At Michigan, toughness -- and new offense -- drive offseason

Devin Gardner will look to improve on throwing 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2013. (USATSI)
Devin Gardner will look to improve on throwing 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2013. (USATSI)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke is in some pain.

Not the kind of physical pain from the Wolverines’ recent 120-play, full-contact scrimmage on a Saturday, though that’s tiring, too.

But Michigan had a bit of a toughness issue last year. For a man that’s spent nearly 30 years teaching toughness, especially at the line of scrimmage, this is the one issue you can’t have. Simply painful to think about.

After evaluating this the last three months, the changes are tangible: An open quarterback competition this spring despite Devin Gardner’s 17 career starts, the firing of what Hoke calls a “damn good football coach and good person” in Al Borges and Hoke’s scaled-back defensive line coaching responsibilities to spend time in other meetings.

Remember when Michigan had trouble controlling the line of scrimmage?

“That’s a toughness thing,” Hoke said.

Or what about not finishing, losing four games by a combined 11 points -- and leading three of them entering the fourth quarter?

“Toughness,” Hoke said.

No matter the Wolverines started four underclassmen offensive linemen for at least a handful of games and had several inexperienced playmakers. Hoke’s not about to make excuses for that.

Hoke’s office overlooks the white pipes and windows of the Al Glick Field House, which encloses Michigan’s newfound discomfort these days. That’s sort of by design.

There’s an uneasiness here, the usual spring optimism replaced by the edge of a team realizing those blue-and-yellow Big Ten championship banners stopped printing about a decade ago.

“You’re 7-6. It’s Michigan. That’s hard,” Hoke said.

Hoke has evaluated his own performance, wondering if he could have improved with situational football -- like giving the country’s 103nd-ranked running game more of a chance --or whether his weekly messages gave enough clarity.

Hoke is asking the same of his players. Though Gardner’s brain was a bit fried the other day after checking protections at the line for about 60 plays, he planned to go home to rehearse the “really long” play-call language from new coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s pro-style offense.

Hoke’s pain is shared by his quarterback.

“You look around at all these banners, we hear about the legacy it’s about time we put our own -- it’s done for with the talking about the past,” Gardner said. “We want to see our names and our team, #134, around this building.”

Michigan isn’t undergoing a philosophical overhaul as much as the healthy channeling of anguish.

There’s really no choice.

“No one wants to hear that,” said Hoke of excuses. “We’ve got great kids here, no matter who recruited them or who they are. They are Michigan football players and they get to have that winged helmet and that means something.”

That’s why Nussmeier is here. The former Alabama coordinator won’t exactly say he has more freedom at Michigan, but he acknowledges the Tide’s offense has long been established while “we’re here building the foundation.”

Hoke makes clear he wants Michigan to run inside-zone, power football with playaction. That’s Nussmeier’s style, but he has no-huddle offense in his playbook, too.

Though no one’s giving away trade secrets, what’s clear is Michigan offense will run mostly from the running back spot -- maybe 2-3 designed quarterback runs per game, Hoke said, far less than Gardner's average of about 14 per game in 2013.

“We don’t want our quarterback to take a pounding for three quarters and expect him to make good throws in the fourth,” Nussmeier said. “You’ve got to be able to win games in the fourth quarter. You have to be able to execute when you’re tired, when you’re uncomfortable…learning to execute when things aren’t exactly the way you want them.”

That’s good news to Gardner, who said he felt helpless at times last year with no viable option but to take off. Coupled with the inexperience on the line was the scarce playmaking outside of Jeremy Gallon. Devin Funchess, the most explosive returner in the open field, started slowly while transitioning from tight end to receiver.

Gardner should be better protected but also must prove he can handle snaps from under center and orchestrate the playaction game.  

He also must fend off a deeper quarterback stable than a year ago, with Shane Morris emerging and early enrollee Wilton Speight impressing (don’t be surprised if he plays at least a little next year -- just saying).  

“I got a little beat up last year,” Gardner said. “I chose to play quarterback so I’d get a chance to pass. I’d rather not get my abilities abused. (Nussmeier) was adamant in saying that’s not going to happen. I’m excited about that”

Gardner admits his confidence faded at times last year but feels his 2013 performance (60.3 completion percentage, 2,960 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 11 rushing touchdowns) was respectable for his first year as a full-time starter.

Worsening matters were negative plays becoming “horrible, worst you can be,” Hoke said --and he’s right. No offense allowed more tackles for loss than Michigan’s 113.

There’s offensive promise all over the field this spring, much of it unproven. Early enrollee wide receiver Freddy Canteen, a natural slot receiver, has caught everyone’s attention. Csont’e York, a redshirt receiver a year ago, will be asked to contribute. Running back Derrick Green lost 20 pounds and is noticeably quicker. Funchess’ one-handed catches have been routine this spring. Tight end A.J. Williams, left tackle Erik Magnuson and center Graham Glasgow will lead an offensive line that Taylor Lewan used to anchor.

No positions will be given, though Gardner is the clear leader at quarterback and must be outshined for that to change.

Firing Borges was tough for Hoke, but what prompted his decision was Nussmeier’s experience with quarterbacks Marc Bulger while with the Rams, Jake Locker at Washington and McCarron at Alabama.

Nussmeier doesn’t want to categorize Michigan’s offense as Alabama 2.0 because he needs more time to tailor the offense to his personnel.

“A lot of that depends on playing to the players’ strengths,” Nussmeier said.

The new offense, the stable hand of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and the anguish of six losses have created focused practices and position meetings.

But Hoke knows it’s early. Spring progress is the easy part.

Toughness is hard.

“As much as anything, it’s pulled us together, galvanized us. It’s a feeling you have when you’re out there with them in that staff room. The tangible things are the results you see daily,” Hoke said. “Now, saying that, we’re still a long way from being the kind of team we want to be.”

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