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ANN ARBOR — For the last two offseasons, Brady Hoke has repeatedly stated that anything short of a Big Ten title is a disappointment.
The third-year Michigan football coach maintained that public stance in the days before the start of preseason practices, even given the fact that the Wolverines are a favorite to win the Legends Division.
When practices open today, the Wolverines face several factors and obstacles. Here are five points to keep an eye on as UM prepares to open the season Aug. 31 against Central Michigan:
Devin Gardner: Though he started last season at wide receiver, Gardner stepped in for an injured Denard Robinson and provided the Wolverines with a boon in final five games, going 75 for 126 passing for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Now, he’s expected to carry the load as Michigan moves to a pro-style offense, with some facets of the spread.
“I feel like I’m able to help my team in any way possible,” Gardner said. “I get the ball first or second on every play, and I feel like I have the skills to perform.”
While Gardner is the clear-cut favorite to start at quarterback, the question is, who will be his backup? Brian Cleary, freshman Shane Morris or Russell Bellomy, who suffered a torn ACL in spring practices?
Absence of Jake Ryan: Ryan emerged as the heart of Michigan’s linebacking corps last season, making 88 tackles (56 solo) and 4.5 sacks, yet tore an ACL during spring practices. Hoke said last week that the junior is ahead of schedule in his recovery and projected a mid-season return for Ryan.
“His rehab has gone awfully well,” Hoke told ESPN’s College Football Live. “Just his mind-set and his toughness, how he is as a football player when you look at competitiveness, he’s really put himself ahead of schedule, so we’re hoping sometime there in October.”
Running back: Robinson carried the running game last season with 1,266 yards and seven touchdowns on 177 carries, yet Fitzgerald Toussaint never appeared to quite find his footing before he sustained a season-ending injury last November. Toussaint, Thomas Rawls and incoming freshman Derrick Green will compete for the starting spot, though Hoke also said last week that Toussaint, a redshirt senior, is “100 percent” recovered from a broken left leg.
Offensive line: Taylor Lewan’s decision to forgo the NFL and return for his final year of eligibility came as a surprise to some, but not to others. Now, the Sporting News preseason All-American will be the anchor of a youthful offensive line, which lost three players to graduation and is in search of a new center — among the candidates is former St. John’s Jesuit standout Jack Miller.
Facing Ohio State: It’s the perpetual benchmark for a season of Michigan football — for some, defeating the Buckeyes could be considered tantamount to winning the Big Ten title. The rivalry game has a certain expectation to it, one that Gardner acknowledged earlier this summer.
Gardner didn’t back down from a statement he made in June, saying that Michigan would beat Ohio State on Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium.
“I never said ‘promise,’ ” Gardner said last month in Chicago. “I never said ‘guarantee.’ I said we’re going to work hard and we’re going to do our best, and I do believe we’re going to win the game.”