Michigan revisits scene of disaster with upbeat attitude

John Niyo

Ann Arbor — Nobody’s clamoring for a remake of “Ishtar” or “Gigli.” And there’s a reason nobody ever filmed that “Howard the Duck” sequel.

Yet, Michigan and its increasingly-irritated fan base has no choice this week as it preps for its opener against Appalachian State on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

It’s a game that never should have been scheduled after the awful reviews it received as a first-run horror flick in 2007.

But the athletic director at Michigan hasn’t met a gimmick he couldn’t embrace — “I don’t see how it could be a negative,” Dave Brandon said a few years ago when this made-for-ESPN rematch was announced — and some things are simply out of Brady Hoke’s control.

So as Michigan’s coach embarks on what could be a career-defining season, he’ll begin by reminding his players that while Appalachian State isn’t the Division I-AA power it once was, it is, as he explained with a straight face Monday, “the only school on the schedule this year that we have a losing record to.”

And while Michigan takes great pride in honoring tradition, some parts of its recent history certainly aren’t worth repeating.

Surprising, then, that Hoke decided to borrow a page from the Rich Rodriguez Leadership Manual this offseason, confirming Monday that Michigan won’t be electing team captains until the end of the season.

Michigan fans can read that as an indictment of the senior class if they want.

Or an acknowledgment from Hoke that a sense of entitlement within the program might have hastened last year’s collapse.

On edge

But it’s clear from listening to the Michigan coaches this summer that much of the optimism inside Schembechler Hall stems from the notion that the underclassmen are “a little bit different,” as Hoke puts it.

“I think they have a little bit more of an edge,” he said, his eyes lighting up just a little bit as he did.

Hoke is counting on that “edge” making a difference in the trenches, particularly on the offensive line, where the two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores, including a true freshman (Mason Cole) starting at left tackle.

Michigan has to be better up front if it’s going to avoid another embarrassment like the one the Wolverines endured last season en route to a 7-6 finish and considerable alumni angst.

The offense produced some historically-awful rushing totals in 2013 — consecutive games with negative yardage on the ground were the low point — and their idea of “smashmouth” football appeared to involve inviting opposing defenses to use quarterback Devin Gardner as a scratching post.

Nine months later, Gardner might still have a few bruises left from the Michigan State game. But he scoffs at the suggestion he’ll be in for more of the same this fall. And the nagging concerns about the offensive line that were only heightened after an underwhelming showing in last week’s public scrimmage at Michigan Stadium.

“We know the issues that we have, we know the issues that have gotten better,” Gardner said Monday. “And I don’t really listen to stuff like that.”

Gotta run

Hoke doesn’t have a choice when it comes to his offensive line. (“Is that the thing we get asked about the most?” he said Monday, speaking rhetorically, of course.) But he insists he’s “very confident in how those guys have progressed” from winter conditioning to spring practice to preseason camp.

And after cutting loose offensive coordinator Al Borges following last year’s debacle, there’s reason to be optimistic a revamped scheme will help where inexperience still hurts. In Doug Nussmeier, Hoke has brought in a replacement with a solid track record working with quarterbacks and a system that’s designed to be a bit more flame-retardant, if nothing else.

Michigan will get to the line quicker — the idea is to keep the defense guessing, for a change, not the offense — and utilize more short and intermediate routes to help Gardner avoid some of those negative-yardage plays. (Michigan led the nation by allowing 114 tackles for loss last season.) The Wolverines also are promising a more simplified run game.

Roughly translated, they’d be happy with 3 yards and quarterback who won’t be used as a dust mat.

“We want to be able to run the football — that’s as important as anything,” Hoke said.

That this bears repeating in Ann Arbor probably says something unflattering about how bad it got a year ago.

But, as Devin Funchess, Michigan’s best offensive playmaker, said Monday, “We can’t change the past.”

They’d just prefer not to relive it.