Mike Lantry, 1972
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.
Well… they're gone. For better or worse the two linebacking stalwarts of the Rodriguez era are out the door, destined for San Diego or the real world. Though no one's going to memorialize Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton in song, they endured the transition from Ron English to Scot Shafer to Greg Robinson to Dr. Vorax, the stuffed wolverine Robinson insisted was the real coordinator of the insane 3-3-5 Rodriguez demanded. If anyone can feel hard done by the Rodriguez era it's them.
HOWEVA, Dr. Vorax and other assorted coaching indignities cannot explain away much of the horror Michigan suffered at their hands. Mouton was linebacker Janus, singlehandedly crushing fullbacks and even pulling guards en route to TFLs a few plays before losing contain yet a-goddamn-gain against opponents as meek as UMass.
Ezeh, for his part, was first amongst equals as this blog's whipping boy the last couple years until the Penn State game, when Greg Robinson became public enemy #1. His trademark move was sitting completely still until an offensive lineman screwed him into the ground.
Midyear, former Michigan linebackers were dropping the word "inexcusable." A fresh start is called for.
|Cam Gordon||So.*||Kenny Demens||Jr.*||Mike Jones||So.*|
|Jake Ryan||Fr.*||Marell Evans||Sr.*||Brandin Hawthorne||Jr.|
|Brennen Beyer||Fr.||JB Fitzgerald||Sr.||Desmond Morgan||Fr.|
Right: Demens hangin' with Doctor Vorax
MICHIGAN PROVIDES THAT with three relatively new starters. The most established new blood is redshirt junior Kenny Demens, the man who inexplicably languished behind not only Ezeh but walk-on and converted fullback Mark Moundros at the start of last year. That seemed like plenty of evidence to write the kid off, so this blog did:
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.
Demens then watched as Ezeh played at his usual level until the Iowa game. Desperate for anything after being gashed by Michigan State, Robinson finally put Demens on the field. We finally saw what was keeping him from playing time:
Only the machinations of the traitorous Vorax. That's not a play Ray Lewis is going to have on his hall of fame reel but it stood out to me after years of watching Ezeh try to clunk his way through traffic. Demens steps to the right as Iowa runs a counter but reads it, steps around traffic, and is there to tackle once Mouton forces it inside. Demens did that on a consistent basis against all opposition (except Purdue, oddly). The sumptuous conversation about him after the Iowa game was excited:
Yeah. Watching the game live I thought that he was an obvious upgrade over Ezeh but expected that when I went over the game in detail I'd find he was at fault for some of the longer Iowa runs or third down conversions, or had messed up in some way that had gone unexploited. I didn't. I found little things that I thought were good plays I hadn't seen live …
How many times did Iowa RBs find themselves facing a line with no penetration and no holes in it? Several. How many times did previous Michigan opponents face this? Essentially never. Good DL play with crappy linebacker play yields a lot of penetration and a lot of lanes where the DL aren't. Crappy DL play with good LB play is this, a bunch of bodies on the line with no windows to squeeze through.
At least, he did when he was not subject to further machinations. Vorax saw his nemesis had escaped confinement and immediately upped his insanity level further. Below are Michigan's alignments in the first and second halves of the Penn State game two weeks later:
left: first half. right: second half.
After getting annihilated by a terrible run offense in the first half Demens actually had to ask the coaches to move him more than a yard away from the nose tackle's rear. He struggled, but who wouldn't when the only thing between you and two guards is Adam Patterson and far too little space?
Demens recovered from that to register as one of the "heroes" of the Illinois game—he managed a +8, leading to cries of Anyone But Ezeh favoritism from readers—before registering his first clunker against Purdue. Demens got hooked pretty badly on a play that, in retrospect, I should have been harsher to the DL on since Dan Dierking roared through a truck-sized hole. Later he got lost and let Rob Henry rip off a big gain. He was one of few Michigan defenders to come out of the Wisconsin game with something approximating dignity.
|plays in space|
|quick but under control|
|make a leaping PBU|
|killshot shakes the ball loose|
|tackle on the catch|
|jars the ball free|
|picking through trash|
|goal line gap shoot|
|slants past the tackle|
|reads and fills|
|scraping, waiting, tackling|
|not quite harris|
|runs to the backside|
|pulls an Ezeh and sits|
When everything was over Demens had racked up 82 tackles despite playing sparingly in the first five games. If he'd gotten the whole season he would have had numbers like that random Northwestern linebacker who ends up with 130 tackles at the end of the season because he's the guy roping down tailbacks after they pick up six yards.
It's clear by the rating above that I'm a Demens believer. I liked what I saw last year and I've seen MLBs who are pretty good to compare him to. David Harris, for one. He's not Harris but I think Demens is closer to him than Ezeh already. He just has a knack for getting to where the play is going. Though his coverage still needs some work he was decently effective in short zones last year. As a bonus, one of the few things practice reports have been consistent in is their Demens praise.
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.
I can't believe we had commemorative spring game jerseys
Also: Evans left, Fitzgerald right
Prodigal son Marell Evans returned from exile at I-AA Hampton to rejoin the team for his fifth and final year of eligibility. He probably wasn't expecting to see too much time after doing so, but there he was in the spring game, starting in Demens's stead. How well he did was in the eye of the beholder; around these parts I was "extremely leery" of the depth but offered up no reason as to why.
If forced into action Evans will be a wildcard. He hardly played at Hampton because of injury and hardly played at Michigan because of youth. He's probably not going to be that good. Over the course of the last month I received a couple of practice reports that slammed him pretty hard. Those aren't gospel, but that and his vagabond career to date are all we have to go on.
Fellow senior JB Fitzgerald is also hanging around this area of the depth chart, though no one knows exactly what linebacker spot he's backing up. It's never good when you've been around for four years and no one knows where you're supposed to play.
At least Fitzgerald is used to it by now. He's been kicked around since he arrived. On occasion he's even been drafted to play DE terribly when Greg Robinson runs out of ideas. When he pops up in UFRs doing something well, as he's done from time to time for years, I get all excited he might be finally breaking through. Then he never does. Fitzgerald's about out of time and there's no reason to think he's suddenly going to get it. He was passed by Evans as soon as he arrived; Jake Ryan emerged to back up Cam Gordon in spring; Michigan has a vicious melee for the WLB spot that Fitzgerald isn't even involved in. Without a plague of injuries he'll spend most of his final year providing leadership on special teams.
less deep half, more linebacker plz
Cam Gordon has finally found a home. He can buy a new couch and maybe a speaker system that attaches to the walls and everything. That it took this long is another symptom of the madness on defense last year. Gordon is linebacker sized and plays like a linebacker, except he was playing receiver as a freshman and thus tackled people in the same way a coke machine would: by running your bulk into a dude and hoping he falls over.
