Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Coming off three tumultuous, and disappointing seasons under former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez, the stakes were high for his replacement Brady Hoke entering the 2011 campaign. After all, Wolverine fans had endured the worst season in school history in 2008, followed by well- documented major NCAA rules violations, and then late-season collapses in 2009 and 2010.
However, Hoke's debut season in 2011 could not have gone much better, as he led Michigan to an 11-2 record and its first BCS bowl game since 2006. Included along the way were key wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and, finally, arch-rival Ohio State, snapping a seven-game skid against the Buckeyes.
In the Sugar Bowl, the Wolverines knocked off Virginia Tech in overtime to finish the season ranked 12th, officially returning to national prominence. Hoke, who had vowed to restore the team's previously shaky defense and attitude, made an immediate impact on the recruiting scene and trusted his newcomers. His 11 wins in 2011 speak for themselves, as they were only four fewer than Rodriguez managed over the previous three seasons combined.
OFFENSE: If the Wolverines are to contend for a BCS Championship this year, their chances start and end with star quarterback Denard Robinson, now a senior and entering his third year as the starter. As strong a Heisman candidate as their is in the nation, Robinson continues to torch defenses with his supreme athleticism and improving pocket presence. Barring injury, he is all but assured to break Antwaan Randle El's Big Ten record for rushing yards by a quarterback. However, if Michigan is to pick up right where it left off last year, Robinson will need to continue to develop his passing skills. At the Big Ten's media day, Hoke said Robinson has a full grasp of the system and has really matured as a player.
"He has really become a guy you can count on when it comes to leadership and how his work ethic is and those things that he's done," Hoke said.
The original plan was to not ask Robinson to carry as much of the rushing load, instead sharing carries with junior Fitz Toussaint, who came on strong toward the end of last season and finished with 1,041 yards on the ground -- the school's first 1,000-yard tailback since Mike Hart in 2007. Instead, Toussaint was suspended indefinitely in late-July for a drunken driving arrest, and it's unclear whether he'll line up for the season opener against Alabama, which had the country's top defense a year ago.
"Fitz made a poor decision and has been suspended indefinitely because of that action," Hoke said. "There are expectations that come with being a football student-athlete at the University of Michigan and those responsibilities were not met in this instance. We will use this as an opportunity to educate Fitz and make sure he understands the high standards that we have established within our program."
The offensive line must replace departed seniors Mike Huyge and right tackle and center David Molk, the 2011 Rimington Award winner. Junior left tackle Taylor Lewan (6-8, 302) has the size and skill that NFL scouts covet, and he'll anchor a line that returns three others with starting experience.
At wideout, big-play threat Junior Hemingway is no longer around, but the coaching staff is confident in fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree and junior Jeremy Gallon. Keep an eye on incoming freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, both of whom stand at least 6-2.
DEFENSE: The Wolverines have some holes to fill along the defensive line, but that's coach Hoke's forte. If fifth-year senior Will Campbell (6-5, 322) is ever going to live up to his blue-chip billing coming out of high school, now is the time.
The good news for the defense is that all three starting linebackers return, along with all four members of the secondary who started in the Sugar Bowl. Fifth-year senior Kenny Demens will call the signals from his middle linebacker post after pacing the squad with 94 tackles in 2011, while he'll be flanked by sophomores Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan. The coaching staff is hopeful that Ryan and Morgan will gel with a year under their belts.
In the secondary, fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs is a natural leader who excels at blitzing (75 tackles, four sacks in 2011). While junior Thomas Gordon returns to the other starting safety spot after having a strong spring, the coaches are excited about highly-touted newcomer Jarrod Wilson, who could push for playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior kicker Brendan Gibbons put a disastrous 2010 season behind him and converted 13-of-17 field goals last year. However, with a long of 42 yards, coach Hoke will likely keep his offense on the field on 4th downs outside of about the 25-yard line. Matt Wile handled kickoff duties as a freshman, accumulating 19 touchbacks, and could get a chance on longer field- goal attempts. Wile also got some looks at punter and averaged 41.6 yards, which could give him the inside track to replace junior Will Hagerup, who struggled last season.
Jeremy Gallon averaged just 10.1 yards per punt return last season. He could fill that role once again, but the coaches will give long looks to other candidates in both the punt and kick return game.
OUTLOOK: The team must replace a few key seniors, which will present a challenge. However, confidence is sky-high following Hoke's wildly successful inaugural season, and his recruiting prowess should keep the program competitive for the foreseeable future.
In terms of the schedule, season-openers don't get any more challenging than what the Wolverines will face on Sept. 1, as they battle defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Win that game, and Michigan vaults right into the BCS conversation. A loss won't squander those plans, provided the team puts up a good showing and rebounds with a winning streak. Road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- all teams that Michigan beat last year -- provide stiff challenges.
Still, the players know the schemes by now and, just as important, Hoke's way of going about their daily business. As long as Robinson is on his game, there is perhaps no more dangerous offense to gameplan against in the country. The senior showed big-time maturity late in the 2011 season with huge performances against Nebraska and Ohio State. If he continues along that path, the Wolverines should be in contention for a Big Ten title, and perhaps more.