Preview 2010: Linebackers
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Jonas Mouton||Sr.*||Mark Moundros||Sr.*#||Carvin Johnson||Fr.|
|Mike Jones||So.||Obi Ezeh||Sr.*||Thomas Gordon||Fr.*|
|Kevin Leach||Jr.*||Kenny Demens||So.*||Mike Williams||Jr.*|
As far as massive disappointments go, linebacker outstripped even last year's secondary (which was clearly in trouble from the word go) and the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. With two returning starters entering their redshirt junior years and a hyped senior recruit moving away from the safety spot he could not manage, I was torn between a 3 and 4 last year. As the season progressed and both starters were replaced by their backups only to see those backups flail and the starters re-enter it became clear that something was drastically wrong.
Actually, it didn't even take that long. Even though Michigan won the Notre Dame game the linebacking corps came in for a hiding afterwards:
Words cannot describe how bad Obi Ezeh was in this game. It was a disaster, and this is a guy who's in his third year starting. Maybe the double switch of defensive coordinators has him behind the times for a third-year starter but that doesn't go much towards explaining a –8.5 that would have been worse if he hadn't been turned loose on a couple blitzes. Meanwhile, Jonas Mouton has been negative in both games so far after a promising finish to last year.
And the something didn't seem that mysterious:
Mouton and Ezeh belong to Jay Hopson, and the inside backers are the only guys who belong to Jay Hopson, and they're playing terribly. … Unless the two inside guys get radically better over the rest of the season, I wouldn't be surprised if Hopson was replaced.
The hope is that Hopson's coaching was as ineffectual as it appears—Mouton went decidedly backwards last year after a promising end to 2008 and Ezeh's gone nowhere in two years—and that the move of Greg Robinson to linebackers coach can adequately triage the two years of damage done.
This covers the middle and weakside linebackers since they seem close to interchangeable. Spurs are handled after; the bandit was classified a safety and handled in the secondary preview, the deathbacker is still a defensive lineman.
When The Sporting News's Dave Curtis published an article in early August declaring that converted walk-on Mark Moundros was the player on Michigan's team that needed to "step up" more than any other, that claim was met with derision on the message board. This was well and just because obviously that was insane. A few weeks later, Moundros is the projected starter at middle linebacker and one of Michigan's two permanent captains. Score: Dave Curtis one million, Everyone Else zero.
Moundros is a walk-on and spent last year playing mostly fullback, but his rise into the starting lineup has gone from probable motivational tactic to just plain probable as fall has gone along and Michigan's scrimmages have approached game conditions. In the semi-public fall scrimmage, Jonas Mouton was held out with a minor injury, leaving Moundros to start at MLB as Obi Ezeh tried out WLB. In Michigan's "Beanie Bowl" ones-vs-ones fall run-through, you can see Moundros paired with a healthy Mouton at around 2:00 minutes in the official site's highlight reel. It's too late for his prominence to mean anything other than a likely start on Saturday even if he is listed next to Obi Ezeh with an OR. He's some Rodriguez talking to confirm:
Rodriguez said he was initially opposed to fullback Mark Moundros making the move, but he came around quickly. "I told him I didn't think it made sense, but he said, 'I think I can bring something there'—and he has. It's not only learning the defense and the physical presence, but his leadership. He's going to compete and will be right in the mix based on spring."
This is a fantastic story but also a worrying one. The single clip I've got on Moundros from last year is a nice block on a linebacker in the Illinois game, which you'll note doesn't involve playing, you know, defense. One of this blog's primary heuristics for determining whether you can expect a position group to be good is the "position switch starter," which proclaims that any position group where a guy who played one thing last year is in position to start at another thing the next is always scrambling to control the damage as best they can. [Ed: Holy pants, I forgot about this in re: Cam Gordon, though that move was more foreordained than panicked.]
This comes in varying levels of severity: moving a weakside linebacker to the middle is not a big deal. Flopping sides of the ball is. For example, in 2008 when Michigan moved defensive tackle John Ferrara to guard and started him that was a definitive sign the offensive line was in shambles. In this context, "sparsely deployed walk-on fullback to starting middle linebacker" is as much of a flashing sign that says DOOM as anything I've ever seen.
