ANN ARBOR MI - NOVEMBER 06: Jason Ford #21 of the Illinois Fighting Illini fumbles while being tackled by Craig Roh #88 of the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 6 2010 in Ann Arbor Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The quest for knowledge will take man to some pretty dark places in his life. One of those places, when it comes to college football, is internet message boards during spring practice. Spring football provides a bevy of information to overreact to, and very little that means anything of importance until confirmed in the fall. There are any number of local news articles that say a lot without saying much at all. That doesn't mean we can't try to put the rumors and rumblings into perspective. Here are six of the biggest stories out of the spring, and our read on what it all means.
1. Will Campbell, BMOC?
One day libraries will be written about the hype and expectation that surrounded William Campbell in his two years as an uber-recruit and four years on campus at Michigan. No player has stepped into the program with a bigger recruiting profile or more raw tools, and no player has been able to match the simmering disappointment that has surrounded Big Will's (lack of) development. This is his final chance to to deliver even a modicum of the success and production that he seemed destined for years ago.
So far, the reports out of camp are positive. Campbell has been singled out by the staff as one of the players they expect to take a big step forward in the absence of the departing interior combo of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Now he has taken to his new role as leader on and off the field well. Campbell has dropped weight, rededicated himself to playing hard every single play, and pushing his teammates to improve on and off the field.
What does it mean?
It means, wait and see. Campbell's dedication and attitude signal that he should at least provide the Michigan defensive line with a solid option at one of the tackle spots. However, his motor was only one of the problems plaguing his production. Campbell has a lot of technique to improve before he comes even close to producing at the level he is capable of. Expect average, everything else is gravy.
2. The defensive line is getting more athletic (i.e. smaller).
Campbell isn't the only one on the front line that is shrinking. Because of the graduation of stalwarts Martin, Van Bergen, and Will Heininger the Wolverines have been forced to shift a number of players around in the front four. This means that the weakside defensive end position is going to look a lot different.
First, longtime starter on the weak side, Craig Roh, will be bulking up and moving to the strong side 5-tech position. Roh, who has had trouble holding up against the run early in his career and is looking to get his weight up to 280lbs to deal with more double teams and lead blocks, "I'm more of a guy at the point of attack, an explosive guy," Roh said. "I just need to put the weight on now, and from what I've done so far in spring, I really like the position, because the ball is coming to you a lot more" (ESPN).
Roh isn't the only position switch away from the 7-tech spot. Jabreel Black is shifting one position over to the 3-tech defensive tackle position formerly held by Van Bergen. Black has acquitted himself well so far according to rumors and internet bits, and his athleticism should help make up for the fact that he isn't quite big enough (yet).
All these moves to the inside have opened things up for a mano-a-mano showdown at the weak side defensive ends spot between true sophomores Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Beyer spent last year playing in the SLB role, but shifted down to the line in what is a more natural position. Clark was one of the heroes of the Sugar Bowl with an athletic interception. Both have shown promise says lineman Taylor Lewan, ""They're sometimes a hassle for me, I'm not going to lie."
However, neither player is over 230lbs yet and both could struggle against the run (Beyer had some trouble last year in his early season appearances).
What does it mean?
Michigan should be talented and quick on the defensive line, but against big, physical running teams (cough, Alabama, cough) the Wolverines could struggle unless one of the options at the one-tech spot is able to command a double team and hold his ground, freeing up the rest of the linemen to work against single team blocks. At some point in the season, a lack of size will be a factor. But the off season weight training and improvement in technique could mitigate that.
3. The offensive line is set.
Spring camp posed a lot of questions for an offensive line that was losing perhaps the best center in the country from last year's squad. Michigan is still lacking much depth along the line and reinforcements won't show until the summer, but things are looking up.
LT Taylor Lewan and RG Patrick Omameh have held ground as established starters along the line as was expected, and last year's starter at LG, Michael Schofield, has shifted back outside to his natural position at the opposite tackle.
That leaves two positions on the inside, and both are looking more set in stone. After sliding back to center to begin the spring, Ricky Barnum has taken hold of the starting spot thus far, with sophomore Jack Miller getting some time as the backup. Next to him, Elliott Mealer has emerged as the man to beat at left guard.
What does this mean?
That Michigan's offensive line situation might not be as dire as it looked with the Rocko Khoury departure. Barnum has by all accounts looked good at center, and Jack Miller has gotten praise as well. A reliable two deep there is of huge importance. With Mealer and Omameh taking the guard spots, Chris Bryant has gotten a chance to work as a back up to help with depth. There is still no one behind Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, but we knew that. already
Depending on how the incoming freshman perform, things could be looking up for what seemed like a worrisome part of the team. It is much better to have Erik Magnuson or Kyle Kalis come in and challenge a reliable, established starter, than have one of them show up on campus as the anointed savior at an empty position.
4. The freshmen are holding their own.
The three early enrollees got some praise from defensive coordinator Greg Mattison toward the beginning of camp, but it was all guarded, "I can't evaluate any of the freshmen yet, because they've had no pads. But I do like their attitudes. I'll tell you that."
Now that pads have come on they have started to stand out even more. Jarrod Wilson has shown the talent and athleticism that made him a sought after recruit, while Joe Bolden seems to have jumped up on the depth chartquickly and could be a big part of the two-deep.
What does it mean?
Both linebacker and safety were going to be thin in the 2012 season, and while the emergence of Bolden and Wilson doesn't guarantee anything, it should help foster competition and keep the drop off from first to second team manageable.
5. Devin Gardner just might be the best receiver on the team.
The wide receiver position is a big question mark this spring. Losing Junior Hemingway, Martavious Odoms, and Darryl Stonum has thinned the depth chart and put pressure on inexperienced players to step up. While Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon are established players and Jerald Robinson has drawn early praise, Michigan still looks to be lacking something at outside receiver.
While Gardner hasn't shown up at receiver much in the spring practice videos floating around, rumors of his abilities are out there, and they are effusive with praise, per mgoblog, "Someone who's seen Gardner at all of Michigan's practices so far says he's "instantly Michigan's best receiver and adds a new dimension to the offense." He's "crazy athletic" with "surprisingly great hands."
What does it mean?
That Michigan may end up with its best receiver on the bench this fall. Gardner is still the clear number two option at quarterback, and the heir apparent for 2013. A full scale position shift still seems unlikely, but if Gardner is that good odds are he will get some run on the outside at some point.