Two seasons ago, Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs, two valuable U-M players, headlined a senior class backed by Craig Roh, Will Campbell, Roy Roundtree, Kenny Demens, and the O-linemen Elliot Mealer, Ricky Barnum, and Patrick Omameh. This season, we lose seniors Taylor Lewan, Michael Schofield, Fitz Toussaint, Jeremy Gallon, Jibreel Black, and Brendan Gibbons, along with occasional starters Cam Gordon and Quinton Washington. What about next year? Here's a look at six to-be seniors and what to look for from the players liable to replace them.
Devin Gardner (QB) - For the second time in three years, we lose our starting QB. That may be news to anyone who was watching our games, however, as many people were wondering why Denard 'Shoelace' Robinson was running with a longer, slower gait than before. This will definitely be the last iteration of Denardball, though, and DG will be replaced by either 6'3", 200-lb. Shane Morris, 6'6" 217-lb. Wilton Speight, or 6'3", 215-lb. Russell Bellomy. A lack of explosive athleticism from the QB position will be a little different to adjust to, and this will require more athleticism from our WRs and a physical offensive line that can stave off rushers and gorge holes for the running backs.
Of course, that's a part of our offense that caused headaches, to put it mildly, in 2013. Michigan will need to grow up quickly at the line of scrimmage while leaning on one last year by SportsCenter talent Devin Gardner, before their ultimate graduation as a true three yards and a cloud of dust Michigan team. Michigan will also need taller, athletic receivers; while OSU has gravitated toward burners and SEC speed, Michigan's wideout recruits measure 6'5", 6'4", 6'4", 6'3", 6'3", 6'3", 6'2", and 6'2" since 2012 (and that doesn't even count our tight ends). Finally, Michigan needs to see more confidence and decision-making from the running back position to make the passing offense successful.
At that point, the man under center should have an easier time navigating his job. Shane Morris has a rocket arm but tends to see only one side of the field and can force throws in bad spaces. Wilton Speight, on the other hand, has shown more accuracy but less arm strength and agility than Morris. Hopefully both guys get some in-game experience after a few blow-out wins, potentially at Appalachian State or Miami (OH).
Jake Ryan (LB) - We're all going to miss Jake Ryan, obviously. His phenom sophomore season was followed up by one marred by an ACL injury suffered in spring. He's come on of late, and still won the Roger Katcher Award for team's best linebacker. He will be joined in the second level by James Ross III and fellow senior Desmond Morgan, so it's no promise he wins the award for a third straight year unless he truly is vintage Jake Ryan.
Replacing him will be tough, though we did all right this past year by using Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer. Mike McCray has not made an impact yet, but has great SAM size and could come on. Winovich also projects to SAM linebacker. It's possible Ryan's productivity, much like Jordan Kovacs at safety, will not be immediately replaced, but if it is, it will be by young guys who are still finding their way.
Frank Clark (DE) - Clark has been a little inconsistent at weak-side defensive end but has gradually turned into a key piece of our defensive line. He had career-high tackles against Michigan State, career-high solo tackles two weeks later at Northwestern and career-high TFL's against Iowa. If he takes another step forward at WDE he will be sorely missed by season's end.
Behind Frank Clark is Mario Ojemudia, Taco Charlton, and Lawrence Marshall. Marshall has been working on his strength and flexibility, spending time in the weight room and doing yoga, and many people think he'll make a big impact at the college level. Taco is raw but has been a focus of Greg Mattison and should be considered the incumbent replacement after hopping Mario on the depth chart.
Desmond Morgan (LB) - Morgan has started 23 games in the last two years and will be another steady linebacker presence next year and another hole to fill the year after that. His likely replacement is Joe Bolden, who's already proven himself and accrued 25 games of on-field experience. The other person in line would be Michael Ferns, while Mike McCray may also possibly slide over to the middle if he and another SAM both have breakout seasons.
Raymon Taylor (CB) - Taylor is another stalwart who's played in 25 games and started 22 the last two seasons. He will graduate a year earlier than Blake Countess, leaving his spot open for one of Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Jabrill Peppers.* A lot hangs on whether Peppers signs with Michigan - assuming he does, he should be starting in this spot by 2015 (which would be Peppers' sophomore season) or sooner, and which might relegate Taylor to a more limited role his last year here.
The other competition for the corner spot are two young guys signed in '13 who need time to get their weight up to the college level. Jourdan Lewis is faster and was more highly recruited, but stands at 5'10". Stribling is a lanky 6'2" with good instincts, but both were shown up a little bit by playing too early due to lack of depth in the secondary. The fan base is down on both these guys, but they should be solid starting-level corners who may not even by starting in 2015 or 2016.
Brennen Beyer (DE/LB) - Beyer is another successful RichRod recruit (i.e., legitimate college player), and will be among the very last of RichRod's recruits to go through the program. If nothing else this will simplify arguments among fans debating the job that Brady Hoke has done. In terms of the effects on the field, this will take out a consistently healthy veteran who was solid in run support but unamazing otherwise.
Since Beyer plays the same position as Jake Ryan and Frank Clark, let's take another look at some of the depth at these positions. Linebacker looks deeper and more athletic overall, but SAM may be the weakest of the bunch after Jake Ryan leaves. Of course, this all depends on how young guys come in and develop, and we'll have a better idea about that later. At WDE, the players in the depth chart are a little older and easier to assess, and we should be fine. At the moment, we have no recruits for either position in the 2015 signing class.
* Michigan fans have panicked a little and are worried about verbal de-commits and potential transfers. Ironically, this has made the situation a little bit worse: by beating the drums for firing Brady Hoke, Al Borges, Darrell Funk, Greg Mattison, and even Dave Brandon, Jabrill Peppers has gotten spooked and is looking around. Also, Shaun Crawford, a 5'8" corner and slot receiver from Ohio who I have not listed as a Michigan commitment, is planning to take a visit to Ohio State. However, there have been no transfers, and no one has de-committed from Michigan as of yet, though Crawford might. But one recruit does not a program make, and there's a lot going for this Michigan team and we're in great position to surprise the doubters in our bowl game and heading into next season. Once that happens, we should be able to get back to being a confident, hard-working Michigan team without the drama.