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August 30, 2013It's finally here. The cold, dead athletics winter known as "college football's offseason" has lifted its murky haze, and the spring of kickoff has bloomed.
That can only mean one thing: Michigan begins its 2013 campaign for a Big Ten title Saturday with a game against Central Michigan.
To some, this may seems like a pushover game, a warm up for next Saturday's primetime showdown with Notre Dame. But the Chippewas are not going to go away easy. They have some talent, and if Michigan doesn't take them seriously, this game could be a little closer than expected.
Here are the matchups to watch for across the board:
U-M defensive end Frank Clark vs. CMU offensive tackle Jake Olson
Chippewa offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who went on to be the No. 1 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, stole the headlines last year, but Olson showed plenty of potential at right tackle in the first two games of the season, before sustaining an injury against Michigan State that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
Olson is fully healthy now, and he'll be sliding over to the left to help fill the hole Fisher left. Many think he can follow in Fisher's footsteps to the NFL, if he has a solid senior season.
On the other side of the ball, Clark, who can reportedly run a 4.5 40 despite his 273-pound frame, is an athletic freak who has built up a lot of hype this offseason.
Now, he has to translate that that hype and athleticism to on-field production. Clark, a junior, has posted just 9.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in the last two years.
The Wolverines need more from their rush end, and matching up with Olson will be a great litmus test of Clark's ability to be a consistent presence in the backfield this season.
Especially with redshirt junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan out - for now - while nursing an ACL injury, the Wolverines are looking for pressure. They don't want to rely too heavily on blitzes (which leave the secondary susceptible), and if Clark can be the terror the coaches believe he can be, it will mean big things for this defense.
U-M linebackers vs. CMU running back Zurlon Tipton
Tipton was the heart and soul of the Central Michigan offensive attack in 2012, ranking 15th nationally in rushing yards (1,492) and 10th nationally in rushing touchdowns (19), while averaging 5.92 yards per carry.
It was a breakout year for the running back, and he is being mentioned on national award watch lists this season.
The Wolverines have talked highly of the back all week. They know shutting down the back is the key to stifling Central Michigan Saturday.
Michigan's linebackers were the team's top three tacklers in 2012, but two of them won't be available against the Chippewas: Ryan (88 tackles) is still recovering from his ACL injury, and middle linebacker Kenny Demens (82 tackles) graduated.
That leaves junior Desmond Morgan, who moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker this year after posting 81 tackles in 2012, to be the lead wrecking ball.
He will be joined by sophomore weakside outside linebacker James Ross III (36 tackles in 2012) and a rotation of fifth-year senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer at strongside outside linebacker.
U-M wide receiver Jeremy Gallon vs. CMU cornerback Jason Wilson
Last year, the Chippewas had a stalwart cornerback in Jahleel Addae, who broke up five passes and picked off four more. Addae is playing for the San Diego Chargers now.
His presence on the field gave Wilson, now a junior, more work, as teams increasingly decided not to throw Addae's way. Wilson finished the year with seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
Wilson is now the No. 1 guy, and he will most likely be covering Gallon for the majority of the afternoon.
In the last five games of the 2012 season, Gallon exploded, finishing the year with 49 catches for 829 yards and four touchdowns. He has an easy chemistry with quarterback Devin Gardner, and the two are going to connect frequently this season.
The problem is this: teams now have five games' worth of tape to dissect the Gardner-to-Gallon connection. And without sophomore Amara Darboh, who went down with a season-ending foot injury during fall camp, the Wolverines are still searching for reliable pass-catching options.
If Wilson (and perhaps a second defender charged with double-coverage) blanket Gallon, and receiver Jeremy Jackson, Joe Reynolds and Drew Dileo can't consistently get open, that's going to be a big problem for the Michigan offense.