In 2012, Brady Hoke might learn that the toughest guy to follow at Michigan is ... Brady Hoke. After the type of season Hoke put together last year in his first season directing the Wolverines, he has raised the expectations considerably.
Coming off an 11-2 record in 2011 that included a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten and a Sugar Bowl win, the former assistant with the Wolverines (1995-2002) will have little room to work with as he tries to push the bar even higher. The faithful in Ann Arbor are anxious to purge the remaining nightmares from the troubled Rich Rodriguez era.
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Hoke has plenty to work with personnel-wise, with dynamic QB Denard Robinson leading the list of returning players as Robinson preps for his senior season. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, who is suspended as the Wolverines start fall camp after a drunk driving arrest, is a proven 1,000 yard rusher who should be back in the lineup by early September.
The Michigan offense, which averaged 33.3 points per game last season, second best in the Big Ten, should be efficient with an explosive potential with Robinson at the controls. The line needs to mature quickly, but Michigan has a strong history of developing that area of the offense. The receiving corps is a question mark, beyond senior WR Roy Roundtree.
The Michigan defense, which allowed 17.4 points per game in 2011, needs to shore up the line in order to maintain that level of excellence.
Hoke knows that year No. 2 will present plenty of challenges, with one of the nation's toughest schedules staring the Wolverines in the face. He took some of his veteran players and put them through Navy Seals training in the offseason, hopefully developing the direction and the mettle they will need to get through 2012 and stay near the top of the conference.
"We're trying to grow our leadership and it's just part of that seminar, or whatever you want to call it," Hoke said about the Seals training.
"And with our guys, it was something that they learned a lot about themselves. And when you talk about the team and the commitment to each other and the accountability, when they did the different things that the Seals do."
Hoke's concerns about his team's state of mind and its readiness for the battles ahead extended into the aftermath of the Penn State NCAA sanctions, when the Michigan coach opted to stay out of the sweepstakes for the Penn State players, protecting his team's unity and continuity.
"You have team chemistry you worry about, and I think that's a big part of it," Hoke said. "There's a lot of different answers and a lot of things you have to worry about."
HEAD COACH: Brady Hoke, second year at Michigan, 58-52 as a head coach (9 seasons)
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: OL Taylor Lewan -- Every great offense has to have an anchor, and the 6-foot-8, 302 pound Lewan serves that role for the Wolverines. Lewan is expected to dominate the opposition in the same manner as current NFL-er Jake Long did in his days in Ann Arbor. Lewan started all 13 games last season at left tackle as a sophomore, after making nine starts at that most critical position in 2010 as a redshirt freshman. For Michigan QB Denard Robinson to be the explosive weapon he can be, Robinson needs Lewan to be one of the best in the Big Ten up front.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Roy Roundtree -- The Wolverines are very thin on experience at wideout, after the senior Roundtree, so the spotlight is on the opportunity the Ohio native has to use his skills to prove he is one of the Big Ten's best. Roundtree has appeared in 29 games as a Wolverine, starting the past 24 straight, and he set a Michigan record for receiving yards in a single game in 2010 against Illinois with 246 yards. Michigan QB Denard Robinson needs an explosive, play-making option on the outside, and Roundtree is ready to take on that high-profile role.
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NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Chris Wormley -- Michigan won an intense recruiting battle with rival Ohio State to get Wormley, a three-sport athlete from border town Toledo. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Wormley is still growing, and is expected to be a sack machine once he works his way into the Michigan rotation. Wormley was the co-defensive player of the year among big school players in Ohio last season as a senior. He had 19 stops behind the line in 2011, with 11 sacks.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: A healthy QB Denard Robinson for a dozen games is vital to Michigan's success, as is a rapid development of a corps of receivers to work along with senior veteran WR Roy Roundtree. The Wolverines achieved great things last year because Hoke was able to build confidence, and then reinforce it with accomplishments on the field. If this team struggles against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, that confidence could start to splinter. Last year also offered the cushy comfort of eight games in Michigan Stadium, but this year there will be just six. Hoke knows his team has to up the ante to match or exceed last year's level of success. "Our schedule is one that is a great opportunity and a great challenge for us," Hoke said. "We played 10 out of 12 teams that are bowl teams. We play five of those teams on the road.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The real key to Michigan's quantum leap in 2011 was likely the strong play by its two lines, and with a number of key pieces from those units gone, the situation looks iffy heading into camp for the 2012 season. As true freshman OL Kyle Kalis and senior OL Ricky Barnum move into starting roles, the pressure is indeed on them to protect sometimes fragile QB Robinson. On the defensive side, defensive lineman Will Campbell, now a senior, needs to finally live up to the extensive hype that accompanied him to Ann Arbor, while junior Jibreel Black and senior Craig Roh have to help that unit maintain the high standard of play set by last year's group up front that made the Michigan defense one of the top groups in the Big Ten. There is also an unexpected area of concern following the arrest and suspension of starting RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. If Toussaint, a 1,000 yard rusher last season, remains off the field, the Wolverines will have to call on a much less-proven group of running backs. The defensive line is also a tad small by Big Ten standards, so the Wolverines will have to be superb in their execution and schemes to keep this team in all of its games.
-- DB Jordan Kovacs had to walk on to make the Michigan team as a freshman, and now as a senior he is a nominee for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy awarded to the nation's best defensive player. Kovacs started 12 games and had 75 tackles last season, and had a knack for making impact plays for the Wolverines. He had eight stops for losses, four sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. In his Michigan career, Kovacs has totaled 266 tackles, 21 of those for losses, five sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups.
-- LB Antonio Poole, a redshirt freshman who was expected to make the two-deep for the Wolverines this fall, will miss the start of fall camp with an undisclosed injury.
-- DT Will Campbell was given three months of probation and must pay $2,100 in restitution following an incident in April when Campbell, reportedly drunk at the time, slid across the hood of a car and did considerable damage to the vehicle.
-- RB Toussaint was suspended from the Michigan team following his arrest in late July on a drunk driving charge. Toussaint, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, might not rejoin the team in time for the 2012 opener against Alabama.
-- QB Devin Gardner, the primary backup to Robinson the past two seasons, is switching to wide receiver, a position he worked at some this past spring.
-- DE Frank Clark, a sophomore, has been suspended indefinitely by head coach Brady Hoke following his arrest on home-invasion charges in June.
-- WR Darryl Stonum, who was kicked off the team in January following his second arrest for drunk driving, has joined the Baylor football program.