...talks about how UConn hasn't been in contact and how they're out. (HT: UMHoops)
|Jake Ryan||So.*||Kenny Demens||Sr.*||Desmond Morgan||So.|
|Cam Gordon||Jr.*||Joe Bolden||Fr.||Brandin Hawthorne||Sr.|
|Royce Jenkins-Stone||Fr.||Mike Jones||Jr.*||James Ross||Fr.|
It's step-up time for the linebacking corps. They return every contributor from a year ago and get freshman-to-sophomore transitions from Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan. Kenny Demens, Cam Gordon, and Brandin Hawthorne are entering their second consecutive years in a sane defense for the first time in their careers and could/should see larger than average leaps in performance.
They will need to be much better. Mike Martin isn't going to bail them out on six plays a game anymore. Ryan Van Bergen isn't walking through that door. Ryan has to become an elite pass rush threat; Demens and Morgan need to take on blockers and funnel to help far more consistently than they did a year ago.
This is well within reach. Now about getting there.
|SLOWER THAN BLOCKS|
|eats MSU cut|
|eats OSU TE|
|eats him again|
|FASTER THAN BLOCKS|
|flow hard son|
|GOT SOME THUMP|
|Iowa FB denied|
|No Coker part 1|
|line to seam PBU|
In 2010, Kenny Demens was not Obi Ezeh, and this was enough. Expectations were sky-high for Demens in 2011 if only because he seemed so much better than Michigan's incumbent that he had to be pretty good. In retrospect, his somewhat disappointing output was always the likely outcome. Like almost everyone else on the defense, Demens had experienced position-coaching chaos and shifted from system to system on a semiannual basis.
Stepping into an entirely different coaching regime naturally meant hesitation, and hesitation was what we got. I put up this extremely scientific pie chart after Eastern Michigan put up 4.5 YPC despite throwing six times:
We'll talk about the Jake Ryan edge allowance below; here we're fixated on the big red thing labeled "hesitant linebacker play." This was the week after I'd watched Notre Dame's linebackers tear ass after anything that moved, so I may have had a view of proper linebacker play improperly biased towards running your balls off as soon as a guard gives you a direction.
I don't think so, though, as Michigan linebackers were exploited on the edge for much of the year. Blue Seoul captured a Kain Colter option TD in With Pics(!), and while I suppose Carvin Johnson, who Seoul criticizes, could have been more Kovacs-y on the play, he did follow the golden rule of leverage by keeping Colter well inside of him. It's just that there was no one to clean up afterwards:
Johnson's mistake should have been worth a few yards, but not enough for Northwestern to convert. Earlier he was unable to shut down an outside run that got turned up at the numbers:
He's even with Hawthorne, who was the backside LB, and well behind nose tackle Mike Martin in his attempt to shut the play down. This is because he took an angle upfield of a blocker on a perimeter run, which is one of those "you better make the damn play" decisions. Demens wasn't close.
Demens got a –4 in that game and was negative the next week against MSU as the Spartans pounded the edges and found Michigan LBs a step slow. Too often Demens did not do what Johnson is managing above, like on this Ed Baker run against MSU. Watch him eat a block and let Baker to the edge:
I know this is not an edge play, but it's symptomatic of the main issue.
You want edge biff? Edge biff.
State couldn't get out to the second level on Hawthorne and he is free. This is a quintessential example of what you hear about the WLB in the under: he often ends up the free hitter because of the configuration of the DL whereas the MLB has to take on a block. Demens takes on a block, loses leverage, does not funnel to his partner, and off Baker goes. This was 60-70% of all the complaining I did about the linebackers last year and my A-#1 bitch about Jonas Mouton. Michigan linebackers aren't good about keeping leverage. (Yet.)
Before and after that, Demens was pretty good between the tackles. He pounded ND for twelve tackles and a +8.5 and was consistently above average late in the year, picking up three straight +4s against Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska before falling back towards zero in the OSU game. Late he started playing faster. His third-and-one stick of Marcus Coker was hands down Michigan's tackle of the year:
Yeah, Kovacs collapsed Alex Carder's lung. He did not stop that truck dead in its tracks. Demens was also the second key on that Braxton Miller rollout against OSU, tracking him to the edge and forming up at the right spot to allow Black to come from behind.
For Demens, it's about playing fast and going hard. Last year Mattison literally played him at nose tackle because he'd rather have Mike Martin blitz; Demens needs to go when he goes, and decide to go more quickly. That should be in reach. He'll be a solid run defender and decent down the seam, but a lack of raw athleticism probably sees him top out at a bit above average.
[hit THE JUMP for Bolden as Samson, Jake Ryan(!), and Desmond Morgan]
Programming note: Due to a poorly timed (but awesome) vacation, I was in California for the last several days. That's why Ace had to cover for me at Media Day and why *Jedi handwave* there was no coordinator presser on Tuesday. I'm back to provide uninterrupted coverage from here on out, though, so feel free to get off your tenterhooks.
News bullets and other important things:
- Just completed 14th practice; did some scrimmaging.
- Ben Braden, Erik Magnuson, and Erik Gunderson are all practicing at tackle.
