By Mark Snyder
Detroit Free Press
Distributed by MCT
An ESPN writer cited the Wolverines as a darkhorse national title contender on Tuesday and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit also is bullish on the Wolverines — especially early in the season.
“They play Notre Dame early and they’re at Penn State the middle of October," he said on a conference call Tuesday, previewing the upcoming season with play-by-play man Brent Musburger. “You can make a really strong case they have a pretty good shot at being 7-0 as they get ready for a very, very challenging November, where they’re at Michigan State, have Nebraska, at Northwestern and Ohio State. The team could be better, but we’ll see how they're able to navigate through that November.”
Herbstreit’s primary reason for optimism centers around an offense he said could be “really, really good.”
“If they can find a tailback — and I know the health of Fitzgerald Toussaint and the health of Derrick Green will be two big things — but how can you not like Devin Gardner?” Herbstreit said. “He’s 6-4, 215 pounds, (and) he fits perfectly into what (offensive coordinator) Al Borges wants to do.
“I think Al Borges, to his credit, did the best that he could a year ago in a very, very difficult set of circumstances with Denard Robinson. Denard will always be hailed and remembered by Michigan fans as being a hero. But when you're Al Borges and trying to run a West Coast-style offense, it’s hard to make that spread, running-style quarterback work in your system. The future of Michigan football with Brady Hoke is more like (former coaches) Lloyd Carr, Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller: winning with defense, running the football with Tom Brady, Elvis Grbac _ “type of quarterbacks. That’s really what Gardner is going to provide for them. If the running game can go along to take some of the pressure off the passing game, then I think Gardner can have a great year.”
Herbstreit’s concern is more about Michigan's defense.
“The loss of (injured linebacker) Jake Ryan, depending on how soon he can come back, that could be a significant loss for their defense,” Herbstreit said. “I still feel they need to upgrade the athleticism on that side of the football — I think they had 22 sacks last year. The only time they were able to get pressure last year was when they blitzed, which is great if you get to the quarterback. But if you don’t get to the quarterback and leave guys open in coverage, that's high risk, high reward.”
Three years into the regime, with one impressive season and one frustrating season, Herbstreit said he thinks Hoke was a great hire for Michigan.
“The fit there was perfect,” Herbstreit said. “Brady has Big Ten roots, he played high school in Ohio, he was an assistant with Michigan when they were having a great year and had become a very successful head coach at Ball State and San Diego State, so the timing was good. ... Anybody who knew him knew it was a good fit. He’s recruiting well and they’re only going to get better and better, based on the way they're, obviously, recruiting.
“I thought they’ve done a remarkable job the last two years to win 11 and even eight last year with their schedule, considering they tried to make this offense go with Denard Robinson. Now that they have more of a pro-style fit with Gardner, I expect them to get better.”
“I’m not a fan of seeing Ohio State-Michigan Round 2, if they both happen to have great year, despite what happens that last game in Ann Arbor,” Herbstreit said. “Traditionalists, people who follow the game and play in the game, you’d like to see it the one time and move on to the next year. It would be interesting.”
Musburger said how the games unfold would determine how they’re perceived.
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