On the other hand, during the Illinois game last year Ezeh actually ran out of a hole Juice Williams was about to enter with the ball so he could chase after a running back. It looked insane, causing me to dig out the "run away" bit of "Janie's Got A Gun" and the fake Magic card you see at right. By the end of the year whatever hope remained for Ezeh was vestigial indeed; merely having options other than him could maybe possibly hopefully slightly improve matters?
This is admittedly a faint hope, but merely going from whatever that was last year to okay would be a major step forward. Moundros is seriously pushing Ezeh at least gives the defense another bullet in the chamber. For what it's worth, I talked to a just-graduated walk-on in NYC would called Moundros a "beast" and thought he was at least physically capable of the job. Production from this spot should improve; Ezeh won't get worse and anyone who replaces him will be better since he's still around.
On the weakside, Jonas Mouton returns for his third season as a starter. In 2008 he started off wobbly (he actually spent the Utah game backing up Marell Evans, who is now playing for Hampton) but found his feet in the Big Ten season and looked for all the world like a guy ready to blow up. Last year's season preview approvingly cited his UFR chart—solidly positive in every Big Ten game save Michigan State—and proclaimed him "easily Michigan's best linebacker," "an excellent, explosive blitzer," and even "surprisingly stout when it comes to taking on fullbacks and even guards" before predicting a breakout season.
That didn't happen. Mouton's '09 via the lens of UFR:
|Notre Dame||3||8||-5||Major regression from last year; often went into pass drops without bothering to see if it was a run.|
|Indiana||7||8||-1||Surprised he came out this close to even. Major culprit on a few big plays.|
|Michigan State||7||8||-1||Exact same numbers from last week as he alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Iowa||6||9||-3||Three weeks in a row: alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Illinois||5.5||9||-3.5||The usual at this point. Excellent athlete, many mental mistakes.|
|Purdue||-||6||-6||Did this in like a quarter of playing time.|
|Wisconsin||6.5||11||-4.5||Jonas Mouton: big positive, bigger negative.|
Instead of breaking out, Mouton regressed. His '08 numbers were the inverse of the above, usually a hair above zero with the occasional big positive. He was lethal in the Fandom Endurance III game against Northwestern; the only times he was lethal in '09 were to his own team. By the Iowa game the pattern was established, with Mouton turning in a series of excellent plays unfortunately outstripped by his tendency to run himself out of plays and get lost in zone drops.
This kept happening until Mouton, like Ezeh, found himself on the bench after taking a series of angles so bad they were immediately apparent even to the dedicated amateur. There was this one against Indiana, but even that can't live up to whatever this was:
|opens up cutback lane|
|desperate diving tackle|
|way too far inside|
|fails to get outside|
|first enormous bust|
|wide open receiver|
|ride the TEs downfield|
|digs out a tough INT|
|into the backfield|
|screaming downhill at this|
|blows through his blocker|
It was around that point that JB Fitzgerald started getting more time, if only so the coaches could get in a proper row with Mouton on the sideline. Fitzgerald quickly proved himself just as liable to bust and Mouton got his job back, but only by default.
Unlike the situation at middle linebacker, it seems within the realm of possibility Mouton's light goes on and the talent he's flashed the past couple years turns into an All Big Ten kind of season. To deploy a cliche, he is the X factor, the guy with the greatest possible variance in his play on the defense. I'd settle for a return to his 2008 level; he is capable of more. There's a 25% chance he's awesome, a 50% chance he's okay, and a 25% chance he gets benched.
The hope here is for the Bennie Joppru.
Obi Ezeh came in for quite a bit of discussion above by way of figuring out how Moundros could possibly ascend to the top of the depth chart, so this won't be much of a surprise: wow, he was bad last year. This is my (least?) favorite demonstration:
I admit that when it comes to my knowledge of football, linebacker play remains an intricate mystery that I'm probably wrong about more than anything else, but whatever your scheme it ain't right when your middle linebacker doesn't move forward—like, ever—on a running play.
That Wisconsin game was the defense's nadir. The Badgers punted once en route to racking up 45 points and did this mainly by exploiting the linebacking. The sheer incompetence of it all, especially Ezeh's –10 on the day, prompted this response:
You rage, contrary to the above statement, seems particularly well-focused.
