Yesterday we hit the offense; this is the other side of the ball.
Campbell Or Someone Else, Except There Isn't Anyone Else
All eyes not locked on Denard Robinson Saturday will be interpreting any signs of life from Will Campbell as prophecy of opposing offensive lines' impending doom. The facts are these: Michigan has three lock starters on the line, a big hole at three-technique, and a very big man who was a very big former recruit on his way to being a very big bust who is getting personal attention from no fewer than three Michigan coaches.
Michigan has put all their eggs in Campbell's basket. Quinton Washington is backing up Mike Martin—and doing so unevenly—and the only other options there are redshirt freshmen like Richard Ash (also probably an NT if he's anything) and Terry Talbott (probably another year away from being physically ready).
There's almost no way he's not going to start. This makes me nervous because it makes me think about Pat Massey. Massey was 6'8" and never should have been anywhere near DT, but he had a good amount of starting experience when he was inadvisably thrust inside after Michigan ended their one-year experiment with the 3-4. He still ended most plays in a crumpled mess several yards downfield. He was the three-tech next to Gabe Watson; hopefully Campbell doesn't go down as Martin's Massey.
Looking for: my skepticism about Campbell ever performing well is established. If the guy just holds his own and doesn't get blown up on the regular that will be major progress.
Fearing: The third string center getting under his pads and depositing him in Kovacs's lap.
Will only believe three games into the season: That Michigan's previous defensive coaches were even more incompetent than we already believe them to be.
Edge Terror: Yes, Please
Craig Roh is entering his junior year, and the clock has started ticking faster. As a freshman he was incredibly undersized; as a sophomore he was incredibly miscast. Now he's in an upperclassman in an under front as the weakside defensive end—this is his time and place. On a defense wholly devoid of established playmakers other than Martin he is the player most likely to blow up. Michigan needs him to or it's going to be another year in which opposing quarterbacks can finish their crumpets in the pocket before leisurely surveying to see which receiver is open by yards.
Here Michigan actually seems to have a decent second option: Jibreel Black was a complete disaster against the run as a true freshman but flashed disruptive ability when teams didn't run right at him. Like virtually everyone else on the team he should have redshirted; if he had everyone would be talking him up as the next coming because they hadn't seen his shortcomings. As it is a big post-frosh bump in performance can be expected.
Looking for: one-on-one pass rush from Roh against Schofield/Huyge/walk-on. He has to be able to beat those guys if he's going to take on the Big Ten this fall.
Fearing: Here I don't think we'll be too disappointed. There are two good options.
Will only believe three games into the season: That they can't get production out of this spot.
Michigan's veteran linebackers have shuffled off to their futures. Since Obi Ezeh was replaced at midseason by immediately obvious upgrade Kenny Demens, middle linebacker is set. Ready or not, Cam Gordon will be the strongside LB. That leaves Jonas Mouton's old spot as the only other in the front seven up for grabs. Despite collecting all manner of safety/LB tweeners answers are few. Candidates:
- Mike Jones. Jones was the primary backup to Mouton last spring and was getting hyped up as a playmaker; one season-ending injury later there are grumbles he is too small and does not fit the position in a 4-3 under.
- Brandin Hawthorne. Yeah… so… Brandin Hawthorne hasn't seen the field in any capacity other than special teams yet and seemed destined for a Darnell Hood sort of career and now he's kind of the only option other than Jones because all the rest of the guys are participating in a pitched battle elsewhere. Speaking of…
- Safety war losers. Carvin Johnson, Marvin Robinson, and Josh Furman all spent part of last year at linebacker and part at safety; this spring they're all trying to fill Michigan's perpetually gaping hole next to Jordan Kovacs. While they won't be playing WLB saturday, if someone establishes themselves as the guy they will probably throw one of these three back in the linebacker pool.
- Oh, and Thomas Gordon. Some reports put Gordon in the WLB battle while others think he's in a distinctly separate boat of guys playing a dedicated nickelback spot. Gordon was a pleasant surprise as the starting spur earlier in the year and if there are few other options at WLB he might inherit that spot by default, flexing out into the nickel when other teams go spread. That would have some obvious downsides—dude is not linebacker-sized—but Larry Foote is not walking through that door.
- Oh, and… um… Marell Evans? Apparently he's back on the team after not playing at Hampton, and while he's getting some practice buzz that's so far-fetched I'm not even going to list it under things I don't believe because obviously.
Hypothetically, the WLB is the best-protected linebacker in an under front and can be a little fast guy who pursues guys all over the field. More realistically you can shield him a bit but offenses will find ways to make your tiny guy go facemask to facemask with much larger folks, especially if the three-tech spot supposed to shield him is iffy.
Looking for: A weakside linebacker that does not blow outside contain constantly. If I had to guess right now I would say Gordon gets virtually all of the time against spread teams and eventually ends up dragged into the lineup against the coaches' better judgment simply because he can play.
Fearing: A major downgrade—Mouton also turned in his fair share of great individual plays.
Will only believe three games into the season: That having Hawthorne in the two-deep is not an ominous sign.
Squinting In The General Direction Of Safety
Well… at least they've got some athlete type substances. They're weakside linebackers mostly but they'd be really fast WLBs. As mentioned, Johnson, Robinson, and Furman are all fighting to be Michigan's scapegoat this fall; there is no clarity as to who will come out on top. Johnson has the initial edge since he's seen the field, but most of that was at linebacker and last year when he moved to safety he ended up behind the leetle tiny Vinopal despite his tendency to look like Jerry attempting to tackle Tom.
As per usual, brace yourselves.
Looking for: Johnson to be as reputed: a bit slow but reliable and an excellent tackler. Basically a scholarship version of Kovacs.
Fearing: Fear? There is no fear, only the cold hard certainty Michigan's safeties will suck.
Will only believe three games into the season: There are no hopes out there to deflate, so we can take a pass on this one.
Oh And Bonus
Looking for: Ball through uprights; more realistically, the matriculation of Matt Wile.
Fearing: Not through uprights.
