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February 25, 2014

News & Views: Keith Heitzman among many on the move

Head coach Brady Hoke met with the media Tuesday following the Wolverines' first spring football practice of 2014. Hoke expanded on the coaching changes and discussed position moves, including Keith Heitzman to tight end.

News: With an injury to sophomore tight end Jake Butt, Heitzman is one of the players on the move, transitioning from strongside defensive end for his redshirt junior year. Redshirt freshman Wyatt Shallman will also receive a look at H-Back while Hoke announced a few more changes.

Hoke: "We had the injury to Jake. He'll have surgery this week. [Redshirt freshman] Ross Douglas moved to running back. We thought we could get a little more depth. He was a 2,000-yard rusher in high school and he showed us some things during the fall.

"Wyatt Shallman is playing the H-back and running back to give us a little more depth, again. That position is so critical and then to see what Wyatt can give us back there.

"Keith Heitzman moved to tight end. He was a tight end in high school as well as a defensive lineman and he was all for it. I think just what we've seen today, he'll have a really good role for us. He's a physical, tough guy and it's good to have him there.

"We moved [fifth-year senior] Jake Ryan inside to the MIKE because of his playmaking ability and how he plays the game instinctively … we're really excited about that. Him and [redshirt freshman] Mike McCray will be at the MIKE, and [junior] Joe Bolden is kind of a swing guy at MIKE and WILL.

"[Senior] Desmond Morgan, [sophomore] Ben Gedeon at the WILL. [Junior] James Ross has gone out to the SAM with [junior] Royce Jenkins-Stone and [redshirt freshman] Allen Gant, and all those moves are a positive for the kids and for us as a team."

Views: The biggest moves, of course, are at linebacker where Ryan slides over from the SAM to the MIKE, Ross moves from WILL to SAM and Morgan from MIKE to WILL.

While Ryan has proven to be U-M's most effective pass rusher, he should still be dangerous from the inside, offering an element to the blitz package the Maize and Blue have sorely lacked the past two seasons as the middle linebackers have accumulated just four sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.

Ross, meanwhile, could play a role similar to Michigan State's Denicos Allen, who had a bigger box to work in, with fewer blockers between him and the ball carrier, as Michigan seeks to unleash Ross' athleticism and instincts.

Offensively, it is too early to say whether Heitzman will make a strong contribution at tight end. Fifth-year senior Jordan Paskorz made the move from linebacker to tight end in 2012 but has had minimal impact, failing to make a catch (though he is emerging as a strong blocker). Heitzman (6-3, 280 pounds) does lend some size to the position and has ample time to adjust, and he provides the Maize and Blue one more option in the search to fill Butt's void.

News: Late last week, Hoke announced significant coaching changes defensively, with Mark Smith moving from linebackers to defensive line, Greg Mattison taking over linebackers after previously coaching defensive ends, while splitting the secondary between Curt Mallory (safeties, previously the entire defensive backfield) and Roy Manning (cornerbacks, previously outside linebackers).

Hoke: "It really is something I thought about for a year, probably. Greg and I talked. Mark Smith has 15 years coaching defensive line. Enabling Greg to work from the middle of the defense, and both sides -- his presence down there makes it a little easier for him to coordinate from there.

"I'm still going to do some work with the defensive line with Mark, and with the offenses you face today, I think the ability to have two guys in the back end is important. Roy coached O-Line for a year when he was here as a graduate assistant and did a great job. He coached running backs at Cincinnati. He played linebacker. Those defensive instincts are very similar, and breaking up the secondary is really good for us."

Views: When Hoke spoke about the changes, he spoke with a conviction and an acknowledgement that something was amiss defensively last year and needed a fix. Many have asked why he didn't bring in new blood like he did on the offensive side of the ball, but he is confident the right teachers are in place and a few adjustments will bring out their best and that of the players.

News: If the season started today (and it certainly does not), the starting offensive line would be redshirt junior Graham Glasgow at center, sophomore Kyle Bosch at left guard, redshirt sophomore Kyle Kalis at right guard, redshirt sophomore Ben Braden at right tackle and redshirt freshman David Dawson at left tackle.

Projected starter, redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson at tackle is out this spring while recovering from offseason surgery while redshirt freshman tackle Logan Tuley-Tillman will also miss some time.

"We're going to miss Magnuson obviously. Logan for a while. They're talking maybe he'll be back the last two weeks, which would be great. The competition that is there is really healthy for us. David Dawson, Blake Bars, the guys that are in that two-year class, three-year class, there is a lot of competition at offensive line. It's going to be a concern but we'll keep working every day."

Views: This coaching staff is acutely aware of the black hole that was the offensive line in 2013, but they feel that with 11 scholarship linemen, plus Glasgow, competing - and all with at least one year in the system - the line will be much improved this fall. It has to be, and they know it, so they will ramp up the competition this spring to bring out the best in their linemen.

There is no surprise over today's starting five with Glasgow and Kalis finishing the season as the starters at their respective positions, Bosch starting three games at left guard in October and early November, and both Braden and Dawson seen as rising talents at tackle. The key, though, is for each of the five to be pushed, and they will be by the likes of redshirt sophomore Bars and Magnuson, when the latter returns from injury, and redshirt freshmen Chris Fox and Patrick Kugler.

That essentially gives U-M nine linemen competing for five spots, with any of the nine capable of winning a job, and that should help accelerate the learning curve for the entire O-Line.

News: It's an open competition at every position, Hoke reiterated, which means quarterback is up for grabs, and so too is running back, wide receiver, and every spot down the line.

Hoke: "The way we'll approach it is every position is a competition. [Redshirt junior QB] Russell Bellomy we have to see what he looks like. He practiced through the bowl game. You have to let [coordinator] Doug Nussmeier work with these guys so that he can get a feel for where they're at, and Wilton Speight is a guy that came in as an early enrollee.

"The guys that have played, Russell has played. Obviously [fifth-year senior] Devin Gardner, and [sophomore] Shane Morris has played now from the bowl game. We'll do some things where all three will go with the ones during the course of what we consider with the ones, and all three will go with the threes.

"It will be a great spring for the running backs. [Redshirt sophomore] Drake Johnson and his recovery has been really good. He's doing quite a bit. We'll keep him out of the contact but we'll keep him in different drills. Having [sophomores] Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith … [redshirt junior] Justice Hayes ended the year pretty good. I think I feel more comfortable about the depth we have here."

Views: There may be a competition at QB, but the job belongs to Gardner, and he said so when he spoke to the media about 20 minutes after Hoke finished. Morris showed some nice things in the bowl game, and he'll give it his all, but it's hard to imagine U-M sitting a fifth-year senior with 17 starts under his belt for a true sophomore with one start.

Meanwhile at running back, Douglas adds a dimension of speed to the unit, but this battle likely rests with Green, Smith and Hayes after all three finished the 2013 season with momentum. Still, as this past season demonstrated, practice habits are great but it's who produces on game day that matters most, and everyone will get their chance.


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