How Close is Michigan?

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Are the Wolverines ready to fulfill Brady Hoke’s smashmouth-like vision of Michigan football?

There are many storylines surrounding Michigan heading into this season. There is a lot of excitement and there are a lot of questions that will ultimately be answered. The questions are well-known and oft-asked. How will Devin Gardner perform in his first full season as starting quarterback? Will Gardner remain healthy? How will the new-look offensive line perform? Will Fitzgerald Toussaint return completely healthy? To what extent will Derrick Green contribute in his freshman season? How will the defense adapt to the loss if its top playmaker (for part of the season, at least)? Which young players will step up and contribute? All of these questions have been asked and debated, almost ad nauseam. But a question that hasn't been asked as often is one that pertains to Michigan's evolution as a football team. Will Michigan be able to impose its will at the point of attack?

Since taking over two-and-a-half years ago, Brady Hoke has consistently preached the importance of toughness and physicality. An old defensive line coach, Hoke has often made reference to the line of scrimmage being where it all starts, and presumably, where success is defined. Hoke's first two recruiting classes backed this philosophy, as Michigan went heavy on offensive and defensive linemen. Now in year three, Michigan will start to see the fruits of its recruiting labors.

Granted, the offensive line will feature three first year starters, and likely second and third year players at that, but it will also be bookended by two fifth year seniors and has been coached by Hoke and his staff for some time now. Will the offensive line, the most disappointing aspect of last season, finally start pushing people around? And on the other side of the ball, will the embarrassment of riches that Greg Mattison has at his disposal start to do the same, consistently dominate the line of scrimmage without depending so much on stunts and blitzes? Will Michigan's offense keep drives going by consistently converting third and short? And will the defense consistently get off the field by holding on third and short? In many ways, this will prove more telling than wins and losses in terms of serving as a barometer of where Michigan stands as a program.

Wisconsin steamrolled Nebraska in last year's Big Ten Championship game on the strength of its offensive line. Alabama has parlayed dominating line play into three national championships in four years. Even Stanford has resurrected a long moribund program on the strength of ... well, on the strength of strength. That's what Michigan wants to be, a tough football team that can physically dominate its opponent at the line of scrimmage. So perhaps the most important question heading into Brady Hoke's third season is, how close are the Wolverines to being that kind of team?

Contributing to this article was David Shushtari. If there a human being alive with more passion for or knowledge of Michigan football, I haven't met him.

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