As Michigan found out last year when Troy Woolfolk’s leg exploded, Mike Martin’s ankles went gimpy, and Denard Robinson was routinely knocked out of games, one or two key injuries can make the difference between victory and defeat, or even push a coach that much closer to the firing line. This year, the Wolverines should be better-prepared if the injury bug strikes again, but at certain positions the depth is still significantly lacking. With that in mind, here — in order — are the five most indispensable players on the 2011 squad:
- Mike Martin, DT: Martin is not only the lone proven defensive tackle on the roster, but the only player who really projects to hold his own as the one-tech DT (nose tackle) in Greg Mattison’s 4-3 under system. We all saw what happened last year after Martin was rendered ineffective by not one, but two high ankle sprains, and that was a parade of opponents marching into the Wolverine end zone. Former five-star recruit Will Campbell is still completely unproven at the collegiate level, and he’ll likely start alongside Martin at defensive tackle. Quinton Washington made a midseason switch from offensive guard last season and didn’t stand out (understandably, of course) in his first season on defense. The other current options at DT are redshirt freshmen Richard Ash, who was completely out of shape last season and is rumored to be battling injuries, Kenny Wilkins, who projects as more of a Ryan Van Bergen strongside DE type, and Terry Talbott, who’s listed at 248 pounds and may have serious back issues. If Martin were to go down, it’s likely Michigan would be forced to move Van Bergen to the inside and play Jibreel Black at end, and while that could be less than disastrous, the Wolverines would still be without their best defensive player. Given the major question marks in the back seven, that just can’t happen this year.
- Denard Robinson, QB: Yes, I realize I’m going out on quite the limb here. Say what you will about the transition to the new offense, and even how Devin Gardner could step in and be very effective as a sophomore, but (1) Gardner has all of ten career attempts, all against Bowling Green last season, and (2) Robinson is the heart and soul of this team, and well as their most electric playmaker. I don’t think I need to go over the numbers, the accolades, the highlights, the broken records, nor the times last season when Denard was sidelined (and that was with Tate Forcier as a safety net); Robinson made this argument with conviction in 2010, so I will waste no more words telling you why you should hope beyond hope he doesn’t get hurt this year.
- Kenny Demens, MLB: Demens started off last season as a relative unknown playing behind the ineffective Obi Ezeh, but by the end of the year he had taken the starting job and showed why he deserved four-star accolades as a recruit out of Detroit Country Day. One could easily argue that Demens was the team’s second-best defender behind Martin last season (though there’s a case to be made for Jordan Kovacs and Ryan Van Bergen, and I guess the departed Jonas Mouton if you don’t mind players losing contain and giving up huge plays, which would be odd). Not only could Demens break out and become an elite middle linebacker, but the depth behind him is, well, not very deep: senior J.B. Fitzgerald has done little in three seasons, despite having every opportunity to beat out Ezeh and Mouton for a starting role, redshirt sophomore Isaiah Bell has never seen the field, and beyond that the team’s linebackers are either clearly destined for the outside or are true freshmen. Demens must stay healthy this year if Michigan’s defense is going to see marked improvement over last year’s sad-sack unit.
- Troy Woolfolk, CB: Rich Rodriguez might as well have sent in his resignation letter the second Woolfolk dislocated his ankle and broke his fibula last August, but luckily for Brady Hoke, T-Wolf is back on the prowl in the Wolverine secondary this season. He’ll immediately step back in to the role he was supposed to assume in 2010 as the team’s number one corner, and if the secondary is going to look much better than last year, he’ll have to stay there — J.T. Floyd, also coming off a season-ending ankle injury (was that really necessary, football gods?), and Courtney Avery are the only other proven corners, and both had their struggles last season. Woolfolk may not be a superstar, but he’s a solid player, a leader on the defense, and outside of the sophomore Avery probably has the highest ceiling of any non-freshman CB on the roster. Losing Woolfolk might not be the death-blow to the defense that losing Martin or Demens would be, but after last year I’d rather not see what would happen in that situation.
- Kevin Koger, TE: I strongly considered putting Jordan Kovacs here, but Michigan actually has some talent and depth at safety, albeit unproven. Meanwhile, Koger is the only tight end on the roster with significant playing time — behind him, there’s Brandon Moore, a redshirt junior with one career catch (in ’09 against Delaware State, at that) and a reputation for dropping the football, Ricardo Miller, a 6-4, 215 pound redshirt freshman who’s way too skinny to be more than a pass-catching threat as an H-back, and Steve Watson, a redshirt senior who’s back at tight end after spending the last two years on defense. Four-star incoming freshman Chris Barnett would be a very viable option if Koger went down, but he’s coming off a torn ACL from his senior season of high school that he wasn’t able to get operated on until December of last year — it seems unlikely that he’ll be close to 100% when the season starts. With the new offense likely placing more emphasis on the tight ends, if not as receivers than as road-graters on the line, Koger is the only player the coaches can rely upon to provide a threat in both the passing and running game. Yes, he may drop some easy catches, but Michigan’s offense can’t afford to miss Koger this year if they want to function at full capability.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Kovacs, David Molk, Taylor Lewan
I’ve made my list, but I’d like to hear your opinion as well: who do you think is the most indispensable Wolverine for 2011? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments, especially if you somehow decide on the ‘other’ option.