This was Michigan's last line of defense, and they paid for it many times over, starting against Michigan State:
His shoulder-block style of tackling was something he got away with before he faced Michigan State but against MSU he was bouncing off ballcarriers because they were big and strong enough to take the blow. Then he would try to drag them to the ground, which only worked sometimes and always gave up YAC.
Worse yet were Gordon's angles, which alternated between vastly too aggressive…
…and vastly too conservative…
…depending on which flaw he had just spent the week getting chewed out about in practice. And then there was that rainbow thing. I'm embarrassed to have pumped him up a bit after the Indiana game, though to be fair he did have an interception.
Gordon got shuffled to spur, a position roughly analogous to the strongside linebacker in a 4-3 under, for the Penn State game. Thrown into the fire at yet another position he had only the barest clue how to play, he struggled there as well. He was emblematic of that game's defensive implosion:
It's symbolic that this is the play where it all went to hell.
Demens has that dead to rights if he can just get some gang tackling help. Marvin Robinson whiffs, Cam Gordon vacates the only area Royster can go, and Royster makes a terrific play to spin outside for the first down. Great play, but you can't spin past three guys without something having gone horribly wrong. That's a true freshman and a redshirt freshman who was a wide receiver last year and a safety last week. FFFUUUUUUUU.
|whiffs but gets lucky|
|takes a horrible angle on the pass|
|lost in coverage|
|too far off|
|some good stuff|
|delivers a nice hit|
Cam Gordon had a rough freshman year. Worse for our purposes is how useless it is for projecting his future. With half of his season spent at a position he'll never play again and the other half spent in an incoherent defense at a spot he'd learned for literally two weeks, his UFR chart isn't even worth looking at.
If you insist, it's not pretty even after he moved to linebacker. He managed to stay on the positive side against Illinois by blitzing a ton. I did note that "Gordon brings a physical intimidation factor the other two spurs don't." He didn't do much other than scoop up a fumble and run a long way against Purdue. Against Wisconsin he failed to register even a positive half-point and picked up this note: "Not involved much and didn't do well when he was." After that the malaise took over. He did have some TFLs in the final two games.
That doesn't mean much, though. Bounced from position to position and ill-served by the coaching of Greg Robinson and Adam Braithwaite, Gordon was put in a position to fail. He did.
Now he's at a spot that makes sense being coached by people who make sense. Since he wasted a redshirt year playing offense and his freshman year trying to play safety he'll be farther behind the curve than an average third-year player. He's also pretty light for a strongside linebacker at 224. That will serve him well when he's asked to drop into coverage but will make fending off tight ends a struggle. A reasonable level of development gets him to a bit below average this year.
There is one. The spring game was a dreary, depressing thing mostly notable for the various ways in which the quarterbacks looked awful, but one of the certifiable bright spots was the rampaging play of redshirt freshman Jake Ryan. Ryan had a pick-six, sacked Devin Gardner at least a couple times—hard to tell exactly what would have happened if they were live—and generally gave second-string OT Kristian Mateus more than he could handle. Mateus is a walk-on and all spring impressions come with free grains of salt, but as of the moment Ryan Rob Lytle-ed his helmet in spring, the hype train has left the station and will build up steam until such time as there's another guy to get hyped about.
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.
Third on the depth chart is true freshman Brennen Beyer, one of the most highly touted recruits in this year's class. His recruiting profile has the goods: excellent speed and lateral mobility on a frame that needs and can put on a lot of weight. He was expected to play WDE and flipped to SLB after Frank Clark showed very well in fall. He was 100% lineman in high school and will need some time to adjust to new responsibilities. Hopefully they can get a redshirt on him this year.
it's tough to find shots of Jones and Herron in the wild
This is the most uncertain thing about the defense. Mouton left no ready heir apparent thanks to an injury that forced Mike Jones out for the entirety of 2009. Top competition Brandon Herron also missed a big chunk of last year. When he returned he mostly sat.
Jones returns atop the depth chart out of little more than momentum. Michigan fans haven't seen much out of him other than a few redshirt-burning tackles on kickoff coverage, so his recruiting profile will have to stand in for actual knowledge.
For what it's worth he does seem well suited to be one of those blitzer guys Greg Mattison promises will exist this year:
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.
As a bonus, he's beefed up from 208 to 224, which is reasonable WLB size. Folks were talking him up as a "playmaker" during spring practice last time around. Little's been heard since. That goes for all of his competitors as well.
That position and again I hate to ever say anything positive, I love how those guys are playing at times. At times, they are playing with such energy and such speed and such explosiveness. One day one of them, I’ll go wow that’s what we’re looking for and the next day he may have not as good a day and the other guy will step up. I think that one is a battle. That one is a battle right now and it is kind of a good battle to have.
Reality or Johnny Sears airy pump-up? We won't know that for a while. There are three experienced scholarship options. Whoever ends up winning the job might be bad; they probably won't be awful. There are three upperclass options before we dig up a freshman.
The second guy on the depth chart is fifth-year senior Brandon Herron, who's bounced all over the front seven in his time in Ann Arbor without managing to see the field much. He's got thirty-four tackles to his name, many of them in garbage time or on special teams.
Just when it looked like he might have a role in the 3-3-5 he came down with an injury and forced Roh to move back to LB. As a recruit he was middle-of-the-road, reputed to be a raw athlete. He'll probably see some time and not do anything spectacular with it.
Junior Brandin Hawthorne and true freshman Desmond Morgan also feature on the depth chart. Hawthorne is one of the Pahokee crew. He was a hilariously undersized high school player and has been bouncing between linebacker and safety the past couple years. He's happy to be back in the front seven:
"I was actually recruited as a linebacker so to be back feels really natural to me," said Hawthorne. "This is the position I played my whole life until I got to Michigan so it's nothing new, but I've had to learn the system, my responsibilities, and that takes time." …
"I'm not a real physical player - I'm more finesse - but I'm fast and smart," he said. "You need a brain on defense and I'm smart enough to recognize formations, and help move guys around. And I think I'm pretty good at making plays. I know I'm not going to overpower someone but I'm pretty good at slipping through the cracks."
Now up to 214 pounds, Hawthorne was getting some time with the first team during the select plays the media was allowed to watch. If his self-scouting is accurate he may be more of an option against spread teams. The weakside linebacker does get protected in the 4-3, so if he's got the speed and smarts Michigan might deal with the size.
The Big Ten Network was told to watch out for Morgan when their tour hit Ann Arbor, so they did. Viewers were treated to a shot of Morgan getting plowed over and over again as Gerry DiNardo tried to convince them he was the new hotness on the weakside.
Hoke has been talking him up. When asked about the linebacker situation outside of Demens Hoke went to Morgan first:
I think Desmond Morgan is a guy who we think is going to play some football for us. Mike Jones, we’ve played a little bit of MIKE and a little bit of WILL. Marrell Evans is playing some in there.
That was just a few days ago. 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.
In 2006, David Harris never came off the field for a single defensive play. Then he (and Prescott Burgess) graduated, and the Ezeh/Mouton era was born.
