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April 5, 2014

Spring Game: What to Watch For

Michigan's final spring practice, open to the public, is set to start at 2:00 p.m., and there will be plenty to pay attention to if you attend in-person or watch on Big Ten Network.

U-M will spend 45 minutes of the two-hour practice scrimmaging, with everyone likely live but the quarterbacks.

Here is a rundown position by position of what to look for.

Running Back: Sure, you can pay attention to the guy that earns the first carry, and you'll want to note sophomore Derrick Green's slimmed-down physique and whether he's moving better than he did in 2013, but there won't be a big reveal on the starter because this battle will last well into preseason camp.

More interestingly, what roles do redshirt junior Justice Hayes and redshirt freshman Wyatt Shallman play? Do we see a few passes out of the backfield to Hayes in the flat, or on screens, utilizing his best attribute - his hands? Does Shallman block in that H-back role then sneak out with a route up the seam to catch a pass like a tight end would?

Both players have skills to offer beyond taking a handoff, finding a hole and pushing forward for three or four yards, and in this offense, with question marks up front still, the more versatility and ability to get players the ball in space could be critical to moving the chains.

Wide Receiver: Redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh will not be involved on any snaps in which contact is allowed after coming back from the foot injury that cost him all of 2013 so you won't see a lot from him. Classmate Jehu Chesson and junior Devin Funchess are a little more known commodities so the real interest lies with three Class of 2013 targets - Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Jaron Dukes. Are any of the three ready to play?

Of course, the biggest attraction is likely to be early-enrollee freshman Freddy Canteen after coaches and teammates have lauded the rookie all spring. The slot receiver position, with Canteen and junior Dennis Norfleet, in fact will be much more interesting than the outside posts that will belong to Funchess, Darboh and Cheson in the fall.

Tight End: Only those behind closed doors know what to expect from the tight ends in the absence of sophomore Jake Butt (out with a torn ACL).

Redshirt junior Keith Heitzman, a transfer from defensive end, and junior A.J. Williams have both, reportedly, had strong springs and have shown an ability to catch the ball, but based on their histories, most would expect them to be primary run blockers. This will be their first chance to show Michigan fans and the media they are capable of contributing to the passing game.

Quarterback: Brady Hoke said last week Michigan wouldn't have full four-quarter game because it needed as many practice reps as possible, which makes sense as U-M is trying to install an entire new offense and adjust to some defensive changes. Even with this in mind, it's likely we don't see a lot of fifth-year senior Devin Gardner because coaches are always careful with their incumbent starters.

Instead, pay attention to the progress sophomore Shane Morris has made since the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, especially his ability to put touch on his passes and look off first and second options when they're covered. Meanwhile, redshirt junior Russell Bellomy returns to The Big House after sitting out all of last season with an ACL injury and true freshman Wilton Speight makes his debut.

The feelings on Speight have fluctuated with fans over the past year, first excitement, then disappointment that U-M didn't snag a bigger fish (ratings-wise, Speight is a three-star), then some enthusiasm when he was named to the Under Armour All-America Game, and more frustration when it was perceived he didn't play well. And now we're back to anticipation after teammates have talked him up in the spring. Finally, fans can watch with their own eyes and react accordingly.

Offensive Line: It's a fair bet to say that if the season started today, redshirt freshman David Dawson would start at left tackle, sophomore Kyle Bosch at left guard, redshirt sophomore Kyle Kalis at right guard and redshirt sophomore Ben Braden at right tackle. The center position is a bigger mystery, with redshirt juniors Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller, and redshirt freshman Patrick Kugler all competing.

So who takes the first snaps? And does that even matter with this competition long from over (especially with Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay a good shot to enroll at Michigan)? Nonetheless, watching how each of the three performs will come into focus.

Also, can the offensive line create any type of push against Michigan's defensive line? Will there be holes for the running backs and will the line create a comfortable pocket for its quarterbacks?

U-M fans want to be hopeful about the team in 2014 and so much of that summer optimism will ride on whether the offensive line shows itself more capable today than it was in all of 2013.

Defensive Line: Quarterbacks are likely off limits so it's hard to measure the pass-rush capabilities of Michigan's defensive ends and interior players, and even if those players do break through the line before the whistle is blown, many will chalk it up to U-M's struggles on the offensive line.

What will be more interesting to watch is the use of the 4-3 'over' defense, which gives greater pass-rush responsibility to both defensive ends and devalues the SAM linebacker as a regular pass-rusher.

This is a position, though, that the most attention will be on specific players that have yet to see the field for U-M or have done so sparingly. Players like sophomore end Taco Charlton, redshirt freshman tackle Maurice Hurst, redshirt freshman end Henry Poggi and true freshman tackle Bryan Mone.

Linebacker: Almost everyone was on the move this spring, with senior Jake Ryan moving from SAM to MIKE, senior Desmond Morgan from the MIKE back to the WILL he played in 2011-12, and junior James Ross moving from the WILL to SAM. A lot of their reserves took on a new role too, but first things first, and that's paying attention to those three and how comfortable they look in their spots.

We wouldn't expect to see Michigan blitz much, if at all, today as they don't want to produce any video evidence of what their packages might look like in the fall, but that shouldn't stop the linebackers from hitting gaps and attacking the offensive backfield. Last year, U-M's linebackers accumulated 32 tackles for loss, but they should be able to hit closer to 50 this year if all goes according to plan.

Secondary: With recent rumblings that sophomore Jourdan Lewis has had the best spring of any cornerback, it will be interesting to watch how the Wolverines utilize a deep flock of corners that includes returning starters senior Ray Taylor and redshirt junior Blake Countess. Also, will see more press coverage from the cornerbacks?

The safety position is even more intriguing because of the open competition to start next to junior Jarrod Wilson. Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Clark, sophomore Dymonte Thomas, sophomore Delano Hill and freshman Brandon Watson are all in the mix, and we've seen such little game action of those guys that this will be a good opportunity to watch what each brings.

Special Teams: There won't be a lot of special teams work, but this will be senior Matt Wile's first appearance in Michigan Stadium as the full-time placekicker, while fifth-year senior punter Will Hagerup makes his return after sitting out the 2013 season (due to suspension).

In the return game, who else fields punts and kickoffs besides Norfleet?

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