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August 26, 2013

Analyzing the depth chart

After weeks of intrapositional competition during fall camp, the Wolverines finally released their first official depth chart of the 2013 season Monday afternoon.

At some positions, there were no surprises. Redshirt junior Devin Gardner had already locked up the starting quarterback spot before even putting on the pads, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke announced that true freshman Shane Morris was his backup last week. And of course fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan was going to be No. 1 at left tackle.

But there are a few interesting things in the lineup. (You can see the whole depth chart here.)

Below, we break down a few of the closest position battles and analyze the coaches' decisions regarding those spots.

Left Guard

Starter: Graham Glasgow, redshirt sophomore

Second String: Chris Bryant, redshirt sophomore

Third String: Joey Burzysnki, redshirt junior

At Monday's press conference, Lewan seemed relieved to finally be able to talk about the new order along the line. It was a relatively recent switch, but one that will ultimately benefit the offense.

For starters, redshirt freshman Ben Braden, who was originally predicted to be a guard opposite redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, is a natural tackle. Even though, barring an injury to Lewan or fifth-year senior Michael Schofield, Braden won't start there, another year working at tackle is going to be huge for him in the long run, especially considering that both Lewan and Schofield graduate after this season.

Second, someone had to emerge as a viable guard. Glasgow has been in a heated battle with redshirt sophomore Jack Miller for the starting nod at center, but at 6-6, Glasgow may be better suited for the guard spot.

In a short period of time, he proved himself to be a better option at guard than Bryant - and won the starting job.

The thing that immediately jumps out about the left guard situation: the Wolverines have options.

Braden, Bryant and, now, Glasgow were all legitimate options for the starting nod. And, behind them, Burzynski brings a level of stability and knowledge to the depth at all three interior positions.

In the last two years - when numbers were down and depth along the offensive line was critically thin - this kind of competition for a position was simply not feasible.

The fact that Glasgow - a former walk-on who earned a scholarship this offseason - won the starting job is not a knock on guys like Bryant and Braden, who did not win the battle. It's a testament to Glasgow, who rose above some stiff competition to see the field.

Running Back

First String: Fitzgerald Toussaint, fifth-year senior

Second String: Drake Johnson, redshirt freshman

Third String: Justice Hayes, redshirt sophomore

Fourth String: Thomas Rawls, junior

Fifth String: Derrick Green, freshman OR De'Veon Smith, freshman

Take a moment to let this sink in: on the depth chart, where the majority of positions are listed two or three players deep, the coaches felt it necessary to list six running backs.

Even with the hefty number of backs on the two-deep, one thing is clear: there's a big gap between Toussaint and the rest of the group.

Although Toussaint had a disappointing season in 2012 - capped by a terrible ankle injury that he spent months rehabbing - he is back and, perhaps, better than ever.

That doesn't mean he's going to get every carry. Like Hoke said in his Monday press conference, the Wolverines wouldn't have six guys on the travel squad if they didn't expect some kind of production from them - be it carrying the football, going out for passes, blocking on third downs or contributing on special teams.

The order behind Toussaint is a little surprising.

Rawls is the most experienced back behind Toussaint, with 70 career carries for 321 yards and four touchdowns. However, he's behind Johnson, who has yet to see game action, and Hayes, who has tallied 18 career carries for 83 yards.

Hayes - if he can block - could be a solid pick for the "third-down back," a role perfectly filled by Vincent Smith the last two seasons. Hayes' superior athleticism would be a dangerous weapon in space (such as screen passes).

Johnson is a punishing rusher - but because he redshirted last season, there is very little video evidence of his improvement since high school. Hopefully, once the Wolverines build a hearty enough lead over Central Michigan this weekend, he will get some much-needed playing experience.

And behind those four are the freshmen: Green, the highly touted five-star, and Smith. How much will those two play? At this point, only time will tell.

Cornerback

First String: Blake Countess, redshirt sophomore

Second String: Channing Stribling, freshman

Obviously, Countess being at the top of the cornerback depth chart is no surprise. But he is also the No. 1 option for the Wolverines at the nickel position, which is a tad unexpected, after the praise heaped on true freshman Dymonte Thomas since last spring.

That's not to say Thomas won't play. He's listed as the No. 2 nickelback and the No. 3 strong safety, behind fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon and redshirt junior Josh Furman.

But the decision to place Countess atop the nickelback chart is an interesting one. When the Wolverines enter the nickel package, will he always move over? Will he sometimes stay at cornerback?

Countess' coverage skills have been his strength since Day One - and those are better utilized at the cornerback position.

And who will come in to take over the corner spot?

According to the depth chart released Monday, it's Stribling, who has steadily and consistently impressed the coaches through this fall camp. But Hoke said junior Delonte Hollowell and freshman Jourdan Lewis are also competing for playing time behind Countess.


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