|Quarterback Denard Robinson :: Getty Images|
In May, as part of coach Brady Hoke's leadership program, 22 Wolverines' seniors headed to Southern California. During the three-day trip they ran a youth football camp in Pasadena, went through four hours of drills with Navy SEALs in Newport Beach and partook in daily leadership seminars. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson came away with this lesson: "To be a partner in the business world, you have to learn how to take a backseat sometimes."
Make no mistake: Shoelace will not shirk his starring role. The offensive dynamo who accounted for 7,621 total yards and 68 touchdowns over the past two seasons remains the axis of the Wolverines' attack. But his words seem apt given that he may have found his running mate in the form of 5-foot-10, 195-pound tailback Fitz Toussaint, a shifty runner who down the stretch last season had four games of 120 yards or more. Toussant was temporarily suspended from the team after his July 21 DUI arrest and will now have to compete for the starting role, but, if he returns to form, he could ease the burden on his quarterback. "If we can cut down a bit on Denard's reps at times as far as rushes go," said Hoke, "I think it [will help] him with staying healthy."
The aid Robinson will get from his receivers remains a question mark. Gone (to the NFL's Chiefs) is top target Junior Hemingway, leaving senior Roy Roundtree and diminutive junior Jeremy Gallon to fill the void. After a spring spent working on timing routes and developing chemistry, Robinson thinks they will be up to the task. For his part, Robinson has concentrated on not throwing off his back foot and on stepping toward his target in hopes of cutting down on the 15 interceptions he tossed last season. He's also one of many Wolverines growing more comfortable in second-year coordinator Al Borges's pro-style offense. "Last year we were crawling," Robinson said. "Now we're walking and starting to run."
Defensively, Hoke expects even better from a unit sprinkled with seniors such as linebacker Kenny Demens, safety Jordan Kovacs and end Craig Roh, which allowed the second-fewest points in the Big Ten last fall. "Defense has always been a priority at Michigan," Hoke said, "and we want to sustain the quality." He also is clear about his goal for his second season at the helm: a Big Ten title. With an improved Robinson and the help around him, this year's seniors might well be headed for a return trip to Pasadena.
Can receivers Roundtree and Gallon provide a less turnover-prone Robinson with weapons on the outside?
75 -- Career touchdowns for which Denard Robinson has run or passed. He is 16 touchdowns shy of the Michigan record set by Chad Henne.
Kenny Demens, LB, Sr. -- The team's top tackler last year with 94, Demens was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2011. He scared Wolverines fans by reporting a hand injury on April Fools' Day, but he'll be all business this fall.
Taylor Lewan, LT, Jr. -- A coaches' pick for second-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan mans the blind side and was a big reason the Wolverines allowed the third-fewest sacks in the league in 2011.
Denard Robinson, QB, Sr. -- The 6-foot, 195-pounder is the nation's best dual-threat quarterback. If he can lower his interception rate (5.8 percent last year, highest among qualified passers) and keep up his production, expect a Heisman campaign to gain traction.
Jordan Kovacs, S, Sr. -- The former walk-on has more than earned his scholarship the last two seasons, starting all 25 games at strong safety and twice earning all-conference honorable mention. Now he's the anchor among three returning starters in the secondary.
Blake Countess, CB, So. -- The 5-foot-10 Maryland native had a promising true freshman campaign, cracking the starting lineup in late October and staying there for the season's final six games. His six pass breakups ranked second on the Wolverines, but he awaits his first interception. A more diligent approach this spring should yield that first pick and standout status.
Royce Jenkins-Stone, LB, Fr. -- The Detroit native racked up 145 tackles and five sacks while also rushing for 12 touchdowns for Cass Technical's state champs last fall. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Jenkins-Stone was ranked as high as second nationally among middle linebackers.
Twice during his time in Ann Arbor, Craig Roh was suffocating. Both time his father resuscitated him. This past spring the problem was literal. The 6-foot-5 defensive end had long battled allergies but had never known his body's exact enemies. During Roh's visit home to Scottsdale, Ariz., his father, Fred, owner of a nutritional supplement company, decided to take his son to someone who could come up with real answers. The naturopath's findings: Craig was allergic to wheat and dairy. Now abstaining from such foods, he delights in the effects. "Your body changes -- you don't have as much fat, you can move better," Roh said. "Now I can breathe through my nose. It's great."
If not for Fred's intervention last fall, though, Roh might not have been taking in the air at the Big House this autumn. His woes began with a sore throat at the onset of the 2011 summer training camp. Roh visited a doctor, who diagnosed a respiratory infection and prescribed antibiotics. Roh returned to practice but played sluggishly, feeling, he recalled, "like half the man I could be."
Making matters worse was his rugged adjustment to Michigan's new defensive coordinator, the gruff Greg Mattison, for whom "that's not terrible" counts as a compliment. "I was essentially the golden child up until Coach Mattison," Roh said. "But he wanted to tear me down so he could build me back up to an even higher level than I previously was."
Things bottomed out after the Wolverines' opener last September, a 34-10 win over Western Michigan in which Roh failed to make a tackle and after which Mattison was predictably acerbic while reviewing the game tape. Roh was so overwhelmed, he broke down in tears. "I wasn't really having fun," he said.
Fred could tell. He flew from up from Arizona and spent two days in Craig's apartment, studying Bible verses as the three-year starter pondered walking away from his team and the game. As the discussions wound down, Fred had another thought: Craig should man up and recommit to the program and those he should be playing for, earthly and otherwise.
At that moment Roh had what he calls an epiphany. "I was trying so hard to perform for selfish reasons," he said. "But when it turned into an unselfish reason -- [playing] for my teammates and for God -- that's when football became really fun." The next Saturday, in a thrilling 35--31 victory over Notre Dame, Roh again failed to register on the stats sheet but played with an enthusiasm previously lacking. The following week, in a 31-3 domination of Eastern Michigan, he was back in form, with five tackles and a sack. "It's history from there," said Roh, who finished the season tied for second on the team with four sacks and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention.
"When most young men buy in and realize that you're coaching them so they can be better, they say, O.K., take me," said Mattison, whose relationship with Roh is now built on mutual understanding. "I think that's when he really started to play to his potential."
To get ready for his switch to strongside end this year, Roh spent the offseason downing steaks, fish and protein shakes -- sans wheat and dairy of course -- to beef up 11 pounds, to 280. He is enjoying the new position, and as the lone returning starter on the defensive line, he will be central to his unit's success. Given his reborn allegiance to Michigan, it's a responsibility Roh embraces. "Being dedicated to this football program, it's just been this sustaining feeling," he said. A breath, really, of fresh air.
SI: You've said your first season was a failure because you didn't win the Big Ten. What, then, was the highlight?
BH: After the Sugar Bowl and after the Ohio State game, the kids and their reaction and their smiles, all those things that go with it. The team aspect and being committed and accountable to each other is something that you could see growing through the year.
SI: You've said you don't even use e-mail, but how much do you emphasize to your players to be smart about social media?
BH: We talk all the time. It's the wave of the future, obviously, but it can be a very positive thing or a very negative thing. With the advent of Twitter and all those things, I think you always need to have the conversation. Our job is to mold great husbands, fathers and people who go back to the community.
SI: How much are you looking forward to the opener against Alabama?
BH: Those are the kind of games we want to play at Michigan, the ones that guys come to school here for -- [on] the big stage.
SI: Has the knowledge that we're gaining about concussions caused you to coach any differently?
BH: [Looking out] for the [welfare] of the players [is] very good for the game of football. I think the education of how you tackle and where you're tackling -- and not using yourself or your head as a weapon -- is important.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.