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September 30, 2013

News and Views: Hoke talks Minnesota, more

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke met with the media on the Monday before the start of the Big Ten season. He's what he had to say, and how TheWolverine.com interpreted it.

News: Michigan's depth chart for the Minnesota game contains no changes on the offensive line. Meanwhile, head coach Brady Hoke indicated if there is to be a change up front, it will be made later this week.

Hoke certainly didn't close the door on a shakeup, though, and made it clear some sort of reshuffle is drawing serious consideration.

Hoke: "We've talked a lot, and we've done a lot during the bye week. We've got two real good work days, with Tuesday and Wednesday, and probably after Tuesday we'll have a little better indication of which way we want to go … we wouldn't have a problem making a change, if that's what we deem we ought to do."

When someone noted chemistry is important, Hoke interjected: "So is production. That might be more critical than chemistry. We've got to put the guys in there who give us the best opportunity to be successful."

John Borton's Views: The last quote represents the obvious tell. Production might be more critical than chemistry. Yes, they'd like to pick a group, throw them in there and watch them grow over the course of a season.

But with an unacceptably low production level in some areas (such as negative yardage plays), it's time to make some move that bring about a greater level of production. It would be a stunner, at this point, if Michigan's coaches didn't make some moves aimed at getting a better result on the field.

Best guess at this point involves redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow moving to center, opening up left guard for redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant.

News: Michigan begins its quest for a Big Ten title by hosting Minnesota in a Homecoming contest. Hoke is not at the point in the season where he has any interest in talking big picture about the conference race.

Hoke: "The answer is to take it one step [at a time]. That first step is a big step, at home for Homecoming. The Brown Jug is a big part of it. We'll take it one week at a time. We understand what the expectations are and should be for this program. We'll have a good week of practice and put our best foot forward."

Borton's Views: The Wolverines aren't in any position to start talking with extra swagger, following survival stumbles against Akron and UConn at the end of the non-conference season. At the same time, they're no worse off in the Big Ten race than they were after an impressive win over Notre Dame (0-0).

It's really about what they do now, how much better they can become over the weeks ahead. Hoke knows this is a team that could be in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, but that it has played at times as if such dreams are a long shot.

The bye week fell at a very good time for the Wolverines. Demonstrating they used it well in the Homecoming contest will make a big difference in the outlook for October and beyond.

News: Hoke brushed off talk about redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner going into the bye week banged up. The head coach insisted Gardner moved forward solidly in practice, and that no Wolverines sat out.

Hoke: "We went out Tuesday and Thursday of last week and he didn't look sore. He may be doing a good job of acting, because he knows there are a lot of guys who are sore out there. That's just part of it, part of playing. I thought he did a nice job."

Borton's Views: The main point is, Gardner will have gone two weeks without getting hit come Saturday. That means a lot at this time of year, and could mean even more during Michigan's next bye week, occurring just before the crucial stretch of five games at the end of the regular season.

Michigan will go as Gardner goes over the next two months. If he's not considerably sharper than he was in the second half of the non-conference campaign, the Wolverines won't make it to the Big Ten championship game. It's as simple as that.

But a chance to refresh, refocus and reapply himself in some areas should make a big difference. In some ways, Gardner's second start against Minnesota means even more than his first, which happened to be his debut last year. This time around, he has a chance to remind everyone that he can, in fact, lead Michigan into a contending situation.

News: Junior linebacker Jake Ryan continues to do a little more every day in Michigan's practices.

Hoke: "He does some individual stuff. He does some team stuff, more and more very day. From talking to him, and talking to the doctors and trainers, he feels good. We'll get him a little bit more involved these next three days, and then see what next week brings."

Borton's Views: Clear back in April, Hoke projected Ryan could return by mid-October. Some doubted that timeline, given that Ryan had torn an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Yet with the calendar set to turn to October, Ryan's at the point of Hoke saying they'll see what next week brings. In other words, don't count out the All-Big Ten linebacker from a comeback as early as the road game at Penn State.

