Mid-Season Observations: What Have We Learned?

Michigan reached the half-way point of its season after Saturday’s win over Illinois and now sits at 4-2 on the season. Despite returning fourteen starters, Michigan came intoElliott Mealer - UMGoBlue.com this season with some key questions. Through the first six games a number of those questions were answered, some continue to be the source of much debate.

After six games so far this season, here are a few of the things we’ve learned (not in order)

While Michigan has yet to hit the meat of its conference schedule, there has been little noticeable step down in the play of the center position post-David Molk. Much was made over Ricky Barnum taking over for Molk at center and while Barnum was talked up throughout both fall and spring camp, Elliott Mealer ultimately proved to the most capable option at center. Molk’s leadership and experience were always going to be impossible to replace. Mealer has actually played better than Molk in a several areas, most noticeably in the man blocking scheme.

2. Jake Ryan is a legitimate star in the making.

Ryan played well a year ago and more than exceeded the expectations most had for him when he signed a little known 3 star prospect out of Ohio. Ryan has taken more than a step forward this season, turning into a dynamic playmaker on defense. Ryan is well on his way to All-Big 10 honors and has been the lone constant force on the Michigan defense on a week to week basis.

Devin Funchess - UMGoBlue.com3. Michigan’s freshman TEs are more than capable of having an early impact.

TE was viewed as a major question mark heading into the season after the loss of Kevin Koger. The emergence of Devin Funchess as a pass catcher and AJ Williams as a run blocker has softened the blow caused by the departure of Kevin Koger. Funchess has arguably been the biggest positive surprise on the offensive side of the ball.

4. A shaky front seven on defense is only cause for concern for a short period of time.

Michigan’s front seven was a mess during the first 3 games of the season. The defensive line got pushed around, the LBers and safeties whiffed on tackle after tackle, and the Wolverines were unable to generate any sort of pass rush. Last season it took 8 games for Michigan’s defense to show significant improvement, this season it took 3 games. The front seven that took the field against Notre Dame on September 22nd was miles away from the defense they played the previous three games.

5. Fitzgerald Toussaint may not be the running back most thought he was.

Michigan is only six games into the season but Fitz has showed no sign of being the same runner than he was a year ago. It took until game 8 for Fitz to emerge as a viable every down back last year and most expected him to hit the ground running and take off right where he left off at the end of last season. That hasn’t occurred and Fitz has looked slow, unmotivated, and hesitant. It is very possible that Michigan will employ a Running Back By Committee approach through the remainder of the season.

Top 5 Questions Entering Fall Camp

Michigan’s 2012 season officially gets under way on August 4th with the beginning of fall camp. Last year at this time there were a host of questions going into camp. What would the offense look like, how would Al Borges adapt to Denard Robinson, how much would the defense improve, etc. Michigan has reduced the number of question marks entering the 2012 campaign but key issues remain.

Here are 5 key questions for Michigan entering fall camp.

R. Barnum5. Can Ricky Barnum & Brandon Moore fill the shoes left by David Molk and Kevin Koger?

A 4 year starter, Molk was not only the best linemen on the team, but also the heart, soul, and mind of the offensive line. Barnum now steps in as the brains of the operation and while he has starting experience, the majority of that time was spent at guard. In the offense that Michigan runs, the success of the offensive line, and the offense as a whole, depends on the play of the he center. A large drop off in play at the center position could be devastating. Getting good snaps and making sure that the correct calls are made up front can’t be overvalued. Michigan has played without Molk in the past and the results were unspectacular to say the least. Barnum cemented himself as the starter during spring practice but how well he plays with live bullets is unanswered at the present.

Koger’s impact on Michigan’s offense has largely been underrated. While Koger never put up monster numbers in the passing game, his play was critical. Michigan’s success in the running game over the last 2 years, especially from the shotgun, was due in large part to the play of the TE. Without a strong blocking presence at TE, Michigan’s running game will suffer. Brandon Moore goes into his 5th year as a Wolverine, but has seen limited action during that time. Like Barnum, Moore won the starting TE job in the spring but how good he will play has yet to be determined.

4. What kind of production will Michigan get from the WR core?

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Top 5 Questions Entering Spring Practice

Michigan officially kicks off spring practice on March 17th, with the spring game to follow on April 14th. The Wolverines suffered several key losses on both sides of the ball and while a core of veterans return off of last year’s 11-2 squad, there are several key questions heading into spring camp.

