The importance of center Ricky Barnum shouldn't be underestimated (Photo credit: Rick Osentoski - US PRESSWIRE)
Ask any great coach where championship teams are built and his answer will be short and sweet: the inside. Michigan fields a decent amount of skill talent between Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Blake Countess and others, but none of it will matter if the Wolverines can't find bodies to perform well in the trenches.
Football is a game of balance and harmony. If one portion of a defense is lacking the rest must reach to help it and will ultimately pay the consequence, and the same goes for offense. These trickle-down effects are usually caused by poor play up front and are very noticeable. If a center fails to reach block properly on a designed run or barks out an incorrect shift on a pass play the entire offense pays for it. Defenses with inferior defensive lineman are forced to play an aggressive hand by calling sharp line slants or bringing a safety into the box. This ultimately leads to massive cutback runs or being shredded in the air game.
Michigan's two fronts are interesting. The offensive line has the potential to be one of the more reliable units in the Big Ten if it stays healthy and new starting center Ricky Barnum plays up to his potential. The defensive line is another story altogether, returning only Crag Roh after he made the move from WDE to SDE. This leaves three spots open for fresh faces, which includes the uber-hyped Will Campbell.
Key Offensive Player: C Ricky Barnum (RS Sr.)
There were questions regarding Barnum's ability to adjust to the center position after playing guard. He's physically stronger than many centers but will he be quick enough to do what's asked of him? Will he struggle with the responsibility that comes with playing center? The coaching staff thought he had a solid showing during the spring and fall but we won't be able to fully answer these questions until we see him in action this season.
If Barnum can't live up to the praise he received this off season Michigan's offense won't be as dangerous as expected. The center is key in any offense but Michigan's offense might rely on him more than most would because of its tendency to operate out of the shotgun. He might not be as relied upon as current Charger David Molk was but he'll still be expected to make basic checks at the line. The rhythm of the offense also depends on Barnum and his ability to be a dependable shotgun snapper.
Michigan's favorite running play out of the shotgun is the zone read and Barnum is a key cog in the play. In some instances he'll be asked to make blocks on the second level while in others he'll be forced to get his head across the body of a defensive tackle, and living up to Molk in these areas won't be easy. On the other hand running power from the I-formation could be an area that Barnum bests Molk in solely because he's bigger and stronger.
If Barnum plays well expect the running game to be just as solid as it was a year ago, and possibly even better with two proven rushers returning this year. He should pass block just as well as Molk did.
Key Defensive Player: DT William Campbell (Sr.)
Ahh, big Willie Campbell. Three years in a row we've waited for you to bust out of that shell and wreck lineman on a consistent basis. When he committed to Michigan we envisioned four years of this and instead watched him get pushed around due to poor leverage and overall technique.
This year he's slimmer. His work in the weight room is visible and he was among the most praised players on the Michigan roster this off season. He did make some strides last year but was still very inconsistent at the end of the year, standing up too often and looking like he's just too tall to be an effective nose tackle. He's now practicing as a three-technique defensive tackle and although this means he won't have to face as many double teams it doesn't change the fact that he still needs to play with a lower pad level.
If Michigan's defense is to remain respectable against the run Campbell must step up. If he comes out with a vengeance and a new pad level the entire defense will improve, relying less on Jordan Kovacs as a fourth linebacker, instead allowing him to roam the secondary and make plays on the back end in the passing game. Campbell can also make a dramatic impact on the pass defense if he can become a consistent pass rusher, using the athleticism that earned him five-star status as a recruit. If the Wolverine front four can create pressure on its own it will open up Pandora's box of plays for Greg Mattison, but it probably won't happen unless Campbell can find his way to the quarterback.
Michigan also needs Quinton Washington to come on as a consistent starter next to Campbell but his ceiling isn't nearly as high and he won't be able to impact a game in as many ways as BWC. No pressure, William.