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Spring Practice Primer: Offense

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Yesterday we took a look at the defense now that spring practice is starting. Here is how the Maize n Brew staff answered questions about the Michigan offense:

Who are the key players to watch as the offensive line tries to sort itself out over the next month?

(Ed note: These responses were submitted before news came out that Rocko Khoury is graduating and will not be with the team next year. Adjust your Doom levels appropriately.)

Jeff Contizano - Definitely Rick Barnum. The coaches are giving him a hard look at center, and if he can stay healthy I think he'll be a good fit there. Will he be a David Molk? Probably not, but with Omameh on one side and the possibility of Chris Bryant at the other guard spot the interior of the line could be very strong. Plus, that would allow Michael Schofield to slide to right tackle, where he has great potential.

DGDestroys - With the LT, RG, and RT positions seemingly shored up, the LG and OC hang in the balance. At center, it should be an intriguing three-way race between 2 RS SRs in Rocko Khoury and Ricky Barnum, as well as RS FR Jack Miller. While Khoury and Barnum have the experience advantage, Miller is a name that continues to pop up, especially in some of the bowl practice workouts. Khoury has been inconsistent in his time backing up Molk, but has shown some promise. Barnum is a huge asset, whom the coaches presumably wouldn't be moving over to the middle unless they felt confident in his ability to win the job. Miller seems to be another diamond Rich Rod found in the rough, but has he added enough weight yet? Spring Practice should probably give us a good idea of who has the upper leg in this race. The battle for LG will be significantly more murky. Elliot Mealer, a RS SR, will be given every shot to win the job, but he's competed for playing time before, and has never really been able to crack significant playing time. I'd love to see him out there, with Brock cheering on the sideline, but I think it's a bit more likely that Chris Bryant, the RS FR, steps in and grabs a handle through spring. It's essential that he does this, too, because he'll likely have to fend off several freshmen, come fall practice. Bryant also received rave reviews during practice last year, but needed to slim down a bit. If he's at a manageable playing weight (probably below 330), he would be the front runner to win the job.

Holdin' the Rope - The center position is the obvious one to watch, and as impossible as it will be to replace a player like David Molk, Michigan will have to try and find an at least competent answer. With Barnum moving to center, he is presumably the favorite to win the job. His challengers are Rocko Khoury (who started the Sugar Bowl, in case you haven't already erased the memory of that first drive from your brain) and Jack Miller. Miller redshirted last year and likely isn't ready, physically or otherwise. Barnum's hopefully having recovered from his 2011 injuries enough in order to lock down the center spot will allow Michigan to swing Schofield out to right tackle; I'm not sure we see much dropoff, if any, from Huyge if that shakes out. Barnum's move creates an opening at left guard, and Hoke has mentioned Elliot Mealer as a guy who may be at the top of that list. Redshirt freshman Chris Bryant is a challenger here, but like Miller, is he physically or technically ready? There is also the option of moving Khoury to guard if Barnum does end up locking up the center position. Also, let's not forget about Kyle Kalis. He won't be around for spring ball but he could very easily win that left guard spot in the fall or, more likely, at some point during the season.

Zach Travis - I think everything comes down to Jack Miller. We all know that Rocko Khoury is a solid option (I refuse to hold the start of the Sugar Bowl against him because it wouldn't be easy to find out the job is yours 15 minutes before the game) and Ricky Barnum is getting the first crack at center, but both those guys are interior linemen that project better at guard. Miller is a center through and through. I think if he can stake a strong claim to the starting center job it bodes very well for the offensive line because it gives the coaches a lot more options elsewhere.

As far as pass catchers, the receivers and tight ends are largely unproven and the loss of Stonum doesn't help. What are you looking for from these two groups?

Jeff - At receiver Michigan really needs Roy Roundtree to step up for his senior season. I know last year was a major disappointment for him, but Roy could really flourish as the #1 guy. You pretty much know what your getting with Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon in the slot, so I'd love to see a guy like Jerald Robinson step up at the other outside receiver spot. J-Rob has good size, speed, and the ability to make those great adjustments in the air like Mario Manningham used to regularly make. For depth purposes it'd be great to see a freshmen step up, but if they don't I think Michigan will be OK.