Will only believe three games into the season: that I can watch a field goal attempt without throwing up.
Via UM Media Relations:
OUT (0% PLAY)
Jones, Mike Leg
Shaw, Michael Knee
Toussaint, Fitzgerald Shoulder
Van Slyke, Jared Clavicle
Williams, Mike Head
Woolfolk, Troy Ankle
QUESTIONABLE (50% PLAY)
Ferrara, John Hand
PROBABLE (75% PLAY)
Herron, Brandon Ankle
Johnson, Carvin Knee
Robinson, Denard Knee
As for the gentlemen who are out, we already know Jones, Van Slyke, and Woolfolk are out for the whole year, and Mike Williams may have serious enough concussion issues to be at the end of his football career. Shaw being ruled completely out for the game is a huge setback, and though we don't have tons of information on Toussaint, the coaches certainly would have liked to have him available.
Ferrara is updated to questionable after spending the past few weeks inactive, which is good for him, but he's still down on the depth chart and unlikely to play.
As for the "Probable" contingent, Rodriguez (and OC Calvin Magee) have been saying all week that Shoelace hasn't missed practice all week, and is 100% outside of a bit of soreness. If Herron and/or Johnson can indeed play, that's a boost for the defense, giving Greg Robinson the flexibility with Craig Roh that he really likes.
Note: The Indiana game on October 2 will be a 3:30 kick on ESPNU.
You worry about an emotional letdown going from Notre Dame to an FCS team. Typically, they're worried more during preparation, and it seemed like that wasn't a problem last week. "We did not play with the type of urgency defensively that we did the week before." Guys have to understand the other team has players too, whether it's UMass or BGSU.
UMass wakeup call? You hope you don't need that to be a wakeup call. "Maybe we're assuming we're more mature than we are, then I look at our guys and we've got a lot of young players."
With Saturday's performance, will RR get more involved in the defense? "I'll probably spend a little bit of time with them today. Our defensive staff I think knows what we've gotta do." Some of the problems will be longer-term fixes. "Some of our issues on Saturday have to be fixed immediately." They can't play good defense being so tentative. Wants people to be happy when they win, but the defensive guys weren't pleased with their performance after the game.
Is the defense's struggle similar to last year? It's a new year, and it was a different week than Notre Dame. What's important is to play better going forward. "Everyone felt fortunate with the win, but didn't feel that we played well."
Losing contain, some of the issues were fundamental, "some they got us on a call." They stressed keeping contain in practice and during the game, but the lack of execution cost them. "The good part is we can fix all the fundamental part, and the technical part we can fix."
INJURIES: Mike Jones and Brandon Herron injuries have led to a revolving door with the nickel package. Brandon Herron probably won't be back this weekend. "Marvin [Robinson] will be back this week. Carvin Johnson is still questionable."
Denard doesn't worry about stats and that stuff. "He loves football" He doesn't worry about individual stuff. He doesn't have a personality where the hype will go to his head.
Rodriguez is not worried about getting Devin and Tate to get reps for conference season. Focused on them getting better every day. Pleased with Tate's attitude last couple weeks. Both he and Devin are improving. Either could play if Denard needs a rest. If they had gotten a stop up 35-17, one of the backups would have gone in.
Running back: "That's the one position we have not played enough guys and we have enough guys ready to play." Want to got Hopkins and Cox in, but they need to be able to run the whole offense with those guys. Toussaint practiced last week, but was not 100%.
Stonum - "I've sensed a more mature Darryl Stonum since camp started." Stonum's off-field maturity is related to on-field success. His good start on the field has carried over from camp. Seeing a guy grow and mature is good. Young people mature, that's what happens. Making a bad decision doesn't make you a bad person. "I think Darryl, hopefully, 'gets it.'" His dad and grandma came up for the UMass game for maybe the first time she'd ever flown. Stonum and Junior are the leaders, have to step up.
"Taylor [Lewan] played really well last week. He played well to the point where it's Huyge or Lewan is the starter this week... That's a definite 'or.'"
Omameh has played better last two games after struggling against UConn. He has some fundamental stuff to work on, like taking a good first step.
Hoping some young guys on D can get a shot to get on the field and make plays. "We've gotta make it competitive in practice for some of those young guys." Backups on D are really young, so they have to learn both fundamentals and scheme. The coaches don't want to play a guy before he's ready unless they have to. On the defensive side of the ball, some guys have had to play. "We have a few freshmen that frankly, if some of the upperclassmen aren't playing well or they're having a bad day, we've gotta try 'em."
"If we need them to help us win games this year, we're not gonna redshirt 'em." Terry Talbott and Ash "They're freshmen, they're ready to roll, they're practicing. Looks like they're headed for a redshirt."
Mike Martin has played well, but "we didn't give out a player of the game defensively, because as a unit we didn't think anybody deserved that."
Rodriguez has probably never had kicker questions this deep into the season. "Usually something is established more firmly once you get into games." It just comes down to guys doing it right when the opportunity arises, not just in practice. "They have the ability to do it. You know, it's a situation where they've gotta do it under pressure in game time... I think it's probably most frustrating for them. It's not because they're not trying."
Hagerup "I'm convinced he's gonna be phenomenal." He just dropped the ball once, but he'll be fine as he gets experience.
Bowling Green, Etc.
BGSU has good skill guys, especially the running back. They have big guys up front and both of their QBs have played well, even though one got hurt. Spread shotgun w/ unbalanced, no-back, a variety of stuff. Have good defensive speed. "Some of the problems we've had this season, we're gonna see that again this weekend." Hopefully, they'll be able to stop it this time.
Lacking game film of the opposing QB doesn't have much effect on preparation. They'll worry more about the scheme, because BGSU will continue to run what they've been running.
Former Michigan kicker Bryan Wright plays for the Falcons, but the coaches don't have a way to scheme against him, and familiarity is not an advantage. Could do it with a lineman or QB or something. Rodriguez is proud of him - he has his Michigan degree, and is playing well for BGSU. Would rather not have to play against him, but glad he's happy.
