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March 19, 2013Spring practice is a time for optimism and positivity - and there's plenty of that to go around for the Michigan football team as it tries to bounce back from an 8-5 season last year.
The Wolverines put on the pads for the first time Tuesday, their third of 15 allotted spring practices.
"It's good to have the first day in pads," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I thought we had a lot of enthusiasm. I liked the physicality they brought to the first three days - because they got after each other pretty good during the no-pads practices. We have a lot of competition, a lot of young guys that have to go out and compete and some older guys who have played, obviously, but have to compete also. Everyone understands that. It's been good. I think our leadership is good. I like the way they have handled themselves and the team. That stems from the winter into this phase."
One player who has particularly excited Hoke through the winter and first three practices is redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner.
Gardner split time between quarterback and wide receiver last spring - and took ownership of the quarterback spot in the last five games of the 2012 season, stepping in for an injured Denard Robinson.
Now that the onus falls squarely on his shoulders, Gardner is stepping up in a big way.
"I am proud that he has figured out being the Michigan quarterback is something special," Hoke said. "His work ethic, intelligence and those things are good. He is a football junkie. He has done a nice job of wrapping his arms around his responsibility.
"He is constantly texting [offensive coordinator Al Borges] about what the read is one this or that. He will be in tomorrow for a couple hours, watching practice, making sure that he is doing the right thing and that his teammates are. We all mature. It's all part of what being in a program long enough and feeling the accountability and responsibility."
Hoke could not put an estimate on exactly how much film Gardner has been watching. But he said it was "a lot."
"He gets with Al quite a bit," Hoke said. "He's more confident. He sees thing a little better. You're reading coverages and can see two high safeties or one. Man coverage, alignments, whether to run to or away from the three. All those things."
Rotating At Safety: Last year, fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon took most of his snaps at the free safety spot, as captain Jordan Kovacs was utilized closer to the line as the strong safety.
But there were some schemes and game plans that called for the two to flip. And Gordon got plenty of experience closer to the line of scrimmage in 2010, when he was a starting outside linebacker.
For now, Gordon has been rotating between both positions as the coaching staff tries to figure out which other safeties fit best at which position.
Sophomore Jarrod Willson, redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark, redshirt freshman Anthony Gant, redshirt junior Josh Furman and senior Marvin Robinson are all getting serious looks. True freshman Dymonte Thomas is also playing a lot of reps, and Hoke says as he "keeps learning, he will be able to play faster.:
"Gordon has played both spots," Hoke said. "Right now, he is really in a dual role, because we've got some young guys - Wilson, Gant, Clark, Furman, Marvin. You have some numbers there and you have to decide who are going to be the guys.
"I think Gordon is comfortable with either one. I don't think he has a problem with being the down safety or the safety in the middle of the field."
Running Backs Competing: Hoke mentioned fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint as one of the veterans who has stepped up into a leadership role this offseason.
Unfortunately, Toussaint can't participate fully in practice. He is still recovering from an ankle injury he sustained in the Wolverines' win over Northwestern last season.
"He has been running around, doing some individual stuff," Hoke said. "[Running backs coach Fred Jackson] has him doing drills, cutting drills and those kinds of things. We're not going to be putting him out there in live action yet."
That leaves the rushing responsibilities to a plethora of young running backs, including junior Thomas Rawls, redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes and sophomore Dennis Norfleet.
"I think it's early [to asses them]," Hoke said. "Thomas and Fleet and Justice have looked good. Justice has put on weight - he's a bigger body. Drake [Johnson], All those guys have run the ball pretty well. When we get into a real scrimmage situation, we'll see more. We'll do situational stuff this Saturday, in conjunction with our clinic. And the spring game and one other Saturday.
"Right now, we're running three full groups, which is a first. Fred is taking those first three guys and giving them reps with the ones, twos and threes. It just depends, trying to run them through. Right now, everything is pretty even."