Hoke, Michigan enter critical season

The Sports Xchange

August 19, 2014 at 3:47 pm.

Brady Hoke enters a big year at Michigan. (Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Brady Hoke enters his fourth season as head coach at Michigan staring at a troubling graph that charts this stint in Ann Arbor. His team has been trending in the wrong direction, and Hoke will be under a lot of pressure to reverse that tangent in 2014.

In his first season in the corner office, the former Wolverines’ assistant, who had successful runs as a head coach at Ball State and San Diego State before returning to Michigan, went 11-2 with players he inherited from the fired former UM boss Rich Rodriguez.

Those players did not fit Hoke’s offensive plans, but he won a lot of games anyway. His 2012 team seemed to get caught in quicksand on offense, and appeared to lack significant play-makers on defense as the Wolverines slipped to 8-5.

Year three, the point where recruiting and the implementation of a new offense are expected to really hit fifth gear, Michigan stumbled and staggered to a very lackluster 7-6 mark. That sends Hoke into the 2014 season with a less than glitzy 26-13 overall record, and Michigan still seeking the Big Ten title he was brought here to reclaim.

Hoke spews optimism, as coaches are prone to do when the practices are crisp and nobody’s keeping score, but he will need more than confident language to turn this program around and get the Wolverines back in contention in the conference race.

“We’re all excited for another season to get started,” Hoke said as Michigan opened fall camp. “Our football team has come together this summer and worked very hard. I think they’ve worked hard, and I think a lot of that is the foundation that has been laid over the last three years and the depth that we have on our football team. It’s as competitive as a team that I’ve been around at all positions.

It needs to be. Senior quarterback Devin Gardner has won the starting job in a competition with Shane Morris that was either real or feigned. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who left Alabama to join Hoke in the frigid north, is expected to get more consistent play from Gardner, and more production for a wildly inconsistent running game.

Team MVP Jeremy Gallon has graduated, leaving a void at receiver that converted TE Devin Funchess should fill now that he has made the move outside. The offensive line remains a work in progress, for a third consecutive season. On defense, there appears to me more pop in the lineup, more athleticism in the secondary, and occasional flashes of the nasty edge Michigan built into its reputation.

The fate of Hoke will be determined by how this team plays on the road, since both meetings with its rivals — Michigan State and Ohio State — will be away from Ann Arbor. Even without Braxton Miller, who injured his shoulder Monday, the Buckeyes could still be bullies in the division.

A road test at Notre Dame in the second week of the season will be about as critical an early September game as Michigan has played in some time — critical for a team building confidence, and for a coach looking over his shoulder.

“The identity part of it is a toughness I think this program has had for many years. That’s part of what I’m looking for,” Hoke said.

Wolverines at a glance

HEAD COACH: Brady Hoke, fourth year at Michigan, 26-13 record at Michigan, 73-63 in 13 seasons overall as a head coach

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 rating as applicable):

–TE/WR Devin Funchess (No. 1 tight end, 35th overall) –After winning the honor as the Big Ten’s top tight end last season, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior moves to wide receiver this season for the Wolverines. If he continues to improve, the pros should be salivating over this big, athletic target in a season or two. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last year as a sophomore. The Wolverines hope he can replace graduated top receiver Jeremy Gallon.

DT Frank Clark (No. 5 defensive end, 115th overall) — This compact, powerful, athletic player has forced Michigan to be exceedingly patient as it has waited for him to approach his considerable promise. His streaks of dominance will catch the eyes of the pros, and if Clark is consistent and demands the double-teams he should, that will improve the Wolverines’ chances, and his future prospects.

QB Devin Gardner (No. 7 quarterback, 187th overall) –Whether he is looked at as a quarterback on the next level, or gets moved to another position, Gardner has the size and skill set to get an NFL audition. A spectacular senior season will enhance his future options, and his future earnings.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Devin Gardner — The athleticism Gardner possesses, combined with the experience he brings to the field, should all be showcased in the most favorable manner by the offense of new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Gardner needs to be explosive one play, and efficient the next. His command of the revised playbook will help Michigan transition into Nussmeier’s offense, and return to contender status in the Big Ten.