DG - We'll probably see Gallon and Roundtree get the majority of snaps this season, but who can support the duo? I think one of the most intriguing players to watch this spring will be RS SO Jerald Robinson. Robinson has gotten the praise of several teammates, current and former, but has yet to see the field. A borderline 4-star talent coming out of high school, he's been pretty quiet so far in his career, but he's never had a better opportunity. He, too, will need to battle with Jeremy Jackson, Terrence Robinson (if he's granted a 5th year), and Drew Dileo to establish himself in the rotation before Amara Darboh, Devin Funchess, and Jehu Chesson arrive. I'm also looking forward to seeing Brandon Moore and Ricardo Miller during the Spring Game. Although Moore occasionally got time in two tight end sets last year, he should see a major bump in production and playing time during this upcoming season. I'm very excited to see how the coaching staff decides to use Miller, as his athleticism and strong work ethic could propel him to be a mismatch, if deployed correctly. There will be a couple of walk-ons and Jordan Paskorz that will likely be under the eye of the coaching staff as well, but they probably won't be seeing as much of the field come fall.

HtR - We pretty much know what we're getting from a guy like Gallon, but Roundtree was affected by the offensive transition more than anybody not named Denard. Another year of learning the intricacies of the system will go a long way toward developing a sense of timing with Denard that will allow him to bring his numbers back up despite not being a speedster like Stonum or a big leaping type like Junior. Jerald Robinson hasn't done much yet but he is a guy who Michigan will need to step up, and Jeremy Jackson should hopefully continue to develop as a potential big possession receiver target for Denard. People may look at this group of wideouts and tight ends and feel somewhat underwhelmed, which is fine, but I think that not having a proven deep threat will be mitigated to an extent by a growing familiarity with what Borges is trying to do on offense. Also, let's not forget about Drew Dileo. He's never going to have an eye-popping stat line at year's end, but he has made some important receptions in his career thus far, the 27-yarder against the Buckeyes this past November coming to mind.

Zach - Somebody. Anybody. Gallon is a good receiver and will continue to be so even playing slightly out of position. Roy Roundtree just doesn't seem like a guy who can thrive on the outside, and Drew Dileo is a slot all the way. Thankfully the lack of tight ends will be mitigated somewhat by the ability of the offense to go to credible three- and four-wide sets. However, if Jerald Robinson or Jeremy Jackson don't find a way to at least cover one of the outside receiver spots between the two of them, this team could be in trouble. I don't expect much from the tight ends. If they can solidly block when called upon I'll be happy. I don't see any tight end pulling down double digit catches for the year. This will put a big burden on the receivers.

After spending over a year in the Borges offense, what do you think we can expect from Denard Robinson? While a leap in production akin to what happened between 2009 and 2010 is improbable, do you think third-year-starter Denard is going to look much different than second-year-starter Denard?

Jeff - I don't think you're going to see a huge jump in completion percentage or yards. I think Borges wants Denard to hit over 60% of his passes, but more importantly just limit his turnovers. Will we see Denard run less? I think so, especially with Toussaint becoming a much better runner. But I still expect Denard to finish near 1,000 yards because he is just so dangerous in the open field.

DG - In all honesty, I don't expect that much of a change from Denard. Understanding the offense a bit better, as well as continuing to work on his connection with guys like Roundtree and Gallon can't hurt, but I don't think we'll ever see another huge leap forward. Without Hemingway, I'm worried he's going to continue forcing balls to places he shouldn't except this time Jeremy Gallon won't be able to out-leap the defenders (unless playing Notre Dame). We'll see plenty of frustrating interceptions, arm-punts, and poor decisions, which he'll mix with flashes of strong technique, zip, and accuracy. And it will continue to both puzzle and amaze us.

HtR - I'm going to pretend that Jim Brandstatter is asking this question in order to pull out an underrated Hokeism: "No question, Jim." I don't know to what extent I'm willing or able to quantify Denard's improvement in Year 2, but it's undeniable that a season filled with defenses like MSU's sending two linebackers up the middle with regularity will have served as a good learning experience as to how to respond to those situations going forward. We know what kind of a guy Denard is, and there's no doubt that he will be working hard on his mechanics this offseason. I'm not saying that he will have a Henne-esque deep ball by year's end, but he will likely be throwing off of his back foot less, and another offseason of working with his receivers in this offense will go a long way toward being ready to handle the blitz come gameday (the busted hot route against MSU that resulted in the pick 6 is Exhibit A of this). The passing offense likely won't be too flashy, but Denard's performance against the Buckeyes showed that he does have the capability to make some impressive throws when he's comfortable and the ground game is rolling. Much of this is of course contingent upon Borges putting Denard in good situations on first and second downs, which I think he will continue to get better at this year as he becomes increasingly familiar with Denard's unique skill set.

Zach - There are enough reasons for optimism that I'm going to let it run away with me for a bit. Enjoy.

First, Al Borges knows what he has. He said he did last year but that would be like me saying "I know what kind of speed a crotch rocket is capable of" just because I have seen a few on the freeway. Sure, you have an outside perspective, but you don't really know until you actually experience it. Borges has had a year to experiment. We all saw him do it, and by the end of the year (the VT game not withstanding) it looked like he had a pretty solid grasp of it. If Borges commits to running what works and finding ways to exploit defenses, and he knows that now...