Going for it on fourth "Those are all in our thoughts right now" - different situations factor into fourth-down decision, including down-and-distance, momentum, weather, etc.
Having to outscore people? "That's insulting (laughs). I certainly think out defense has a lot more pride in their abilities... we can play a lot better defensively... in that last ballgame, we just didn't play well. We played tentative."
Dantonio's heart attack - "Most coaches have probably known this for years, that it's a different lifestyle and you have to take care of yourself." The job is more public today. You don't just work your job, you live your job. Hard to get away from your job, "you don't leave your office and go home and leave your job at the office."
RR works out 5 days a week. Has his own personal stairmaster, lifting weights a bit. "It's hard to devote the time, because you wanna watch the film, and you've got a lot of things to do, but you have to do it." He has probably not slept for three hours straight in years. Sleep a couple, then you're up for one. "When you get five, that's good."
File photo courtesy of the Michigan Daily
A couple notes from Michigan's Sports Information Department: Redshirt freshman defensive end Anthony LaLota has asked for, and received a transfer release. Michigan's game against Bowling Green in a couple weeks will be a noon contest on either ESPN or ESPN2.
Notre Dame and UMass
Injuries: Mike Jones suffered broken leg, and is doubtful for the remainder of the season. Brandon Herron sprained his ankle, and is day-to-day. JB Fitzgerald, Mark Moundros, Kenny Demens, and Kevin Leach will step up a bit.
"Anybody that says they don't want to be liked is probably lying to you. Everybody wants to be liked" the only thing that matters is how you react to it. Positive press "It's like poison - just don't swallow it." On bandwagoners: "What I'm worried about is things I can control. Am I a different guy now than I was two weeks ago?" People's perception is whateva for him. "There's probably some people who will still be unhappy. No matter what we do. And they'll be unhappy for the rest of their lives."
The team played well enough to win Saturday, it's not a case of being good enough to win despite playing poorly. Would like to have some plays back, "we're still not good enough to play poorly and win... I still would not like to test that out." There were enough good things to say that the team didn't play poorly.
On penalties - "some of them I still question. Nonetheless, we had them." Late hit on Cullen Christian: "I couldn't tell initially." Coaches film revealed it was a close call, but an unnecessary thing for Christian to do.
Nobody really realized that TJ Jones dropped the ball before scoring the TD. Wouldn't have known anyway, with no video boards in ND Stadium. "It's certainly a teaching moment to tell our guys to run down and jump on the ball." Michigan shouldn't have an issue with dropping the ball before the endzone: "We hand the ball to the official. That would never happen to a Michigan guy."
Poise down the stretch on the road - "You learn a lot on the road... When it's a hostile environment and the crowd goes crazy every time they make a play." There were never any Michigan guys who seemed to be afraid when ND made plays. "Hey, let's go out there and play football" was their attitude.
"I didn't see any panic whatsoever on anybody on the sidelines" after ND took the late lead. Face adversity in every game, they'll learn how to deal with it with experience.
No turnovers - "Denard put it on the ground one time" he was holding it loose, and Vincent Smith's hustle bailed him out.
"Two weeks ago, I'm not sure we'd have been favored" against UMass. Rankings didn't matter then, and don't matter now. Shouldn't bother with polls until October.
RR will bring up Virginia Tech losing to James Madison to remind the guys not to overlook anyone. "Thee's already been what 5? 5 or 6 this year?" FCS beating FBS. In FCS level, the good teams are really really good. If you play an average or below average FCS team, the D-1 teams aren't going to have a problem. "We're playing a good one. UMass is one of the good teams in 1-AA."
"You don't have to be listed as a recruiting service 5-star recruit to be a very good college player or even an NFL guy." Parity b/w 1-A and 1-AA - there are more kids that are getting known now. "All the upgraded facilities." Everyone has somthing to sell to recruits, and kids want to go somewhere they'll play. "We sell the biggest stage and greatest education."
"We'll do whatever we've gotta do to win the game." In the UMass game, they'll do what it takes to get the W, even if it means lots of Denard.
"I'm biased. I think we've got a bunch of good guys." Guys who succeed academically, athletically, and people who are just good guys. Some guys might be misunderstood (I assume he's talking about the Chris Henry, Pacman Jones, Demar Dorsey types), but some guys you know as soon as they're on campus, "this is a great guy." Denard was raised right, and has great family support. Loves football, loves playing at Michigan with his teammates.
Denard is continuing to grow and mature in the offense. Playing on the road was an experience that will help for the future. QBs haven't been hit in practice since camp started. They're not going to beat Denard up in practice. More worried about QBs throwing too much in practice.
Should they shield Denard from the attention? They've already talked about that. Everybody wants to talk to him. Good thing for him, family, and program. He's still got a full class load, practice, etc. "We're really gonna limit him. That's probably not going to make a lot of people happy." He's not seeking attention, though everyone likes being talked about in a positive way.
Denard's performance "continuation of the first game." He executed pretty well. He was hyped up to run at start of game, and would have taken a couple decisions back. Having such a young guy tear up opponents is a surprise. QB-centered offense though. "Denard's been taking a lot of threes" like a point guard who can make you pay for sagging off him.
On Denard's 57 carries - "You coach your team, I'll coach mine." [Ed: sounds like a snap back at Brian Kelly. Doesn't seem like there's much love lost there.] Lots of carries, but they do what it takes to win. Have two good backups. Denard getting better on run game reads and keeping his eyes in the right spot. He has great vision to read blocks - something they've been hamering him on since training camp.
"Some running backs, the more carries they get the better they go. Our running backs are fresh (laughs)."
RBs - They ran hard. There weren't missed reads, their lack of success was just due to the way ND was playing them. Opens up more things for the QB. Denard made a couple bad reads in the run game, but for the most part was sharp. "I think our biggest improvement in the runningback is to be involved not in the running, but the other aspects of it." They blocked well, and ran good routes. They can still block better.
