This time last year, all the buzz was centered on Denard's off-season maturation and improvement and the pending NCAA infractions levied against the program. This year, in spite of the absence of NCAA wrist-slappers, things are a little more unsettled. Most people are wondering how Denard will succeed in Brady Hoke's/Al Borges' pass-heavy West Coast offense, and whether or not he'll be given the chance to beat teams with his legs like he did last year. Early returns have been mixed, with rumors that Borges will base the offense primarily in the shotgun. However, Denard appears to be having difficulty making the throws:
Denard had a hard time finding receivers. A few crisp rhythm throws, a lot of ball-patting, scrambling, and difficult sideline improv throws. Not sure if that's on him or the WRs. Gallon twice ran comebacks that the quarterbacks expected to be fly routes, so they've got some pro-style sight reading in the O. Not functional sight reading, but sight reading nonetheless.This is my biggest concern for the offense, and seems to follow from the performance we saw from Denard in the spring game. While it's risky to read too much into what is otherwise a glorified practice, the previous spring games have taught me a lesson: they have been far too predictive in the past for me to ignore what we saw from Denard this year. Denard's inaccuracies and his tendency to sail passes is going to cause a lot of problems for the offense throughout the year, especially when it's clear that much of the offense is going to rest on his ability to make quick reads and sharp, accurate throws. As such, I expect Denard's completion percentage, yards per attempt, and total yards to all drop noticeably this season, while his interceptions increase.
The running back position has seen the most debated this spring. Hoke recently said that if the season started now, Mike Shaw would be the starter in the backfield, but given the coaching staff's lack of enthusiasm for the current backs, that could change at any minute. By all accounts, Fitzgerald Toussaint has had a good off-season and will back up Shaw when the season starts. However, my presumed favorite to eventually take over the starting running back role is mooseback sophomore Stephen Hopkins. Given Hoke's desire to have a between-the-tackles, power-running game, and the current running backs' inability to break tackles (see: Shaw, Toussaint, Vincent Smith, et al), Hopkins should eventually overtake the starting role. That is, of course, if he can resolve his case of the fumblies that plagued his season last year.
In 2010, Michigan's running game was superb, primarily because of Denard's production. The running backs all hovered in the "unimpressive" range, and I expect that to continue. However, with the coaching staff limiting Denard's carries this year, the running backs will bear more of the load and likely have trouble succeeding as much as they had last year. A reversion to Lloyd Carr-like rushing numbers from the running backs seems probable. At the end of the year, Shaw will be the leading rusher (of the running backs), and Hopkins will have the second-most carries of any running back.
With the suspension of Darryl Stonum for the season, Michigan is left with very few deep-threat receivers. The only true outside receiver on the roster is Junior Hemingway, who I expect to have a big year if he's able to stay healthy. His leaping ability and size will make Hemingway the go-to receiver when Michigan takes a shot downfield. In the slot, Michigan has more than enough options. Roy Roundtree solidified himself as Denard's favorite target last year, and I expect that to continue. Martavious Odoms is now entering his senior season after bouncing to wide receiver last year. Odoms will be on the field a lot, but where he lines up is going to vary from play to play.
Behind those three are a bunch of tiny scat backs who will be effective in the slot should Michigan need them. I don't suspect they'll services will be required often. Kelvin Grady will be one of the first receivers off the bench given his speed and versatility. Otherwise, anyone subbing in will be a blocking machine; I don't expect the team to spread the ball around as much as they have in previous years. Odoms and Hemingway's numbers should exceed 2011's, though Roundtree's near-1,000 yard season will probably take a step or two back.
Offensive Line and Tight Ends
The offensive line is where the hope lies for this offense. Returning everyone except Steve Schilling, the offensive line was one of the best in the Big Ten (country?) last year and should have a productive season. Unfortunately, they've had trouble blocking the power-running game that Hoke prefers. If Borges doesn't abandon the zone running game, and if the offensive line is able to gel and effectively block the smash mouth running game Hoke wants, this will be Michigan's best unit.
Normally, I would include the tight ends with the wide receivers, but I expect their role to be more blocking-oriented than receiving. While rumor is that the tight ends will play a big role in the offense this year, given Michigan's lack of depth at fullback and the desire to run helmet-on-helmet power football, I don't see the tight ends becoming an integral part of the receiving game. Last year, the tight ends combined for 19 catches and 266 yards. Expect those numbers to remain about where they are.
Odds and Ends
Something that I haven't seen addressed many places is the pace of the offense this year. While Rich Rodriguez ran an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Hoke and Borges' system will be noticeably slower. Last season, Michigan ran 941 offensive plays; San Diego State ran 865. That amounts to approximately 6 less plays per game. If you take into account that Michigan had as much big-play ability as any team in the country, that gap begins to widen a little more. The offense will score less this season if only because of a slower pace. Matching the numbers from last year would be a near miracle and would make my season prediction the most off-base thing written all year. It's safe to say, however, that the offense, regardless of anything else, will revert back to the mean, if only slightly (best case scenario).
Despite my fear that this squad will look like the 2008 catastrophe, things are not really that dire. In reality, the offense will look more like the 2009 Forcier-led team: flashes of brilliance punctuating frustrating mistakes and crippling plays. If Denard can prove me wrong and become a consistent, accurate passer, this offense could really take off. Unfortunately, there's too much evidence to the contrary for me to buy into him as a quarterback that can lead a passing-oriented offense.