April 28, 2012

Mailbag: Which freshmen will rise?

The post-spring practice edition of the Mailbag touches on various football items, including quarterback and coordinators talk. Also, a little basketball remains on the radar.

Knowing what you know now about the team following spring practice, which freshmen do you still expect will have a great shot at making the two-deep, potentially even starting?

Start with at least two of the three early arrivals, both on the defensive side of the football. Linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson have both made a strong impression, and look like they could help very early on. Bolden demonstrates an instinctiveness that's huge for a linebacker, while Wilson has learned very quickly and provides immediate depth in the secondary.

As for those who have yet to make an appearance, it's obvious the receivers - Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson - will get a shot at making the two-deep. Michigan is looking for lanky, field-stretching receivers, and both qualify, although Darboh may be ready to go a little earlier.

Tight end represents an even bigger position of need, so figure on Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams getting a very long look in fall camp. Certainly, Kyle Kalis will get a shot to at least provide offensive line depth, along with whoever else from a strong O-line class shows up the most ready to go.

Of the defensive linemen, Ondre Pipkins (inside) and Mario Ojemudia (outside) each have a shot. Others could break through, and a lot will depend on how they show early in August, when practice begins again.

I was somewhat amused earlier this week to see Michigan's new women's basketball coach use Brady Hoke's comment, 'This is Michigan for god's sakes.' It seems to me Hoke is impacting the entire U-M athletic department culture in a way not seen since maybe Bo Schembechler.

Well, you win 11 games in a season directly following three featuring a combined 15 victories, and it's going to make an impact. Combine that with all the genuine passion Hoke has for Michigan, and it's easy to ride the feel-good train.

It all starts with winning. If Hoke had come in here and gone 7-6 his first year (like more than a few were predicting), he'd have been regarded by the less charitable as an under-.500 career coach in over his head. He cut that talk off at the pass - with his passion, his coaching hires, his recruiting, and most of all, with immediate results on the field.

That makes others take notice, especially when it's coming from the head of the program that represents the Michigan athletics golden goose. John Beilein picked up on the "Ohio" talk in referring to the Buckeyes, and "This Is Michigan" - a tag that at once swells U-M fans with pride and drives the haters even crazier - became an emphasis throughout the athletic department.

Hoke has bought enough goodwill to suffer setbacks (but not many) in a ridiculously difficult 2012 schedule. But he's focused on a Big Ten championship, which would usher even more on board an already packed train.

Fact or fiction: junior quarterback Devin Gardner will have more receptions in 2012 than pass attempts?

Fiction, and that's not to say Gardner won't ever be in position to catch some passes. Bottom line is, Denard Robinson won't be around next season, and Gardner finds himself in line to grab the job. Yes, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy is coming on, but Gardner has to be ready to take over if Robinson goes down this season. Moreover, Gardner has to be ready at quarterback right out of the gate next year.

So unless we're shown differently, we'll stick with Gardner remaining on the throwing end more frequently.

It seems we give a great deal of credit to Greg Mattison, and rightfully so, but our fan base is not as kind to Al Borges. Sure, we applaud him sometimes, but quite often we treat him and his decision-making/play-calling with disdain. Do you attribute that to higher expectations for the offense in 2011 than we had for the defense?

Also, do you think the tone from the fans will change on Mattison this year if U-M has a bad game because now the expectations for the defense have been ramped up?

Mattison saved the defense from oblivion, and took it from No. 108 in the nation in scoring to No. 6, in one year. Had they still be renovating the stadium this year, there might have been a statue erected to him outside the tunnel.

The tone will always be one of high expectation, but Mattison has his own high expectations. He's not going to care about what fans are saying, but rather what his defenders are doing.

As far as Borges, no question he faced the tougher task. Michigan scored a lot of points and piled up a ton of yards the previous year, and the new guy had to balance what he and the head coach wanted to do with what the personnel could do. It wasn't perfect, but the Wolverines scored more points last year than the year before.

In hindsight, plenty of savvy Michigan fans gave Borges a lot of credit for being flexible enough to make it work. They were frustrated, like Borges was, with how things went against Iowa and Michigan State, and to some extent in the bowl game. But they also recognized the overall improvement, of which Michigan's offense constituted a significant portion.

Almost everywhere he's gone, Borges' offenses have made a substantial jump in year two. If that happens again (and Robinson takes care of the football better) there will be more than enough Gorgeous Borges signs popping up.

The potential for a playoff in college football seems to be gaining traction. But one of the hold-ups appears to center on neutral-site games or whether the higher seed should host, which the SEC doesn't want any part of because of the potential for a game in the Midwest in December or January. What do you think - should the games all be played in neutral sites or one campus? And should the Midwest be off-limits regardless?

Campus sites make the most sense, for drawing crowds and with regard to other logistical matters. And no, the Midwest shouldn't be off limits.

Every year, Big Ten teams go off to play USC or UCLA in California, Florida or Florida State in Florida, etc. It's a built-in advantage that the warm-weather schools obviously don't want to give up. But if you're going to take that leap - beyond packing the sunscreen for bowl games and into a truly competitive playoff situation - buckle up, bundle up and play them anywhere.

That said, don't look for southern schools to warm up to the plan anytime soon.

What is a reasonable expectation for Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford going forward the rest of their careers? If Mitch McGary becomes the low-post scorer the Wolverines so badly need, do Morgan and Horford essentially became energy, rebound, defense-first players in future seasons? Or do you think they still have it in them to develop into 10-point contributors?

Morgan should be close to a 10-points-per-game performer. He averaged 7.3 this season, and 8.2 on the road. The veteran big man needs to still gain strength with the ball in his hands and clean up his ability to finish strong around the basket.

The fact is, though, he's already become accustomed to trying to get that done amid Big Ten physicality. McGary hasn't, and that's advantage Morgan. The two could also be on the court at the same time, with McGary playing power forward.

Horford remains a question mark, until he's on the court for much more extended periods of time than he's seen so far. He needs a comeback season like Morgan experienced following his year of injury struggles.

This much is certain - big man minutes will be earned, not given, in the coming year. That's a better situation all around for a program that was way too thin on the front line last year.

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