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Watchlisting: What Michigan Players Made Pre-Season Award Watchlists?

Tis the season for award watchlists. Who made it and what chance do they have of winning?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan's last national award winner was David Molk in 2011.  Before that Lamar Woodley won the Lombardi and Hendricks awards in 2006.  David Baas (Rimingtong 2004), Braylon Edwards (Biletnikoff 2004), and Chris Perry (Doak Walker 2003) are the only other national award winners since Charles Woodson won just about everything in 1997.

So Michigan is due for another.  That doesn't mean that the odds are great that it will happen this year, just that I'd really like to see one of Michigan's players get voted as the best at his position nationally.  That is normally a good thing that coincides with a pretty successful season.

This year a number of Michigan players made watch lists.  Do those players have any realistic shot at winning the award they made the watchlist for?  Let's take a look:

Maxwell Award (College POTY)

Candidates: Devin Gardner, Devin Funchess

Let's just talk about the elephant in the room right away when it comes to anything offensive in this post: Michigan's offensive skill position players are only going to go as far as the offensive line allows.

That being said, there is someone we can probably rule out right away: Devin Funchess.  Bunches of Funchess might have a wonderful season, but his chances are a lot better at another award that we'll get to in a minute.  Why you ask?  Only two Maxwell winners since 2000 have been anything other than a quarterback.  One was PSU running back Larry Johnson, the other was Notre Dame online dating afficianado linebacker Manti Te'o.  The last receiver to win the Maxwell?  Desmond Howard.  So yeah, Devin, go ahead and turn in a season like Desmond had in 1991.

His chances? Snowball in hell

Gardner, however, might have a chance.  Last year he was in spitting distance of AJ McCarron in a few important statistical categories (yards: AJ - 3063, Devin -2960; yards/att: 9.1 to 8.6; comp% 67 to 60) while also adding more ability on the ground.  If Michigan's offense improves around him, Gardner could have the year we've all been waiting for.

The big things will be 1) team success (Michigan has to win 10+ games and get a major bowl game or Gardner isn't in the discussion) and 2) turnovers (too many last year).

His chances? Longshot.

Bednarik Award (Defensive POTY)

Candidates: Frank Clark, Jake Ryan

Last year Michigan had some defensive issues, but the unit seems like it could be primed for a big step forward if the front seven can establish itself and the line can generate an organic pass rush.  That is where Frank Clark comes in.  Welcome to year three of the Frank Clark Breakout Season Watch where we all expect the talented defensive end to finally put it all together and become Michigan's best outside rushing threat since Brandon Graham.

The hype for Clark is a bit mellow this year as we've all been burned before, but his 2013 season was characterized by improvement throughout and he led the team with five sacks and 12.5 TFLs.  If he wants to seriously contend for the Bednarik, it will be commensurate with how much those numbers improve.  Double them and he is a legit candidate.  Triple them and you've got yourself a finalist.

With a lot of young talent on the interior, Clark could see more chances to get a solid rush.  He also has the benefit of being backed by a very experienced back seven.  However, I've waited too long for Clark to put everything together, only to be burned repeatedly.

His chances? Longshot.

Jake Ryan, on the other hand, has a bit more name recognition.  His exceptional 2012 season looked to foreshadow a breakout into a national award caliber upperclassman career at Michigan.  An ACL injury in the spring last year derailed that, but Ryan came back sooner than anyone thought possible and looked pretty good doing it.

His shift into the middle of the defense from SLB to MLB could either be a good thing for him (teams can't run away from him) or a bad thing (read/react skills are much more important playing at the MLB, and Ryan's strength was never that).

Still, if he stays healthy he should be the face of Michigan's defense and will likely lead or be at the top of a few big statistical categories.  If Michigan puts together a 10+ game winning season, a lot of credit will have to go to the defense, and that will only help the face of the defense.

His chances? Possible finalist.

Bronko Nagurski Award (Def. POTY)

Candidates: Frank Clark, Jake Ryan, Blake Countess

Let's just leave Clark and Ryan's chances the same for this one since the Nagurski and Bednarik reward the same thing.

Countess makes his first appearance on a watchlist and is an interesting name to watch this season.  He just nabbed the #2 jersey this offseason, which signals a big vote of confidence from the coaches, who aren't just going to give that away to anyone.  He also led Michigan in interceptions (6) and passes broken up (4) a year ago.

