Michigan's All-Spring Game Team, 2009-Present: Offense
What lessons can we learn from past Spring Game standouts, from Tate Forcier to Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and beyond?
SITE STUFF: We are transitioning into offseason mode. Content is going to be a little lighter unless major news breaks, shifting down to either two newsletters or a newsletter and a subscriber podcast per week, depending what format calls to me at the time.
The senior retrospective essays I used to write at MGoBlog will be coming up soon. I, uh, just need to write them. I’ll also be Remembering Some Games and I’m toying around with a couple other ideas. Stay tuned.
Saturday afternoon provided a quintessential Spring Game moment.
While Devin Gardner interviewed Ronnie Bell on the sideline, the Big Ten Network broadcast cut in a beat late with a picture-in-picture view of the action on the field. Alan Bowman, somewhere in the area of fourth-string quarterback, launched a deep ball that touted freshman receiver Darrius Clemons snagged on the dive. Bell sprinted away from the interview to celebrate in the end zone.
Clemons made a spectacular play on the ball. He has the body of a day-one contributor and now he’d made a catch worthy of one.
Alright, let’s let BTN show us how he got open.
The cornerback matched up with Clemons is 5’9 senior walk-on Joshua Luther, a two-time academic All-Big Ten selection out of Clarkston, MI, who’s never seen official game action. To make matters worse, it appears he’s expecting safety help that never arrives. Clemons beat him by running fast in a straight line.
What does it all mean? I have no idea.
I went through Michigan’s recent era of holding actual Spring Games, which began when Rich Rodriguez took over for Lloyd Carr in 2009, and attempted to pull the best performances from each position. The MGoBlog archives were critical in this endeavor.
In doing this, I tried to answer a simple question: do eye-grabbing Spring Game performances translate to the season? This got long, so part one covers the offense, and later this week I’ll post the defense. We’ll also be chatting about this subject on this week’s free podcast.
Quarterback: Tate Forcier
The return of the Spring Game from its dark age featured Michigan’s quarterback of the future, four-star true freshman Tate Forcier, looking like a very good quarterback of the present:
Quarterbacking the first team against the second-team defense, Forcier threw four touchdowns - two to Roy Roundtree and one each to Greg Mathews and LaTerryal Savoy - and rushed for another.
He showed elusiveness, rushing for 43 yards, unofficially, and threw the ball accurately. A true freshman who enrolled in January, Forcier completed - again, unofficially - 10 of 13 passes for 133 yards with no interceptions.
One college student-slash-blogger was inspired to mash up Forcier’s highlights with the music video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” for some reason:
While there have been other excellent performances by QBs, including Denard Robinson the very next year, none struck a chord quite like Forcier’s.
Was it legit? Yes. Mostly. Forcier had a promising freshman year despite the team’s overall struggles. Those team struggles, incidentally, were strongly related to the bad defense featured in that highlight video. Even the backups aren’t supposed to be that easy to score on.
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Running Back: Dennis Norfleet (2013), Mike Cox (2010)
This was one of the harder positions to fill out for a couple reasons. First, the jumbled offensive lines tends to lead to ugly rushing performances. Second, the top running backs usually play one series or sit out the Spring Game entirely — there’s no compelling reason to risk injury.
A certain corner of the fanbase that very much included me eagerly awaited (and awaited) the day diminutive Detroit native Dennis Norfleet would go from special teams exhibitionist to versatile spread offense force. He got a chance to line up at running back in 2013 and flashed dazzling open-field moves:
Was it legit? Alas, no. Norfleet was switched to wide receiver and had three offensive touches in 2013, all in the opener against Central Michigan. After an ill-fated stint as a cornerback in the spring of 2014, he had a great year as a return specialist that fall, but again had a very limited role in the actual offense. Norfleet was dismissed from the team prior to the 2015 season.
Mike Cox busted a long touchdown run in the 2010 game. He’d been a tantalizing prospect since arriving in 2008, impressive as an athlete but blowing assignments too often to get much action. For this Spring Game, at least, he maintained firm focus. With his apparent upside, it appeared the coaches would keep a spot in the rotation warm for him.1
Was it legit? Nope. Cox appeared in only two games in 2010, played only on special teams in 2011, and transferred to UMass for his final year of eligibility. He started every game for the Minutemen, ground out 715 yards behind a bad O-line, and got drafted in the seventh round, even getting a start for the New York Giants during his brief stint in the NFL.
Side note: Cox’s father, Michael Sr., was the victim of a police brutality case in Boston — as a police officer himself. The incident was kept relatively unpublicized until a New York Times story in 2013, published during Michael Jr.’s time with the Giants. Michael Cox Sr. is now the chief of police in Ann Arbor.
Wide Receiver: Ronnie Bell (2019), Nate Schoenle (2017), Roy Roundtree (2009)
Receiver is similar to running back: the presumed starters tend to sit, so we’re treated to emerging youngsters fighting for spots on the two-deep. In 2019, Ronnie Bell showed hints of his future with a tough catch-and-run touchdown on a short crossing route:
Was it legit? Yes, and sooner than we expected. Bell surpassed the junior trio of Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Tarik Black to lead the team in catches and receiving yards in 2019, then repeated the feat in 2020 before an ACL tear cost him the 2021 season. He’s expected to be a top receiver again this fall.
In 2017, you couldn’t throw a dart at a Michigan message board2 without hitting a glowing insider report about sophomore walk-on wideout Nate Schoenle. The Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard graduate was pushing for a significant role in M’s talented receiving corps, if you believed certain posts — and the coaches themselves.