Shaw and Smith "They're playing hard, not breaking a lot of big runs year but I like their effort." They understand the offense, are doing the little stuff, helping Denard with communication. "I'd like to get some of those other backs into the flow." Mike Cox, Stephen Hopkins, and Teric Jones might get into the flow. Fitzgerald Toussaint may be healthy enough to go this week.
Stephen Hopkins: "Yeah, every time he carries, he scores." He's a bigger back, but has a lot of 1-back skills. Getting closer to doing a lot of that stuff.
Roundtree's toughness: "He practiced all week." By Thursday he was doing everything, and there were no issues with the doctors. He made some nice plays. Receivers did a good job blocking downfield, but can still improve.
Outside WRs - "[Denard]'s got a lot of confidence with Roy, Martavious, Darryl Stonum." Hoping Hemingway will come back soon. Not a lot of depth out there. Tay and Stonum taking 80-some snaps - too many.
Downfield was blocking better than game one, but still can improve (from wideouts).
RR doesn't care who gets the yard if the team gets 500 rushing. "Would you like to have more balance? Yeah, if they give you that." "Denard wouldn't have whatever he's got rushing if he didn't have some dudes blocking for him up front."
Will Campbell and Quinton Washington couldn't wait for the game to start, and were hoping for a short-yardage situation. They have a few other packages that they're involved in.
Molk - "He and Steve Schilling are the two emotional leaders up front." Patrick Omameh - "He played better. And he'd be the first one to tell you the first game wasn't his best performance." He still has room to improve. The OL as a whole graded out "OK, it wasn't great. I thought Notre Dame's line got after us pretty good."
Defense good minus big plays - "you have to count the big plays in there." The D still held Notre Dame to six three-and-outs. There were lots of possessions though. They can play better, and missed more tackles than the first week (ND's players and technique issues in tackling were responsible for that). The three interceptions were huge.
Cam Gordon just made two bad plays. Just a technique thing where he misjudged the angles. "He'll be fine."
James Rogers - Really consistent. "He's seen the field, I've been really pleased with his play so far."
Kicking battle still open. Broekhuizen kicked the last extra point. Doesn't know today who will start on Sturday.
Hagerup will punt a lot better than he did on Saturday - just not on his game. "I didn't ask him" if it was technique or nerves "I just said 'can you kick a little better?'" Meram - hasn't been over as much with his soccer responsibilities.
Expecting 30-some guys to show up for walkon tryouts "I think there's gonna be a lot of kickers." "Maybe there's another Kovacs in there. Gosh, would that be great?"
UM Transplant Center - "I know what they do and the lives that they save." Had a staffer at WVU need a transplant to save his life. "I'm an organ donor. It's easy to do on your driver's license." Wolverine-Buckeye challenge to sign up people for organ donor registry. 108k people waiting for a transplant "The entire Big House."
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Jonas Mouton||Sr.*||Mark Moundros||Sr.*#||Carvin Johnson||Fr.|
|Mike Jones||So.||Obi Ezeh||Sr.*||Thomas Gordon||Fr.*|
|Kevin Leach||Jr.*||Kenny Demens||So.*||Mike Williams||Jr.*|
As far as massive disappointments go, linebacker outstripped even last year's secondary (which was clearly in trouble from the word go) and the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. With two returning starters entering their redshirt junior years and a hyped senior recruit moving away from the safety spot he could not manage, I was torn between a 3 and 4 last year. As the season progressed and both starters were replaced by their backups only to see those backups flail and the starters re-enter it became clear that something was drastically wrong.
Actually, it didn't even take that long. Even though Michigan won the Notre Dame game the linebacking corps came in for a hiding afterwards:
Words cannot describe how bad Obi Ezeh was in this game. It was a disaster, and this is a guy who's in his third year starting. Maybe the double switch of defensive coordinators has him behind the times for a third-year starter but that doesn't go much towards explaining a –8.5 that would have been worse if he hadn't been turned loose on a couple blitzes. Meanwhile, Jonas Mouton has been negative in both games so far after a promising finish to last year.
And the something didn't seem that mysterious:
Mouton and Ezeh belong to Jay Hopson, and the inside backers are the only guys who belong to Jay Hopson, and they're playing terribly. … Unless the two inside guys get radically better over the rest of the season, I wouldn't be surprised if Hopson was replaced.
The hope is that Hopson's coaching was as ineffectual as it appears—Mouton went decidedly backwards last year after a promising end to 2008 and Ezeh's gone nowhere in two years—and that the move of Greg Robinson to linebackers coach can adequately triage the two years of damage done.
This covers the middle and weakside linebackers since they seem close to interchangeable. Spurs are handled after; the bandit was classified a safety and handled in the secondary preview, the deathbacker is still a defensive lineman.
When The Sporting News's Dave Curtis published an article in early August declaring that converted walk-on Mark Moundros was the player on Michigan's team that needed to "step up" more than any other, that claim was met with derision on the message board. This was well and just because obviously that was insane. A few weeks later, Moundros is the projected starter at middle linebacker and one of Michigan's two permanent captains. Score: Dave Curtis one million, Everyone Else zero.
Moundros is a walk-on and spent last year playing mostly fullback, but his rise into the starting lineup has gone from probable motivational tactic to just plain probable as fall has gone along and Michigan's scrimmages have approached game conditions. In the semi-public fall scrimmage, Jonas Mouton was held out with a minor injury, leaving Moundros to start at MLB as Obi Ezeh tried out WLB. In Michigan's "Beanie Bowl" ones-vs-ones fall run-through, you can see Moundros paired with a healthy Mouton at around 2:00 minutes in the official site's highlight reel. It's too late for his prominence to mean anything other than a likely start on Saturday even if he is listed next to Obi Ezeh with an OR. He's some Rodriguez talking to confirm:
Rodriguez said he was initially opposed to fullback Mark Moundros making the move, but he came around quickly. "I told him I didn't think it made sense, but he said, 'I think I can bring something there'—and he has. It's not only learning the defense and the physical presence, but his leadership. He's going to compete and will be right in the mix based on spring."
