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May 23, 2012

Jordan Kovacs and Jake Ryan are undervalued

The build-up to the 2012 college football season has begun, with forecasts and predictions aplenty the past few days and weeks, and certainly with more on their way. Today, Phil Steele released his preseason All-Big Ten teams, and we assess them as they relate to Michigan ...

Here is a look at the four all-conference teams. Steele does his homework more than most, and to go as deep as he does is a credit to that research. But that doesn't mean he always get its right. So here is a look at three categories - undervalued, overvalued and just right - in regards to the Wolverines.

Undervalued

SS Jordan Kovacs, 2nd Team: The former walk-on ... wait, stop right there. It's time for Kovacs to officially shed that label as it's become embraced he's Michigan's best safety since Marcus Ray departed in 1998.

He'll have a tough time earning first-team all-league laurels because some folks will never see past his history, but Kovacs is, arguably, the Big Ten's biggest playmaking safety, leading the conference's defensive backs in tackles for loss (8.0) and sacks (4.0) and ranking third among returning DBs with his 75 stops last year. He also picked off two passes for good measure, and is the captain of a U-M defense that was one of the league's best in 2011.

OT Michael Schofield, NR: Hard to believe that there are 20 offensive linemen better than Schofield, who could have been an all-conference performer at guard (if he had stayed put) even though it's not his natural position.

Perhaps playing alongside Taylor Lewan last year, and David Molk, cast him in such a deep shadow that people just don't know about him, but he will stand out as Michigan's starting right tackle this fall, and might even surpass the game-after-game production of Lewan. He was on his way in the spring.

LB Jake Ryan, NR: It's probably premature for most outside observers to acknowledge Ryan, especially if you didn't see him week in and week out, but the redshirt sophomore seemed to come up with a critical play for Michigan's defense every week, and he then exploded in the bowl game with four tackles for loss, including a sack.

If he puts up those kind of numbers over an entire campaign, he'll be impossible to ignore, and that is the goal and expectation emanating from the Michigan camp. Maybe not four tackles for loss, but the Wolverines believe Ryan is capable of toppling Shawn Crable's record of 28.5 TFLs in 2007.

Overvalued

WR Roy Roundtree, 1st Team: Roundtree will wear the No. 21 jersey honored for Desmond Howard, and he deserves it because he exudes all the traits of true leadership - selflessness, a desire to be his best, a hard worker on the field and in the classroom, a willingness to coach up teammates, and a solid performer.

But a first-team pick should be a guy that has put up big numbers, in big games. Roundtree's first two seasons qualify, but in a new scheme, asked to be an outside wide receiver instead of a slot, he had just 19 grabs - the biggest one-year drop (53 catches) by a U-M receiver in program history. Roundtree possesses the potential to be a first-team receiver, but he's not there, yet.

LB Kenny Demens, 2nd Team: The fifth-year senior is the focal point of the linebacker corps in Greg Mattison's 4-3 defense because the ball, and buck, must stop with him. In 2011, it didn't often enough as Demens limped through so-so efforts against Western Michigan, San Diego State, Michigan State, Purdue, Nebraska and, especially, against Virginia Tech, where the lasting image he left U-M fans with was missing tackle after tackle.

The talent is there, the potential is there, but he has to produce every game this season, avoiding one good, one bad contest, and at a position that is loaded in the Big Ten, he hasn't earned second-team distinction yet.

DE Craig Roh, 3rd Team: God bless Roh, who is preparing for his fourth position in four years after spending his rookie season at the quick, his sophomore season an outside linebacker, his junior year at weakside end and now his senior campaign at strongside end. That's a lot to ask of any player, and Roh has handled each move with an eagerness to be the best he can be.

Unfortunately, he hasn't contributed as much as needed, racking up just two sacks in 2008 and four in 2011 even though rushing the passer were primary responsibilities in each of those seasons, while he was completely out of place dropping into coverage as an outside linebacker and made just 5.5 tackles for loss in 2010.

The coaches appreciate Roh's effort, motor and high football IQ and expect him to have a big year, but he's not a third-teamer at the moment.

Just Right

QB Denard Robinson, 1st Team: Perhaps no position in the Big Ten has more to prove than quarterback, which likely doesn't feature a single first-round talent QB among those expected to start under center this fall. Robinson, himself, has much to prove after demonstrating he's a terrific all-around offensive threat but not yet a polished, prolific passer.

However, in a league without that bona-fide stud drop-back thrower, Robinson is a cut above the rest because of his overall playmaking skills. No one can match him for total offense or touchdowns over the past two years, and no one should be able to beat him in either category again this fall.

OT Taylor Lewan, 1st Team: The Big Ten's best linemen are gone, leaving a wake of holes that will have to be filled by the next wave. Lewan belongs among the top five right now, and should have every opportunity to prove he is the conference's best lineman over Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner and Michigan State's Chris McDonald, not to mention Schofield. He has to get serious, though, putting his hijinking ways behind him (or at least off to the side) beginning Aug. 1 and extending for the entire season.

RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, 2nd Team: There is considerable debate over the pecking order in the Big Ten amongst its running backs. Toussaint is one of four ball carriers to have rushed for 1,000 yards last season while Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell was just 52 yards shy of the mark. Bell actually belongs on the first- or second-team but not in place of Toussaint (in place of Redd).

Badger senior Montee Ball, with his eye-popping numbers, is unequivocally the league's best tailback, but after that Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, Toussaint and Bell could all lay claim, and will attempt to do so this fall.

CB J.T. Floyd, 2nd Team: Floyd didn't play with the consistency a year ago that would merit second-team recognition, but he's among the most promising cornerbacks in a league that doesn't return many proven performers at the position.

Floyd really does have it in him too. He may not be a guy that makes five or six picks, but he can be a reliable cornerback that gets the job done, stymieing the production of receivers, like he did to Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (seven for 71 until a late-game 32-yarder in garbage time), more often than letting them go wild, like Iowa's Marvin McNutt did (nine for 101).

OG Patrick Omameh, 3rd Team: The fifth-year senior could be a real X-factor for the Wolverines this season after he seemed to take his game to new heights in November. Heights that were sorely missing from a two-year starter that was expected to be an anchor for the Maize and Blue a year ago.

Omameh was an ideal lineman in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense - quick feet, agile, athletic. Under Brady Hoke, though, the OL needs to be a mauling, powerful unit that sets the tone, and Omameh struggled early to find his rhythm. If he can build off last season's late flourish, though, he can be the guy that U-M needs, and could contend for All-Big Ten honors.

WR Jeremy Gallon, 4th Team (PR 3rd Team): Gallon is represented at two places and fits perfectly at both spots. He's a blossoming punt returner that averaged 10.1 yards per return last year (and would have had a lot more if an 80-yard return had not been called back) and was a revelation as a third receiver for the Wolverines last season, hauling in 31 grabs for 453 yards and three scores.

This year, he'll need to be a No. 2 wideout for U-M, and increase his production, and if he does that successfully, he'll put up the kind of numbers one would acknowledge with third- or fourth-team distinction.

FS Thomas Gordon, 4th Team: Safety is another position where Big Ten defensive backs have to show what they can do, as the known commodities drop off significantly after the first and second teams. Gordon had 67 tackles, intercepted a pass, broke up two, forced two fumbles and recovered four in a promising first season Michigan's starting free safety.

However, U-M's coaches weren't happy with him overall, and late in the year, Gordon lost his job to Troy Woolfolk. In the spring, he was challenged to play recklessly - play faster - and he responded positively to that call. If he has turned the corner completely (or at least three-quarters), he should be one of the conference's best safeties.




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