- No decision yet on Fitz Toussaint.
- Roundtree's chances of returning for Alabama are "good."
- Matt Wile currently holds a slight edge for the punting job over Will Hagerup and Kenny Allen.
- Chris Wormley has not yet undergone surgery but will; as expected, will likely miss the entire season.
Football was being played.
“Thanks for coming. 14th practice, midway point, did some good things, did some things -- playing with a little better speed. I think the fundamentals and techniques that you always go back to. I think the guys are doing a pretty good job with that. I think we have to be more physical on both fronts. That’s not nearly solved yet for how we need to play, but for the 14th day, this is really grind right now and it should be because of the schedule that they’ve been on. You have to see how they respond. They responded pretty well to some situational things this afternoon, but as far as being ready for September 1st, we have a long way to go.”
By situational, do you mean scrimmage?
“It’s a little bit situations. You know, just give as many -- not a lot of plays, but enough to hear some football and those kinds of things.”
When do you plan to have a full scrimmage?
“Not until Saturday.”
Just wanted to ask about a couple Alabama guys: their QB McCarron and nose guard Williams. Thoughts?
“Well I mean, I think McCarron’s done a great job leading their football team. National championship quarterback. Plays with a lot of poise. The run game, he gets them in and out of the right places. They run the ball. He’s a very good leader. He seems to be on the field for them. Williams is a guy who’s disruptive. Somebody will have to contend with [him]. They have 10 teammates on each side of the ball, so they’re really part of a very good football team.”
Have you identified any backup tackles to Lewan and Schofield?
“You know, I don’t know. All those guys -- Ben Braden’s taken some snaps, Gunderson’s taken some snaps, Erik Magnuson’s taken some snaps. I don’t know I’d identify anybody who was it, I’d be honest with you, yet.”
Is it concerning that you have true freshmen at those positions?
“Yeah, always is. But it’s always -- those guys have to grow up fast. All of them are smart guys, and they’re coachable, so they’ll be okay.”
How many freshmen do you anticipate having in the two-deep on the offensive line?
“On the line? Oh maybe three. Maybe four.”
You didn’t get to spend much time with the freshmen earlier because they were in classes. What about now?
“Well they got out on Tuesday and today’s Thursday, so you still, from a learning and being comfortable with the terminology and what they’re asked to do, I think that part of it’s still early. I think they get through this week and into next week a little bit. You have a better idea. Can they play fast? Can they play with poise? Can they play with great technique? All those things are a part of it.”
Does anyone catch your attention in a positive way?
“Uh, you know, I would probably say they’re all -- I think they’re all working hard. I think they’re all eager. I think the talent level, the athleticism stuff is kind of what we’re looking at -- I don’t know. Not yet.”
Has Desmond Morgan made a leap this fall?
“Yeah, I think he did from spring and I think he has in the fall. I think he had a very good summer. He’s a driven, young man. And a very competitive person. I think the improvement of how he reacts -- he’s pretty instinctive. That’s why Yyu play as a freshman, because you’re an instinctive person and football player. And he’s pretty instinctive. I think the strength gains that he’s made, he’s a more powerful football player, linebacker.”
When do you make decisions on walk-ons getting scholarships?
“No we haven’t done that. It depends sometime before school starts if we’re thinking about that or if we have the scholarships.”
Are you thinking about it this year?
“Sometime before school starts.”
How has Fitz looked, and are you closer to making a decision on him yet?
“I have not, and he’s out there like the others running around.”
How do you plan to build cohesion as an offensive line while rotating three guys at left guard?
“What we’ll do is take a big part of scrimmage, practice situations, and keep playing a guy there so that there’s a comfort level between the left tackle and the center. I think Taylor can play basically with anybody because of his experience, and he knows more what to do. So that part of it, he’s pretty good so he doesn’t have to worry about himself as much as he does that guard.”
Has he been sort of an on-the-field coach?
“Yeah, he’s done a nice job. He’s done a nice job.”
When would you like to identify a starting offensive line?
“Oh, ten -- ten days before probably.”
Is that a rough guess? Why ten days?
“I think, you know, some continuity that we try to build consistently, but I think that’s part of it.”
Chris Wormley tore his ACL.
Has he had/will he have surgery?
“No. He has not and he will.”
“Sometime in the near future.”
How did he sustain the injury?
“Just playing football.”
Any plans to redshirt him?
“Most likely he’ll miss the year.”
You have three guys competing for the punting job. Has anyone stood out yet?
“You know, not really. I would give right now -- probably Wile had the better day. But we’ve got to be consistent day in and day out. Today I thought Matt stroked it pretty well. I didn’t think Will was as consistent, but he was better than he has been. Both of those guys were a little bit behind because they didn’t get as many reps during the summer, so I think they’re catching up.”
How confident are you with playing an inexperienced guy like Jerald Robinson, who has reportedly been standing out at the receiver position, on September 1st?
“I think we’ve got to put enough pressure on him and get him out of his comfort zone that you test them as best you can, and he’s got to go out there and do it. I mean there’s no other way besides going out there on that stage and doing it. We can put him on situations and test him and make him uncomfortable and see how he reacts. But at the same time, he’s just got to do it.”