This is a fantastic story but also a worrying one. The single clip I've got on Moundros from last year is a nice block on a linebacker in the Illinois game, which you'll note doesn't involve playing, you know, defense. One of this blog's primary heuristics for determining whether you can expect a position group to be good is the "position switch starter," which proclaims that any position group where a guy who played one thing last year is in position to start at another thing the next is always scrambling to control the damage as best they can. [Ed: Holy pants, I forgot about this in re: Cam Gordon, though that move was more foreordained than panicked.]
This comes in varying levels of severity: moving a weakside linebacker to the middle is not a big deal. Flopping sides of the ball is. For example, in 2008 when Michigan moved defensive tackle John Ferrara to guard and started him that was a definitive sign the offensive line was in shambles. In this context, "sparsely deployed walk-on fullback to starting middle linebacker" is as much of a flashing sign that says DOOM as anything I've ever seen.
On the other hand, during the Illinois game last year Ezeh actually ran out of a hole Juice Williams was about to enter with the ball so he could chase after a running back. It looked insane, causing me to dig out the "run away" bit of "Janie's Got A Gun" and the fake Magic card you see at right. By the end of the year whatever hope remained for Ezeh was vestigial indeed; merely having options other than him could maybe possibly hopefully slightly improve matters?
This is admittedly a faint hope, but merely going from whatever that was last year to okay would be a major step forward. Moundros is seriously pushing Ezeh at least gives the defense another bullet in the chamber. For what it's worth, I talked to a just-graduated walk-on in NYC would called Moundros a "beast" and thought he was at least physically capable of the job. Production from this spot should improve; Ezeh won't get worse and anyone who replaces him will be better since he's still around.
On the weakside, Jonas Mouton returns for his third season as a starter. In 2008 he started off wobbly (he actually spent the Utah game backing up Marell Evans, who is now playing for Hampton) but found his feet in the Big Ten season and looked for all the world like a guy ready to blow up. Last year's season preview approvingly cited his UFR chart—solidly positive in every Big Ten game save Michigan State—and proclaimed him "easily Michigan's best linebacker," "an excellent, explosive blitzer," and even "surprisingly stout when it comes to taking on fullbacks and even guards" before predicting a breakout season.
That didn't happen. Mouton's '09 via the lens of UFR:
|Notre Dame||3||8||-5||Major regression from last year; often went into pass drops without bothering to see if it was a run.|
|Indiana||7||8||-1||Surprised he came out this close to even. Major culprit on a few big plays.|
|Michigan State||7||8||-1||Exact same numbers from last week as he alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Iowa||6||9||-3||Three weeks in a row: alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Illinois||5.5||9||-3.5||The usual at this point. Excellent athlete, many mental mistakes.|
|Purdue||-||6||-6||Did this in like a quarter of playing time.|
|Wisconsin||6.5||11||-4.5||Jonas Mouton: big positive, bigger negative.|
Instead of breaking out, Mouton regressed. His '08 numbers were the inverse of the above, usually a hair above zero with the occasional big positive. He was lethal in the Fandom Endurance III game against Northwestern; the only times he was lethal in '09 were to his own team. By the Iowa game the pattern was established, with Mouton turning in a series of excellent plays unfortunately outstripped by his tendency to run himself out of plays and get lost in zone drops.
This kept happening until Mouton, like Ezeh, found himself on the bench after taking a series of angles so bad they were immediately apparent even to the dedicated amateur. There was this one against Indiana, but even that can't live up to whatever this was:
|opens up cutback lane|
|desperate diving tackle|
|way too far inside|
|fails to get outside|
|first enormous bust|
|wide open receiver|
|ride the TEs downfield|
|digs out a tough INT|
|into the backfield|
|screaming downhill at this|
|blows through his blocker|
It was around that point that JB Fitzgerald started getting more time, if only so the coaches could get in a proper row with Mouton on the sideline. Fitzgerald quickly proved himself just as liable to bust and Mouton got his job back, but only by default.
Unlike the situation at middle linebacker, it seems within the realm of possibility Mouton's light goes on and the talent he's flashed the past couple years turns into an All Big Ten kind of season. To deploy a cliche, he is the X factor, the guy with the greatest possible variance in his play on the defense. I'd settle for a return to his 2008 level; he is capable of more. There's a 25% chance he's awesome, a 50% chance he's okay, and a 25% chance he gets benched.
The hope here is for the Bennie Joppru.
Obi Ezeh came in for quite a bit of discussion above by way of figuring out how Moundros could possibly ascend to the top of the depth chart, so this won't be much of a surprise: wow, he was bad last year. This is my (least?) favorite demonstration:
I admit that when it comes to my knowledge of football, linebacker play remains an intricate mystery that I'm probably wrong about more than anything else, but whatever your scheme it ain't right when your middle linebacker doesn't move forward—like, ever—on a running play.
That Wisconsin game was the defense's nadir. The Badgers punted once en route to racking up 45 points and did this mainly by exploiting the linebacking. The sheer incompetence of it all, especially Ezeh's –10 on the day, prompted this response:
You rage, contrary to the above statement, seems particularly well-focused.
…you know the story: Mouton and Ezeh. Wisconsin's passing game was almost exclusively zingers over the middle to incredibly open receivers 20 or even 30 yards downfield. On every damn one both MLBs were vastly out of position and the throws were easy. The pair was also very poor in run support: Graham and Martin combined for 21 tackles. They combined for eight!
These are returning starters and redshirt juniors. They have gotten so much worse this year, and it's obvious to everyone from Bret Bielema to stupid bloggers with charts.
Ezeh hadn't developed one bit from the previous season and Hopson wasn't long for Michigan. Where Mouton has held onto his job and manages to enter his senior season with at some tattered hype dragging behind him, Ezeh's apparently lost his job to a walk-on, and not even the same one he was benched for last year.
With Moundros unlikely to nail down every snap, Ezeh will find himself on the field frequently. I'm not expecting a whole lot of improvement. But I think I am expecting some, for the reasons listed above: Greg Robinson in charge, another year of experience, a defensive coordinator who knows his name.