The cheapest thrill in MGoBlogging from '07 to '10 was making an Obi Ezeh joke. Here was a guy with limited ability who was subject to terrible coaching and forced into the center of Michigan's defense – wearing David Harris's number no less – for four terrible years because until Kenny Demens there was no alternative. Since linebacker mistakes are harder to spot than, say, free safety mistakes, you could get a lot of internet cred by intelligently pointing out the flaws in Ezeh's game.
If you hang around enough program insiders, you already know that in all of the important things in life, Obi Ezeh is a spectacular success. On the overwhelming majority of the plays he was involved in, Obi did something other than fail spectacularly. And then there were those times on the field when he failed, spectacularly.
That it took until midway through his senior year to displace Ezeh says a lot about the depth of Michigan's linebacker recruiting, and probably more about the coaching. Four years ago, was this the future we expected?
|Chris Graham||Sr.||Johnny Thompson||Jr.*||Shawn Crable||Sr.*|
|Jonas Mouton||Fr.*||Obi Ezeh||Fr.*||Marrell Evans||Fr.|
|Brandon Logan||Jr.||Austin Panter||Jr.||Brandon Herron||Fr.|
Incoming: (Marcus Wither-)SPOON!
But that AUGGGHHHH was a long time coming. M had a string of bad linebacker recruiting years that ended up giving playing time to a Sarantos and the vastly overrated McClintock a few years earlier before the enterprise was saved by Burgess moving in from safety and a Grand Rapids 2-star running back emerging as all-world MLB David Harris. By 2007 those guys were gone and it was the undersized seniors Graham and Crable, then hope.
The story of 2007 recruiting, other than "PLZ moar DBs!" was "PLZ moar LBs!" Then the LB haul turned out to be a JUCO junior and two fliers, and two of the freshmen transferred, and crippling fear set in. Little bits of happy flakes like "maybe Chris Graham will have a Bennie Joppru renaissance" and "Obi Ezeh practice hype!" and "Jonas Mouton's recruiting pedigree as a safety" were used to provide the necessary optimism to balance the previews that start with a tiny linebacker with Tyrannosaurus arms, yappy trash-talking spear, and blitz-only knife, and end with one guy down the depth chart with any hope of being good.
Tyranno-arms was Chris Graham, who was terrible as a sophomore, didn't play behind Burgess, and came into his senior year expected to raise even more internet ire. The expectation here was for Mouton's loads of talent to push Graham out of the way.
At MLB, Thompson and Ezeh were in a battle. What little had been seen of Thompson led Brian to conclude he was a guy born a generation too late, the best case scenario a Sam Sword who needs to come off the field on passing downs. Ezeh was our knight in Harris-ian armor:
Nobody's seen redshirt freshman Ezeh in the flesh yet, but the indicators on him are good. For one, he is David Harris: a nothing running back recruit out of Grand Rapids who Michigan unearthed and brought in as a linebacker. He even took the newly hallowed #45 once Harris graduated. In the fall he was moved to middle linebacker to compete with Thompson and Panter so he wouldn't spend his year idling behind Crable. Whenever people try to get you on the field, that's a good sign.
We now know that whenever people try to get you on the field, that could be a good sign for you, or a bad sign for the entire unit.
Crable? Ah, Crable. Expert attacker, not made for regular linebacking duties. The SAM position that kind of became Spur and is now again SAM was exactly what Crable was good at. He essentially made Michigan's defense a 5-2, with Crable serving as a sharp knife to terrify bludgeoning offensive linemen and wreak backfield havoc. When he's not doing this, Michigan would go to the nickel, with Brandon Harrison in for Crable. Brian in the preview:
As a 6'6" linebacker with chicken legs and a high center of gravity, he's not the sort to defeat a block and close out a hole. He doesn't make tackles three yards downfield. It's either in the backfield or after long pursuit.
As for depth and future: negligible or less after Mouton and Ezeh. The team was sucking up the departure of Mixon and Patilla, and Brandon Graham's move to DE, leaving just 9 scholarship players, of whom Mouton was the only consensus 4-star or higher. Logan was already a clear Anton Campbell Memorial Special Teamer. Pessimistic practice reports ruled out any immediate usefulness from Panter. Evans was a 2-star reportedly offered on advice that he had a better work ethic than Brandon Minor, according to Brandon Minor. Herron was an athletic project recruit who looked like a receiver. On July 31, 2007, until help arrived from the 2008 class, the future was Ezeh, Mouton, and bleakness:
Mixon transferred, Patilla is likely gone, and Graham is a defensive end. Mouton (who moved down from safety) and Ezeh are both drawing very positive reviews and are odds-on favorites to start next year, but past that we have only the two freshmen, one of whom was a two-star and the other a three-star regarded as a combine freak who needs a lot of work. Depth is also going to be an issue at linebacker going forward; we need at least three in this class.
As for those 2008 recruits, SPOON! was Rival's 160th overall at the time, and the board was full of linebacker prospects. Taylor Hill, a 3.5-star-ish guy was apparently off to Florida (the RR hire turned him back), but M was in good position for 4-star J.B. Fitzgerald, and Christian Wilson was close to coming in, but as an H-back. Because the offer list was so rich and large and positive feeling-y, in-state Kenny Demens didn't have an offer from Michigan, and insiders expected him to end up at that school people go to when they want to go to Michigan but don't have a letter of acceptance from Michigan.
All told, expectations were for a dark period that hopefully saw Mouton emerge as a killer to cover up deficiencies in the Ezeh/Thompson platoon, while the coaches schemed around the 3rd LB spot with two-LB sets (nickel/5-2) or sets that basically act like two-LB (3-3-5, 4-3 under) until the fruits of the 2008 haul ripened. The 2008 preview gave a kind 2 out of 5 rating because if Ezeh got better (rather than worse) each year, he'd be Schilling minus the recruiting hype. At that point Mouton was beaten for the starting gig by the workmanlike (pre-transfer) Marrell Evans, and Panter was your 2008 starting SLB. By Penn State '08 it was Thompson at SAM, Mouton terrible in coverage but awesome at blitzing, and Ezeh a convenient focal point for power running teams, which the Big Ten has those, and we talking about how we totally called it.
Ultimately this meant 'eh' to mediocre linebacker play for 2007-09, and then something approximating good in 2010 when Mouton and Ezeh are 5th year seniors with loads of experience, and the 2008 guys were upperclassmen.
How Did that Turn Out?
This is a picture taken from Brian's picture pages of Mouton losing contain again. RB#32 will now cut behind LT#77 and probably have enough time to cue a celebratory animation as he waltzes toward the end-zone as you throw your controller and curse the EAsshole who programmed suction blocking.
Then you realize this is real life and you go looking for a coach to throttle.
The depth chart at the beginning of 2007 fall practice tells a story, but the rest of the tale of linebacker in the 2007-10 is the clearest case in M history since DeBordian offensive playcalling in which the coaches failed their players.
