and... i like them? I think I like them.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because 1) there are actual returning players and 2) 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.
|Brandon Herron||So.*||Mike Martin||So.||Ryan Van Bergen||So.*||Brandon Graham||Sr.|
|Craig Roh||Fr.||Renaldo Sagesse||Jr.||Greg Banks||Jr.*||Adam Patterson||Jr.*|
|Steve Watson||Fr.*||Will Campbell||Fr.||--||--||Anthony LaLota||Fr.|
Three starters depart but the big guy is back: Brandon Graham returns as Michigan's best player and a serious candidate for post-season honors. Joining him is a wildly unbalanced collection of players. At nose tackle there are two hugely promising underclassmen. At defensive tackle there's a potentially solid starter and then Some Guy. And at a new position no one knows what to call, what it does, or who plays there there's virtually nothing.
With the changes, this preview is going to treat the defensive ends as separate entities. Defensive tackles remain bunched.
|Sam-owns against UW|
|Saves UW game|
|"Big time from frosh"|
Last year, Mike Martin had the luxury of playing behind two productive veterans. In his limited time, he impressed. Everyone expects he will be the breakout star on defense this year; expectations are higher for him than they are for even Mouton. But… well. Here's a bunch of praise and some trepidation wrapped into one package. It's from the Wisconsin game:
Man, Mike Martin is kind of sweet.
Yeah, man, he's kind of great as an interior pass-rusher already. I'm a little leery that he's going to be a true sophomore starter on the line next year just because he came in so in-shape that he's probably not going to improve drastically, and therefore his sophomore year will seem disappointing, but the kid should be gangbusters (yea, see?) as an upperclassman. Now about the other guys at DT…
Martin might slightly disappoint people who expect him to be 100% awesome right now, but people pegging him at 80% are probably going to see their expectations met.
As a recruit, Mike Martin was a slightly smaller version of immovable fireplug Terrance Taylor. Both were state champions in wrestling and powerlifting. Both were in-state. Both were defensive tackles at or near the tail end of top 100 lists. HOWEVA, on the field the two played very differently. Taylor is a bull of a defensive tackle who will get under your pads and shove you backwards; Martin is more of a penetrator. His high school highlights often saw him slice through the line and tackle like a linebacker, and last year much of his deployment was as part of Michigan's three-man line pass rush Okie package. You can see the penetration in the highlights at right, and that sort of activity was the reason Martin picked up a steady stream of 3-0-3 lines in UFR.
This is why I'm a mite concerned, though:
|Penn State||1.5||4||-2.5||A lot of negatives late when he was in as a 4-3 DT; unsurprising he took a beating from Shipley & Co; he's just a freshman.|
That was Martin's longest exposure as a true 4-3 DT and he suffered at the hands of Penn State's excellent, veteran line. This could be a blip that has no impact going forward. Martin was, after all, a freshman going up against fifth-year seniors, and good ones. And there could be considerable difference between the role he was asked to play in that game—absorb two blocks—and the one he'll be asked to play in the light, quick, slashing defense Greg Robinson has apparently installed.
This year, Martin will be the only true defensive tackle in the lineup and is backed up by a to-date anonymous Canadian and a true freshman. Even if that true freshman may be enormous and highly touted, Martin's responsibility takes a more severe uptick than anyone else's this year. He might struggle a bit early; by the end of the year he should be very good.
At the other spot, redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen enters the starting lineup. Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit—he was ranked at about the same level Will Johnson was—who spent his first couple years backing up Brandon Graham at strongside defensive end. Michigan's moved him to their three-technique defensive tackle, a position that's traditionally been occupied by the nimble penetrating sort of defensive tackle instead of lumbering goo-beasts.
So he might to be too out of position at his new spot; he was something of a DE/DT tweener as a recruit. He still is at 6'5", 275. And he'll be one on the field: multiple people from the coaches who pop up from time to time on this site to the Michigan coaches to Van Bergen himself have noted that RVB will flare out from time to time and act as a five-tech defensive end, either on passing downs or when Michigan flips the deathbacker to Brandon Graham's side of the field.
There's not a whole lot of data on RVB to be had, unfortunately, and he seems a little tall and light for the spot he's at. With few reasonable backups, chances are production here isn't much better than okay.