Demens left, Fitzgerald right
The enigmatic Kenny Demens is third string in the middle; after a seemingly productive spring he dropped off the map and has generated zero fall mentions as Moundros climbs the depth chart. He played sparingly in the fall scrimmage; last year he was passed over for walk-on Kevin Leach when it came time to replace Ezeh temporarily. He's spinning his wheels, seemingly on track to watch this year. Next year both of the guys above him will be gone and he'll get one last chance to step forward; the tea leaves are not encouraging at the moment.
|WHY HE DIDN'T START|
|epically bad angle|
|runs out of position|
|angle way too far upfield|
|no idea what he's doing|
|zipping up in a small crease|
|recognizes the play|
|flipped the line|
JB Fitzgerald is now the third string at what this site dubbed "deathbacker" a year ago; since he's behind Roh and Herron at a spot that's at least half defensive end he'll get some further discussion in the defensive line section. But if he plays he'll probably play as a true linebacker; Rodriguez has called him a "swing" guy they can play at any of the two and a half linebacker spots.
Can he play well? That's the question. He didn't play well when the Jonas Mouton Suspension Fiasco forced him into the lineup against Eastern Michigan, committing some of the same sins Mouton does above. On the other hand, his most extensive experience outside of that game was a start against Purdue during which he got a 3-4-negative 1 line and I said he was preferable to other options because he "didn't make me want to die more than once or twice," which woo linebackers.
I may be reading too much into this, but after the fall scrimmage Rodriguez was specifically asked about Demens and Fitzgerald and rambled this out:
They have played a lot of special teams. They’ve had good camps. JB is a guy that we really like because we can swing him. He’s knows our defense, so we can put him at a couple of different linebacker positions and he’s had a good camp. Kenny Demens has had a pretty solid camp. So I think we’re going to have more linebackers to play, but the veterans, Obi Ezeh, Mark Moundros, even though he is new at linebacker, Jonas Mouton, those veterans are going to be the biggest key because usually when you’re a senior you’re going to have your best year, or at least that is what you hope.
That reads like "yeah, they're not going to play unless Ezeh, Moundros, and Mouton can't."
Jones burning his redshirt left, Leach tackling an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot right
On the weakside, sophomore Mike Jones is listed as the backup to Jonas Mouton. Jones spent last year taking a Carr redshirt by playing on special teams and driving me crazy about not having the option of bringing back a fifth year senior in the near future; he spent fall and spring lighting up opponents and building some real buzz for himself. He, too, was held out of the fall scrimmage with a minor injury; before that he was flying around like his recruiting profile suggested he might. The key passage from ESPN:
Exceptional edge blitzer that has great timing and quickness; speed rushes by the offensive tackle before he can get set. Offensive backs can't or won't block him when blitzing off the edge; really creates havoc in the backfield. Does a great job of using his hands to shed blockers in order to get to the ball carrier.
In his profile everyone from Jones to his coach to the gurus say "this kid loves to hit," a description that's being borne out by practice chatter. He's still pretty slight at 210 pounds, so a starting role is probably not in the offing. When Michigan's "multiple" defense phases into a 4-3 under, though, the weakside linebacker is a guy who doesn't usually have to take on linemen and can be a smaller, speedier defender. If Mouton's angles are still ugly and his are better he can find himself in a platoon role; he'll probably have to settle for providing breathers in anticipation of starting in 2011.
Walk-on Kevin Leach is third string here and should see his playing time restricted to special teams. It's a testament to something that Michigan's best option after Ezeh last year was a 205-pound sophomore walk-on. Leach actually got mixed reviews in UFR save the one "enormous bust" per game in his two starts against Illinois and Purdue, but at his weight he's not a long term solution at MLB and he obviously lacks the athleticism required at WLB.
both Johnson (left) and Gordon (right) rocked the #1 in high school
It's too bad the official depth chart had to go and upstage the prediction here that after Carvin Johnson's "Beanie Bowl" audition for the starting job at spur would be a successful one sooner rather than later. Rodriguez did hedge a bit in Monday's press conference by saying that position was "not set" and there could have been an OR there, but they didn't.
So it's his job. Despite Johnson's status as a true freshman, in some ways this is the more experienced player winning out. Johnson was 100% safety at Rummel, the "heart and soul" of the crushing defense that took his team all the way to the state final. A multi-year starter, Johnson's recruiting profile is full of praise for his football smarts and advanced technique. When Rivals bothered to rank him after his Michigan commit they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw:
Johnson is a fantastic tackler. He can tackle in the open field or fill the alley. He brings a pop at the point of contact and always has the ball carrier falling backwards. Johnson is a smart safety in the run game, picking his spots to make an impact and not overpursuing or being too aggressive.
The only negative mentioned was a "lack of elite straight-line speed," something that shouldn't be a problem at spur. There he'll be tasked with covering the flats in zone and riding tight ends into the deep seam. His recruiting profile picked him out as a true sleeper likely to exceed his relatively modest rankings based on local praise and late SEC offers, and while my usual heuristics lead me to be skeptical about a true freshman beating out a redshirt freshman with nary a fourth star to be seen, I've just got that feeling—what's it called—you know—optimism. Optimism enough to throw this position a 2, anyway. While two less-than-touted freshmen are not likely to be average Big Ten players in year one, I don't think we'll be looking back at 2010 and saying "oh God, what about that mess at spur."
Though Thomas Gordon has been on campus for a year, before he toured Michigan and Michigan State's camps before his senior year of high school he was strictly a quarterback. It was only the prospect of securing a D-I scholarship as a defensive back that saw him switch to defense, and that move was often restricted to passing downs by a hamstring injury. That combined with his status as the lowest-ranked member of Michigan's '09 class made his redshirt a fait accompli; that accomplished, he ascended to the starting job at spur in spring before Johnson's arrival put his job under fire.