Whereas the defensive backfield suffered from a lack of guys, the linebacker corps had a some guys with wildly varying abilities The truth of that statement can be found in the era's picture pages that weren't about bad DB play, bad backup DL play, or some bit of insight into the Offensive Genius of Mr. Rodriguez, from lining up Demens incorrectly to the consistent fundamental mistakes made by experienced 5th year seniors. It can be confirmed by the incredibly short careers of various linebacker coaches in this time:
2007: Steve Szabo – Former LB's coach for Jacksonville Jaguars ('94-'02) and DC for B.C. and Colorado State before that. Michigan's LB coach from 2006-'07, was let go with rest of Carr's staff when RR took over, and joined the Carr's-Michigan-in-Exile project of Ron English down the road in Ypsilanti.
2008-'09: Jay Hopson – A favorite MGoWhipping Boy, this Mississippi import couldn't a.) coach linebackers, or b.) recruit Mississippi. He was the fall-guy for the 2009 defense. Brian on Hopson postmortem:
Now that he's actually gone, it's no sugarcoat time: Hopson failed at all aspects of his job at Michigan. At least Tony Gibson can point to the walk-ons and whatnot when attempting to explain what went wrong with his section of the defense; Hopson had two redshirt juniors with three years of starting experience between them. They went backwards, and the big-time recruit backing them up also proved unready.
Meanwhile, a—possibly the—primary reason Michigan lacks depth on the defensive line and might have to turn down a couple of recruits who want to come was Hopson getting "commitments" from two defensive tackles who eventually went to Arkansas and Texas Tech on signing day.
This makes Rodriguez 0/2 on his new hires since coming to Michigan, with Greg Robinson currently sporting an incomplete. If Rodriguez doesn't make it at Michigan the guys he picked to run his defense will be a primary factor.
If the link to that Christmastime '09 post is purple on your browser, it's because I've linked it several times before thanks to this famous bit of prophesy fulfilled: 2010: GERG – You see a man with fantastically groomed white locks who takes the opportunity afforded by his first linebacker ward performing a linebacker play correctly to rub said linebacker's face with a beaver beanie baby. Throttle this man? Y/N
That's not to say they were working with a roster full of Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnsons (like some people). The transfer bug continued, as Evans and three of the '08 commits (Hill, SPOON!, and former safety Brandon Smith) followed Mixon and Patilla out the door. The recruiting story under Carr was, if you can believe it, even more desperate than the defensive backs, evidence: Panter. But where you can't get away from playing 4 DBs on most downs, you can get away with 2 every-down linebacker-y linebackers if you scheme for it, and that's what Michigan essentially did.
The result: zero depth behind the two summon creatures played above. At various points along the way, tiny walk-on Kevin Leach became a nominal starter, and not because of injuries to guys ahead of him. Suboptimal options J.B. Fitzgerald, Craig Roh, Brandon Herron, Mark Moundros and Brandon Smith were all forced into the lineup in hopes of plugging some of those holes between Adam Patterson and wherever Adam Patterson's shoes were landing. If the Opong-Owusu family had produced any more sons, they probably would have played as well.
The real story of 2007 to 2010 though was Mouton and Ezeh. Mouton came to be known in my (fantasy nerdy) head as the Goblin Sapper, equally liable to cause massive to enemies and his own party. Since the NFL apparently thinks they can make a linebacker out of him, and he was actually getting really good coverage drops whenever he knew to do so, I tend to blame the coaches more than Mouton for his 'define erratic' play. We can only wonder if he would have been our best WLB prospect since Dhani. Ezeh? At this point let's just and wish him luck in everything he does.
That's 2/3 of the tale. The third LB position, strongside, turned out fine. Crable was Crablicious in limited duty for English's nickel-happy '07, and in '08 John Thompson got to do his neaderthalish thing when the occasion called for it (which was basically just Wisconsin and MSU). In 2009 the SAM spot became Spur, a straightforward hybrid position that basically combines Brandon Harrison and Shawn Crable into a player who stays on the field for every down. In '09 it turned out to be Stevie Brown's lifetime calling. In 2010 it was the home of a rotating cast of freshmen: two redshirted Gordons and Carvin Johnson, who were not at all disappointing.
5 Point Scale of Expectation vs. Outcome: 3. We knew things were gonna be Mouton, Ezeh and pray for rain, and only hoped that experience, recruiting, plus a breakout or two from among the 2- and 3-stars, would be able to fix that. Ezeh got a little bit worse every year. Mouton had a major regression as a junior from a promising but mistake-y sophomore year, before getting a bit better as a senior. The recruits came but didn't develop. What really nailed this unit was the coaching, both the effects of changing schemes every year, and the overall poor quality of the Hopson/GERG coaching experience. Heading into 2011, the outlook isn't all that different, depending on your excitement level over Kenny Demens in a sensical defense (Brian: high, Misopogon: medium) and trust that one of the WLB guys will be serviceable (Brian: low, Misopogon: medium). For the future, the "I coached Ray Lewis" pitch seems to be working like free ice cream as Mattison has grabbed first dibs on a loaded regional LB class, and Mark Smith, who has followed Hoke around since '03, would really have to work to match the record incompetence of his last two predecessors.
Next week is the d-line and I promise it won't be this depressing again. Look: Biakabutuka going for 313.
Diaries after the jump.
Roh: forever hybrid. Woolfolk: forever Woorfork
Is there any possibility we see Troy Woolfolk playing free safety this season? In 2009, it seemed to me that our most effective defensive games were the ones where Woolfolk was playing deep safety (which we called strong that season I believe). While JT Floyd is by no means good, I imagine that as an upperclassmen with some games started, he has a better shot of being effective or at least not terrible playing cornerback than Carvin Johnson or someone similar has at being effective or not terrible at free safety.
Do you agree with my premise? Is there any possibility of this happening?
If Woolfolk had been healthy enough to go through spring practice I could see him moving to safety, as the coaches would have had the time reconfigure their defense to account for that. Since they won't have a fully healthy Woolfolk until fall I'm not sure they have that luxury. He hasn't played the position since about the halfway point of the 2009 season. He'll be rusty either way; moving him only increases the risk a good chunk of his final year will be subpar due to his long layoff.
Anyway, the situation at corner isn't much better than safety. Courtney Avery will be decent but the guy starting next to him in the spring game was a walk-on. I'm not sure how much getting Floyd back is going to help. Last year he seemed worse than both Avery and Talbott and his recruiting profile doesn't exactly scream "this guy is going to get a lot better."
If you're moving Woolfolk the guy starting opposite Avery is either Floyd, a freshman, a walk-on, or a guy who seemingly got beat out by a walk-on this spring. That seems like a worse person to put in the starting lineup than Carvin Johnson, and Woolfolk will probably play better at the position he's more familiar with.
Further adventures in getting all these linebackers on the field.
Could Michigan enhance situational packages in the future running a 3-4 on occasion? Having four really talented linebackers may be too much not to use even though its not like Mattison to do so.
