has looked so-so in a few spring practice clips. It would be nice to see a developing, viable option this spring, but we might have to wait until Toussaint comes back or until Derrick Green arrives on campus.
5. What does the offense look like these days? Denard Robinson is gone, and we all loved him, but now Michigan should have an actual, bona fide quarterback. The kind of quarterback that can sit in the pocket and throw the ball without tricking the defense into thinking it might be a run. I don't expect Al Borges to give much away in a spring game, but we should get an inkling of the direction he wants to take the offense. If the Pistol isn't installed by now, I would expect to see it in the fall; I also expect a little more threat of the downfield pass this year.
Top five things to watch for when Michigan is on defense . . .
1. How does Cam Gordon look filling in for the team's best defender? Cam Gordon had a pretty darn good season when he was a redshirt freshman playing free safety and linebacker, although the free safety thing was a bit of a stretch. Since that 2010 season, he has mostly been an afterthought. Jake Ryan was a terror of a pass rusher and made his fair share of plays against the run, too, and Michigan will have to manufacture a replacement for him.
2. Safety reps. Thomas Gordon is capable of playing both safety positions, and he's guaranteed to start at one of them. Sophomore Jarrod Wilson can play free safety; senior Marvin Robinson can play strong. Which player will get the most reps?
3. First world inside linebacker problems. Michigan probably has three starter-quality inside linebackers, along with some other guys who have potential. As I have been predicting for a while, it appears junior Desmond Morgan will be your new middle linebacker (moving over from WILL) and sophomore James Ross will step in at weakside linebacker. Meanwhile, sophomore Joe Bolden could conceivably be a starter at inside linebacker, although he might be a little large and stiff for WILL.
4. Cornerback depth. Redshirt sophomore Blake Countess might not do much in the spring game, since he's recovering from an ACL injury. His replacement last year, junior Raymon Taylor, continues to fight for his job, and senior Courtney Avery appears to have abandoned the nickel corner position to compete at field corner. Two of the three will presumably start in the fall, but the starting combo we'll likely see in the spring game will probably be Taylor and Avery. It will also be interesting to see if young guys Delonte Hollowell and Terry Richardson have developed.
5. Freshman early enrollees. Defensive end Taco Charlton (6'6", 265 lbs.), cornerback Ross Douglas (5'10", 176 lbs.), and safety Dymonte Thomas (6'2", 187 lbs.) enrolled in January, and each one has a chance to contribute somewhere in the fall. Charlton apparently looks the part, but his technique was rough coming out of high school; Douglas came in bigger than expected; and Thomas has been practicing some at corner and some at the nickel position, both of which are departures from what he played in high school.