Backups and Whatnot
Unlike… uh… everywhere else on the defensive line, there are a couple reasonable backups here. True freshman Will Campbell is the one with the recruiting hype, and lord almighty:
Dude put in work after enrolling early. His rep is enormous, agile, and strong—he's not a five star for nothing—but deficient in technique in all the ways that 350-pound men who can hurl high school offensive linemen into low Earth orbit usually are. In short: he needs to learn how to play low. He'll get that opportunity, as he should rotate in for Martin frequently with an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin. (The assumption in this case is that Martin slides over to DT and Michigan goes with a more conventional 4-3 look.) His recruiting profile also exists if you want to hear an awful lot about a large man.
Campbell will probably have a freshman year much like Mike Martin's, where he rotates in frequently and mostly does well with the occasional "yep, that's a freshman" play mixed in.
Meanwhile, junior Renaldo Sagesse remains a mysterious entity locked on the bench his first few years after coming to Michigan out of Quebec. Yes, that Quebec. In Canada. He probably doesn't have much upside but there's no shame in behind behind Taylor, Johnson, and Martin and should provide functional depth.
Redshirt junior Greg Banks backs up Van Bergen; Banks has seen the occasional snap as part of the rotation but hasn't done much with them. If he can give RVB breathers without drawing attention to himself, that's a win.
Strongside Defensive End
|Snuffing a draw|
|Sack wsgs Mouton, Brown|
|Beats double to sack|
|Sack wsg Mouton|
|frowns: not infallible|
|Sack +3 Pressure +2|
The most striking thing from my tour of last year's defensive UFR was how preposterous Brandon Graham was. Here's his Big Ten season minus Ohio State (which did not get UFRed for obvious reasons):
|Wisconsin||10.5||1||9.5||+6 of this comes from two sacks late when he got to the QB on three-man rushes, killing one drive and damaging another.|
|Illinois||7||4||3||More effective in the run game than others, but was exploited a couple times.|
|Penn State||9||4.5||4.5||Best player on defense without question.|
|Michigan State||12||1||11||He backed up his prediction as much as he could.|
|Purdue||9.5||2||7.5||Would have had some sacks if anyone was ever covered.|
The note above points out that defensive linemen tend to do better than the back seven in UFR ratings but once you start getting into the 7.5, 8, 9.5, 10.5, 11(!) range that is elite, elite production. Graham's impressive statistics—10 sacks, 20 TFLs—back that up. Graham is an unquestioned star, a lock for All Big Ten, a probable first round NFL draft pick, and the team's best player.
What's more, Graham's production took a major step forward last year. As a sophomore, Graham was impressive but mostly as a pass rusher. He had 8.5 sacks but just one other tackle for loss and 15 tackles outside of that. Last year a newly slimmed Graham added 36 tackles on people other than the quarterback, fully ten of them behind the line of scrimmage.
The best way to see Graham's transformation into a complete terror is to compare Michigan State games. In '07 Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham in the second half, and he came in for some clucking:
He's got a -2 up there, by far his worst total of his career, and it was largely because he got booted out of the line by double teams frequently.
In '08 Graham unwisely guaranteed victory and then went about attempting to make that happen singlehandedly. An abridged run-game-only Michigan State UFR:
Graham crashes inside in an attempt to jam the play up and force it to bounce outside but ends up shoved past the play, opening up a small hole Ringer can squeeze through. … Graham(-1) needs to shoot inside on this to take out the pulling guard and the fullback, which would delay Ringer and force him to bounce it into unblocked players; instead he stays outside and the resulting carry goes for six yards.
That's it in a game where Javon Ringer ran 37 times. The rest of the UFR that isn't "oh look it's another mass of bodies play for 2-4 yards" is Michigan State running at Tim Jamison over and over and over and over. Michigan State had seen the film, and they didn't even bother with that side of the line.
As far as the passing game, just look at the numbers and the highlights to your right. Brandon Graham is a bad man.
Backups and Whatnot
There are none. The opening depth chart has walk-on Will Heininger actually ahead of redshirt junior Adam Patterson, which… wow. Patterson was a top 100 recruit in this day and is currently behind a walk-on who's younger than him. Michigan acquired an injury redshirt for Patterson after he missed most of last year, but will they actually offer a fifth year to him?