…you know the story: Mouton and Ezeh. Wisconsin's passing game was almost exclusively zingers over the middle to incredibly open receivers 20 or even 30 yards downfield. On every damn one both MLBs were vastly out of position and the throws were easy. The pair was also very poor in run support: Graham and Martin combined for 21 tackles. They combined for eight!
These are returning starters and redshirt juniors. They have gotten so much worse this year, and it's obvious to everyone from Bret Bielema to stupid bloggers with charts.
Ezeh hadn't developed one bit from the previous season and Hopson wasn't long for Michigan. Where Mouton has held onto his job and manages to enter his senior season with at some tattered hype dragging behind him, Ezeh's apparently lost his job to a walk-on, and not even the same one he was benched for last year.
With Moundros unlikely to nail down every snap, Ezeh will find himself on the field frequently. I'm not expecting a whole lot of improvement. But I think I am expecting some, for the reasons listed above: Greg Robinson in charge, another year of experience, a defensive coordinator who knows his name.
Demens left, Fitzgerald right
The enigmatic Kenny Demens is third string in the middle; after a seemingly productive spring he dropped off the map and has generated zero fall mentions as Moundros climbs the depth chart. He played sparingly in the fall scrimmage; last year he was passed over for walk-on Kevin Leach when it came time to replace Ezeh temporarily. He's spinning his wheels, seemingly on track to watch this year. Next year both of the guys above him will be gone and he'll get one last chance to step forward; the tea leaves are not encouraging at the moment.
|WHY HE DIDN'T START|
|epically bad angle|
|runs out of position|
|angle way too far upfield|
|no idea what he's doing|
|zipping up in a small crease|
|recognizes the play|
|flipped the line|
JB Fitzgerald is now the third string at what this site dubbed "deathbacker" a year ago; since he's behind Roh and Herron at a spot that's at least half defensive end he'll get some further discussion in the defensive line section. But if he plays he'll probably play as a true linebacker; Rodriguez has called him a "swing" guy they can play at any of the two and a half linebacker spots.
Can he play well? That's the question. He didn't play well when the Jonas Mouton Suspension Fiasco forced him into the lineup against Eastern Michigan, committing some of the same sins Mouton does above. On the other hand, his most extensive experience outside of that game was a start against Purdue during which he got a 3-4-negative 1 line and I said he was preferable to other options because he "didn't make me want to die more than once or twice," which woo linebackers.
I may be reading too much into this, but after the fall scrimmage Rodriguez was specifically asked about Demens and Fitzgerald and rambled this out:
They have played a lot of special teams. They’ve had good camps. JB is a guy that we really like because we can swing him. He’s knows our defense, so we can put him at a couple of different linebacker positions and he’s had a good camp. Kenny Demens has had a pretty solid camp. So I think we’re going to have more linebackers to play, but the veterans, Obi Ezeh, Mark Moundros, even though he is new at linebacker, Jonas Mouton, those veterans are going to be the biggest key because usually when you’re a senior you’re going to have your best year, or at least that is what you hope.
That reads like "yeah, they're not going to play unless Ezeh, Moundros, and Mouton can't."
Jones burning his redshirt left, Leach tackling an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot right
On the weakside, sophomore Mike Jones is listed as the backup to Jonas Mouton. Jones spent last year taking a Carr redshirt by playing on special teams and driving me crazy about not having the option of bringing back a fifth year senior in the near future; he spent fall and spring lighting up opponents and building some real buzz for himself. He, too, was held out of the fall scrimmage with a minor injury; before that he was flying around like his recruiting profile suggested he might. The key passage from ESPN:
Exceptional edge blitzer that has great timing and quickness; speed rushes by the offensive tackle before he can get set. Offensive backs can't or won't block him when blitzing off the edge; really creates havoc in the backfield. Does a great job of using his hands to shed blockers in order to get to the ball carrier.
In his profile everyone from Jones to his coach to the gurus say "this kid loves to hit," a description that's being borne out by practice chatter. He's still pretty slight at 210 pounds, so a starting role is probably not in the offing. When Michigan's "multiple" defense phases into a 4-3 under, though, the weakside linebacker is a guy who doesn't usually have to take on linemen and can be a smaller, speedier defender. If Mouton's angles are still ugly and his are better he can find himself in a platoon role; he'll probably have to settle for providing breathers in anticipation of starting in 2011.