What would you do to get him out of his comfort zone?
“Well you give him a lot of reps. You see how he reacts when he gets tired. You do some things coverage wise to beat him up at the line of scrimmage. Just trying to get him a little bit out of the comfort level.”
How is Roundtree doing, and what are his chances of playing the first week?
“He’s doing great.”
“I think they’re good.”
What is the clearing process for him to get back on the field?
“Him feeling better and the doctor feeling good and comfortable about it.”
Do you check up on him every day?
“Yeah he’s with a rehab specialist every day. We obviously communicate.”
What’s he doing physically at this point?
“With the rehab -- ”
Has JT Floyd progressed since last season, and how has his chemistry with Blake Countess developed?
“Well I think there’s a chemistry before JT and Blake. I think they push each other. I think the consistency is always something that we’ve got to keep having out there. That’s kind of a position where you’re on the island, everybody sees it when you falter, but I think they both improved. I think they both worked very hard.”
How do Blake and JT differ?
“That’s a good question. JT’s a little rangier, a little longer-armed, a little taller. I would say Blake’s probably a little more physical, you know, of the two. I think JT showed some physicalness a year ago, too. ”
Do you think that they feed off each other?
“Yeah I think so. I think that and Tom Gordon and Kovacs. Kovacs [is] kind of the field general, and it’s part of being a safety. I think they feed really well [off] each other.”
Can you get a sense for what kind of team you are 14 practices in?
Can you characterize anything about it so far?
“You know, we’ve got a lot we need to improve on.”
Do you like what you’re getting out of the seniors?
“They’re doing a good job.”
----------------BONUS PARAPHRASED PLAYER INTERVIEWS!----------------
- Likes his new position, prefers it to OLB.
- Technique-wise working on bull rush and a couple other moves.
- Says defense's strength is "technique." Weakness is "toughness." Needs to be "tougher."
- Father is a high school coach -- used to give him a bunch of pointers on technique, but now just watches the games as a fan.
- Family attends every game.
- Second year in defense, is picking up visual cues faster and therefore playing faster.
- Fitz's absence and return didn't affect running back practice. Fitz basically picked up where he left off.
- No sense of cutthroat competition between running backs -- they're all brothers and support each other.
- Loves watching film. Craziest place to watch film? In the shower. Did it multiple times last season.
I brought up the fact that he had only allowed one touchdown to opposing teams' No. 1 receivers all last season.
Floyd: "Which one? I just want to test you."
Me: "The Iowa guy? McNutt? It was either him or DeVier Posey." [I didn't remember exactly, but it was Posey.]
Floyd: "McNutt didn't score a touchdown on me!"
Background image by mgouser hillhaus
A thing I noticed this offseason while going over the depth and usage of various Michigan defenders is that Mattison used a lot more nickel than we gave him credit for. One thing Ace noted was that we're (finally) recruiting more cornerbacks. We shrugged a bit while losing two more CBs to playing time transferitis this fall, but I don't think we should be shrugging so much.
A little background (skip this if you already know personnel terminology and usage): Defensive coaches tend to match their personnel to the types of players on the field for the offense, NOT the formation. In general the number of backs and tight ends will be matched by linebackers, and the more that come out for receivers the more DBs the defense will send out. Three wide receivers generally means five defensive backs (i.e. nickel), two wide receivers equals four DBs (e.g. 4-3 or 3-4), etc.
The classic personnel shift is on 3rd and long, when the steady rock-pounders make way for the seven-yards-or-bust fellas. But it happens so often despite the situation that it's more accurate to see the game of matching personnel as another strategic aspect of the master's football game.
The offensive personnel is usually expressed in three digits meaning # of RBs, # of tight ends, and # of receivers, respectively. So 113 means 1 RB, 1 TE, and three WRs. Sometimes they'll call that same "eleven" personnel, referring to the first two digits. Examples below; click embiggerates.
How the matching up occurs is up to the coach. You could, for example, play a run-first OLB whenever a fullback is in, and sub him for a more rangy linebacker when the the fullback runs off the field for a tight end who's a known receiving threat. This happens all the time, but it's hard to track the defenses' reactions since we can't tell one linebacker in a formation from another in UFR. We do have data from which we can determine how many receivers were out there at any given time, and it's clear from these data that the more receivers the more defensive backs.
|WRs in Game||DL||LBs||DBs|
The last row is important because it shows Michigan left its base 4-3 Under set for an extra defensive back far more often than otherwise, usually at the expense of a linebacker. We didn't go to a nickel every time three receivers stepped on the field, in fact there were 22 plays charted where Mattison put his 4-3 personnel against four-wide (mostly against Northwestern and Purdue). But the charts not only say that Michigan was forced out of its base 4-3 set often; it says we played more Nickel downs than 4-3.
|Receivers in Formation|
If I remove 4th quarters and all plays that occurred when Michigan was up by more than one score, the 4-3 just barely edges the Nickel, 147 to 140. This isn't opponents trying to play catch-up. It's two things: the personnel that Mattison inherited, and the spread offense forcing Michigan to adapt to it.
