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January 30, 2013

Players to watch when spring practice begins

Spring practice isn't slated to start for another month, but the Maize and Blue are hard at work this winter, reshaping their bodies for the grind ahead. Who will we be keeping an eye on? The staff of TheWolverine.com weighs in.

Chris Balas

Amara Darboh: The sophomore receiver started making Jason Avant-esque one-handed grabs during bowl practices, and there's a role for him -- a big one, if he seizes his opportunity. Senior Jeremy Gallon will likely lead the 2013 Wolverines in receiving, and sophomore tight end Devin Funchess should (needs to) get more thrown his way, as well. But Darboh is the dark horse for breakout player of the year. He's got the tools.

Jack Miller: Miller is the odds-on favorite to win the center position, but as we saw last year, anything can happen (and the guy you might least expect to win the job, wins the job). Miller, though, has spent two years learning and picking up the nuances of the position. He should be well prepared for a solid spring showing.

Jarrod Wilson: Is he going to live up to his billing as one of the top young players on the Michigan defense? The sophomore safety had his share of tough moments when thrown into the fire as a freshman (as you might expect), and he's been known to be hard on himself. Confidence could be the difference between a standout, All-Big Ten safety, and someone who struggles to see the field. He's another one with vast potential who still has some proving to do.

John Borton

Jack Miller: There's a lot we know about Michigan's offensive line, even the redshirt freshmen expected to plug into interior spots. What we don't know is who takes over at center. Miller reportedly carries a mean streak and has worked very hard getting ready for the job, but how ready is he, and will somebody be able to slip in and surpass him?

Devin Funchess: The questions involve how much he's grown up, physically especially, in the year that he's been at Michigan. He wasn't at the point last fall where he could handle the blocking to be an every-down tight end. Is he getting there? If he bulks up, how much of his ability to get downfield and make big catches can he retain? Tight end remains a huge area of need for the Wolverines, and Funchess could fill it in a big way.

Ondre Pipkins: Brady Hoke loves to say it all starts up front, and the Wolverines will be featuring a new center on offense and nose tackle on defense. Pipkins earned a good number of snaps last year as a true freshman. Now he gets a chance to show he can handle the grind on an every-down basis. The more physically dominant he can become up front, the more an effectiveness radiates out to the rest of the defensive line, the young linebackers, etc.

Michael Spath

Mario Ojemudia: There is a logjam at weakside defensive end with Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer back for their junior years, Ojemudia in his sophomore season, and Taco Charlton arriving as an early enrollee. Despite the depth, there was very little production a year ago, as Clark, Beyer and Ojemudia combined for three sacks and 12 tackles for loss. If the 6-2, 231-pound Ojemudia can gain about 15 pounds without losing the speed, quickness and explosiveness off the edge he showed in glimpses last year, he could leapfrog his more veteran teammates.

Russell Bellomy: There is some disagreement on our staff what Michigan plans to do with Shane Morris next year - definitely play him or try to redshirt him - but if senior Devin Gardner receives a fifth year of eligibility, it would be foolish to play Morris next season knowing he probably won't start until 2015. Of course, the option of sitting him for a year is only on the table if Bellomy can bounce back from the mental struggles he encountered in 2012. He needs to push Gardner this spring, and prove to the coaches that if an emergency arises next fall, he can handle the challenge.

Jake Butt: One of six early enrollees, Butt probably has the best chance to play in 2013 because of the dearth of quality tight ends on the roster. Michigan brings back sophomores A.J. Williams and Devin Funchess, but neither is the total package that Butt (6-6, 235 pounds) can be. For that reason, and because depth is needed, the rookie could earn a valuable role with the Maize and Blue next fall, and he gets a tremendous head start on contributing by going through winter conditioning and spring ball.

Andy Reid

Amara Darboh: In the last five games of the season - which coincided with quarterback Devin Gardner's takeover of the offense - the Wolverines' passing game took huge leaps and bounds. Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree complemented each other nicely on either side of the formation. Michigan will need someone to emerge opposite Gallon. While the diminutive receiver has etched out an impressive level of productivity (averaging 102.2 receiving yards a game in the last five games), the passing game will need some diversity. Enter Darboh, hopefully, who can add an element of size to the receiving corps.

Jarrod Wilson: As a freshman in 2012, Wilson emerged as a promising young talent, adding depth to the safety rotation. It's his time to step into the limelight; Michigan's biggest loss on defense is undoubtedly Jordan Kovacs, one of the most reliable and consistent defenders in recent memory. Wilson has the physical tools to succeed, and if he continues to progress, the combination of him and fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon has the potential to be a very good one.

Kyle Kalis: Kalis - and, by extension, the entire offensive line - is going to be fun to watch this spring. With the unexpected return of offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, the line has a chance to take a huge step up from 2012, despite the loss of three starters to graduation (guards Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum, and center Elliott Mealer). Kalis is the likely heir to one of the guard spots, and it will be interesting to see how the interior shapes up around him through the spring practices.

Tim Sullivan

Amara Darboh/Jehu Chesson: Although we saw a bit of Darboh on the field this fall - he wasn't targeted on offense - both wide receivers will have ample opportunity to step up this fall. Roy Roundtree graduated and Jerald Robinson left the team, and there was hardly a consistent threat on the team (outside of lilliputian duo Jeremy Gallon and senior Drew Dileo). If Michigan's offense is apt to air it out a bit more, which seems likely with senior Devin Gardner under center, a young wide receiver will have to step up. At least one of these players needs to emerge this spring, or there will be lots of fretting all summer.

Jack Miller: While some are quick to dismiss him with the arrival of younger, more-highly touted players, I'm a big fan of the way he plays the game. He still hadn't put on quite enough mass to crack the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in the fall, but with another offseason in the weight program, I'm ready to see him dominate in the spring - and lock down the middle for Team 134.

Dymonte Thomas: Thomas is one player that's been a pretty big enigma to the ratings experts - mostly through no fault of his own. Though the 6-2, 190-pounder projects as a safety in college, he played mostly running back and middle linebacker in high school. He played free safety at the Army Bowl in San Antonio, but didn't show enough to convince the rankings experts to move him into the top-100 players nationally. He has the physical tools - but obviously not the experience - to earn much grater acclaim than that in college, and this spring will be our first chance to see how close he can come to reaching it early in his career.


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