Dios mio, let's just do one thing for a while. Once people are complaining that our defense is too predictable we can start thinking about wacky packages.
Even in a hypothetical future where being predictably good or better is Michigan's biggest problem, when Michigan stems to 3-4 it won't get more linebackers on the field. The thing about the 4-3 under is that it's kind of halfway between a 4-3 and a 3-4. Relative to a straight-up 4-3 SAM linebacker and weakside defensive end are heavier and lighter, respectively, and both usually play on or near the LOS outside of the tackles.
This makes them a lot like mismatched 3-4 OLBs*. The reason Michigan kept calling their WDE a "rush linebacker" through the 90s and most of the 00s is that they used to be a 3-4. If Michigan changed to a 3-4 tomorrow Roh would be a starting OLB. Pulling him off the field in favor of a linebacker is actually making Michigan's fit with that defense worse. What's more, in the event Michigan does start running 3-4 fronts they'll use it as a change from their base defense. They'd like to show it as late as possible so the offense is confused. Flipping Roh/Beyer out for a linebacker tips their hand.
That attempt to find a spot for more than three of Michigan's thirteen linebackers next year is as valiant as "this guy can play position X" but no more likely to smooth out what looks like a roster imbalance. But, again, if the only thing we have to complain about is roster imbalance…
*[The way the defense plays differently is on the line, where opportunities to MAKE PLAYS fall almost exclusively to the linebackers; in the 4-3 under there's more opportunity for those guys to get into the backfield.]
Further adventures in anticipating problems.
Does Michigan recruit any offensive guys any more are we headed to the polar opposite of Rodriguez?
Seems like a ton of postings on the defense, I am wondering how much offensive recruiting success we are having.
This is just like complaints about Rodriguez not recruiting any defensive guys lodged in August of two years ago. That class ended up having more defensive players than offensive ones. Looking back on it the problem with it wasn't too many offensive players it was too few offensive linemen. And that people started bolting from it the instant it was signed. And the lack of a true nose tackle. And the inability to retain a quarterback with a Cone-like last name.
- QB: seemed to be in the lead for Zeke Pike until his Auburn visit and is pursuing all manner of pro-style QB in the Midwest; will get one, then will load up the charm wagon for instater Shane Morris in 2013.
- RB: Plenty of numbers; eight will be on the roster this fall with only Michael Shaw a senior. Will probably swing for the fences this year, taking only a high-profile guy. OSU commit Brionte Dunn will be on campus tomorrow
- WR: Obviously no need for slots; outside is an issue. No one seems particularly likely to commit but Aaron Burbridge buzz now has him in play.
- TE: Set unless there's still mutual interest for Ron Thompson.
- OL: No need for centers. Two guards already in the class and Michigan is considered the leader for highly-touted IL OT Jordan Diamond. Should add another two tackles, but with OL it often pays to wait and see who the Lewans and Omamehs are.
My only concern is at WR. Michigan can afford another Bellomy type this year if they're confident in Morris and while a blue-chip back would be great Michigan has plenty of guys there, including double-Jackson approved Thomas Rawls. At WR the four guys entering year two seem to be largely disappointing and there isn't much else on the roster that isn't short. Being concerned about one or two WRs nine months out from signing day is a manageable issue.
Further adventures in Denard's awesomeness.
Brian -- my friend works for a Charter school in NYC. the students were all assigned to write to someone they consider a leader. not all of the leaders responded to the kids, but #16 did.
check out the attached: a nice break from our passing game concerns ... and also, at long last, a story about Leaders that doesn't involve Legends
Thank you for your letter and for asking me about how to be a leader. First of all, you need to believe in yourself and never just follow people. Always do what you think is right no matter what anyone else does or thinks.
Don’t forget to ask people for help and thank those who help you. Don’t be afraid to work hard, follow directions, and follow your dreams!
Good Luck and Go Blue!
development: Boren does not haz it. brilliant photoshop via TTB
Development. A killer post on BHGP analyses schools' NFL draft performance relative to what you'd expect given their recruiting rankings. The conclusions:
- Stars matter. No surprise. Guys with five stars are more than four times more likely to be drafted than those with three.
- Michigan is average. They've had 21 draftees and expected 20.6. This places them 29th amongst 66 BCS teams. I'd bet Michigan would have done very well if this study focused on a time period five years earlier; in my imagination their "development ratio" starts off near OSU's, gradually drops as the OL degrades late in the Carr era, and implodes in the aftermath of massive attrition under Rodriguez.
- USC, Ohio State, and Iowa outperform. Interesting diversity at the top, as the #1 school is also the #1 recruiting school—impressive—and three through five are Iowa, Cal, and Wake Forest. Clemson is sixth, further proving that the Tigers have been the worst-coached BCS team of the last decade.
- Duke sucks. Duke sucks.
- U-S-BIGTEN. I'm going to gank this chart:
Rank Conference Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio 1 Big Ten 172 150.4 114% 2 Pac 12 166 152.0 109% 3 Big East 94 87.8 107% 4 ACC 183 177.2 103% 5 SEC 216 223.8 96% 6 Big 12 157 189.7 82% 7 Non-BCS 121 295.4 40%
If you're interested in going to the NFL, avoid the Big 12 and head north. Also, I'm guessing that non-BCS number suggest that Rivals' drilldown rankings (e.g., three stars being rated 5.5, 5.6, or 5.7) have some merit.
- U-S-RICHROD. West Virginia has the highest "win ratio" amongst BCS teams despite not sending anyone to the league, and while that's an artifact of being the best team in the Big East over the period surveyed WHY DID YOU HIRE GERG AARGH
I have a slight beef: study author UpUpDownDown looks at these numbers strictly through the lens of player development. He breaks conference numbers down further into offense and defense, and then further breaks down offense into skill and offensive line, finding the Big Ten murders everyone on the OL and on D while the Big 12 struggles immensely in those two categories. This is attributed to playstyle, specifically the Big 12's addiction to passing spreads.
I think there may another element at work: scouting services overrating certain sections of the country and underrating others, particularly the Midwest. Rivals (the source of the rankings used) doesn't even have a Midwest analyst. Meanwhile, OL rankings are particularly inaccurate since many high school kids need to put on 50 pounds before they can play in college. The flipside—skill position players more easily projectable—sees a much, much lower spread amongst conferences. The worst-performing conference is the ACC at 94% of expectation; the best is the Big East at 108%. That's a much lower spread than you see in the D and OL numbers, one that looks like an even distribution distorted by a little randomness.
If there was a regional bias in recruiting rankings, hard-to-evaluate OL would be the place it would show up most prominently. I think there is. Your ratings are just wrong when Wisconsin has two four-star linemen in the last five years, as they do on Rivals. They are not evaluating linemen correctly. I'm not sure what Big 12's hole of suck on defense represents but I'd be more convinced it was a playstyle thing if they were running 3-3-5s or something. Going up against Blaine Gabbert and a bunch of other passing spreads doesn't make much difference to anyone but a few linebackers, it seems.