Why all the nickel and diming? The first part is a story about outside linebacker. Early in the 2011 season Michigan played Brandon Herron and Brandin Hawthorne at WILL, while at SAM we lost Cam Gordon to injury and his backup was a redshirt freshman. That freshman, Jake Ryan, was earning his way toward more playing time, but in the meantime we still had Carvin Johnson taking snaps at free safety while Thomas Gordon was in at the nickel role. Watch what happened at about mid-season:
That is Gordon moving to free safety and splitting time with Woolfolk, while the freshmen linebackers had their usages increase. Greater faith in Jake and Des explains some of the variance, however the real story is matching personnel:
|San Diego State||2.51||4.38||1.88||43.21%||44.44%||6.17%||6.17%|
I pointed out the two extremes on the schedule with boldation: Northwestern used about twice as many receivers in their formations as Iowa did, but there was a limit to how many defensive backs Michigan would counter with. The nickel served as well for 4 WR as for 3, yet accounted for 4 in 5 plays. However when the opposition went to 2 WR (Iowa), Mattison could spend a majority of the game in the 4-3.
When Michigan's on offense. Nothing is out of the ordinary yet, but when we turn the tables and show how defenses have reacted to Michigan's personnel it gets interesting:
|Season||Avg. Receivers in Formation||Avg. DBs in Formation||Difference|
This is not including anything when Michigan was more than a score down, but the season averages counting everything say about the same thing. I went through the plays and even a few youtubes and yes, in 2010 they played one-high against us despite spreading the field to pass as much as Purdue. Michigan went bigger in 2011, and got more defensive backs, which is counterintuitive except for one factor: opponents in 2010 really really really feared the running game, and tempted Michigan to pass.
Okie dokie. | Greg Shamus via ESPN
One more table to break this down by Michigan's opponents last year, 4th quarters and two-plus-score leads excised:
|Opponent||WRs in formation||DBs in formation||Difference|
|San Diego State||2.44||4.89||2.4|
Nothing really jumps out except perhaps more spread in close games, and SD State's apparent paucity of linebackers (weird—didn't they just have that guy who recruits lots of linebackers there?) Actually that's Charlie Strong's 3-3-5, and the GERG numbers from 2010 are similar due to the same effect.
What it means for this year. Alabama and Air Force aren't going to be spread it out—their challenges are elsewhere. However the Big Ten schedule is spread-heavy, with Ohio State joining the ranks of the many-receivered. Due to recent attrition, Michigan goes into 2012 with just six scholarship cornerbacks for three positions that will be filled half the time. It's a good thing the coaching staff has four guys coming in at corner to replace the one expected departure. These days, in order to keep up with the Joneses, that nickelback position has to be considered as much of a starter as, well, a third receiver.
This goes out to all those young linebackers out there who have given me your letters of intent:
♪ There was Bell, and a Hill, but I never saw them playing
No I never saw depth at all, 'till there was you.
There were safeties who gained weight, and a JUCO straight from Butler
But they were no Obianna Ezeh, 'till there was you.
Oh there were walk-ons, and converted fullbacks, they tell me,
And sweet freshman "Spinners," and Roh at "Quick"…
There was Ken-ny Demens, and a plush-toy Castor face-wash,
But no other linebackers at all, 'till there was you.
Till there was you! ♫
Linebacker depth: EXTANT!
This is Part III of the thing where I go over the depth chart and predict what will happen if the starter at any given position is hurt for an extended period of time in 2012: Who goes in?, What's the dropoff?, How do things shuffle?
And this time, there's goods here. There's depth in the SAMs and the WILLs and the MIKEs and the macks and the rovers. Whatayatalk whatayatalk: Where'd-we-get-it? With a Greg who knows the territory! With the jacks from the buckeyes, and the bucks from the mitten, and ROLBs from the overlooked, redshirted, 3-star, buck- and spart-passed over huckleberry bin. Whatayatalk, whatayatalk. Ya can talk, ya can talk, ya can bicker ya can talk, ya can bicker, bicker, bicker, ya can talk all ya want, but it's different than it was!
Quickly again. Photos are all by Upchurch unless otherwise noted. Ratings are given in Saturn-punting Zoltans. Think of them like stars except more heavenly. Five is an all-conference-type player (Denard to Kovacs); four is a guy you'd call "solid" (RVB to Demens); three is an average B1G player (Morgan to Hawthorne); two is a guy with a big hole in his game (freshman Kovacs); one is trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Poole.
SAM (Strongside Linebacker):
In case of emergency: Jake was a revelation last year as a redshirt freshman who as the season progressed kept giving the coaches less and less excuse to yank him. The nature of his position, which rotates often, and the nature of his cavalier game make it hard to quantify the effective difference of an injury here. By design he's the most replaceable guy on the defense; by the magnitude of his effect when he's in the game, there are few, if any, guys on the team who you'd less like to lose. He was far from perfect—his problems holding the edge led to some ugly things in the Northwestern-Michigan State part of the year—however there were also those times when a "running" quarterback would see this crazy freshman coming inside the edge blocker and think to himself "oh I'm so going around that idiot," only to end up flat on his back 20 yards in the backfield. Nothing was more satisfying to a fan base recovering from Passive 3-3-5 syndrome than seeing this crazed high-necked Viking bellowing something unintelligible at fast-retreating Logan Thomas.