Since Gordon hasn't played and I didn't pick up a word of practice buzz good or bad on him in his apprentice year—odd for a guy who was slated to start—I can't offer much more than what's in his recruiting profile. If I had to guess I'd say he's more athletic than Johnson since Rodriguez dubbed him "Prison Abs" and he played quarterback in high school, so if the two platoon for any reason other than keeping the two fresh, Gordon might be a passing-down substitution. More likely the PT he sees is in response to Johnson errors or long drives on which he gets tired.
Walk-on Floyd Simmons is third on the depth chart; he saw time on special teams last year and will again. Since he's a walk-on with scant playing time information on him is limited to his height (six foot) and weight (200 pounds).
|into the backfield|
|just a huge bust|
|a killer touchdown|
|first enormous bust|
|way too far inside|
Venturing into the wooly depths beyond the sanctioned two-deep we find Mike Williams, erstwhile free safety starter from last year. It looked for a second like he was being auditioned for that two-deep when he got plenty of playing time in the fall scrimmage, but now that he's still behind the guys he was behind in spring and the newly ordained starter, that looks more like an attempt to see whether or not Williams can contribute outside of special teams at all. The answer for a redshirt junior on the fourth string behind a walk-on is "no."
I won't belabor the point made in this space with DELICATELY PHRASED QUESTIONS during the season, but the video to the right should provide plenty of evidence as to why this is the case. That he's fallen so far down the depth chart after starting at the most critical position on defense goes a long way to explaining '09 and providing hope for 2010: Michigan may be losing crazy outlier Brandon Graham but they're also losing a crazy outlier in the opposite direction, too.
Roh is certain. Everything else is chaos.
This is going to be extensive. It would be much, much quicker to rattle off a list of positions we know are set this fall:
- Craig Roh at quick defensive end.
That is literally all. We do know that a few other guys are guaranteed starters, but Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, and Troy Woolfolk could all switch positions. I should have thought of that before I did the offense. Now I'm stuck with this format.
Anyway. On with show:
Not Brandon Graham
Three defensive line starters return, but the best defensive lineman in the country does not. Normally you'd be looking at Brandon Graham's platoon of ready-to-go backups for an inadequate but functional replacement. Since this is the 2009 Michigan defense we're talking about that platoon is walk-on Will Heininger. The other options at his spot are freshmen.
So it's time to get creative, maybe…
Count me amongst the chorus suggesting that Ryan Van Bergen might move outside. Dubbing this position "Not Brandon Graham" is a clever way to not write "Ryan Van Bergen might move" at three different spots.
Michigan has three veteran backups at defensive tackle in sophomore Will Campbell and seniors Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks. All played last year, the latter two decently. Campbell was raw as hell but was one of them OMG SHIRTLESS recruits and can be expected to make a major jump his sophomore year. Putting one of those guys in the starting lineup seems less likely to result in disaster than dropping an underweight freshman into the starting lineup. Craig Roh did okay last year, but Michigan isn't bringing in anyone as touted as Roh was this time around. Also, Mike Martin is more of a penetrating three-technique tackle than a leviathan space-eater and moving him to RVB's old spot figures to get more production out of him.
If RVB doesn't move, then you're going to choose from Heininger, redshirt junior Brandon Herron,—Roh's backup at quick last year—redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota, or true freshmen. Herron was a linebacker a year ago and is likely to still be undersized and LaLota showed up two inches and thirty pounds lighter than people expected him to. He probably needs another year.
The thing to watch for this spring is the RVB move. Past that, the developmental paths of Campbell, Roh, and LaLota are the main points of interest.
Hoping for… as the guy that is not Brandon Graham? Will Campbell. This assumes RVB ends up at DE and Martin moves over to RVBs spot. Moving RVB gets a bunch of veterans and a five-star sophomore more playing time. It puts Mike Martin in a position to be seriously disruptive. And it doesn't force a freshman into the starting lineup. So this is a hope for the move and a hope for Campbell to explode.
Expecting… RVB moves, Sagesse and Campbell platoon. I was puzzled by Michigan's periodic attempts to give Campbell playing time over Sagesse last year. Campbell got sealed on a number of successful runs against Iowa; Sagesse wasn't Alan Branch but usually ended up with a +1 in UFR. I assume Campbell will show considerable progress but I'm also betting that Sagesse is basically a co-starter.
Over the course of a year, Stevie Brown went from whipping boy to reliable outpost on a defense of chaos. Was it a position move? Greg Robinson's Just For Men magic?
They're young but they're not totally green. Michigan got both Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones in early last year and put them through their paces; by the UConn game next year they'll have been on campus for almost two years. Both saw special teams action only. Hawthorne will apply for a medical redshirt. Jones played too much for one. That's him burning his redshirt on the right.
Those two will be the main competitors in spring since I believe Isaiah Bell, who redshirted, is moving inside to ROL. This fall brings crazy athletic Josh Furman into the mix. He of the 4.3 electronic 40 is probably even faster than Brown and could press for playing time later in the season if Hawthorne and Jones aren't working out. He's unlikely to win the job outright immediately.
Hoping for… Hawthorne or Jones doesn't seem like it makes a difference since they have near-identical recruiting profiles and experience. I guess I'm pulling for Hawthorne since he's got a redshirt on him and I like the Pahokee kids.
Expecting… Again, Hawthorne and Jones have almost nothing separating them. One of those guys.
Regular Ol' Linebacker
These two positions are here despite featuring two fifth-year seniors returning for their third years of starting because both Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton were yanked for performance reasons late last season. Indecision ruled the day:
Mouton was pulled for JB Fitzgerald, a touted recruit entering his third year in the program. Ezeh was pulled for Kevin Leach, another walk-on. Both eventually won their jobs back when the replacements weren't much better.
Jay Hopson left to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis, and whether it was voluntary or not it's welcome. Ezeh went nowhere in two years under Hopson's tutelage and Mouton went backwards. If Greg Robinson can pull the same career revival magic he did with Stevie Brown on the two inside guys, he'll put to rest a large chunk of the skepticism at his hire and go a long way towards making the defense respectable again.
If he can't, then Fitzgerald and Leach will figure into the plans again, with potential assists from Kenny Demens and various freshmen. Demens hasn't gotten off special teams in his time at Michigan and got passed by a walk-on. That seems like a kiss of death there.
