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2013 Football Preview – Quarterbacks and Running Backs

August 21, 2013

Quarterbacks:

Starter: Devin Gardner (RS JR)

Backups: Shane Morris (FR) and Brian Cleary (RS FR)

The most exciting player in college football no longer plays quarterback for the University of Michigan.  Denard Robinson has moved on to the NFL, and though we’ll miss his electrifying plays and video game like stats, Michigan football will likely return to a tradition that saw every starting QB from 1992 – 2007 go on to start in an NFL game at Quarterback. That’s Elvis Grbac through Chad Henne for those keeping track at home.

In Denard’s absence Devin Gardner steps in as the permanent starter after taking the reigns halfway through last season.  There is a lot to like about what Devin brings to the table.  He’s tall, has an above average arm, and can scramble/run when necessary.  But the two key points that keep coming up on Devin is his decision making ability and his accuracy.  We saw some of his decision making ability last year. Despite limited reps at QB, when he stepped in he had that innate ability to know when to run, when to throw, and when to even do a little of both that Denard just never felt comfortable with.  In the offseason, Gardner has apparently added precision accuracy to that skillset, which makes him incredibly dangerous.  We’ll have to wait and see if that translates into game action – but if it does, Devin Gardner could very well find himself making an early December trip to NYC.  Suffice to say, I’m incredibly excited to have Devin Gardner as the Michigan QB this year.  And though he technically has one more year of eligibility after this year, if he lives up to the hype this may be the only year we get to enjoy him as the Michigan starter.  Yes, I’ve spent all summer drinking this: (photo courtesy of Mike Randazzo): 

Devin Gardner Kool Aid

That’s the good news at QB.  The bad news is that if Gardner gets hurt this goes from a potential Rose Bowl team to a team that will struggle to win 7 games.  With Russell Bellomy out for the season, the two quarterbacks vying to backup Gardner are Redshirt Freshman and walk-on Brian Cleary and stud recruit but true freshman Shane Morris.   Neither of them have ever thrown a pass in a college game and Cleary only has one year of even being on the sidelines of college team.  (Sidenote – I had originally written in “struggle to win 8 games” but after writing the last two sentences, I amended it to 7.)  Cleary has more experience and may be more reliable, but Morris has the most upside.  In an ideal world we’d allow Morris to redshirt and still have four years of eligibility, but we might not have that luxury without Bellomy available this year.  I think Morris will be the primary backup for most of the year, as eventually his talent will overtake whatever advantage Cleary has in experience.  Either way, it’s not happy times for MIchigan football if either of them is our primary QB for a significant portion of a game, let alone the season. #keepdevinhealthy

Running Backs

Projected Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint (SR) 

Backups: Thomas Rawls (JR), Justice Hayes (JR), Derrick Green (FR), Deveon Smith (FR)

Unlike the QB position where the starter is clear and the depth is murky, running back has plenty of depth and some potential competition as to who will be the #1 back for the duration of the season.  Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint appears to have a strong hold on the starting job as of right now.  He’s back to 100% from the gruesome lower leg injury that cost him the last 3 games of the 2012 season and is hoping for a rebound year that will land him closer to the 1,000+ yard season he had in 2011.  All reports from practice are that he is running with a purpose and has no lingering effects from the injury.  However, if Toussaint struggles, there are several backs all waiting for their chance to prove they can be the next great Michigan running back.  Junior Thomas Rawls has shown flashes of ability, but hasn’t quite put it all together.  Rawls apparently had an issue with eyes that was corrected in the offseason that will hopefully let him see the field a little better.  He runs like a bowling ball and could be a factor if his vision for the game improves.  The real wild cards however are freshmen Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith.  Green is the 5* stud that many expected to come into camp and lay claim to the #1 RB slot from day one.  Green suffered an early camp leg injury that has kept him out, and though he’s back practicing now he’s probably not yet at 100%.  There have also been rumblings that he came into camp out of shape, which has hindered his progress. The surprise (though not to some) is De’Veon Smith.  Smith already passes the “look” test, and has shown that he is ready to be big back to move the chains complimenting Toussaint’s speed and quickness.  How much of the playbook he can pickup will be key to how many snaps he sees. Two other backs in the mix are redshirt freshman and former Ann Arbor Pionner star Drake Johnson and junior Justice Hayes.  While the depth chart is full, Johnson has a lot of talent and will see carries.  Hayes could end up filling the role vacated by Vincent Smith’s graduation – coming in on 3rd down as an extra receiver/screen type back.   All in all, this may be the deepest depth chart Michigan has had in a very long time.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see multiple backs average 10+ carries a game – especially in the early going.

FULLBACK

Starter:  Joe Kerridge (RS So) or Sione Houma (So)

With the return to a pro style offense, the position of fullback is once again an important one for Michigan.  Though they won’t get many carries, they will play a role – especially in short yardage and goal line.  Redshirt sophomore Joe Kerridge really came on this role last year for Michigan, and probably has the inside track on the starting job.  But sophomore Sione Houma was recruited for this position and will battle for time as well.  Finally, if Thomas Rawls gets buried on the running back depth chart, don’t be surprised if we see him some at fullback as well where his running and blocking will be an asset.

STRENGTHS

Devin Gardner is not only a strength for the offensive backfield, but a strength for the entire team.  He has all the physical tools to lead this team to a Big Ten title, and play on Sundays – perhaps as early as 2014.  After Gardner – having depth at running back will be a huge asset for a team that will run the ball with the backs much more than they have in past years.  Toussaint, Smith, Rawls and eventually Green will all be able to move the chains and help Brady Hoke play the type of offense he wants to.

WEAKNESSES

There is one giant glaring weakness in this offensive backfield and it is the depth at the QB position.  In short – if Devin Gardner gets hurt, we’re screwed.  There is no sugar coating it or spinning it.  #keepdevinhealthy

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