In any case, it's a really interesting post you should read all of.
We have done derped. We have lost our superiority when it comes to not erecting embarrassing billboards:
One: Paul Reiser probably came up with the text. Two: it's on I-94, which goes from Canada to Indiana without even brushing up against Ohio. Three: it's derp enough to put up a billboard after you win something. It's extra super derp to do so after not winning since 2003. Five derps out of five.
Recruiting digression. Brady Hoke : linebackers :: Rich Rodriguez : slot receivers. Michigan now has eight in two classes and speculation naturally turns to where these guys all fit. Specifically, can any of them play somewhere else?
The answer for all four in this class appears to be "no" unless Bolden or Jenkins-Stone pack on a lot of pounds and end up at WDE. Ringer's six-foot and Ross six-one and they'll both end up around 230. On a football field guys that size play LB, FB, or RB and nothing else. Even Bolden and RJS are stretches at DE. Those guys are linebackers one and all.
Last year's class, if you don't remember:
- MI QB(!)/LB Desmond Morgan.
- TX LB Kellen Jones
- OH LB Antonio Poole
- OH LB/TE Frank Clark
According to Rivals, none of these guys is more than 6'2" and Morgan is the heaviest at 225—the others are all at 210. No one's mentioned safety for any. So… these are all linebackers too unless Clark swaps to TE, which is going to be at least as crowded as LB if Ron Thompson signs up to be the fourth tight end in the last two classes.
Someone's going to lose out and get flipped to fullback; other than that, all these guys are linebackers for life. That gives Michigan 13 next year, which is a bit excessive for three starting spots. Or at least it would be if we weren't currently enduring a wasteland at the position. I'd guess the 2013 class is homeruns or one random three star picked up late.
Further recruiting digression. The top ten kids in the state are probably Ross, RJS, Devin Funchess, Mario Ojemudia, Aaron Burbridge, Dennis Norfleet, Terry Richardson, Ron Thompson, Dan O'Brien, and Matt Godin. (Ben Braden might be in there somewhere, too.) Michigan has three, is presumed to be the heavy leader for two more (Godin and Thompson) and is in a short group of leaders for Ojemudia, Richardson, and O'Brien. If the chips fall the right way Michigan could get 7 or 8 of the Michigan top ten, which is not only far better than Rodriguez ever did but would be better than Carr's best instate efforts by some distance.
Part of that is it seems like Michigan is producing better football players these days—everyone in that top ten save Norfleet has a Michigan offer, or would have one if his grades were better (Burbridge). That never happened under Carr. A big chunk appears to be Hoke doing work.
Too good to be true. Red might have believed he'd get his whole team back after exit interviews but Mark Burns of the Daily has responded to/fueled/confirmed rumors that Brandon Burlon is gonzo. Some speculation is that he's seriously pisssed off you guys that he was passed over in favor of Clare for the Frozen Four games.
Losing Burlon hurts, but at least Michigan seems well-covered on the back end. Clare will draw into the lineup regularly and the spot opened up by Langlais's graduation will be filled by incoming freshman Brennan Serville, a guy rising up NHL draft boards. He should go in the middle rounds.
Meanwhile in hockey news of a bizarre and speculative nature, Mike Babcock's son is winding his way from the USHL and crazy rumors that Michigan will take him and Babcock will coach him after Red leaves have duly cropped up. Yost Built collects those.
The Appalachian State debacle was my third day on campus. My freshman tickets sat me in Section 16, far away from my fellow students. I sat next to a white-haired old man--whose natural hair color might've been blue--and his son each week. My enduring memories of that first game are conveniently sparse; my first memory is of Chad Henne zipping a passing to Mike Massey in the opening drive. I saw it all from my bird's eye seat in Row 96 of Section 16; it was perfect and logical, a rational manifestation of our pre-season top 5 ranking. Then, the defense took the field.
Who is the man, Brady Hoke? Krikor Arman, says Brady Hoke
The other side
So last week I bombed Braylon Edwards and various other people who have publicly or privately undermined the program since Carr's departure. I owe the internet in general a POV from the other side. I met a Bo walk-on at the Michigan Beerfest a couple years ago and he's been a consistent email correspondent; he provides this perspective from the recent billions-return alumni thing:
We had the team meeting last night which started out in the field house with Coach Hoke speaking for a few minutes while introducing his staff. Afterwards we went over to the stadium and had dinner in the club level, which is beautiful. There were probably 200 guys there, including Coaches Hanlon, Burton, Thornbladh, Moeller, and Carr. It was a nice gathering and great to see the old fellas.
Regardless of what some outsiders think or what people want to hypothesize about RR, the fact of the matter is it WAS a different environment and it DID alienate ex-players/coaches, to a degree. Michigan football is different. It's a family. It's steeped in traditions that are older than the vast majority of people on the board. RR did not take care of the program. He did not endear himself to the guys who won 42 championships in the 132 years of Michigan Football. One thing I heard over and over last night from ex-players was "thank God we're done with that bullshit" ("the lack of defense" and "the guy just didn't get it"). It may seem petty, but this isn't like taking over an old, family owned business and revamping the computers and offices. This is Michigan. I can't put it into words, but as much as I supported RR, he did not, in fact, get it.
I talked with Bruce Madej for a while as well as Paul Schmidt. I was surprised to learn that RR did not force freshman/sophomores to live in the dorm. The only players who HAD to live in the dorm were the early enrollees, and they only had to stay there until after spring semester. Think about that. An 18 year old kid is going right from living at his folks place and attending high school to instantly living on his own, with rent and phone bills, gas bills, grocery shopping, etc. ALL THE WHILE trying to maintain his athletics AND play for a demanding coach. There's no way an 18 year should be put in that situation. It's overwhelming. Schmitty told me that was the first thing he told Hoke when he arrived. Hoke immediately switched the policy back to freshman and sophomores MUST live in the dorm.
It may seem like a pathetically insignificant aspect of the RR regime, but I think it's yet another example of how many different ways he failed as the head coach at Michigan.
I am NOT here to say Hoke is the answer because he's getting the young kids back in the dorm. BUT, he has brought back some things that made this the winningest program in college football. AND, he's galvanizing the fabric of Michigan football that had rusted a little bit over the last 3 years.
So… there's that. My position here is endlessly conflicted. I wish the "This is Michigan" stuff wasn't so inflexible that it caused what happened over the last three years and etc etc etc but everyone knows that. This guy, like Craig Ross, just wants to see Michigan win. That's what we all want. We just have different opinions on the best way to go about doing that.
Jake Ryan and WLB
I know that you weren't as high on Jake Ryan after a more thorough review of the spring game than some people, but he did do okay and he got some good reviews from bowl practices. My question is this - why isn't he a contender at WLB instead of SLB? It seems like he's a bigger, stronger, guy that can tackle well but might not be athletic enough in coverage. Isn't that the type of guy you want at the WLB while the athletic converted safety types play the SLB (Gordon, Hawthorn, Jones, etc.)?
