ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Over 30,000 fans joined the Michigan football team Saturday night when it held the first 'Under the Lights' scrimmage in the Big House. Doug Nussmeier featured his offense in front of fans for the first time in Ann Arbor against Greg Mattison's defense.
The team scrimmaged for over two hours, giving spectators a long look at some of the new players. But it's always difficult to gauge performance in a scrimmage in which both sides are wearing the winged helmets, even when the season is just two weeks away.
That being said, there were a few trends that stuck out throughout the course of the night, including the five below.
1. Devin Gardner is the starting quarterback, but Shane Morris has the tools to be special
Brady Hoke made it clear on Saturday that Devin Gardner is entering the season as the team's first-string quarterback, despite what was supposedly an intense offseason battle with sophomore Shane Morris.
Gardner began the scrimmage with the first-team offense and took limited reps compared to Morris, as only one weekend separates the country from the start of the college football season. Gardner didn't dazzle fans on Saturday, but he was clearly the most comfortable running the offense.
Morris looked shaky early in the night, but later demonstrated the arm strength that made him one of the top quarterback recruits in the country two years ago. When Nussmeier called for quicker routes Morris looked comfortable stepping up and hitting his receivers in stride, much like he did early in the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl last December.
Frustrated fans have called for Gardner to lose his starting job after last season's disappointing 7-6 season, but the redshirt senior gives the Wolverines the best chance to win this fall and it appears Hoke will give him the ball against Appalachian State on August 30.
2. Freddy Canteen still looks like a legitimate No. 2 receiver, but the competition is strong
Freshman wide receiver Freddy Canteen burst onto the scene during the spring game in April, giving the offense a legitimate threat downfield. Now, more than four months later, he is still being featured in a big way.
Canteen caught a long pass (approximately 35 yards) from Shane Morris during the scrimmage, showcasing his ability to beat defenders downfield. For a team that lost star receiver Jeremy Gallon to graduation, Canteen's emergence next to Devin Funchess could be the boost Gardner needs to lead an elite offense.
Maurice Ways was also heavily featured Saturday, catching two passes of 20 or more yards, including one for a touchdown. The arrivals of Canteen and Drake Harris overshadowed Ways' commitment to Michigan, but the four-star recruit introduced himself to the fan base in a big way during the scrimmage.
Three redshirt sophomores also contributed from the receiving core: Jehu Chesson, Bo Dever and Amara Darboh. Dever and Chesson, who played in all 13 games last season, made a few catches for short gains, while Darboh, who missed all of last season after injuring his foot, looked healthy for the first time for the fans.
Darboh is an interesting player heading into 2014. The 6-foot-2 wideout earned coaches' trust last summer before the injury and should be a factor for Nussmeier this season. He caught two passes for first downs in the scrimmage and the quarterbacks were looking for him as an early option.
3. The defense is going to be much more aggressive
Greg Mattison took some criticism last year when the defense looked like it was reacting to the offense instead of being aggressive and making plays. But the defense looked much more aggressive both in coverage and up front Saturday night.
The defensive line was in the backfield more often than it ever was in 2013 (takeaway No. 4 may have contributed to this), forcing the Michigan quarterbacks to move their feet. Gardner was forced to throw the ball out of bounds on several plays with the defense in his face.
The linebackers were also attacking the ball more aggressively and weren't holding back against their teammates. There were several hard hits, both in the secondary and at the line, that sent ball carriers backwards.
With all the talent joining the Michigan defense during Hoke's tenure, it was frustrating for fans to watch the group play so passively. But if Saturday was any indication, that tendency will change for Team 135.
4. The offensive line has to be much, much better
The biggest problem facing Michigan this offseason was the reconstruction of an offensive line that completely collapsed in 2013. Gardner's struggles late in the season were largely due to a pocket that collapsed much too quickly and a running game that provided almost no threat to opposing defenses.
Many of those same problems reared their ugly heads Saturday night as the blue team struggled to move the ball on the ground.
During the first few minutes of the scrimmage the offense ran sets from their own two-yard line. Only a couple plays into the night, the defense broke through the line and tackled Derrick Green for a safety. Throughout the rest of the night running backs were largely shut down, meeting defenders as soon as they were handed the ball.
If the offense hopes to compete in the Big Ten this season, Nussmeier will have to find a way to move the ball on the ground.
5. Joe Bolden looks like a starting linebacker and he hits hard
Despite another strong season from Demond Morgan in 2013, junior Joe Bolden may have replaced him on the weak side this offseason. Bolden took most of the reps with the first team alongside Jake Ryan and James Ross during the scrimmage.
Bolden led the attack from the linebacking core, hitting ball carriers as if they weren't his offensive teammates. He was flying to the ball and looked like the most active defender on the field.
The aggressive style of offense that Greg Mattison featured Saturday seemed to suit Bolden, who never hesitated in pursuit of the ball. Bolden was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team two years ago and now he looks primed for a starting role.
What does this mean?
What fans saw Saturday night isn't exactly what they should expect in two weeks, but the talent on the field will be largely indicative of what Michigan is capable of this season.
The wide receiving core looks deep and the defense was extremely active, so the Maize and Blue should see some improvement overall this season. But if the rushing attack can't move the ball, then the offense won't be explosive enough to carry Michigan toward the top of the Big Ten.
Hoke has about two more weeks with his team until the opener and much of that time will likely be used to shore up the holes he noticed Saturday night.
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