Michigan turns to Hoke to help restore program’s winning tradition
“If I’m leading the team, we’re not going to be very good,” Hoke said after the team’s first preseason practice. “Those seniors have to lead the team.”
A junior will play a pivotal role, too.
Quarterback Denard Robinson flourished last year in Rich Rodriguez’s spread as a sophomore, becoming the first player in NCAA history to both throw and run for 1,500 yards. He earned Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year and MVP honors, and he finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Robinson will have to make a major adjustment this season by taking more snaps under center and dropping back instead of operating out of the shotgun, but he insisted the pro-style offense doesn’t limit him.
“A broken play is probably the toughest play to stop,” he said. “If I’m looking downfield and nobody’s open, I can run.”
When Robinson does throw, he will be without one of the players who could’ve helped him.
Receiver Darryl Stonum was redshirted for his fourth year on campus the day before the first practice. Stonum is on two years of probation for a drunken driving charge.
Roy Roundtree, who led the team in receiving last year, and Junior Hemingway, who averaged a team-high 18.5 yard per catch, are capable of making up for the loss.
The Wolverines want Robinson to hand off more than he did last year, when 256 carries took a toll on his body and knocked him out of games, but there isn’t an established running back on the roster. Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith and Stephen Hopkins each will get a shot to emerge as the go-to player on the ground as Hoke and his staff try to bring smash-mouth football back with a team filled with smaller, quicker players Rodriguez recruited to run his finesse scheme.
Defense and special teams will likely be the critical units for the Wolverines as they strive to rebound from a skid of nine-, seven- and six-loss seasons, along with a current 1-11 record against ranked teams.
Nine starters are back from a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst last year with the program’s third defensive coordinator in four years. Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison, a former Michigan assistant, was lured away from coaching Ray Lewis and Co. to fix a defense that gave up an average of seven-plus touchdowns and nearly 500 yards a game last year.
“I wouldn’t be coaching if I didn’t think we could get this defense to play up to the level that Michigan expects,” Mattison said.
Cornerback Troy Woolfolk said he thinks coaching can make an instant impact.
“We’re putting more emphasis on the little things like tackling, wrapping up, see what you hit,” Woolfolk said.
The defensive line, which gets hands-on coaching from Hoke during each practice, has the potential to be solid with Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen. Kenny Demens leads the linebackers, who should get a chance to make more tackles with four-man fronts occupying offensive linemen. The secondary should be improved if cornerbacks Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd bounce back from ankle injuries.
Michigan might lean on a freshman to make field goals and punt. Matt Wile signed a scholarship to kick for a team that missed 10 of 14 field-goal attempts last year, but he may have to punt, too, because Will Hagerup is suspended for the first four games for violating unspecified team rules.
“You could see him doing both,” Hoke said.
The Wolverines will have an opportunity to build momentum with a string of home games to open the season.
They host Western Michigan on Sept. 3, then play the first game under the lights at the Big House against Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State, Hoke’s former employer, and Minnesota before leaving Ann Arbor.
Instead of saying all the games are equally important, Hoke has made it clear that beating Ohio State—who he refers to as Ohio—and Michigan State is a priority. The Buckeyes beat Michigan for an unprecedented seventh straight time (although that game has been forfeited by OSU) and the Spartans have won three straight in the series for the first time since 1965-67.
Each time the Wolverines go to Hoke’s office or into their locker room, they’re reminded of how many days it has been since they beat “Ohio” and the total was 2,800-plus days when preseason practice began. There are also can’t-miss countdown clocks in Schembechler Hall, ticking off the seconds until the next games against the Buckeyes and Spartans.
Hoke insists it won’t take time to catch up to the rivals and the rest of the Big Ten.
“I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period,” he said. “I mean, we’re Michigan.”