Spring Preview: Michigan Wolverines

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September 6, 2014. Mark the date in your calendar.

Notre Dame’s last shot at vengeance against Michigan, the foil to the Irish over the last handful of seasons, with almost every loss being more painful than the next. Because just as the modern “kinda rivalry” escalates in hatred, it will take a break.

Athletic directors Jack Swarbrick and Dave Brandon couldn’t find common ground to continue the series, so it’ll take a break until at least 2020, far too long for football fans getting used to seeing these two programs duke it out in early September.

While Brady Hoke and the Wolverines have had Notre Dame’s number in early September, they’ve struggled once the calendar hit October. After winning 11 games in his first season in Ann Arbor, Hoke has stumbled in his next two seasons, losing 11 games the last two years. He’s made changes on his coaching staff, letting go of veteran offensive coordinator Al Borges this offseason, though he’s still got question marks all across his program.

To get us up to speed on the Michigan program, Adam Biggers from Maize N Brew was kind enough to give us a spring update. In an offseason of critical importance to the Wolverines, Biggers gives us a really interesting look at a program that appears close to a tipping point.

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After winning 11 games in his first season, Brady Hoke has put together disappointing back-to-back seasons in Ann Arbor. He made a big change in the offseason firing Al Borges and bringing in Doug Nussmeier.

Can you give Notre Dame fans a “Hot Seat” check? Is it possible Hoke gets fired after this season? 

This season is without question a make-or-break year for Hoke. Some have viewed Nussmeier’s hiring as Plan B—should things go south for Hoke, who probably has to win at least eight or nine games, including a win over a rival (ND, MSU, OSU), to save his job.

Hoke’s a likable guy who treats his players well, according to what I’ve seen and heard. But Rich Rodriguez was a nice guy, too. Wins matter. But so does development. If the team doesn’t mature—particularly the O-line—and fails to notch victories over quality competition, then we could easily see Hoke depart. Michigan fans are getting restless.

Doug Nussmeier’s hiring was one of the biggest splashes of the offseason, though some reports had him leaving Alabama regardless. What’s expected out of Nussmeier? Is this Hoke doubling down on the power football that he promised to bring with him to Ann Arbor?

Honestly, I think the hiring of Nussmeier was a bit premature—but it was necessary. Al Borges (OC) couldn’t get a hold on the running backs, and an awful O-line didn’t make things easier. Really, it’s a wonder that Darrell Funk (OL) didn’t lose his job before Borges got canned. But that’s how it goes. Dave Brandon, the AD, and Hoke needed someone who’d bring the familiar smash-mouth attitude.

Nussmeier proved himself at Alabama and, believe it or not, has similar talent to work with in Ann Arbor. Unrealistic, maybe, but Nussmeier is expected to get this show on the road TODAY. Blame his past success for that. He can’t fall into the “youth” excuses, which have been quite common with Hoke. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith are too talented to rot in a dreadful backfield. Nussmeier won’t let that happen.

It’s tough for Nussmeier to do anything without his quarterback situation figured out. Is this Devin Gardner’s job still? Is Shane Morris a viable option? Was it an open competition during spring practice?

Gardner is competitor and intelligent student of the game. But he’s far from ideal for Nussmeier’s system. He’ll get his shot, but don’t count on his senior status being enough to cement the job. Morris could easily press for the role. That being said, it’s obviously Gardner’s job to lose. The future seems bright for Wolverines quarterbacks. Michigan and Gardner are probably hoping the “future” is next year. Morris got the nod in the BWW Bowl, but that’s been about it. After him, it’s Wilton Speight, a true frosh, and Russell Bellomy…

The offensive line will need to replace Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. The running game was a mess last season. What’s going to make it improve?

Well, that’s the big question. Any suggestions on your end?!

Erik Magnuson generated a little buzz prior to injuring his shoulder—he actually played with a bad shoulder for the latter half of 2013. He’s expected to make a full recovery and compete for the LT position. He’ll probably win it, but Mason Cole, a true freshman, may push for the job. At the very least, he’d serve as a quality No. 2. As for Schofield at RT, the Wolverines have a few (hopefully) interchangeable parts: David Dawson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Ben Braden, Ben Pliska, Kyle Bosch and a few others. I’m expecting a carousel this fall.

Improvement will come as continuity develops. I know it sounds cliche, but I these guys have to genuinely like each other in order to put their bodies on the line each week (during games and practice). I don’t believe everyone was on the same page in 2013, especially the O-line.

What’s Greg Mattison working with this season? He loses a few key pieces on his defensive line and in the secondary, but returns a lot of talent as well. Is this a group that’s expected to anchor the team?

If Jabrill Peppers is as-advertised, the Wolverines secondary will get a huge boost—and it’s already pretty solid without the 5-star super recruit.

The defensive backs will most certainly anchor Mattison’s defense, which has great depth at linebacker—and Jake Ryan making his return from an ACL injury—and two possible stars up front: Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry. And then there’s always Brennen Beyer, who can play DE and OLB. Michigan’s defense was ranked No. 13 in total defense this past season (yeah, I couldn’t believe it either–but it’s true!)

Just how crazy do you think this year’s Notre Dame-Michigan game will be? After holding court and winning both night home games in Ann Arbor, both teams will get a very big test in the season’s second weekend. Does this one mean more considering the indefinite break in the series after this year?

This one is megalithic!

The end. Over. Done with. For college football’s sake, these guys need to iron out a deal and keep this seasonal rivalry intact. Saturdays aren’t Saturdays if you can’t watch Notre Dame vs. Michigan. I’m hoping that this game excites the powers that be to the point where they immediately announce the Irish and Wolverines will play FOREVER.

Jokes aside, this game is important, historical and a bit sad. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

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For more coverage on the Wolverines, check out Maize and Brew and give Adam a follow on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.