Schoenle displayed a strong connection with Brandon Peters during the Spring Game, convincing even skeptics like MGoBlog’s Brian Cook that the hype wasn’t just hype:
Also in the slot was walk-on Nate Schoenle, who was on the receiving end of Peters's best throws of the day. One was a tough diving catch on the game-winning drive. At 6'2" Schoenle gives you downfield ability a lot of slots lack and Peters is clearly comfortable with him; I mentioned him as a guy generating buzz before the game and he'll generate more of it now. Nate Johnson didn't get a target, IIRC. Schoenle looks like a real threat for slot PT.
Was it legit? Not really. Schoenle got on the field a bit on offense but only made four catches in 2017. He played out his final three years of eligibility exclusively on special teams.
The primary target during Forcier’s explosive debut was redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree, a skinny slot receiver who showed a knack for finding open spaces in the secondary. Two of his three receptions went for long touchdowns. Roundtree was a burgeoning big-play threat due in large part to getting his eyes checked in the offseason:
But in the first few spring practices this season, Michigan redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree was a rare exception. Roundtree was dropping catchable passes, and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez soon noticed the source of the problem for the 20-year-old wideout.
“When we’d look at him, he’d squint at you,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the first sign that you ought to get your eyes checked. After he got his eyes checked, the doctor said he didn’t know how he was walking a straight line.”
This also produced a classic one-liner from Roundtree:
“(My eyesight) wasn’t that bad when I got here,” Roundtree said. “Now I read all these books, and it killed my eyes.”
That’s quality offseason content.
Was it legit? Yup. Roundtree led Michigan in receiving in 2009 and 2010. He continued to make huge plays, most notably a game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame under the lights, after he was surpassed by Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon in 2011 and 2012.
Tight End: Tyrone Wheatley Jr.
I mean, look at this picture:
Tyrone Wheatley Jr. went into the Spring Game with plenty of fanfare after a 70-yard, one-handed touchdown catch-and-run in a recent scrimmage. He caught a couple more balls in the Spring Game itself, dragged a couple defenders, and blocked proficiently. In the aftermath, we got a little breathless at MGo:
He is large and fast in a way that pops out as soon as you see him. Some guys just have it: Funchess, Peppers, Denard. They have the kind of athleticism that immediately tags them as the kind of genetic freak destined for an NFL career. Wheatley has that at 280. Not that he's anywhere near as fast as those guys, but the combination of the ability to cope with Chris Wormley and also be a threat way downfield is tantalizing for any coach. For Jim Harbaugh? Sheeeeeeeeeeeeit.
Was it legit? Hnnnngh. Over the next two seasons, Wheatley had a few spectacular moments as both a receiver and blocker, with an emphasis on few: he caught three passes in each season. In 2017, he was behind fellow junior TEs Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon in the pecking order, plus FB/TE Khalid Hill.
After a spring injury in 2018 had Wheatley battling a packed TE room and his weight, he transferred to Stony Brook. There was word Wheatley wanted to stay at tight end instead of moving to offensive tackle. He started at tight end at Stony Brook, then landed on the Chicago Bears in 2021… as an offensive tackle.
Offensive Line: Andrew Vastardis (2017), Graham Glasgow (2013), Mark Huyge (2009)
No, you sickos, I’m not finding five Spring Game stars from the offensive line. Judging line play in the spring is difficult even when they don’t split the starters between the two teams. There were years when the defense wasn’t allowed to blitz, and more years when the #1 offense would face the #2 defense and vice versa. The line is often judged more as a unit than individual players.
Overly-optimistic post-spring chatter. (HT: Dr. Saturday.) I didn't watch Mark Huyge enough to confirm this for myself—and, honestly, I'm an amateur who needs to go over running plays a half-dozen times before I can form an opinion on who did what right—but the general opinion on his play was hugely (HA!) positive. Even without the benefit of tape review I can say this: if Huyge has surged in front of Perry Dorrestein, who was functional last year, and the much-hyped Patrick Omameh that bodes well for his future and for Michigan's line.
Was it legit? Relatively! While Huyge wasn’t a superstar, he started 29 games across 38 appearances over the next four years, and he was versatile enough to get in the lineup at both guard and tackle. That said, the 2009 line wasn’t exactly good at pass-blocking — it was just hard not to be better than 2008’s unit.
The primary takeaway from the trenches in 2013 was that walk-on Graham Glasgow was pushing for a starting spot. We must remember this was before the Glasgows established they were no normal walk-ons. At the time, this felt worrisome.
Was it legit? Oh, indeed. Glasgow started 13 games between center and left guard in 2013 and 24 more in his final two years. While he only got honorable mention all-conference as a fifth-year senior, he was Michigan’s best linemen for most of that time period, and the film guys’ love of him was justified when Detroit drafted him in the third round. He’s started 78 NFL games at guard.
In 2017, another walk-on, Andrew Vastardis, was being hyped as the man to eventually replace Cesar Ruiz at center. Although he didn’t go against the starters on defense, he acquitted himself well enough to catch attention during the game, which isn’t easy for a lineman.
Was it legit? Another hit. While it took time for Vastardis to bulk up enough to hang against Big Ten competition, he got snaps as a reserve in 2018 and 2019, then earned the starting center spot during the 2020 season. He used his extra year of eligibility in 2021 and earned All-Big Ten second-team from the media and honorable mention from the coaches, centering one of the best run-blocking lines in the country.
Just go with it.