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.

Grading The Performance: UMass

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Quarterback

There’s no doubt that Denard Robinson improved this off season, in both the run and passing game. Denard’s footwork, mechanics, and decision making have all improved and are as good as they’ve been since he arrived at Michigan. With all that said, there are still moments when Denard reverts back to old habits. Like most QBs, he struggles with pressure in his face. Denard’s “oh no” moments have happened most often when he’s felt pressure. Saturday was no exception as Denard’s decision making, footwork, and accuracy went out the window, resulting in a horrendous pick 6 in the second quarter. Unfortunately the focus for many will be the pick 6, a play that shouldn’t overshadow what was an otherwise great performance.

Denard has made so many spectacular plays over the years that Michigan fans now take it for granted. Denard has turned the spectacular into the ordinary, it has now become something that we expect to see. Denard’s 36 yd TD run (@the 4:45 mark) in the 2nd quarter in a prime example.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlZ1y9riYS8[/tube]

For most of the QBs that Michigan has had over the last 20 or so years, the play above would have resulted in a throw away, a minimal gain, or a sack. For Denard, the play results in a TD. Poor competition or not, that was an unbelievable play and the kind of play that is sure to become extinct after #16 is gone. Yes Denard’s play at times can force you to hurl things across the room and scare family pets. Denard’s bad can be REALLY bad. At the same time, Denard’s good is unlike anything most have ever seen in college football. Denard has made plays in the maize and blue that couldn’t be replicated in a video game. Denard takes a lot of flak and while some of the criticism is warranted, it must be juxtaposed with the fact that Michigan fans are blessed to be in the presence of greatness on a weekly basis.

Backup QB Russell Bellomy finally saw extended playing time on Saturday and was able to flash the athletic ability he has been touted for. There weren’t many opportunities for Bellomy to throw the ball but he made some very good plays with his legFitzgerald Toussaints. Whether he is anything more than a back-up QB remains to be seen.

Grade: A-

Running Back

The Michigan coaches wanted to get Fitz Toussaint 20-25 carries but fell short. Even with relatively few carries, Fitz was able to show the kind of burst and quickness that earned him so many accolades toward the end of last season. Fitz always runs hard and Brady Hoke and Co. love this but his single best quality remains the lateral quickness. Fitz has rare naturally running ability that you just can’t coach. Vincent Smith finished the game with 3 carries, two of which were TDs. Smith also added a 19 gain on a screen pass early in the game that setup another score.

It took 3 games but Thomas Rawls finally showed something in the run game. Rawls flashed decent initial burst and showed the kind of physicality that Fred Jackson and others have raved about. Justice Hayes was the most impressive of the young backs. Hayes didn’t hesitate or tip-toe between the tackles, scored a TD, and clearly has speed to burn. Dennis Norfleet received his first offensive snaps and didn’t disappoint, gaining 14 yds on his one and only carry. The coaches are clearly trying to setup plays for later on down the road using Norfleet. Norfleet’s ability to get to the corner and make plays in the open field is something the Michigan offense is lacking outside of Denard Robinson. It will be interesting to see what Al Borges has planned for Norfleet in the future.

Joe Kerridge filled in for the injured Stephen Hopkins and did a good job of blocking when Michigan went to more “traditional” formations. Kerridge may not blow up a lot of guys in the hole but he does a great job of moving bodies and angling his blocks.

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Top 5 Fall Position Battles

Left-Guard

ContendersElliott Mealer

SR. Elliott Mealer

RS. Soph. Joey Burzynski

FR. Kyle Kalis 

Micheal Schofield’s move to right tackle left a giant hole at LG. The good news is that whoever fills the position will be teamed with Michigan’s best offensive lineman Taylor Lewan. The bad news, the coaches are choosing between a career backup, a walk-on, and a true freshman. Elliott Mealer has the most experience of the 3, but was exclusively regulated to mop up duty. Joey Burzynski received a ton of praise from the coaches in the spring, and was actually the starter at LG for the spring game. Kyle Kalis is by far the most talented of the bunch, but he’s a true freshman whose head will probably be spinning for much of camp.

Split End, Wide-Receiver

Contenders

RS. Soph Jerald Robinson 

JR. Jeremy Jackson 

JR. Ricardo Miller 

FR. Amara Darboh 

FR. Jehu Chesson 

This spot would have surely been filled by Darryl Stonum had he not been dismissed from the team. The battle for who lines up across from Roy Roundtree will be one of the most hottest contested position battles in camp. Robinson was the talk of the spring but has done very little in his career at Michigan. The same is true of Jeremy Jackson and Ricardo Miller, who both entered Michigan with a lot of hype. Both of the true freshmen WRs should redshirt, but Michigan simply does not have enough depth to allow it.

Running Back

Contenders

Continue reading “Top 5 Fall Position Battles”