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Year 4 a critical one for Hoke

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NCAAF Team Report - Michigan - INSIDE SLANT

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 QB 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. 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.

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NCAAF Team Report - Michigan - NOTES, QUOTES

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Don't look for a repeat of the 2007 stunner when Appalachian State rolled into Ann Arbor and traded punches with the Wolverines before landing the last blow in a 34-32 upset that ranks among the biggest in NCAA history. Michigan won't let that happen again and should roll in its Aug. 30 opener. Next up is a showdown in South Bend, the last meeting with the Fighting Irish as that storied series comes to an end, or a long break. That's the toughest test in the first month for Michigan. A down-trodden Miami of Ohio comes to Ann Arbor next, followed by Utah, and then the Big Ten opener against Minnesota. If Michigan is any worse than 4-1 when the month ends, Hoke is in serious trouble.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: A strong running game will make life easier for QB Devin Gardner, it will reduce the intense scrutiny the Michigan offensive line is going to be under, and it will allow a young receiver corps to develop at a comfortable pace. It would also put the punch back in Michigan's attack, something that has been an inconsistent ingredient, at best. The competition in fall workouts has generated some positive buzz around the running backs, since apparent heir apparent RB Derrick Green is fighting to stay on the two-deep. He is being pushed very hard by RB De'Veon Smith, RB Drake Johnson, and USC transfer RB Ty Issac, whose 2014 eligibility remains in question. There will certainly be depth, and a variety of styles and looks, but the bottom line the Wolverines need to see is production from this group.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Any Michigan team worth its winged helmets has had a nasty and ruggedly competitive defense. There is work to do if the Wolverines are to wear that tag again. Last season, Michigan was a weak 67th in the nation, allowing nearly 27 points per game. Their pass defense was flimsy, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. The Wolverines allowed the opposition 231 passing yards per game, and often that swung the pendulum in the opponent's favor. Michigan coach Brady Hoke expects senior CB Raymon Taylor and senior CB Blake Countess to provide the leadership and edge this unit will need to keep it from continuing to be a liability.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "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." -- Michigan head coach Brady Hoke on the intangibles he needs to see in his 2014 team

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NCAAF Team Report - Michigan - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

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 NFLDraftScout.com 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.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Chris Wormley -- A knee injury kept Wormley off the field his first year in Ann Arbor, but the time appears right for this freakish athlete to shake things up in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder was a multi-sport standout in high school, and he uses his athleticism to create all kinds of problems in the pass rushing attack. Look for Wormley to be a fixture in the defensive lineup by the time the Big Ten season gets rolling.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DB Jabrill Peppers comes to Ann Arbor accompanied by more hype than any recruit in recent years, and his work in camp has Peppers pushing to start as the nickel back, with a larger role likely just around the corner. Michigan has worked Peppers returning punts, and head coach Brady Hoke has not ruled out having Peppers make situational appearances on offense for the Wolverines. If Peppers is the dynamic play-maker that many expect him to be, Michigan will find many ways to utilize those skills.

ROSTER REPORT:

--WR Csont'e York was suspended prior to the start of fall camp for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The Ann Arbor police have confirmed that York is the subject of an on-going investigation, but no further details were released.

--TE Devin Funchess, the top player at his position in the Big Ten last year, has been moved to wide receiver for the 2014 season.

--WR Amara Darboh, who suffered a season-ending foot injury just before the start of the 2013 season, was ready for the opening of fall camp is expected to be at full strength for the start of the 2014 campaign.

--RB Drake Johnson back is cleared to play and is expected to compete for playing time in the backfield. Johnson was near the top of the depth chart a year ago, but tore his ACL in the season-opener and was out for all of the 2013 season.

--S Delano Hill is sidelined after breaking his jaw in some late summer football workouts, just before the start of fall camp. Hill is expected to return sometime in September.

--Starting C Graham Glasgow is suspended for the 2014 season-opener against Appalachian State following an undisclosed violation of team rules. He is expected to be replaced by either Jack Miller or Patrick Kugler.

--T Erik Magnuson has returned from off-season surgery and is pressing for a place on the two-deep chart.

--RB Ty Isaac, a transfer from USC, is waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility. He has asked for a hardship waiver, indicating he wanted to be closer to his ill mother, who lives in Chicago.

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