When that's the relevant question instead of "can he reasonably replace the best player on the team?" it's time to light a candle for Graham's various ligaments, tendons, bones, and so forth and so on.
|Ryan Van Bergen|
|Easy PSU sack|
AKA "quick" or "elephant" or any number of other things, the deathbacker and what he is has been discussed ad nauseum throughout the offseason. One final recap: the deathbacker is half man, half machine, half defensive end, half linebacker, and 200% awesome. Robinson's defense has the flexibility to flip him from weakside—where he operates as an out-wide dispenser of havoc with a practiced sack dance—to the strong, where he becomes a human shield for an undersized strong-side linebacker and general threat to penetrate into a running play. In spring practice, Michigan mostly used him as the latter in order to better single up terror defensive end Brandon Graham.
Your one and only option at this spot is redshirt sophomore Brandon Herron, who has not been heard nor seen from except on special teams so far. Herron was only a middling recruit—Nebraska was his best other offer—and wandered around a man without a position his first couple years. He, along with linebacker Marell Evans and tight end Steve Watson, were thrown in at the position during spring practice. Evans transferred and Watson's initial buzz gave way to the sort of radio silence that sees you drop behind a true freshman, about whom more later, leaving Herron the starter by default.
As you can tell by the decidedly non-action photo above, Herron hasn't seen much time on the field. The only pictures in Mike DeSimone's insanely comprehensive Michigan picture database that feature Herron on the field are fuzzy shots of the field goal block team. So… yeah. I've never seen the player in question play. I've never seen Michigan deploy the position in question. There's considerable debate as to what, exactly, this position is even going to entail when it hits the field. Any projection here is the purest guesswork.
Here's my guesswork: Herron hasn't seen action despite Michigan's paper-thin depth chart at linebacker the last couple years and has the position by virtual default. He wasn't a big recruit. He's getting talked up, but that talk has the distinct whiff of Johnny Sears. Remember that brief window before The Horror when Only Reasonable Corner Option Johnny Sears was getting talked up left and right? Yeah… about that.
Herron does have one thing going for him: his teammates were throwing around ridiculous numbers about weights lifted and pounds (235) and 40 times (4.4). You take FAKE physical attributes at your peril, though.
Backups and Whatnot
Good thing this positional preview is the last one to drop: this site's message board has an unconfirmed report that true freshman Craig Roh is actually going to get the start tomorrow. This would be bad, as it would thrust a true freshman who's been called "wiry" so many times that he bristled at it when someone dropped it at Media Day into the starting lineup, but it might not be that bad. Roh was a big-time recruit who picked Michigan over USC and many others, and I was ape about him when it came time to hit up his recruiting profile:
He should get immediate use as a situational pass rusher and could move into the starting line up by midseason. It might take longer but I don't think Evans, Watson, or Herron is going to keep him off the field for much more than a year.
Craig Roh DE (Michigan)
Straight baller that showed a Dwight Freeney spin on Kelley for a sack and sacked/tackled Russel Shepard in space. Had a handful of QB pressures over the course of the game. Rich Rod got himself a good one.
When Rodriguez started talking about how Roh will play immediately upon his arrival, the general tone of it was "…as a situational pass rusher." That's definitely in the cards, but I've been advocating the idea Roh will end up something more, and soon… I wouldn't be surprised if the unconfirmed report was true.
There is also redshirt freshman Steve Watson, who moved from tight end after it became clear his lack of athleticism would see him permanently buried behind Koger, Webb, and Moore on offense at a position that's strictly optional in the spread 'n' shred. As mentioned, there were some positive notes coming out of spring practice about him, but Roh quickly passed him. Watson's career arc looks like Coner on defense.
The following article is a little old but I ripped it out of an Unverified Voracity a little ways back because Steve Sharik posted an excellent diary on what we can expect from the defense this fall and it felt like it would be a standalone post. (BTW: Sharik has posted another diary about the triple option, which Markus from Carcajous(!) has followed up on.)
So the quick/spinner lingo that we've been using ever since Greg Robinson was hired, confusion over which led to commenters on this here blog to coin the term "deathbacker" has been clarified. One term does not exist, and the other one has been superseded:
There’s not much hybrid about the linebacker-safety position Stevie Brown will play this year. Robinson said he doesn’t call the position “spinner” or anything else. “He’s our SAM,” or strong-side linebacker, Robinson said.
There is, however, new terminology for the defensive line. Robinson calls those positions the quick, power, nose and tackle. The “quick” is the hybrid linebacker-end you’ve heard about (Brandon Herron); the “power” is an old-school defensive end (Brandon Graham); the “nose” is your typical nosetackle (Mike Martin); and the “tackle” can sometimes flex out and play end in four-man fronts (Ryan Van Bergen).
