April 12, 2012

Borton's Blog: Spring mirage

Michigan's spring football "game" provides an excellent excuse for those suffering from Wolverines withdrawal to assemble at The Big House and get their fix. The Michigan Stadium entrances, though, ought to be adorned with a disclaimer.

Maybe something along these lines: Don't believe everything you see. Don't climb atop the enclosed seating structures and jump if it doesn't look good.

After all, a rewind back to last year's post-spring game observations brings up these gems…

This offense is going to be a disaster.

By fall, Denard Robinson won't be the quarterback.

Yeah, the defense will be better, but not 10 points a game better.

Of course, the "disaster" produced more points last season than Michigan's scoring machine did the season before. It put up 35 under the lights against Notre Dame, and in a couple of somewhat significant November showdowns, hung 45 and 40 on Nebraska and Ohio State, respectively.

It wasn't perfect, by any means, and the cracks showed against the toughest defensives Michigan faced (more on that in a moment). But the struggles experienced in the 15th of 15 spring practices ultimately meant very little to an 11-2, Sugar Bowl championship campaign.

Robinson, meanwhile, was the QB going into spring, coming out of spring, and every step along the way. He battled through injuries that none outside of Schembechler Hall knew about. He also churned past some fans' Devin Gardner Watch every time Robinson made a misstep, on his way to 1,176 yards rushing, 2,173 passing and a combined 36 touchdowns.

Yes, he threw 15 interceptions, providing him with a fierce focal point of improvement for this spring and next fall. No, he wasn't close to perfection in a couple of crucial contests (Michigan State, Iowa). But he was good enough to connect on 25 of 35 passes for 347 yards, with 253 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in Michigan's final two regular-season games.

That put the Wolverines into the BCS spotlight, where Robinson executed two more clutch TD throws behind a one-legged center to get Michigan past a tough Virginia Tech defense in the Sugar Bowl. The confetti-strewn floor of the Superdome in New Orleans felt even farther than the actual miles removed from The Big House, where Robinson experienced his toughest outing of the spring during the annual exhibition.

In the end, his spring game showing - not to mention the summer-long outsider angst regarding his imminent replacement in the lineup - meant nothing.

The defense … well, everybody knows that story. It actually looked pretty good last spring, but the knee-jerk reaction maintained that was only because Michigan's offense figured to advance the football like munchkins moving a blocking sled. A prediction that the Wolverines would knock 10 points per game off the 35 they hemorrhaged on defense in the previous regime's final season met with plenty of skepticism.

And for good reason, in a different sort of way. The projection proved dead wrong, Michigan shaving three touchdowns per game off the gloomily gaudy 2010 tally.

When it comes to the spring game, folks see what the coaches want them to see, nothing more. While it's special for some to witness the winged helmets back on the field, they're not observing the final prep session for Alabama, by any means.

Here are some ways the Wolverines will be better in 2012, regardless of what transpires at high noon on Saturday…

• Robinson will take steps forward, along with the entire offense, because of his year-long immersion in Al Borges' offensive system. Likewise, Borges will prove even more adaptable than he was last year, because he knows the senior quarterback and the parts around him that much better.

Borges will play to Robinson's strengths, and the senior - having studied his way through the winter on the mistakes he made - will be driven and better prepared toward leading the Wolverines to a Big Ten championship.

• Michigan will enter 2012 with a much more established running game. Coming out of spring practice last year, the Wolverines didn't have a surefire go-to guy at the tailback position. Fitzgerald Toussaint's vision for making cuts wasn't anywhere near what it became later in the season, and Borges was determined to not let Robinson represent the whole running show (and take the abuse that came along with it).

Some 1,041 rushing yards later, Toussaint provided all with a comfort zone regarding the position in 2012. He teamed with Robinson to give Michigan a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for only the second time in Michigan history. With three starting offensive linemen returning, Michigan should hit the ground running (although Alabama might have something to say about the immediate success in that area).

• Michigan's defense will improve, despite the loss of key personnel up front. Not having Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger in the trenches hurts, but adjustments with veterans shoring up the front have already been made.

More importantly, like fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs reiterated the other day, the players are much more comfortable in the second year of a defensive system, especially with Greg Mattison turning the dials.

The numbers might not match last year's in every respect, but the defense overall will be better.

That brings us to some concerns, ones that will remain no matter how good the Wolverines look against themselves on Saturday.

• Robinson has to prove that all his work in taking care of the ball will pay off at crunch time. He also needs the ability to back off the best defenses Michigan will face (think Michigan State) with crisper intermediate and long throws.

• Michigan's work in rebuilding both lines of scrimmage needs to show up in a big way. Brady Hoke grumbled this week that he's not pleased with either line, which is like an offensive lineman saying he's not pleased with one piece of pizza.

It's always going to be that way, but the personnel losses lend some gravity to his grousing. Michigan can't exactly afford to ease its way into the 2012 campaign.

• Which brings us to the unavoidable last point. Michigan faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation come September - Alabama in Dallas, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road, Michigan State in a grudge match at home.

Nobody in the conference comes close to that challenge. And it's not changing, even if Robinson runs for 300 yards and throws for 300 more on Saturday.

So, enjoy the spring game. Just don't completely believe your eyes.

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