Michigan football's spring concluded with a scrimmage on a cold and windy day, one that seemed to affect the kickers and punters (at least we hope so). Some competitions remain wide-open heading into summer and fall, and Saturday demonstrated why. But we start with some ...
Pleasant surprises on defense
"There's only so much you can tell from one vanilla practice …"
That's the phrase of the day from many who don't (and shouldn't) read too much into spring game performances. When what you see coincides with what you've heard throughout spring ball, however - Denard Robinson's emergence at quarterback, for example - it carries more weight.
Free safety Cameron Gordon is a kid who loves to hit, has a nose for the ball and just understands the game of football. He laid a lick on the sidelines Saturday that could be heard in row 90 and has become one of two guys most frequently mentioned as spring breakout performers on defense.
"You can just tell he has that physical mentality and is going to be a good safety for us," injured cornerback (broken finger) Troy Woolfolk said. "He's been one of the biggest surprises for me, because coming from receiver - receivers are usually soft. For him to come over from the defense and start laying the wood on some of these running backs kind of shocked me - who is this dude? But I'm glad for him and I can't wait to see him in a game."
Cornerback J.T. Floyd would be the other unanimous selection - he, too, was active Saturday and laid a huge hit on running back Stephen Hopkins after a short gain, not afraid to mix it up. His entire demeanor has changed, according to both teammates and coaches.
"I was the main one talking about him," said Woolfolk. "He showed me a little bit last year, played a little in the Michigan State game, but this year he showed he can be that starting corner for us."
Keeping it simple
There wasn't a lot of blitzing Saturday, as we expected, but "keep it simple" has been the theme this spring. By all accounts, some of the offense's best days this spring came when things got a little too tricky … that wasn't the case Saturday (by design), but the first team defense (though it didn't tackle well) still showed some things, including some pressure up front.
"I think our defensive line did a good job putting pressure on the quarterbacks today," veteran Ryan Van Bergen said.
With a big assist from sophomore linebacker Craig Roh, who is as quick to the ball as he was last year even carrying 20-plus more pounds and responsible for the pressure that led to an Obi Ezeh interception of a Devin Gardner pass inside the 10-yard line.
There's no gamebreaker at defensive end, though the hope is that Roh can evolve into one at his position - there were some practices he did nothing but rush the passer - and the depth on the line is sketchy (we've heard Renaldo Sagesse has made great strides, but didn't see enough of him Saturday to form much of an opinion). There will be plenty of youth in the secondary, and not much depth behind it, but the simplicity should help the learning curve.
"We're mostly just focusing on zones, which is easier than playing man," said Woolfolk. "But I would like to go back to doing more man coverage and stuff. It's easier, but pertaining to the players we have on defense, that probably makes it easier for us to play. Keeping it simple allows us to play more instead of thinking too much and slowing down. It allows us to react and get to the ball faster."
Two guys that will have to contribute - safety Vlad Emilien, who had a solid last week of practice but was burned for a big gainer in the spring game (97 yards big, and didn't show the closing speed to make up for it, outrun by Roy Roundtree) and spur Thomas Gordon, who seems to have found a position. Emilien has some Brandent Englemon qualities he'll have to employ to be successful, while Gordon is still learning.
"Vlad, sometimes people talk about him being slow, but he's a smart player. There are ways to work around that … I think he can be good," said Woolfolk. "Thomas Gordon, I actually knew he had ability - I just didn't know where he'd fit best for the defense. That spur position is best for him. The whole spring he's been consistent with his game playing, making good tackles and breaking on the ball. I think he's going to be pretty good, too.
"[Youth] is a concern, but it also excites you because you don't know what they're going to be able to do. You just have to wait until that day - so far they've been proving they're good, and I think they're going to be good for our team."
Woolfolk, though not in the same league as some of the other No. 1 corners that have played at Michigan, has been solid (and could have played Saturday, he said, adding, "it was a little too cold. I was chilling in the stands."). The linebackers, too - Obi Ezeh (being pushed by Kenny Demens, who was all over the field Saturday) and Jonas Mouton (playing with a large wrap on an injured hand) have been solid, though they've had their ups and downs.
"That was one of the problems last year, a lot of people saying they didn't show up," said Woolfolk. "This year they came back and were making a lot of plays. The best way is leading by example on the field. By leading by example, they've shown some great leadership."
Kicking game a concern
When we put together our draft board last week of the 22 most important Wolverines, I didn't include a kicker (though Brendan Gibbons did receive enough votes to make our final list). That's because I'd heard enough chatter to believe that Gibbons might not be the starter against UConn. It wouldn't be the first time a scholarship kicker got beat out by a walk-on, and of the guys we watched Saturday, Kris Pauloski seemed the most consistent. He hit a couple from 47 yards out in the special teams competition and showed plenty of leg and accuracy.
That's not to see he'll be the guy in the opener, but he's got as good a shot as anyone.
There were quite a few high snaps Saturday, too, though we couldn't tell if any were from Tom Pomarico (last year's snapper).
As for the punting - what transpired yesterday (fans on the sidelines and in rows one through 15 running for their lives from shanked punts - okay, not that bad, but still …) should be rectified by the arrival of Whitefish Bay (Wisc.) punter Will Hagerup, one of the nation's top senior punters.
There weren't enough catchable punts to determine how good Jeremy Gallon could be as a return man (though he did muff one short one he tried to catch on the run), but we've heard good things this spring about Gallon and believe he can be a dynamic return man.
• Sophomore Will Campbell has made an impression on his teammates as a guy who is starting to "get it." He's carrying 320 pounds, most of which appears to be good weight.
"He's just changed his attitude. He first came in and wasn't attuned to chasing the ball as much as he is," said Van Bergen. "But if you watched him today, he plays sideline to sideline at 320 pounds. In the fall, he'll be even better."
• Defensive lineman Greg Banks has emerged as one of the leaders on the defense, but he admitted he almost didn't stick around for the transition.
"Put it like this - everybody has doubts. We all have doubts - I'm not going to lie," he said. "I was like man, more coaches. Everybody goes through it - I went through it in high school - but this is the place I committed, so this is the place I was going to stay."
Banks led the defense in a pre-spring meeting to set the expectation for his last year.
"We all came together one night before spring ball and said we can't have teams run and pass on us. It's unacceptable," he said. "That's not Michigan. I was here for both programs, so I know. They really bit down [in the secondary] and said we're going to help you in the run, and you're going to help us in the pass."
• The offensive line's progress impressed Van Bergen.
"They were good, especially without David Molk," Van Bergen said. "Some guys have stepped up. Taylor Lewan I think is ready to play, Patrick Omameh has really progressed. Mark Huyge. Rocko Khoury … with the addition of Molk, that offensive line is going to be a very solid unit. I've been impressed with the way they've been playing."