Michigan officially kicks off spring practice on March 17th, with the spring game to follow on April 14th. The Wolverines suffered several key losses on both sides of the ball and while a core of veterans return off of last year’s 11-2 squad, there are several key questions heading into spring camp. Cameron Gordon

(Not in order)

1. Who starts at center?

Remington Award winner David Molk graduates leaving behind a gaping hole at center. An underrated position, centers are critical in making calls at the line, changing protections, and snapping the ball. The first series against Virginia Tech demonstrated how valuable David Molk was to the Michigan offense. 3 players will now vie for the starting role as Ricky Barnum moves from guard to center, joining Senior Rocko Khoury and Redshirt Freshman Jack Miller.

2. Who steps up outside at WR?

Big play Junior Hemmingway is gone, as is Odoms and Daryl Stonum. While Roy Roundtree returns he is still better suited at the slot position than outside. Someone has to step up and take over the role of go-to guy on the outside. Denard Robinson probably isn’t going to stop chucking up jump balls so someone will need to make plays on the ball in the air downfield. Juniors Jeremy Jackson and Jerald Robinson are the most likely candidates as they are really the only outside guys on the depth chart. Rumor has it that Cam Gordon asked to move to WR. Cam played WR in HS as well as his first season at Michigan before moving to defense.

3. What kind of production will there be from the DTs?

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Grading The Performance: Illinois

Quarterback

The QBs really didn’t have to do much in this game thanks to the play of the RBs. Denard opened up the game red hot going 6-6 through the air. Some of the same bad habits that have gotten him into trouble all season crept back in after the hot start. When pressured, Denard went back to throwing off his back foot and had accuracy issues as a result, as well as several poor decision with the football.

The pass to Koger down the sideline in the 2nd quarter should have been a TD, but it was under thrown, Koger had to wait on the ball, and the defender had time to catch up. There were also several passes that should have been picked off, but were dropped. Ball security was also an issue, as Denard put the ball on the ground several times. Denard did do some nice things in the run game and made better reads on the zone read than he has in recent games.

Devin Gardner played reasonably well in relief action after Denard was knocked out of the game. Unlike Denard, Devin has a knack for throwing on the run as his best two passes came on plays where he left or stepped up in the pocket.

Grade: C+

Running Back

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Grading The Performance: Purdue

Quarterback

This was by the most efficient day for the quarterbacks that we’ve seen all season. It wasn’t a huge day statistically through the air or the ground but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The offense has been dependent on the play of the QB for the entire year. Saturday was the first game where the QBs have taken a back seat. Denard played the role of distributor more than that of creator or facilitator as he’s done in the past. That isn’t to say that Denard didn’t make some key plays on his own. Denard was in his comfort zone as a passer and it showed. He did get into trouble locking onto Kevin Koger, which cost him a pick, and he once again threw off his back foot into coverage when pressured. Those plays were the exception in the game however. Since arriving at Michigan, Denard’s best throws have come on the intermediate dig route, and Saturday was no exception, as he rifled a perfect strike to Jeremy Gallon in stride, and was on the money on the rest of his short passes.

Devin Gardner continues to receive snaps; which will only help his development. Devin handled managing the offense well enough, but did throw a key interception. He likely kicked himself after watching the film, as there were two wide open receivers; his pass was nowhere near either of them. He is likely still a year or 2 away from being ready.

Grade: C+

Running Back

What a day for Fitz Toussaint, who likely locked himself into the #1 RB role. Fitz showed a burst that we haven’t  seen from him since he arrived at Michigan, but one he flashed in HS. Earlier in the year, Fitz was run down in the open field on several occasions, nothing like that happened on Saturday however. Outside of the speed, Fitz also displayed great vision and cutting ability, which we have really lacked at the RB position since Mike Hart. Even though he didn’t get in the game until late, Mike Shaw continued to show strong running ability. It continues to baffle me why he doesn’t receive more carries, he’s been effective every time he’s touched the ball.

Stephen Hopkins seems to have really taken to the FB position. Hopkins put down some key blocks for the backs, and while he has had trouble holding onto the ball, he’s earned the opportunity for significant playing time at FB

Grade: A+

Wide Receivers

I won’t go as far as calling this a bounce back game for the receivers after their performance against Michigan State, but they did make some very nice plays and bailed out their QB out on occasion. Jeremy Gallon is beginning to live up to the hype he had coming out of HS as an All-American. When he gets the opportunity to make a play in space he’s a real weapon. Roy Roundtree always manages to get himself wide open whenever we play Purdue. I don’t think he has ever let the controversy surrounding his recruitment go. He seems to play with an especially large chip on his shoulder against Purdue.

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