Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum's path to the starting center job in 2012 has cleared considerably after head coach Brady Hoke announced Friday that classmate and competitor Rocko Khoury is one of four Wolverines who will not be back next fall ...
Joining Khoury are long snapper George Morales, receiver Terrence Robinson and tailback Michael Cox. All four would have been fifth-year seniors but will instead graduate. They can take advantage of an NCAA rule which allows a player that graduates in four years to transfer to a different school and play immediately if he takes graduate classes.
Hoke insisted at his first spring practice press conference the decisions were entirely theirs.
With Khoury no longer in the fold, the 6-3, 292-pound Barnum is the odds-on favorite to win the vacant starting center job created by the departure of Rimington Award winner David Molk. Though as a guard throughout his career, Barnum will encounter challenges.
"Snapping the football is always a little different," Hoke said. "Now we did quite a bit of that with Rick through the course of when he got back healthy last year, playing both [guard and center]. I think Darrell [Funk] and Al [Borges] both had that mindset, that if we did get beat up somewhere else, if we had to rotate those guys ... at the end of the day the best five guys have to play, however, that rotation works out.
"But snapping the ball, the shotgun snap, with centers you'd like to be able to snap and step at the same time. As a defensive line coach, I know that's important."
Barnum won't be the only one competing for an open job along the offensive line. With redshirt junior Michael Schofield moving to right tackle, after starting at left guard in 2011, there is a hole to be filled next to redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan. Hoke said Friday that redshirt freshman Chris Bryant and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer will both have the opportunity this spring to fill it.
"When you look at our offensive line, there is some good competition but at the same time we have to see some improvement from young guys - a guy like Chris Bryant and his development," Hoke said. "He's done a good job with the weight room, and we'll see how he continues and matures. And Elliott Mealer will get the opportunity at the guard position to see where he ends up."
Hoke's other big concern is along the defensive line with the departures of starters Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger. As TheWolverine.com reported previously, senior Craig Roh is moving from weakside to strongside defensive end to assume Van Bergen's post while junior Jibreel Black is moving from weakside end to the three-technique defensive tackle to take over for Heininger. Senior Will Campbell is the expected heir to Martin at nose tackle.
"Craig and Jibreel have really embraced their moves," Hoke said. "I know when we had the conversation and Greg [Mattison] met with Craig after we discussed it staff-wise, it was like, 'OK, I get to eat a little more.'
"He really has embraced it and they've done some senior drill work where those guys ... and him and Jibreel both are excited about it."
The mammoth 6-5, 322-pound Campbell has been waiting for this moment his entire career, and must finally make the most of his potential, starting with a solid spring.
"I think he's made great progress," Hoke said. "What he's done from a physical standpoint, how he looks, and his leadership and that part of it. When you start looking at that nose position, the ability of Will to slide from a three-technique or tackle position to our nose is important."
Michigan will try to establish who its three new starters will be by the end of the spring, and has high hopes that whomever they are, they will excel.
"Your expectations don't go down," Hoke said. "They'd better increase, because the bar is always going to be set high here at Michigan, and they should be. The expectations are for the position, not the person playing the position.
"I think these guys have learned to compete more and more as far as what our perception of competition is and our expectation of competition. They understand now what's at stake and they also understand that Sept. 1 will be here before you know it."