|Cam Gordon almost had a touchdown on the ball he tipped up in the air (image via MGoBlog)|
Running back by committee. Granted, it was almost a fifty-point blowout, but the reps at running back were spread out a lot. The depth chart to begin the week was thrown out the window by Saturday. In order, the running backs to get carries were Fitzgerald Toussaint, Drake Johnson, Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith, Thomas Rawls, and Justice Hayes. Toussaint (14 carries, 57 yards, 2 touchdowns) looked to have his 2011-level burst back, but he looked rusty with his footwork and didn't seem to show the same lateral mobility; there were a couple times where he needed to pick up his feet through traffic or sidestep guys on the ground, and he just failed to do so. Johnson (2 carries, 9 yards) looked uninspiring to me before spraining a knee. Green (11 carries, 58 yards, 1 touchdown) also needs to pick up his feet in traffic, but he showed decent vision and burst. Smith (7 carries, 12 yards) broke some tackles but didn't show the same speed as the guys ahead of him. Rawls (3 carries, 12 yards, 1 touchdown) looked quicker than last year, and Hayes (1 carry, 7 yards) is still a scatback type without elite burst or an ability to break tackles. It's a well rounded group, but none of them looked outstanding.
Cameron Gordon looked very good. I thought Gordon was Michigan's best defensive player on Saturday. He had 4 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 1 pass breakup, which he deflected in the backfield and almost caught it in the endzone for a defensive touchdown. His added size in the offseason makes him a more imposing figure, and his athleticism for a linebacker is well above average. When Jake Ryan returns from injury, Michigan needs to find a way to get both Ryan and Gordon on the field at the same time.
The quarterback situation. Starting quarterback Devin Gardner looked shaky early with an interception deep in Michigan's own red zone, and then another long interception that never should have been thrown. Altogether, he was 10/15 for 162 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 picks through the air, plus 7 carries for 52 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. I'm not concerned about those somewhat paltry passing numbers, because Michigan didn't need to throw the ball to win, and I think Gardner was pressing a little bit to try to get some explosive plays. The deep interception was a well overthrown ball to Jeremy Gallon, who never got on top of the cornerback. We all know that Gallon is going to be Gardner's main target, but especially in a game against teams like Central Michigan, you might as well check it down and let your superior athletes drive the ball down the field or make plays with the ball in their hands. True freshman Shane Morris entered the game in the fourth quarter, and he finished 4/6 for 59 yards and 1 interception. He also looked a little jumpy, which is fine for a kid his age, and the interception wasn't a bad one. But the offense was toned down by the time he entered, and I would still be very worried if Gardner got hurt.
The defensive backfield is wacky. I don't know why, but it seems to me that defensive back is the position that's always in the most flux at Michigan. It was announced before the game that fifth year senior strong safety Thomas Gordon was suspended for the game for breaking team rules. Potential starting free safety Courtney Avery had arthroscopic knee surgery last week and will be out for a couple weeks. Redshirt sophomore Blake Countess returned after tearing his ACL in the 2012 season opener, but he looked a half step slow. In recent years, Josh Furman and J.T. Floyd have been suspended, Floyd and Troy Woolfolk both suffered terrible lower leg injuries, and there have been numerous transfers/quitters (Terrence Talbott, Greg Brown, Cullen Christian, Vladimir Emilien, Ray Vinopal, Tamani Carter, etc.). Down two returning starters and featuring a guy who missed virtually all of 2012, the starters in the backfield were Countess, junior Raymon Taylor, sophomore Jarrod Wilson, and redshirt junior Furman.
Freshman fun time. Redshirts have been burned for TE Jake Butt, DE Taco Charlton, LB Ben Gedeon, RB Derrick Green, S Delano Hill, CB Jourdan Lewis, QB Shane Morris, RB De'Veon Smith, CB Channing Stribling, S Dymonte Thomas, and WR Csont'e York. That leaves OG Kyle Bosch, OG David Dawson, FS Reon Dawson, CB Ross Douglas, WR Jaron Dukes, OT Chris Fox, TE Khalid Hill, DT Maurice Hurst, Jr., WR Da'Mario Jones, C Patrick Kugler, LB Mike McCray, DT Henry Poggi, OG Dan Samuelson, FB Wyatt Shallman, LS Scott Sypniewski, and OT Logan Tuley-Tillman as the kids on track to redshirt. Redshirt freshmen OG Blake Bars, OT Ben Braden, WR Jehu Chesson, S Jeremy Clark, QB Bryan Cleary, WR Bo Dever, DT Ryan Glasgow, DE Matt Godin, DT Willie Henry, TE Michael Jocz, RB Drake Johnson, OT Erik Magnuson, OG Ben Pliska, DT Tom Strobel, and DE Chris Wormley also played for the first time. (Redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant hit the field for the first time after breaking his tibia last year.)
Freshman fun time, part two. Of those true freshmen listed above, Dymonte Thomas blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown by fifth year senior Joe Reynolds. Butt looks bigger and improved since the spring, Gedeon looked college ready from the start, and Stribling already looked solid. Delano Hill also made a heads-up play by recovering a punt that sophomore Dennis Norfleet muffed, but Hill looks huge for a safety. I wouldn't be surprised if he grows into a linebacker eventually.
Speaking of Norfleet . . . I mentioned this when he committed, and people bashed me for it. I still get occasional snide remarks about it over on MGoBlog. Here's what I said on February 1, 2012:
I'm not a big fan of the way Norfleet finishes plays. He jogs into the endzone too often, which rubs me the wrong way and makes me question how disciplined he is.Norfleet got the ball on a reverse and took it 38 yards before getting tackled from behind by a linebacker coming from the opposite side of the field. After his last cut to shake a defensive back, it sure looked to me like he eased off the throttle, thinking he was in the clear for a touchdown; then the linebacker dove at his ankle and Norfleet fell on his face. That is why not finishing plays is a problem. If the opponent were anyone other than CMU or perhaps Akron, that really might come back to haunt the team. Additionally, Norfleet's muffed punt was a terribly undisciplined decision. The short punt bounced on the ground multiple times and Norfleet was sprinting toward his own endzone to field it. Instead of allowing the Chippewas to down it, he tried to grab it on the run when his momentum would have likely taken him out of bounds at that very spot, anyway. Delano Hill's awareness saved Michigan from having to defend a short field and, at the very least, a likely field goal attempt.
Overall. I had fun watching the game, but the offense seemed pretty vanilla outside of the reverse to Norfleet. I'm sure there are things being saved for Notre Dame - screens, read options, etc. Offensive coordinator Al Borges's favorite running play for Denard Robinson was the inverted veer, and Gardner ran it just once (and poorly at that). I think the slightly more traditional backside zone read option would be more productive for Gardner, but it remains to be seen whether Borges will warm up to that spread concept. Defensively, Michigan looks fast and deep. I thought defensive coordinator Greg Mattison threw quite a few different fronts and blitzes at Central, at least until late when the subs were in. That might be tipping his hand, but I also think it's somewhat necessary for those young and inexperienced guys to get used to different frontz, blitzes, coverages, etc. Plus it will given Brian Kelly and his staff plenty to try to prepare for next week.