Brady Hoke and the University of Michigan Wolverines enter the 2014 season with a lot at stake after a disappointing 7-6 season in 2013. Doug Nussmeier was hired as the new offensive coordinator and defensively they expect to play with a lot more aggression according to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. If those changes don’t translate to a more competitive Wolverines team this season, the whispers about firing Hoke could turn into yells in 2015.
Senior quarterback Devin Gardner passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns but also lost 346 yards to negative plays and left Wolverine fans wondering if he was capable of leading the team. Against Ohio State he displayed skill after passing for 503 yards and putting Michigan within a two-point conversion of an upset victory despite playing injured. His backup sophomore Shane Morris has the potential and the moxy to lead the team in a pinch, but if U-M wants to have a successful season it will be with Gardner as the starter.
Improved play from the run game will help Gardner a lot. Returning are highly-touted sophomores Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Green, who came into fall camp overweight and was slowed by nagging injuries, shed the “freshman 15” and during the spring resembled the runner that was the no. 1 running back recruit in 2013. As the season progressed Smith earned more carries and proved to be more effective as he had a 4.3 ypc average on the season and ran for 57 yards on just seven carries. Joining them will be USC transfer Ty Isaac who rushed for 246 yards on 40 attempts in the crowded Trojan backfield.
Hybrid receiver Devin Funchess (49 catches 748 yards) will be the new go-to guy for Gardner; Funchess has all the potential but must be more consistent in catching the ball. The team returns a lot in addition to Funchess — junior Dennis Norfleet and a trio of sophomores: Jehu Chesson, Amarah Darboh and Da’Mario Jones, all of whom will be expected to contribute more in 2014. True freshmen Freddy Canteen and Drake Harris could also see early playing time. The tight end position suffered a blow when sophomore Jake Butt (20 catches 235 yards) went down with a torn ACL, but he is expected to return at some point during the Big 10 conference play.
The Wolverines defense seemed to sputter towards the end of the year and finished eighth in the Big 10 in scoring defense (26.8ppg) and seventh in pass defense (231.3ypg) and only had 23 sacks. Improving the pass rush will go a long way in being a better defense. Seniors defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennan Beyer will be counted on to lead that resurgence as the two combined for only 6.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The return of injured junior defensive tackle Ondre Pipkens will help up front and provide the linebackers with more open lanes.
Jake Ryan leads the linebacker group and will be expected to take on a bigger role after returning to action mid-season after tearing his ACL in winter camp. Joining him will be senior Desmond Morgan and junior James Ross III who lead the team in tackles with 81.
As with the receivers, the defensive backfield has plenty of bodies but there must be more production from the position. Senior Raymon Taylor and junior Blake Countess are slated to start, but sophomore Jourdan Lewis and freshman high school All-American Jabril Peppers are expected to see plenty of playing time. Peppers could also see time at strong safety where he will battle sophomore Dymonte Thomas for playing time opposite junior Jarrod Wilson.
The non-conference schedule includes home games against Miami (OH), Utah and a rematch with Appalachian State as U-M looks to avenge the 2007 upset loss. They travel to south Bend to play rival Notre Dame for the last time in the foreseeable future and the return of quarterback Everette Golson makes that a tougher game and will be the only loss heading into Big 10 play.
The road schedule will be more difficult as they face Rutgers, Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State. Rutgers is the only “gimme” win as the other three teams have great coaching and enough talent to win their respective division.
9-3 will be an improvement from last season but with losses to all three rivals, will Wolverine fans be willing to give Hoke another year?