Walk-on Kevin Leach is third string here and should see his playing time restricted to special teams. It's a testament to something that Michigan's best option after Ezeh last year was a 205-pound sophomore walk-on. Leach actually got mixed reviews in UFR save the one "enormous bust" per game in his two starts against Illinois and Purdue, but at his weight he's not a long term solution at MLB and he obviously lacks the athleticism required at WLB.
both Johnson (left) and Gordon (right) rocked the #1 in high school
It's too bad the official depth chart had to go and upstage the prediction here that after Carvin Johnson's "Beanie Bowl" audition for the starting job at spur would be a successful one sooner rather than later. Rodriguez did hedge a bit in Monday's press conference by saying that position was "not set" and there could have been an OR there, but they didn't.
So it's his job. Despite Johnson's status as a true freshman, in some ways this is the more experienced player winning out. Johnson was 100% safety at Rummel, the "heart and soul" of the crushing defense that took his team all the way to the state final. A multi-year starter, Johnson's recruiting profile is full of praise for his football smarts and advanced technique. When Rivals bothered to rank him after his Michigan commit they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw:
Johnson is a fantastic tackler. He can tackle in the open field or fill the alley. He brings a pop at the point of contact and always has the ball carrier falling backwards. Johnson is a smart safety in the run game, picking his spots to make an impact and not overpursuing or being too aggressive.
The only negative mentioned was a "lack of elite straight-line speed," something that shouldn't be a problem at spur. There he'll be tasked with covering the flats in zone and riding tight ends into the deep seam. His recruiting profile picked him out as a true sleeper likely to exceed his relatively modest rankings based on local praise and late SEC offers, and while my usual heuristics lead me to be skeptical about a true freshman beating out a redshirt freshman with nary a fourth star to be seen, I've just got that feeling—what's it called—you know—optimism. Optimism enough to throw this position a 2, anyway. While two less-than-touted freshmen are not likely to be average Big Ten players in year one, I don't think we'll be looking back at 2010 and saying "oh God, what about that mess at spur."
Though Thomas Gordon has been on campus for a year, before he toured Michigan and Michigan State's camps before his senior year of high school he was strictly a quarterback. It was only the prospect of securing a D-I scholarship as a defensive back that saw him switch to defense, and that move was often restricted to passing downs by a hamstring injury. That combined with his status as the lowest-ranked member of Michigan's '09 class made his redshirt a fait accompli; that accomplished, he ascended to the starting job at spur in spring before Johnson's arrival put his job under fire.
Since Gordon hasn't played and I didn't pick up a word of practice buzz good or bad on him in his apprentice year—odd for a guy who was slated to start—I can't offer much more than what's in his recruiting profile. If I had to guess I'd say he's more athletic than Johnson since Rodriguez dubbed him "Prison Abs" and he played quarterback in high school, so if the two platoon for any reason other than keeping the two fresh, Gordon might be a passing-down substitution. More likely the PT he sees is in response to Johnson errors or long drives on which he gets tired.
Walk-on Floyd Simmons is third on the depth chart; he saw time on special teams last year and will again. Since he's a walk-on with scant playing time information on him is limited to his height (six foot) and weight (200 pounds).
|into the backfield|
|just a huge bust|
|a killer touchdown|
|first enormous bust|
|way too far inside|
Venturing into the wooly depths beyond the sanctioned two-deep we find Mike Williams, erstwhile free safety starter from last year. It looked for a second like he was being auditioned for that two-deep when he got plenty of playing time in the fall scrimmage, but now that he's still behind the guys he was behind in spring and the newly ordained starter, that looks more like an attempt to see whether or not Williams can contribute outside of special teams at all. The answer for a redshirt junior on the fourth string behind a walk-on is "no."
I won't belabor the point made in this space with DELICATELY PHRASED QUESTIONS during the season, but the video to the right should provide plenty of evidence as to why this is the case. That he's fallen so far down the depth chart after starting at the most critical position on defense goes a long way to explaining '09 and providing hope for 2010: Michigan may be losing crazy outlier Brandon Graham but they're also losing a crazy outlier in the opposite direction, too.