Heiko took this
Cam Gordon is the nominal backup, and since the freshman who played ahead of him last year (Beyer) has made the move to WDE, you would imagine the onetime receiver, onetime epitome of ethereal spring optimism at free safety, and onetime 3-3-5 spinner will have finally settled into a useful something. He spent most of last year with a back injury that gives us precious little information on what he might become. So is C.Gordon a junior stunted by position switches, bad fundamental coaching and injury who's now ready to erupt, or a guy with bad fundamentals doomed to be remembered for that one time he was badly cast in the hero role of a box office flop?
What you want are his credentials for a position that rotates like a train of traveling salesmen; what I've got for you is a barbershop quartet of coaches singing songs about him. One thing they don't say is "platoon." Despite his safety pedigree and safety frame versus Jake Ryan's oft hand-down deployment, the coaches haven't indicated Gordon is a situational backup. The SLB in this defense is supposed to be more like a WDE than the other two linebacker spots, and Cam is not that. On the other hand he seems tailor-made for the side-job of the SLB: covering the guy in the slot.
So I'm saying if Ryan goes down, Michigan probably goes with Gordon and eases off the gas a bit, leaning less on pressure and more on coverage from the position. The real drop-off won't be too severe, as there are other guys who can blitz if the SLB becomes more coverage-oriented, and there are rush options extant. The apparent drop-off will feel like when we lost Marcus Ray—the defense is still the defense but that sense that somebody's about to lose an important body organ will be appreciably depreciated. You'll see Gordon plenty either way.
In case of dire emergency: Well like I said this position rotates. Don't know what will happen with Clark, but if he's in at WDE that means Brennan Beyer can easily reprise his 2011 role over here. Mario Ojemudia could be pressed into service. And any of the freshmen linebackers could end up here. Of the four, I picked Royce Jenkins-Stone as the SAM since Bolden already seems to be the two-deep man at Mike, and Ringer was here for spring practice at Mike, and scouting reports say Ross is a coverage-y WLB-type, while RJS has been described as a raw, blitz-loving knife. That's an SLB. It'd be best if he redshirts to learn how to be the second-most aggressive guy on the defense (WDE is the first) while holding the edge.
MIKE (Middle Linebacker):
In case of emergency: Responding to my size chart in last week's article, TSS started a thread about how Demens, who's listed at 248 on the spring roster (which is a copy of last fall's), has significantly more beef than the rest of the linebacking crew. The image above seems to reject the notion that he's the Carl Diggs among the Brackinses; the variability charts for the 2012 linebackers say he's huge (right, via TSS). So I checked the average listed size for a Michigan contributing linebacker since 1993, and it says he made big:
|2nd (Sophomore or RS Fr)||236||228|
|3rd (Junior or RS Soph)||246||232|
|4th (Senior or RS Junior)||248||233|
|5th year Senior||252||238|
Most of our starters played over 240 in their 4th or 5th years. Over 230 is where it seems the contributors need to be. And when you look at the depth chart for 2012 there are exactly three dudes who seem likely to fit that description:
|Kenny Demens||248||Jake Ryan||230||Desmond Morgan||220|
|Joe Bolden||230||Cam Gordon||222||Brandin Hawthorne||214|
|Mike Jones||224||Royce Jenkins-Stone||215||Antonio Poole||212|
|Kaleb Ringer||219||James Ross||209|
Knock-knock … Orange … yada yada … you have Joe Bolden, the 2012 recruit I am most giggity about, and for good reason. He had the kind of performance as the starter (Demens was wearing that club you see above) in the spring game that makes even the cautious prognosticators say "I think we have something here." Then they pull out the David Harris comparisons.
There's nothing I can really add to the recruiting profile or the lofty expectations except to focus on what he brings to the table right now. That is a guy with freshman-grade Kovacsian play-diagnosis skills that must be tempered by "is a true freshman," plus a lot of range and athleticism that must be tempered by "is probably not strong enough yet to get off blocks." I don't think Demens should be worried about losing his job this year unless he's banged up, however in that eventuality Michigan has something between what Desmond Morgan was last year and a freshman Manti Te'o on hand, and should be just fine. Orange you glad!
In case of dire emergency: The phrase "Who? MIKE JONES!" had a very short meme life on the MGoBoards, and it is the considered hope of every Michigan fan that it should never become the headline of an MGoInjury Roundup or uttered without irony inside Michigan Stadium ever. Before the injury that ruined his 2009 coaches were suggesting he might displace Mouton; alas that seems to have been motivational spring hokum. More hype/hokum was Mattison saying he's an unstoppable speed rusher. We saw Jones a bit while Michigan was killing clock against Minnesota and he looked, um, safety-ish. There is a job for a safety-ish linebacker in this defense—the Will—but there are so many other slight LBs on this roster that tripping the 220-something wire puts you into the mix at middle. I would think before we see Jones start, Morgan would slide down to MLB and Hawthorne become the full-time WLB. While time is running out for Jones, he's not ignorable.