Wait, so Stevie Brown is a strongside linebacker? Um. I had assumed he was the weakside linebacker, who is a protected player in a 4-3 under and gets "his meat cooked." (That's how Jeff Casteel described the weakside LB/S in the 3-3-5 DVD I purchased when I thought Casteel was going to be the DC around these parts. The strongside linebacker "got his meat raw," which meant he usually had to deal with a blocker. Those terms have been rattling around in my head for two years now, and now they'll be rattling around in yours. Mwa ha ha.)
A protected player doesn't usually have to take on blockers and can just run to the ball and (hopefully) make a tackle. This fits in well with a converted safety at linebacker, but I'm (and we are, right?) pretty leery about Brown even if he's not taking on blockers every play. This won't make much difference against spread teams—it'll be worlds better than pretending Johnny Thompson can cover anyone—but if Wisconsin and Michigan State don't suck I can see him getting run over consistently. That's assuming they don't make a change for power-running teams, which was an excellent assumption under Shafer (Johnny Thompson third and long what?) but hopefully won't be one under Robinson.
Sharik talks about what he expects the defense to be in the diaries, and it's not a 4-3 under. It's kind of a 4-3 under, actually, but it's flipped:
I assume that Graham will most often be the weakside 5 technique. Not only that, he'll probably be a "wide" 5, meaning he'll line up a yard outside the tackle, angled in at the tackle's nose. This means two things: one, he won't be inside (generally) and therefore two, it will be virtually impossible to double him in run situations. (He'll probably be doubled in pass situations, but that's likely to happen regardless of his alignment. This tends to happen when you are a freak of nature and can make QB's look like Beetle Bailey after an angry Sarge has gotten hold of him.)
Mike Martin will play a weakside shade or 1 technique (usually), meaning those two beasts will be on the same side of the DL most of the time. I would think opponents would run away from those two, which is where Michigan will have a numbers advantage. So, the offense will have to chose between:
A: running at two future NFL 1st round draft picks at DL, backed up by a potential 1st team all B10 middle LB (Obi Ezeh) and a former 5-star recruit at weakside OLB (Mouton)
B: running where the defense has superior numbers
Michigan showed this formation for most of the spring game… sort of. Van Bergen went out early and Graham played sparingly.
Ezeh as a potential first team all-conference player is a considerable stretch, but the rest of it sounds good. In a 4-3 under the deathbacker sits even farther outside the tackle and is used as a freelance sower of chaos a la Shawn Crable; this is something I assume you'll see on passing plays. Having all the hybrids around allows Michigan to flip which side of the line those guys show up on without revealing a personnel change:
The "quick" can play strong side or weak; so can the "spinner." The "quick" can play w/hand down or not. The "spinner" can play on the LOS, at LB depth, or even in the secondary. The "quick" can play on the LOS or at LB depth.
This jives with comments from Van Bergen that he's usually going to be a three-technique defensive tackle but will move out to a five-technique defensive end from time to time when Michigan either goes with a two-gap look (infrequently, IME) or flips the deathbacker to the other side of the formation.
It certainly sounds good. Sharik details the various packages his high school team ran last year, which are customized to the opponent's strength and provided considerable flexibility. I'll be terribly pleased to see a defensive back-type object heading out into the slot against spread sets instead of Johnny Thompson. And opposing teams are going to have to prepare for a multitude of looks. In theory, it's a defensive equivalent of Michigan's offense and when it's had talent in the past it's been excellent.
Whether or not the Michigan defense has "talent" in the overarching sense is yet to be determined.
BONUS HYPE: I've been talking up incoming freshman Craig Roh for a while now, saying that despite his wiry frame Michigan will be virtually forced to use him because of a lack of deathbacker depth. And lo, it is so. Rodriguez on the crab man:
"It’s only been one week, but he’s got some natural ability, pass-rush wise, and we’re teaching him some different things in the scheme of our defense. But I think he could help us at least in a pass-rush mode and then as he continues to learn the defense he’ll do more and more of it."
Van Bergen, meanwhile, says he's "raw" but is a "really skilled" pass rusher. It might take him a couple games but I'd be surprised if he's not a part of the nickel package, and soon. If he's not that means Brandon Herron is way better than he has any right to be.