Contemplations on the pre-season depth chart
Written by Matt Pargoff   

The Michigan depth chart can be a mysterious creation. During Lloyd Carr’s time as head coach, when asked why a player appeared at a particular spot on the depth chart, he often quipped that it was because former media relations staff member Jim Schneider had placed him there.

On more than one occasion a Michigan head coach has been caught off guard by what appeared on the list, and yet, there is often a quite a bit of insight that can be gleaned from it as well. With that in mind, we provide our thoughts on the Wolverines' preseason depth chart, which was released yesterday.

No “or” worries: Fitzgerald Toussaint and Frank Clark may each have one oar on their boat, as Brady Hoke described it last week, but there is a surprising lack of the word “or” on the depth chart. Even next to those two players’ names. In fact, on the entire depth chart, only the punting position appears with an “or” between Will Hagerup and Matt Wile. Even there, Hoke explained that Hagerup would start, but that Wile could be used on pooch punts.

Under Rich Rodriguez, the first depth chart of the year had no less than 10 appearances of the word “or” in any season he coached at Michigan. That number went all the way up to 15 in his final year. While the change could point to the program being in a more stable state, it appears to have more to do with the style of the current coaching and support staff. Even last year, there were only a handful of uses of the word in the initial depth chart, and it was not uncommon to see six to eight uses during the Carr Era.

Toussaint and Clark: Toussaint was listed as the starting running back on the initial depth chart, while Clark was listed as the backup at the end position. While this would seem to indicate that both will play against Alabama in the opener, Hoke denied that such an interpretation should be made.

Last week, the head coach said that gamesmanship had nothing to do with his delay on making a decision public. In speaking with the media on Monday, however, he indicated that he had “an idea” of what he wanted to do, but that he would not reveal what that was until “when the time’s right.”

His comments on Monday about making a decision that was right “for the identity and the character of the program,” rather than just for this year’s team, would seem to indicate that the players’ punishment will reach into the Alabama game. But that does not close the door completely on the matter. Could Toussaint play in the second half of the game? The question will not likely be answered until just before or even during the contest itself.

One thing that should be noted is, Toussaint and Clark are routinely lumped together by the media as a single story, but we do expect different punishments for the two of them, given the different nature of their respective alleged crimes.

Freshman overload: Michigan has 13 freshmen listed on the depth chart, which does not include wide receiver Jehu Chesson, who offensive coordinator Al Borges recently discussed as a possible early contributor. That the Wolverines have so many freshmen listed in and of itself should not be a concern. Even the fact that five of them are on the two-deep should not cause excessive anxiety.

Linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jerrod Wilson each enrolled in January, giving them winter conditioning with the team and 15 spring practices to help prepare them for early duty. Dennis Norfleet’s inclusion is also not particularly alarming, as true freshmen have been used as kick returners many times in the past. Where fans definitely should be concerned is with the inclusion of three true freshmen offensive linemen on the depth chart.

Only one true freshman offensive lineman has played at Michigan in the last quarter century. And that player, who most would prefer not be named – it was Justin Boren – was a January enrollee. For three true freshmen, each with just an abbreviated fall camp under their belts, to be considered as legitimate depth, is a very risky situation for the Wolverines.

Offensive line depth: If the discussion on the freshmen linemen was not concerning enough, we’ll highlight the situation a little bit more. The listed backup for both left and right guard spots is walk-on Joey Burzynski. The back-up at right tackle is walk-on Erik Gunderson. True freshman Erik Magnuson backs up left tackle and redshirt freshman Jack Miller backs up the center spot. Of the four backups for five positions, only Gunderson and Burzynski have seen playing time in an actual college game. Both of them played late in the blowout wins over Eastern Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska.

The bottom line is that any injuries on the offensive line would have very serious consequences for the Wolverines.

D-line tipping the scales: Conventional wisdom heading out of spring ball was that Jibreel Black would start on the interior of the defensive line, with one of Clark or Brennen Beyer working at end. In a decision that Hoke said was made in just the last few days, the Wolverines have shifted to a bulkier front four, with Black at end and Quinton Washington manning the interior spot.

What fans might not realize at first glance is that this will actually give the Wolverines a heavier, yet shorter defensive line than a year ago. The average weight of Michigan’s front four in 2011 was 289 pounds, while the current starting group weighs in at an average of 292 pounds. That might not seem like a big difference, but Will Heininger and Ryan Van Bergen were both 6-6. So it was a taller defensive line as well. Will Campbell and Roh are the tall men among the current group, both at 6-5.

While the shifting up front appears to be a move towards power over speed, it is not clear if this is a permanent shift, or one designed to match up better with Alabama’s offensive line. That question likely won’t be answered until week two against Air Force.

Gardner at quarterback and receiver: Despite rumblings from the practice field that Devin Gardner was spending most of his time of late working at wide receiver, the junior was still listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the team. He was also listed as the No. 3 player at one of the two wide receiver spots.

What makes that interesting is that the depth chart is set up to a pro-I formation, but in reality, the Wolveriens are still going to use a lot of spread concept in the offense, just as they did last year. That will mean the fullback coming off the field and an additional wide receiver entering. With seven receivers listed in total, there is a good chance that they will all see some action this fall.

Furman returning kicks: One of the more unusual and surprising finds on the depth chart was the placement of Josh Furman. The redshirt sophomore, who was suspended for spring practice, is listed at third string at the free safety position, behind returning starter Thomas Gordan and the true freshman Wilson. But while he has not made headway toward playing on defense, Furman is listed as the top kick returner, ahead of the diminutive Norfleet and Vincent Smith.

Furman played running back in high school, but at 6-2 and with a long striding style, he was seen as a better prospect for the defensive side of the ball at the collegiate level. Still, he is a player who as a senior carried the ball 239 times for 2,285 yards and 31 touchdowns. It will be interesting to see if he can put those offensive skills to use as a return man.

Athletes at holder: While Drew Dileo playing as a true freshman to hold on field goals and extra points remains a baffling decision by the previous staff; his athletic skills were put to good use at the position on a few occasions last season. It would seem that his success has started a trend, as his current backup at the holder spot is listed as fellow wide receiver Jeremy Gallon.

Gallon played some quarterback in high school, so it does make sense. In the event of a bad snap or fake, he would have both the ability to run or pass the ball.


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