I wasn't necessarily down on Ryan. Like everyone else I was impressed by his playmaking, but he was going up against a redshirt freshman walk-on when he blitzed off the strongside. That's a major factor in a 1-v-1/2-v-2 scrimmage.
As for the question, Ryan is a big dude at 6'3" and nearly 230 pounds as a redshirt freshman. The usual S&C path will see him brushing up against 240 next year. That's a good size to be the guy facing down a tight end on the LOS most downs. It's not so good to be the designated super fast pursuit guy. Also, the knock on Ryan from high school was his agility. His recruiting profile is littered with references to his ability to "attack vertically," worries about his ability to cover guys, and vague mutterings about a move to DE.
While Ryan may have been an OLB candidate in the 3-3-5—where attacking vertically is a large chunk of the job description when you're not being coached by Greg Robinson—he's strictly SAM in a 4-3 under. Fortunately, he looks like an excellent fit there.
If you're looking for WLB reinforcements look to safety, where Marvin Robinson and Josh Furman are OLB-sized guys idling behind starters.
Technical blocking stuff
The one thing I noticed from the scrimmage was a lot more "angle blocking" (layman's term, actually the offensive line appeared to be using Wing-T rules) as opposed to zone. The idea is to gain leverage on your opponent by blocking in towards the ball with the tackles/TEs and pull. The biggest thing that makes me say this is first the pulling techniques on the QB sweep looked exactly like a puller in a wing-T system (open deep, run around a down block). "Angle blocking" is the idea in the flesh. However, I actually could see this as an advantage for M going forward. Zone is ubiquitous. Rule blocking is not. Could be an advantage. The blocking did not look that great, yet.
Borges seems to be finding what the personnel does well and focusing on that (hence the grab bag of multiplicity). Holy hell, we need a good runner, I hope Mike Cox is it.
I kind of thought Michigan was good at running zone stuff by last year. The mobility on the interior gave them the ability to get downfield and pick up linebackers on the second level. I worry about their ability to move Big Ten defensive tackles, though. Last year it was up to those DTs to move faster than the OL so they didn't get reached. This year the power schemes will ask playside OL to overpower DL who might be bigger than them. We'll see.
Krikor Arman sets the record straight
Thank you for the excellent reference in today's blog, I am honored. Just wanted to clarify a couple things. I did not come from the club team. I went directly to open tryouts and made the team out of the 10 people trying out. And this "forward #14" scored two goals in his first game, and has four championship rings from Michigan, one a National Championship.
So thank you, because I really appreciate all of my friends reading about how I was "forward #14."
Krikor Arman, M4
No offense was intended to Krikor Arman in this morning's post. Krikor Arman is notable enough to be in Wikipedia, which means he is more important than me, most webcomics and, for a brief time, Old Man Murray. He is also in med school.
The 4-3 is back, like it never sort of left and then really really left against Purdue and then came back and then altered into a slightly different version of itself and then mutated into a bizarre thing that was like the thing against Purdue but wasn't really because the person doing the mutating spent all his time watching his "Best of Just For Men Commercials" DVD. It will not suddenly be replaced by things that start with the number 3 and end with razorblades and pain. In the long term, this is delightful.
In the short term… eh… there might be some issues. This series is an attempt to fit Michigan's noses, ends, spurs, bandits, spinners, deathbackers, doombackers, dipbackers and frosting-covered gnomes into their new homes.
The defensive line appeared last week. This post covers linebackers, hybrids, safety-type objects, and, you know, whatever. There will not be a post covering the secondary since it shouldn't change much [Ed-M: he means in their job descriptions -- back away from the ledge...].
What we were forced to watch last year
God, who knows? Let's go back to that Wisconsin screenshot from the last post:
So. You've got Kenny Demens, the MLB, lined up about a yard behind the nose tackle. The nominal SLB, here JB Fitzgerald, is actually lined up to the weak side. The nominal WLB, Jonas Mouton, is lined up to the strong side and gets to line up a little bit deeper. Michigan compensates by drawing cornerback Courtney Avery into the box as a sort of Bieber-backer and half-rolling Kovacs down into the box. You can see Cam Gordon's feet to the top of the screen, covering the slot receiver.
Questions immediately pop to mind: why? what? argh? This was not really a 3-3-5, at least not one as run by Jeff Casteel. This was covered in an extensive picture pages after Penn State obliterated Michigan's defense in the game that was the beginning of the end, but it seemed like Michigan was keeping Demens in the same place in all formations. Here's 4-3 and 3-4 alignments:
Demens spent his year a yard or two back of a nose tackle, shaded to one side. Casteel MLBs lined up 5-7 yards deep and ran like demons to wherever the play is going; Demens got swallowed by unblocked guards through no fault of his own and left Michigan vulnerable to counter after counter.
And then in addition to the 4-3, 4-4, and 3-4 looks above we also got some glimpses of something that actually looked like a 3-3-5, except with two deep safeties and the MLB still too close to the LOS:
So the answer to the strangled yelps of misery was "Michigan ran everything… terribly."
Outside of Demens, Mouton spent the year as the WLB (apparently unless teams were putting twins to one side), where he ran down stuff, plowed fullbacks at the line, crushed blocks to make great individual plays, and lost contain over and over. The SLB was some combination of Craig Roh, JB Fitzgerald, and Obi Ezeh. All were confused, slow, prone to get lost in space, and ill-suited for the spot.
Further outside yet, Carvin Johnson, Thomas Gordon, and Cam Gordon split time at the spur with the larger Gordon seeming to lock down the position after his move from free safety(!). Yes, Michigan's starting free safety ended the year as essentially a strongside linebacker. Jordan Kovacs's role as a tiny weakside linebacker was actually more safety-ish than people thought it would be, but he still rolled down into the box plenty.
What we were forced to watch the year before
Michigan was a 4-3 under similar to the one above. Here's that shot from the 2009 Iowa game again. While the line isn't undershifted it does provide a canonical example of what the linebackers usually do in the system:
Now we're looking at the linebackers so note that Stevie Brown is lined up right outside of SDE Craig Roh, ready to take on a tight end. The other linebackers are at the same depth (five yards) lined up over the guards. Michigan's rolled SS Mike Williams into the box. Iowa ends up running a zone stretch right at Brown; he keeps contain and allows Mouton/Ezeh to flow over the top of Roh, blow up the fullback, and make a TFL.
There wasn't much else as far as the linebackers. Brown hung out around tight ends and slot receivers all year and the two MLBs were pretty much just MLBs. There weren't dudes at different depths, dudes moving all over the place, dudes playing 4-3 on one snap, 3-3-5 on another, 3-4 on another. The LBs lined up five yards deep over the guards, end of story*.
*[of course this is not literally true, but on the vast bulk of snaps this occurred.]