"From a schematic perspective, early on we were testing the waters on how much under-center play we were going to have," Borges said. "We knew we wanted to do some of that because we wanted to feature our running backs a little more and take some pressure of Denard. I think had we had to do it over again, we would have been a little more spread offense early on and gotten better at that. We kind of weened ourselves into more spread offense as we went. That's really what was best for Denard at the end of the day."

I think things set up well for the offense to take a big step forward. However, what I am most excited to see is just how much better Robinson looks. There hasn't been a challenge put in front of this kid that he hasn't worked his butt off to ace, and I think a full year to work in Borges's offense is going to be enough that he cleans up the little things --- the footwork issues, the Grossman-esque "hell I'm unleashing the dragon" throws, the indecision --- and that should have a big effect when coupled with an offensive system that is comfortable in maximizing his strengths.

I think people are going to be surprised how good Robinson looks at quarterback this year. I can't wait.

What about Devin Gardner? Do you think he improves enough to rekindle the "quarterback controversy" buzz that seemed to hum around the program early last year?

Jeff - There were reports that Devin struggled near the end of last season, and maybe that's why we didn't see the double "Ace" formation or whatever it was with him and Denard on the field together. Devin has all the talent in the world, and he has gained valuable experience the past two years. Will he challenge Denard? Probably not, but if he can earn some playing time that would be a huge plus going into the following season.

DG - Unless Denard inexplicably regresses this offseason to a severe degree, I don't think he's in any danger of losing his starting spot. The onus will be on Borges to find practical, yet creative ways to mix in Devin Gardner without throwing off Denard's rhythm, or pointlessly making the playbook cute and convoluted. Gardner's always had the arm strength, but he tends to shirk his learned technique and wing it too often, as well as run in situations that don't call for it. However, when he sets his feet and delivers as taught, he can be scary accurate. Everyone knows he's a hard worker, but can he become more consistent in his throwing motion? I'll be watching him closely during the Spring Game.

HtR - I think Gardner is an enormous talent that will shine when the job is his and his alone, but I sure hope that we don't have to go through that again this year. I think Denard and the offense as a whole should improve to the extent that I don't think this should be an issue, but I'm also not writing off Devin as someone who should get playing time. Obviously, working on the base plays comes first, but I would love to see Michigan perfect the dual QB package that was showcased a little bit last year. I honestly feel bad that a talent like Devin has had to sit for so long, but it's just not his time...yet.

Zach - I don't see Gardner starting any quarterback controversies, but I think this will be a valuable year going forward. I think it is easy to overlook Gardner given who is in front of him (Robinson) and who is coming in after him (Shane Morris), but I think Gardner will be a very good quarterback in 2013 and, NCAA willing, 2014. However, this year it is the Denard Robinson show for better or worse.

What is the one thing you will be looking for from the offense this spring?

Jeff - What is it going to look like? Michigan lost it's two top tight ends and it's top receiver. I think Hoke and Borges will continue to use more spread concepts because that still fits Michigan's personnel the best right now. But I wouldn't be surprised to see more of an emphasis on the power running game. At some time, Michigan will become a pro-style offense. When that will be, I don't know.

DG - I'm a bit worried, and I think the Sugar Bowl game sufficient cause for this, that Borges is attempting to move to more 'pro-style' concepts a bit too quickly, while ignoring his personnel. Patrick Omameh is athletic, but has repeatedly shown his inability to keep up with the grind of a more power-oriented system. Denard is a mediocre step-back passer. Bryant is certainly the paving stone for a bigger, beefier, 'MANBAW' line, but that should be the full goal of the coaches down the road, without rushing into it. Here's to hoping Borges keeps plenty of spread concepts that can allow Denard to fulfill his potential.

HtR - Again, there's another boring answer to this question. I'm simply looking for ball security, relatively few drops from the receivers, and decent run blocking. Mattison was actually somewhat aggressive last year against a pretty vanilla offense, so it will be interesting to see how Denard and Devin respond when they roll out and see a blitzing Jake Ryan in their face (e.g. last year). Competence will be the order of the day here. No fumbles, ugly interceptions, botched snaps, and, of course, injuries, and we can probably call it a successful day for the work-in-progress that is this offense.

Zach - Two things: a majority of shotgun spread offensive sets and solid execution. I like the idea of working on the stuff you aren't good at, but there just isn't the personnel to make the switch to two-tight end sets and I-form backfields. The offense needs to devote time to what it will actually use this year. Past that I just want to see everyone on the same page. Last year was painful to watch because of all the mistakes. I don't expect that again, but I will worry if the offense struggles to do the little things. I don't like to worry.