If not then, Ryan should be on the field by the Indiana game at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 19. Either way, he'll be available for winning time, meaning the crucial, final five-game stretch. That doesn't mean he picks right up where he left off, production-wise. It DOES mean the Wolverines return a very capable defender to the field, someone who can lead both by his experience and his ability to make plays, and that can't hurt.

News: Michigan's defense continues to be stingy against the run.

Hoke: "The guys are just getting better. We're playing a lot of guys. Quinton and Jibreel, the strong ends with Wormley, Godin and Hetizman is really a good combination. They all have different strengths to some degree

"The rush, I think Mario [Ojemudia] has shown improvement, Frank [Clark] is a better player than a year ago. We've tried to get Taco Charlton in there when we can, probably not as much as we'd like to yet. Those guys are doing a good job, and we've got to be tested, and we will. I don't know how much UConn tested us two weeks ago. We'll find out more as you get into the league and what people like to do.

"The linebackers, the three of them in the rotation have been pretty good. The outside position with Brennen [Beyer] and Cam [Gordon] sharing the duties Brennen Beyer is probably as important a piece of our football team as anybody because he can do so many things for you."


Balas' views: The numbers are good, but it seems like they're better than they should be. The right side of the defensive line has been gashed at times, and Notre Dame had success up the middle when the run fits were off.

Hoke is right that they haven't been tested. There are bigger lines who would like nothing better than to pick up chunks of yardage on the ground and keep the U-M offense off the field. Even Minnesota, which struggled against Iowa, will be somewhat of a test in that respect.

News: The wolverines have faced 162 passes in four games.

Hoke: "I think we need to get a little better [in the secondary] from a run support standpoint first. We've got to get a little better when you look at some of the coverage aspects, and then the concepts at times - there's some real ground we can gain, and I think we did. Last week was great for us."

Balas' Views: They'll continue to rotate corners, with Courtney Avery and Ray Taylor battling with Blake Countess often playing the nickel, and there's room for improvement. The corners have given way too much room on the edges and have still gotten beat deep at times by marginal (at best) receiving corps.

But it's as much on the guys up front, too, as it is the guys on the back end. An improved pass rush would make it much easier for the corners, who had some very good moments especially in the first two games of the year.

News: Fitz Toussaint continues to carry almost all of the running back load, though the young guys got more work this week.

Hoke: "Derrick Green got a lot of work, Thomas Rawls and De'Veon Smith, which is good. Fitz has played a lot of plays. I don't know if he needs to take 20 snaps in practice.

"We would love to get Derrick some work, De'Veon some work [early]. I think it gives Fitz [help] where he can be fresh, and another guy an opportunity who is a little different than Fitz, maybe a bigger body. Rawls is pretty physical, but he and De'Veon are both big, physical guys."

Balas' Views: They'd have loved to get those guys work in the last two games, too, but the first objective is to win. That they weren't comfortable enough to play anyone but Toussaint against Akron and UConn speaks volumes.

Whether it's ball security, pass protection or something else, Toussaint is the best Michigan has right now. They'll continue to ride the horse as long as they feel they need to.

News: Michigan might well change personnel on the offensive line this week, but Hoke isn't certain yet.

Hoke: "We're at the point where we want to make sure, so one more day isn't going to hurt us. Darrell [Funk] rotates those guys through pretty good during practice. You see a lot of the same groupings.

"We need a little better play from the center, whether it's Jack or Graham, then Chris Bryant or Joe Burzynski as the guard."

Balas' Views: Again, Jack Miller will get a lot of the blame, but he's not the only one struggling at times. We'd expect a change with Glasgow at center and probably Bryant at guard, because as Hoke said, personnel is every bit as important as chemistry, if not more so. You need a guy in there who can do the job physical, number one, and it only gets tougher in the rugged Big Ten.

News: The injured Wolverines were back at it last week.

Hoke: "Everybody participated. I've been around teams where guys can tell the trainer they have a hamstring pull. It's hard to test hamstrings and backs. We didn't have any of that."

Balas' Views: Bye weeks are a huge help, and to have two of them this year is a blessing. Jake Ryan will be back soon, too, giving U-M a full stable heading into the meat of the Big Ten schedule.


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