What can't possibly be quite as bad next year
Again, the assumption here is that Michigan is going to be running a 4-3 under similar to what they did in 2009. This assumption is an easy one to make since the head coach said it point blank. Details on what that means for the line—the "under" bit—can be found in the first post in the series.
As for what that means for the associated linebackers, look above. Against pro-style teams one linebacker will roll down to the TE side of the LOS and the other guys will hang out about five yards off the LOS.
What you need at each spot
To refresh your memory, here's an aerial view of a 4-3 under:
The strongside linebacker needs to be a magical athlete made out of beef and lightning who can take on a TE effectively, contain runs, and move out into the slot to cover little buggers. Oh and if he's an awesome pass rusher that would be cool too. So Lamarr Woodley except faster. Maybe Shawn Crable or Prescott Burgess. Failing that, teams pick one of two paradigms and make do:
Lumbering quasi-DE sort of like Roh who can take pressure off the SDE and do more than just force running plays inside of him when matched up against a TE.
A sort of super strong safety who may not be able to take on TEs except by setting up outside of them but is a fantastic tackler in space and a guy who doesn't have to come off the field when opponents go to spread formations.
When Greg Robinson wasn't denying its existence, the "spinner" was obviously concept #2. Stevie Brown had an excellent senior year doing that. Johnny Thompson was concept #1, and that burned Michigan badly. With passing attacks so effective these days most teams are moving towards #2. If you worried they'll go with #1, don't be: they don't have anyone on the roster who can plausibly be that guy.
The middle linebacker is a middle linebacker. In the under he has to expect more blocks since usually the bubble in the line is the guy lined up directly over him, so he has to be smart about where his help is and funnel guys back inside. Quick decisions and the quickness to get on the side the OL doesn't want you on are at a premium.
The weakside linebacker is a weakside linebacker. He's protected by the three and five tech, usually gets a free run at someone or another, and has to be an athletic tackling machine plus blitzer. Mouton, basically.
Or at least that's the book. In reality it's nowhere near that neat. The Iowa play linked above that shows Ezeh charging downhill at a zone stretch, getting outside of the fullback, and allowing Mouton to tackle is a canonical example of the responsibilities these guys have:
Everyone says the MLB is going to deal with a blocker and the WLB is going to have the play funneled back to him. This is what happens here. But in truth I think the differences between the two guys are overblown. On the losing contain play it's Mouton who needs to deal with a blocker and funnel back to his buddy. Plenty of times throughout the year it was Demens picking through trash to get to ballcarriers or Mouton thundering into a fullback at the LOS.
I think of the 4-3 under as something halfway between a 4-3 and a 3-4. The SLB and WDE are kind of versions of 3-4 OLBs—playmakers who can drop into coverage or blitz. The one-tech DT is sort of a version of a 3-4 NT. He doesn't need to control two gaps, but he's a big guy who needs to eat up two opponents. Etc. In a 3-4 the MLBs are interchangeable. That's not quite the case here but the two MLBs are more alike than different in the under, especially with all the shifting and motion teams employ in an effort to get you off balance and maybe force that WLB to take on a block or that MLB to run. Playing SLB is a different world entirely.
And since it seems silly to break out another post for one position that's changing, the strong safety wants to be Jordan Kovacs running a 4.5 at 220 pounds. What Kovacs did with Michigan last year will be about what the strong safety does next year—the "bandit" thing was overblown. Kovacs played plenty of deep half zones over the course of the season. He also rolled up to the line and blitzed, covered tight ends in man, etc. He was a strong safety on a team that was aggressive with its safeties.
Who goes where
Kenny Demens is the middle linebacker. Attempts to replace him with Obi Ezeh will be thwarted by a pucky band of kids ripping off the Mattison mask, etc.
On the strongside Cam Gordon is the clear leader after finishing the year as the "spur" in Michigan's 3-3-5. That is a very close analogue to the SLB in a 4-3 under. The guy next to you is still a strong, run-defending DE with a little more pop than a 3-4 end. You're still taking on tight ends against run and pass… unless you're getting dragged into the slot. Gordon's got the biggest frame of any Michigan linebacker, ballooning and buried Isaiah Bell aside, and can put on a lot of beef over the offseason to help him in his dual roles as tight end defender and roving punch-the-slot-in-the-face guy. He's got a season's worth of starting experience. He'll have to fight for it but he's got the edge.
This is where the linebacker who wasn't Demens or Mouton probably ends up competing, so seniors Brandon Herron and JB Fitzgerald are tentatively slotted as the competition. Neither has done much so far. Other options here include the other two freshmen spurs, but Thomas Gordon and Carvin Johnson might be needed elsewhere.
Michigan has a surfeit of options on the weakside, where Michigan's attempt to move to the 3-3-5 has left them with a zillion kinda-sorta safeties who can run and maybe, hopefully tackle. Pick any underclassman listed at strong safety on the depth chart by class and there's a 50-50 chance you'll see him competing at WLB in spring. Mike Jones was Mouton's primary backup and seemed to be the leader in the race to replace him, but one season-ending injury later he's just another guy with no experience. He joins Josh Furman and Marvin Robinson in that group. Also, this could be the landing spot for the little Gordon or Johnson.
Some of these guys are ticketed for safety, but we won't know which ones until spring. Robinson and Johnson bounced back and forth as freshmen; Thomas Gordon spent his redshirt year there before getting the call at spur last spring. If you put a gun to my head I'd say Johnson and his tackling win the job, but this could be any of a half-dozen guys.
At strong safety, heroic efforts will be made to dislodge Jordan Kovacs. They will fail. The effort will be provided by some combination of Robinson, Thomas Gordon, and Johnson.
Awkwardness Rating On A One To Rodriguez-Interviews-Hoke Scale
Like the defensive line, operating in a 4-3 makes fine sense for Michigan's personnel. Ironically, it's the exotic wing guys with funny names who fit most neatly in to the new scheme, since they'll be doing pretty much what they were doing before. The biggest adjustment will be from the two middle linebackers, except the two middle linebackers did just fine as 3-4/4-3 guys—Demens, in particular spent two years playing MLB in 4-3 under schemes before last year's experiment.
Really, anything but the 3-3-5, especially the Robinson version, should be better. Michigan had their best day as a rush defense against Iowa when they replaced Ezeh and ran—drumroll—various 4-3s and 3-4s most of the day. Iowa couldn't get anything Jibreel Black being a freshman or Jonas Mouton losing contain didn't give them.
When they went to the bizarre non-stack it allowed Evan Royster to go from massive disappointment to massive disappointment with his usual billion yards against Michigan. In doing so stripped Kenny Demens of the ability he showed in previous games and put a ton of pressure on Mouton to do the contain thing he doesn't do so well. I don't think I'll ever understand it.
After a year of being "multiple" and cratering Michigan needs to establish a baseline defense that might be predictable and medicore but at least gives everyone on the team an idea of what they do, and if Gordon develops they should be fine in the front seven save the scary lack of depth on the DL.