Michigan's secondary was exposed late against Tyler Lockett of KSU, but for the most part it played well through the year.  The Wolverines were solidly in the middle of the Big Ten last year in most pass defense stats and Countess flashed an ability to make impressive plays on the ball (as well as an ability to be in the right place at the right time. See: Dame, Notre).

The big questions are whether Countess can take another step toward being a lockdown corner, and how much help he gets from a safety position that still isn't totally settled.  Only three other defensive backs have won the Nagurski award.  One of them you already know (Charles Woodson, obv.).  The others are Champ Bailey and Roy Williams.  Pretty good company.  This is an award that mostly goes to linemen and linebackers.  Blake Countess would need to go from solid Big Ten corner to unanimous all-American.  Even that might not be enough.

His chances? Snowball in hell.

Jim Thorpe Award (Best DB)

Candidate: Blake Countess

The competition is still pretty stiff here, but it is certainly something that is within reach if Countess continues to improve.  Countess's interception total a year ago put him solidly in the top-20 nationally, and it isn't out of the question that he exceeds that number this year.

Still, this would require Countess to establish himself as a lockdown corner and a probable high-level draft pick.  It isn't out of the question, but his struggles at times last year show that he is still a ways away.

His chances? Longshot.

Butkus Award (Best LB)

Candidate: Jake Ryan

The face of an improving defense and a more central role in that as MLB.  There is a good chance that Jake Ryan makes a strong push to be a finalist for the Butkus award.  With a good enough season for Michigan's defense and a cross of solid tackle production and penetrating ability into the backfield, Ryan could well win this thing.  However, it would take a lot of help.

His chances? Possible finalist.

Lombardi Award (Best Lineman/LB)

Candidate: Jake Ryan

See above, but add in the fact that he also has to compete with linemen for this one.

His chances? Possible finalist.

Biletnikoff Award (Best Wide Receiver)

Candidate: Devin Funchess

Read that again:

Candidate: Devin Funchess

That's right.  No longer is Funchess mis-identified as a tight end.  He is a receiver, and a good one at that.

With Jeremy Gallon departing, Michigan is going to need a new number one target, and Funchess looks ready to fill that role.  While he has a little bit of Braylon Edwards in him (routine drops on easy targets), that never stopped Braylon from winning the award a decade ago.

Funchess has the kind of big play ability that gets one on Sportscenter, which is the kind of thing that helps in award races like this.  He flashed an ability to beat corners on deep routes and his size make him difficult to cover down the field.  If Devin Gardner can stay upright long enough to find Funchess, there is no reason that the big wide receiver can't go over 1000 yards on the year, which should help keep him in the discussion.

His chances? Possible finalist.

Davey O'Brien Award (Best QB)

Candidate: Devin Gardner

We talked about this earlier, and not much has changed.  Gardner needs to improve on last year's numbers, help the team win enough to go to a major bowl game, and cut back on turnovers.  That is a tall order when you consider the state of the OL.

His chances? Longshot.

Walter Camp Award (College POTY)

Candidates: Haven't been announced yet.  Will happen tomorrow.

Does any Michigan player have a legit chance? Probably not, but stranger things have happened.

What Have We Learned?

Don't get me wrong, pre-season polls and award watch lists aren't all that great an indicator of much of anything, but it would be foolish to discount what we see above — or more appropriately, what we don't see — as indicative of the problems that Michigan could face next year.


Do you see any?  Outside of Frank Clark, a pass rusher that has for his career played primarily as a WDE, there isn't a single lineman on this list from either side of the ball.

This doesn't mean that Michigan is screwed, just that there are a lot of unanswered questions that surround a group of promising but young players that will be forced into bigger roles.  While we've all focused very much on the state of the offensive line, Michigan will need to see a big jump in production from its defensive line if it hopes to make strides on that side of the ball.  While Michigan's secondary and linebacker corp are experienced, it is easier to make plays when there is a solid pass rush and blockers are occupied on the first level.  The young talent is there (Michigan's stellar 2012 class is now in its third year on campus and the 2013 class has one year under its belt), but it is time for the next wave of great Michigan players to step up.