WILL (Weakside Linebacker):
In case of emergency: You can argue about the stars being low for a sophomore whom I already said was at 3 stars when starting as a true freshman—that was at the end of last year and I expect Des should still be improving exponentially as this season goes on. I also predict this year you'll start seeing more Jake Ryan in him, since everyone from recruiting analysts to coaches have raved about grittiness, something we haven't had the opportunity to see much of just yet. If our next Eckstein McGritsalot loses that opportunity, the safety net is the the safety-like Brandin Hawthorne.
If you have the opportunity to give the coaches one suggestion for 2012, please join the MGoCrusade to have Hawthorne deployed as the WLB when Michigan goes to nickel. Until Morgan emerged in the second half of last year, Hawthorne had lain tenuous claim to defense's most open position. Brandon Herron, the beefy Yang to Brandin's Yin, dropped out of the race after the double-fumble touchdown rally and has graduated. Hawthorne was excellent in coverage, knifed into the backfield for a key stop against Notre Dame, and displayed Pahokeeian speed to all parts of the field … except when a blocker came near.
For you Tiger fans, Hawthorne is the Ramon Santiago of this defense. He is great at what he does, but playing him every down is going to expose his weakness against the run. So what does happen if Des goes down? It's probably Joe Bolden, but with more Hawthorne appearances.
In case of dire emergency: Trouble with capital T, rhymes with P, stands for…oh actually we don't know what we have in Antonio Poole except his name lends itself well to the Music Man theme. Really he's a redshirt freshman who was ignored by Rodriguez but picked up quickly by Hoke. His recruiting profile lists abilities of play diagnosis, tackling, and translating of the Facebook pages of CRex's in-laws. Third on the depth chart is where you'd want a redshirt freshman to be. Anyway if you see Poole that means he's better than expected, or that "dire emergency" includes the MLB depth chart too. Same goes for James Ross, who was at one point the highest rated linebacker of the 2012 uber-haul, and may yet have a long career beside Bolden (Orange!), however he's listed in the vicinity of 200 lbs. and would probably benefit from a redshirt more than Ringer, who was here for Spring ball. Since redshirting a consensus high 4-star is a luxury we haven't had around the linebacking parts in some time, I suggest we take advantage of it.
Vastly underrated; properly rated
Previously: The Offense
My look back at Brian's epic 2011 football preview continues with the defense. This one got a lot more interesting than the offense, because despite all the warm fuzzies we felt from the GERG-to-Greg transition*, expecting a jump from the #110 total defense to #17 would have been outrageous. As in get-this-man-a-straitjacket outrageous.
Thankfully, the performance of the defense exceeded all reasonable expectations, and even most of the unreasonable ones. Let's peep last year's predictions, shall we?
*Not to mention the Tony-Gibson-to-Anyone-But-Tony-Gibson transition.
The move to three-tech won't be an issue [for Ryan Van Bergen]. He played it two years ago and when Michigan went to a four man front last year they stuck him back inside. He's now 290, a three year starter, and a senior. He's a good bet to crack double-digit TFLs and get some All Big Ten mention.
RVB actually ended up at strongside DE, which probably helped him lead the team with 12.5 TFLs. He ended up earning All-Big Ten honorable mention from both the coaches and media and graduating as one of the most beloved Wolverines in recent memory.
Demens will benefit from the move to back to the 4-3 under more than anyone save Craig Roh. With RVB and Martin shielding him from linemen he won't be in nearly as many hopeless situations where he's one-on-one with a guard He should be the team's leading tackler by a healthy margin and see his TFLs skyrocket from the measly 1.5 he managed a year ago.
Michigan's defense will probably be too bad to warrant much All Big Ten consideration, but honorable mention seems reasonable.
A year after inexplicably having to move past not just Obi Ezeh, but converted fullback Mark Moundros, on the depth chart at middle linebacker despite subsequently making it painfully obvious that he should've been the starter all along, Demens had his breakout season. He led the team with 94 tackles—second was Jordan Kovacs at 75—and saw his TFLs jump to a respectable five. Like Van Bergen, Demens was an all-conference honorable mention.
Even so, [Kovacs's] season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
This may still be underselling Kovacs, who took to competent coaching even better than expected and became the team's rock in the secondary, covering for his athletic limitations with usually-impeccable positioning. No, he's not Reggie Nelson, but I don't think you can find a remotely rational Michigan fan who harbors even the tiniest bit of ill will towards Kovacs. Michigan's shocking lack of big plays allowed—both against the pass and the run—can largely be attributed to his play; despite missing a game, Kovacs led the team with 51 solo tackles. He also notched 8 TFLs. All hail Kovacs.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
This time around, the optimism regarding the free safety position was justified. Thomas Gordon had his share of struggles, especially late in the season, but for the most part he was quite competent. Around here, safety competence is a luxury on par with consistent placekicking.
Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
Michigan finished with 2.3 sacks per game. That put them at... 29th. Tip o' the cap.
Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
Brian's continued insistence that turnover luck would someday go Michigan's way finally paid off; the Wolverines forced 29 turnovers. It also helped that this defense actually tackled people.
