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March 13, 2014

News & Views: Hoke talks QBs, position battles

Michigan coach Brady Hoke met with the media Thursday afternoon and discussed a wide range of topics, from the development of sophomore quarterback Shane Morris to the tight end situation to the competition at running back, wide receiver and safety:

News: Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner, who returned to the field two weeks ago from a foot injury suffered against Ohio State, has been progressing nicely. Meanwhile, he is sharing reps with sophomore quarterback Shane Morris, who is doing some nice things, but there is still work to do.

Hoke: "Devin is a little healthier now. We have great competition, and Devin has been out there every day, and he has been working his tail off.

"The way we're doing everything, they are all getting about four snaps at a time. Between [freshman Wilton] Speight and [redshirt junior Russell] Bellomy, those guys may not get the full number. It might be two and two. From that standpoint, we have good competition.

On Shane Morris, Hoke said, "He is doing alright. He is not ready to be the starter at Michigan. Devin has the most experience at the job. I wouldn't temper anything. If we were starting today, he wouldn't be the guy out there. Two weeks from now? We'll see.

"Physically, he is as good as there is. Mechanically, is he as good as he should be? Probably not. There are things in drops and ball exchange and things like that we need to pay a little more attention to."

Views: Many fans' opinions on Gardner are clouded by his turnover-prone stretch during the Wolverines'' nonconference slate of games. The fact is, once he settled down, he proved himself to be one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

During the conference season, Gardner led the league in passing yards per game (269.9), completing 150-of-244 passes for 2,159 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

His passer rating during conference play was an impressive 152.3. The only passers in the league that posted higher efficiency ratings than that were Ohio State's Braxton Miller (164.5) and Indiana's Tre Roberson (153.8). Neither of those players threw nearly as much as Gardner (Miller finished with 186 passing attempts, Roberson with 117).

Competition brings out the best in players, but Gardner is clearly the best quarterback on this roster. It's important that Morris - and possibly even Bellomy and Speight - push Gardner, but this is Gardner's job, and Gardner's team.

News: Sophomore tight end Jake Butt had his surgery, after suffering an ACL injury during offseason workouts, and he has responded well. Although fifth-year senior outside linebacker Jake Ryan's recovery time was very impressive, Hoke is hopeful that Butt can make it back to the field just as quickly.

Even so, the players who have stepped up in his absence have been encouraging.

Hoke: "It is probably the same timeline [as Ryan's]. I haven't really sat down and talked to the doctors, because he just had it done. He will work hard, just like Jake did. I would think, to really have him back where you wanted, it would probably be game three or four. It is similar in some ways. We will just have to see, because everyone heals differently.

"It is really amazing. A.J. Williams has probably caught more balls in the last three days than I can remember through the season. He has done a nice job of learning, a nice job of the fundamentals, in terms of releases. He understands the package a little more. [Redshirt junior] Keith Heitzman has been a really good move for us, because Keith is pretty athletic, and he is big at the line of scrimmage, and he is tough. You look at those guys. And Mike Jocz is a walk-on who has a chance."

Views: That is very good news for the Wolverines. Even if other players are stepping up in his wake, Butt's production - as a 6-6 weapon - will be sorely missed.

Butt caught 17 passes for 202 yards (11.9 yards per catch) and two touchdowns last year, and he undeniably got better as the season went on. If the Wolverines can get him back in the fold that quickly - in time for Big Ten season - that would be a huge boost to the passing offense.

The fact that Williams, who has caught one career pass (a touchdown vs. Iowa) is getting more active in the passing game is big, too. When Williams was in the package last year, defenses knew they did not really have to account for him as a viable passing threat. But, at 6-6, he can provide a big target for Gardner, if he can be a reliable route-runner and pass-catcher.

News: Sophomore running back Derrick Green has slimmed down to 220 pounds, and the competition at running back has been fierce. Green, sophomore De'Veon Smith, redshirt junior Justice Hayes and even redshirt freshmen Ross Douglas, who just switched from cornerback to running back, are fighting for playing time.

Hoke: "There is no excuses for Derrick, unless he gets lazy [to keep the weight off]. There is no question that coming in overweight and banging his ankle up in camp was part of it. Part of it is being a freshman. The work he has done, I'm really proud of. But we want to see that consistency all the way through, too.

