The Wolverine

September 2014

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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the ball over six times, including twice in the red zone. For the Wolverines to have any shot at beating Michigan State or Ohio State on the road, and to avoid let- downs at Rutgers and Northwestern, they have to recapture road confi- dence. Either they gain moxie with a win over the Irish or they suffer a greater mental handicap heading into their next four road games. Make or Break Position Group: There is no getting around what the offensive line means to Michigan in 2014 — it's the difference between a potential 10-win season and a melt- down. Michigan's defense should be among the nation's best this year, capable of keeping U-M in every contest and, at times, making the big plays with turnovers and defensive touchdowns, to turn a close loss into a narrow win. Offensively, the pieces are there at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and even running back, but the of- fense will go nowhere if the line is the porous unit that allowed a program- high 114 tackles for loss last season (8.8 per game). If the line is that poor again, the best defenses on Michigan's schedule — Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State — will overwhelm the Wolverines, and U-M could be looking at another five-loss season. If the line is a pleasant sur- prise, combined with the defensive development, Michigan could beat anyone on its schedule. Make or Break Freshman: There is only one possible answer — Jabrill Peppers. Hoke confirmed the incom- ing five-star recruit will compete at nickel back, and he holds the promise of being a game-changer because U-M will employ five defensive backs 75-80 percent of the time, according to the coaches. The nickel back must be able to cover slot receivers, running backs and tight ends, keep outside contain- ment in defending the run, and blitz the quarterback. Peppers has the perfect combination of size (6-1, 202), speed, strength and athleticism to do all of that while, perhaps, no other teammate possesses those physical attributes. Make or Break Veteran: Take your pick of offensive linemen, or focus on fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner or grab someone out of the secondary, but senior defensive end Frank Clark can add a dimension this defense has not had since Brandon Graham graduated in 2009 — a bona- fide pass rusher. The 6-2, 277-pound Clark could alter every offensive game plan if he can show a consistent attack that rat- tles opposing signal-callers and dis- rupts their timing. If he can do that, and offenses have to pay attention to him every play, Clark would open up opportunities for fellow linemates (in one-on-one situations), attacking linebackers and blitzing defensive backs. ❏ Associate Editor Michael Spath has been with The Wolverine since 2002. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @Spath_Wolverine.

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