EVERYTHING SEEMS WONDERFUL
YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW RIGHT THIS WOULD BE.
Morgan was the MGoBlog Sleeper of the Year based on a wide array of scouting reports that praise his instincts, lateral mobility, and toughnosed hard gritty gritness. I thought he'd have to cool his heels behind Demens for a couple years, but he may get on the field quicker than anyone expected.
No full credit simply because Mike Jones was projected as the starter at WLB, a fact I had completely forgotten about until I looked back at the preview. Morgan ended up playing in 12 games, starting seven (the first being in week two against ND), and finished fifth on the team in tackles.
If [J.T. Floyd] gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
This wasn't really a prediction, but... yeah. Tony Gibson minus all of the points.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.)
Points for mentioning Countess as the most likely freshman to see the field. No points for giving him one sentence when he took over the starting job by midseason, especially considering the Christian caveat. As you'll see, the hype that should've surrounded Countess went—justifiably, in the preseason—to Courtney Avery.
Not So Much
Healthy again and less abandoned in the middle of the defense, Martin's numbers should soar. Before the sprain Martin was on pace for 11 TFLs and 4 sacks; after it he got just a half TFL the rest of the year. While the front of the schedule is a bit easier, Martin had 8.5 TFLs and 51 tackles a year ago. Reasonable progression should have gotten him to 11. Add in further progression plus three DL coaches plus a bit more help on the line plus a free-roaming QB attack role and 15 to 18 TFLs plus a little more QB terror should be within reach. He should be All Big Ten. He might be better.
I hate that I have to put this prediction in this category, but here it is. While Martin was the best player on the defense, his numbers were hampered by having to play the nose; he finished with six TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Despite the lack of statistical production, Martin's efforts were recognized with second-team All-Big Ten honors. He also forced a pitch on a speed option. See you on Sundays, MM.
"Experience" was why [Will Heininger] got the nod; that experience consists of backing Brandon Graham up. In is time on the field he rarely did anything wrong; he rarely did anything right, either. He was a non-factor. As a guy spotting Graham from time to time that's cool, but as a starter or a guy rotating with another equally obscure walk-on that's a recipe for zero production out of a spot that should see its fair share of plays. If this spot averages out as a zero next year that's probably good—and that's not good.
The biggest swing-and-a-miss on the list. Heininger swapped spots with RVB and started all 12 regular-season games at five-tech DT before missing the Sugar Bowl with a foot injury. He exceeded all expectations of a walk-on raised in the shadow of the Big House, proving he could hold his own against Big Ten competition and be a positive force on the interior. After the season, Brian ranked him as the third most siginificant departure on the defense, behind only Martin and Van Bergen. While part of that is due to the remaining depth along the defensive line, I don't think anyone thought Heininger's absence would be felt in such a way.
Brink will play. After mentioning Heininger's experience he said Brink has "practiced very well, played well, been productive" and promised to rotate six guys on the line. Six is a weird number because it means one of Black, Campbell, or Brink is on the fringe. Given the lineups Campbell seems the most likely even though that seems unlikely.
If you're saying "who?" you're probably not alone (though you read this blog, so you probably aren't saying "who?"). Walk-on Nathan Brink was penciled in as the starting SDE at one point in the fall, earning much preseason praise for his unlikely rise up the depth chart. After garnering all that hype, however, he made almost no impact, recording just one tackle while barely seeing the field. He's a prime example of why you must take all offseason practice hype with a grain of salt, especially when said hype involves previously-unknown walk-ons.
We've yet to see the much of the pass-rushing skill that made Roh a top 50 recruit. He's displayed hints of the ability to zip past tackles before they know what hits them when suffered to rush the passer—there's a chance that when he puts hand to ground and is told to let it rip that he goes bonkers. Roh is the biggest X factor on the team. He could end up with anywhere from a half-dozen to twelve sacks.
Playing his third position in three seasons, Roh didn't quite go bonkers, tallying four sacks and eight TFLs. Roh's play still markedly improved from his previous two seasons, but he still hasn't lived up to the sky-high recruiting hype. Much of the blame for that can fall upon the shoulders of Greg Robinson and Co., and we'll see if one last position switch, this time to SDE, finally results in Roh producing double-digit sacks.
In high school, Ryan was an outside linebacker in an actual 3-3-5. As such, he spent a lot of time screaming at the quarterback from angles designed to make life hard for offensive linemen. That's not far off his job in the 4-3 under but it comes with a lot more run responsibility—the SLB has to take on blockers in just the right spot so that he neither lets the play escape contain nor gives him a lane inside too big to shut down. Expect to see him on passing downs but only passing downs this fall.
Ryan became a pleasant early-season surprise when he started against Western Michigan and made his presence felt by batting an Alex Carder pass that Brandon Herron would intercept and return 94 yards to the house. While certainly more of an asset against the pass than the run—his balls-to-the-wall approach was great on blitzes, but not always sound when keeping contain—Ryan proved that he was by far the best option on the strong side. Just one year later, all-conference honors are very much in play.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
Troy Woolfolk's return from the exploding ankle of doom wasn't as triumphant as we all hoped. While he started ten games—six at corner and four at safety—Woolfolk never looked fully comfortable on the field and was supplanted at each position by a younger player (Countess at corner, Gordon at safety). It would be quite a surprise to see him taken in this week's NFL draft.
Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
After showing much promise as a true freshman, Avery was the obvious candidate to grow into a big-time role as the team's top corner of the present and future. Instead, he started the first two games, then ceded that role to J.T. Floyd, Woolfolk, and eventually Countess. Avery was a solid nickel corner, and should reprise that role in 2012, but his progression wasn't as great as expected.
Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
Nein. Despite Michigan's impressive rise in team sacks, they were spread pretty evenly across both the D-line and the back seven thanks to Mattison's blitz-happy approach. Ryan Van Bergen paced the team with 5.5, with Jordan Kovacs actually tying Roh for second with four.
Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.
I know Brian has no complaints about being so hilariously wrong on this one. As noted above, the Wolverines finished 17th in yardage allowed, and they also shot up to sixth (faints) in points allowed. Football Outsiders's FEI metric ranked them as the #16 defense in the country. Despite watching every second of the 2011 season (usually twice), I still have a hard time not believing I'm the victim of an elaborate hoax or a drug experiment gone horribly awry. If you see me waking up in a gutter and GERG is still the defensive coordinator, please do me a favor and run me over with an SUV. Make sure to double-tap, please.
Items of admittedly flimsy substance:
Lots of Rawls. Thomas Rawls is the tailback in most of these sets; Hayes does not appear and Toussaint only gets buried on a flare screen. Rawls mostly gets buried himself. Maybe he's just an excellent vehicle via which to express defensive competence.
Morgan is all over the place. He goes sideline to sideline to thump Rawls on one moderately successful run and generally looks like Michigan's best linebacker. Again, it's one thing to go sideline to sideline against Rawls and another on Toussaint or Smith. Morgan still brings the wood.
Line bits. You can see Chris Bryant acting as the RG on a play where Miller is snapping to Gardner: second unit. Hypothesis: Michigan thinks Mealer can really hack it all of a sudden and is placing the usual pressure on Omameh's job. Either that or they're just getting Bryant some snaps at both guard spots so he's comfortable at either one in case of an injury. There has been a little buzz about Graham Glasgow, the second-team left guard, as well—unrelated to a tandem bike, even.
Also, your second string NT is currently Richard Ash. Not much of a surprise, sure.
Edge defenders. On the play where Gardner escapes Frank Clark pressure to bomb a pass to Jeremy Jackson in the back of the endzone it's the second team OTs—walk-ons—getting smoked. The player coming in from the bottom is redshirt freshman Antonio Poole, which strikes me as odd. He's presumed to be playing WLB, so if he's coming at the left tackle he's either engaged on a seriously long journey from blitz to the quarterback or he's practicing at MLB. (Or SLB, I guess, but I doubt it.)
Adding to the oddness of that play: it really looks like the guy trying to recover on Jackson is #35… Joe Bolden. I am confused about that defense.
Slant. Dime? Denard throws a slant to Gallon immediately in front of Terrence Talbott, who's on the field with Kovacs, Avery, and Countess. People have been talking Talbott up in the recent insidery posts across the web, and that is first-team run he's getting. Michigan seems to have enough depth at corner to consider some dime packages in third and long.
BUBBLE?!?! IS THIS A BUBBLE SCREEN TO DILEO?
AL BORGES IS CAPTURED AND HIDDEN SOMEWHERE IN THE MOUNTAINS OF AFGHANISTAN. WE LAUNCH OUR RESCUE AT 0600 SATURDAY.
Black appearance. Looks like Morgan and Black blow up the next play, one of those spring counters Michigan busted out against Minnesota for an unknown reason. Omameh gets beat, which I'd look at as a good sign since we know Omameh is a pretty good Big Ten player, one who has more trouble with strength than quickness. Black's being talked up as a quick penetrator.
Vincent Smith iso from the I. Zero yards. #sameasever. We get a glimpse of Cam Gordon rotating in with the ones on this play, which is good to see after he vanished last year. Smith does dance into the endzone a couple plays later on a power from the gun with #99 blocking—yeah, Michigan's rotating in a fullback wearing 99 now. Meet Paul Gyarmati.
On that play the second team is in. Poole gets on the wrong side of a pulling Barnum, which prevents Bolden from making a tackle. Then a safety I can't identify whiffs as he tries to fill. Bryant doesn't actually end up blocking anyone. Bolden's reaction time was impressive there: if Poole knows what he's doing that's going to be a thump for Bolden at or near the LOS.
Mmmm Denard. Next play is a QB power on which Barnum pulls. The TV always tells me that's a rare thing that can be of great utility to an offense. Barnum gets well downfield and crushes Morgan to the inside, opening up a lane Denard hits for six. Not Morgan's fault. I wish we'd see Demens doing some of the stuff Morgan is in these clips.
…and Morgan gets beat easily on the next play for a Vincent Smith dumpoff TD.
BONUS TAKE: From Maize 'n' Blue Nation.