Ezeh and Mouton will be the main focus here.
Hoping for… I'd like Fitzgerald to emerge as a starter but in the place of Ezeh; last year the guy replacing Ezeh was Leach. Really I'd just like whoever plays at linebacker to look like he's got a clue. Obi-Wan Greg Robinson, you're our only hope.
Expecting… Ezeh and Mouton. They'll be better. Linebackers are the guys most screwed by Michigan's revolving door of defensive coordinators because they are almost always reading a play and executing a complicated assignment based on that. Also they've got a new coach who happens to be the defensive coordinator and thus knows exactly what he wants the guys to be doing.
Donovan Warren took his budding skills and five-star hype to the middle rounds of the NFL draft. Boubacar Cissoko couldn't keep it together off the field and is no longer on the team.
I'm assuming both spots are open because of the possibility Troy Woolfolk moves back to deep safety in spring. The defense started imploding for serious once he was moved to corner and Michigan's safety tandem became Kovacs and Williams
Outside of Woolfolk, the one guy with any experience is JT Floyd. Floyd was the guy the coaching staff turned to to replace Cissoko when he proved dreadful early in the year. He wasn't much better and Woolfolk eventually had to move despite the other options at safety being a freshman student-body walk-on and Mike Williams. In his brief time as a starter, Floyd played ten yards off wide receivers and looked totally overmatched. Maybe that's a mental thing, but he seemed just too slow for the Big Ten.
So… yeah. It's more freshmen, then. Super-hyped recruit Justin Turner got in late because of some difficulties with the Ohio Graduation Test and ended up out of shape and unprepared to play. He redshirted. Even if he came in looking like Will Campbell, if Turner couldn't play in that secondary by the end of the year people are right to be at least slightly concerned he may not pan out.
And then there's the flood of true freshmen. With Demar Dorsey starting out at corner, Michigan has four in the 2010 class: Dorsey, Courtney Avery, Cullen Christian, and Terry Talbott. None enrolled early—unfortunately, all of Michigan's early enrollees were on the offensive side of the ball—and they will be just rumors this spring.
We won't get a read on this position at all unless walk-on Floyd Simmons is ahead of someone on the depth chart. We will get a first look at Turner, the team's most important redshirt freshman.
Hoping for… Justin Turner and either Dorsey or Christian. No Woolfolk == considerably reduced panic at safety. One freshman is as good as any other at the other spot, I guess, but I'd rather have the higher-rated guys off to fast starts. No offense to Floyd, but he obviously wasn't ready last year and I'd be surprised if he was this year. Maybe 2011.
Expecting… Turner and Woolfolk.
Brandon Smith transferred to Temple.
It's clear that this is going to be another hybrid safety/LB type player. Early in the year, it was Mike Williams. A little later it was Jordan Kovacs. When Woolfolk moved to corner it was Williams again, and when Williams played poorly Michigan moved Brandon Smith and threw him in the starting lineup; Smith liked it so much he immediately transferred.
Of the two returners, Kovacs was by far the superior option despite being a walk-on. He's got the proverbial nose for the ball and was the only guy at the spot last year to turn in enough good plays to offset his poor ones. And he did this as a freshman walk-on. (He was technically a redshirt freshman but since he was not on the team last year he is much closer to a true freshman.) He showed himself way too slow to play deep safety, but the grit fantastic he is possession of should keep him in the mix despite a couple of athletes pushing him hard.
Athlete the first is incoming freshman Marvin Robinson, who everyone thinks is destined for linebacker except Robinson. At Michigan he may be a linebacker in spirit if not in name. This is a spot he's a superior fit for athletically but it may require some adjustment.
Athlete the second is hypothetical, but Rodriguez mentioned in a Signing Day press conference: they're looking at moving wide receiver Cam Gordon to defense, but to safety. [Update: YEAH THAT HAPPENED.] That's another indicator that Michigan's base set is going to be an eight-man front, as Gordon is a strapping 6'2" fellow who everyone expected would end up at… wait for it… linebacker. If Gordon makes the move it will give Kovacs and Williams some competition from an NFL-sized guy right away.
This is also where Carvin Johnson goes, but I'm guessing he'll redshirt.
Hoping for… I don't really know, actually. I guess I'd like Robinson to win the starting job, but a true freshman over Kovacs and Gordon could bode unwell for immediate production. Maybe Kovacs to start and eventually giving way to Robinson.
Expecting… I have no idea. Truly.
As discussed above, if this is Kovacs Michigan is at least kind of screwed. I mean no offense to the guy, but…
…he is not a deep safety*. In an ideal world, two of the young corners would establish themselves quickly enough for Michigan to boot Troy Woolfolk back here. That world is much easier to envision if any of those guys had enrolled early.
If Woolfolk doesn't make the move back, Michigan has a couple options not fresh off the turnip truck. Vlad Emilien and Thomas Gordon are redshirt freshmen who will be given a shot at the job. Emilien was more highly touted and actually held the starting free safety job in spring until late, when Woolfolk took over and he was relegated to backup duty. He saw some special teams time in fall but will apply for an injury redshirt. Gordon was primarily a high school quarterback at Cass Tech—he only started playing DB as a senior-year audition for a Michigan scholarship—and never threatened to see the field last year.
Freshman Ray Vinopal will reinforce in fall, but as the lowest-rated player in the class he will probably redshirt.
Hoping for… Woolfolk. I'd rather have the freshmen playing at corner, where Woolfolk can tackle their mistakes.
Expecting… Emilien. I'm a little hesitant about him since he enrolled early last year and still wasn't good enough to crack last year's secondary, but maybe he had a lingering injury issue.
*(RVB owned up to a botched line check on that touchdown but it was a lack of footspeed from Kovacs and, more disturbingly, Floyd, that turned that play from 20 yards into 90.)
What others? Apparently Teric Jones might stick on defense, apparently at box safety. I think I've mentioned every other scholarship defensive player on campus except Steve Watson and James Rogers.