"If you go back, I have always been in favor of playing more than one back. But you have to have that other back to play more than one back. My point is, I think our depth is much better now.

"Ross Douglas is doing OK. It's a learning curve a little bit for him. Justice, De'Veon and Derrick are a little ahead, still. But it's giving us a little bit more depth, and that will be good. We will go through spring and see how he does, and then make a determination if he'll go back to being DB."

Views: If the Wolverines have a deeper, more game-ready stable of running backs than they did last year, that would be a big step in the right direction. Last year, so much of the burden fell on fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint, because the rookies weren't exactly ready to play.

If Green, Smith and Hayes can split more of the carries - with Hayes stepping in as a quicker, change-of-pace back, that arsenal would be more diverse and difficult to stop for opposing defenses.

News: The Wolverines are looking for more play-making options at wide receiver, other than junior Devin Funchess, who caught 47 passes for 727 yards and six touchdowns last season.

There are a lot of players vying for playing time there, right now, and the coaches are waiting to see who will step up.

Hoke: "It's really early. Jehu [Chesson] and getting [Amara] Darboh back, both of those guys have some experience. That is important. Csonte York, Da'Mario Jones, Freddy Canteen and Drake Harris, getting those guys looks is important. It is early, but I think the competition is going to be really good for us.

"It's going to be hard with Amara, because he can't do everything yet. We're not going to put him in live drills and those kinds of things. He can go through skelly some and some of the things where we're not tackling.

At the slot position, Hoke said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier "has maneuvered some guys around a little bit. [Dennis Norlfeet] and Freddy have been two guys, Funchess has stepped in there some with some of the things we do. I wouldn't say anyone has nailed down anything."

Views: There are a lot of bodies out there, competing for playing time right now, and someone is going to have to emerge.

Jeremy Gallon's 89 catches, 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns are gone, and the only receiver other than Funchess who is back and caught 15 or more passes last year is Jehu Chesson (15 catches, 221 yards, one score).

I am very interested to see what Canteen does. He was the more under-the-radar of the two early-enrollee wide receivers, but his skill set gels well with a position of need for the Wolverines - slot receiver - and he could be in a position to make an impact as a rookie.

News: Another position group with a lot of competition is safety, where junior Jarrod Wilson is a likely starter, while the other spot is up for grabs.

Hoke: "That is a heated race. Jarrod Wilson is a guy who has played a lot of football Jeremy Clark is a guy who can, physically, do a lot. Dymonte Thomas, putting him in a position where he can really thrive a little bit more. He played a little nickel last year. He can really do some good things. Brandon Watson is new, and he does some things that we like and awful lot. Delano Hill is another kid who is doing a good job.

"It's no different from any other position, the competition part of it. Jarrod is a guy who is obviously a guy who has played a lot, and he deserved to play, and he keeps working hard. So he is pretty solid right now."

Views: The Wolverines will be replacing multiple-year starter Thomas Gordon. Many fans were hoping Dymonte Thomas would have a breakout rookie season, but after blocking a punt in the first game of the year, he never found consistent playing time. That could certainly change in 2014.

News: Redshirt sophomore running back Drake Johnson and junior defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins are both recovering from ACL injuries they suffered during the 2013 season.

Hoke: "They are practicing every day. They are doing something football-related, fundamentally, every day. Once we got into pads a little bit, we tried to back down a little with them. They will be constantly rehabbing and constantly doing football-related movements, while everyone else is hitting each other. They're involved a lot, and they're getting what they need."

Views: Johnson entered the 2013 season as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, and he is the one who seems to be forgotten when talking about the competition for playing time at running back in the 2014 season. If Johnson can get fully back to his old self, he could definitely be a factor.

Pipkins isn't quite as far along - and that is just because his injury wasn't all that long ago. He went down in the Minnesota game, so he has only been in rehab for about five months. It is a very encouraging sign that he is already back on the field, doing some football-related activities. Pipkins would obviously be a huge presence in the middle of the field if he can be at 100 percent before the season opener vs. Appalachian State.

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