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.
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]
Freshman Joe Bolden [recruiting profile] arrived in spring with a cavalcade of hype and a mane of hair; he instantly stepped into the #2 MLB role. Samson ho:
He's big (6'3", 230), comes guru approved, looked pretty good in spring… and is still a freshman. He'll get snaps behind Demens as Michigan grooms him from 2013; let's be realistic about his chances of displacing a senior returning starter. Freshmen are bad ideas, always, unless they're tailbacks. This was evident in those spring videos, in which Bolden got blown up a couple times:
Play 5: Inside zone run with H-back (Miller) flaring weakside that we've seen for years now. Roh(+1) drives his man—probably Schofield—way down the line and Fitz decides to cut behind that mess. Bolden(+1) is there to clean up on the cutback at the LOS with help from Ryan. Miller's block on Ryan… eh… not so good.
Play 16: Denard hands off to Rawls on an under center stretch(?). Odd. Rawls finds a crease as Barnum, who's flowed well down the line, latches on to and eliminates Bolden. Gyarmati gets enough of a block on Morgan to get Rawls the edge and a nice gain.
Play 20: Short yardage Vincent Smith iso is… a touchdown? I don't want to talk about this. Bolden got rocked by Gyarmati, probably because he didn't read the play quick enough. That contact is not happening near the LOS and that's all she wrote.
Patience. Freshmen are always bad ideas unless they're Dennis Norfleet.
"Bolden is everything that you want at the linebacker position," Nee said. "He has good athleticism to cover a good area of space but is a great tackler one-on-one in space. He does a great job of putting himself in position to make plays whether the ball stays inside the tackles or goes outside. He is extremely physical at the point of contact."
He's the heir apparent here. Fellow freshman Kaleb Ringer [recruiting profile] will redshirt after injuring his knee; redshirt junior Mike Jones didn't play much last year and was passed by Bolden up on his arrival. Barring injury, he doesn't figure to get much more than garbage time snaps
Jake Ryan burst into Michigan fans' consciousness at the 2011 spring game, when he abused a walk-on tackle to sack Devin Gardner twice and had a ball deposited into his chest for a pick-six. Everyone was playing it real cool afterwards, assuming that Ryan would back up Cam Gordon and we'd find out it's a lot harder to blow up tackles with scholarships. Then Gordon got injured. Everyone played it cool and mentally inserted freshman Brennen Beyer into the starting lineup.
Beyer didn't do so hot in his first game, so a wild-eyed and unprepared Ryan was shoved in there. He did… well, there was a lot of it. Whatever he was doing, it came with sound effects. And bright flashy lights. If stuntmen were not involved, they probably should have been. When the dust cleared the results had amplitude.
Can really get to QB. Most consistent rusher on the day.
Trouble holding up on the edge when asked to slant.
Eaten up on the edge.
Paging Jonas Mouton to aisle reincarnation.
Couple of explosive pass rush moves.
Not much of a problem after the first argh cut block.
No argh moments, a couple wow experiences.
Michigan missed him.
Showed the guys above how to do it on the zone read.
First real impact game.
Was not a major factor.
Anecdotally, I spent the first half of the season literally exclaiming "RYAN!!!" whenever he'd get slashed down by a cut block and Michigan would get gashed on the perimeter as a result. I'm sure the coaches were frustrated, too, and never more so when Mattison RPS+2'd Michigan State only for Ryan to blow it:
Jake Ryan takes.
Jake Ryan also gives. How many SLB/DE type players would be able to squeeze so far down on this zone read and recover to tackle behind the LOS?
I know Scheelhaase slowed up a little because Floyd was hanging on the edge but I don't think it would have mattered. Ask Taylor Martinez about that. Or Scheelhaase himself:
Add in the David Wilson –22 yarder in the Sugar Bowl and that other audacious TFL and Jake Ryan's highlight reel goes toe-to-toe with anyone on last year's defense not named Mike Martin.
Ryan's errors got less frequent as the year went along. You can see a moderately positive trend in the UFR numbers. Anecdotally, I stopped yelling his name in frustration at some point. They were still a bit too frequent for my tastes (see this Braxton Miller scramble Blue Seoul pointed out), as the SLB position is a lot less demanding mentally than either of the ILB slots and Ryan spent a lot of time playing nickel DE. I have some trepidation that a guy as wild as Ryan came in might take another year to domesticate, and may never be a show horse.
The trend is upward. Two of his three sacks came in the last three weeks, and his Sugar Bowl was a monster: six solo tackles, four of them TFLs, and a sack. His 11 TFLs were second on the team to Van Bergen's 12.5, and he was a redshirt freshman learning a new position. In year two significant improvement beckons, both in the things he doesn't make you scream and in the numbers that get national attention. It's breakout time.
fee fi fo fum
Cam Gordon still looks like he was born to play football; he's running out of time to do so. After a disastrous run at free safety—let's all pause to throw another shoveful of dirt on GERG's grave*—he was yanked to the 3-3-5's SAM equivalent in 2010 and played poorly because he'd moved to the position mere moments ago. Here's me being mad after the PSU game:
Cam pulled for Thomas as SURPRISE, moving a deep safety to linebacker makes him confused.
A year later he was the presumed starter at the analogous position before getting Wally Pipped by Ryan.
That's a bad thing for your career. Worse was Michigan going to Brennen Beyer, not Gordon, when they put a 4-4 on the field. Gordon managed all of four tackles in garbage time last year.
Little of this is Gordon's fault. He spent his freshman year being humored at WR, his sophomore year getting yanked between two positions coached by Tony Gibson and GERG, and then got caught behind the exciting Janus that is Jake Ryan. This is still recoverable.
To recover, Gordon has to take advantage of Beyer moving to WDE and participate in 20-30% of the snaps as Ryan's backup. So far, so good, from Mott practice appearances and the spring game. Gordon's up as the SAM, taking backup snaps there and at the DE spot in the nickel. He'll play, possibly well. He was regarded as quite the athlete coming out of high school.
With Beyer's move, Michigan is light here. Freshman Royce Jenkins-Stone [recruiting profile] was expected to redshirt even before he came in weighing 213; now that's a lock. If Michigan needs to dig deeper than Gordon they'll probably flip Beyer back and remove Mario Ojemudia's redshirt or give Joe Bolden some run there.
*[Holy crap, I just remembered that the guy who was playing the SAM spot in the 3-3-5 was… Thomas Gordon. Goddammit, Rodriguez.
It seemed like Michigan always wanted to put Desmond Morgan on the field, but he was struggling through some injuries early and just too much of a freshman when he did end up out there for that to work. Morgan landed a 1-7-minus 6 in the Notre Dame game and went back to the bench for a while as Michigan experimented Brandin Hawthorne.
When Hawthorne's inability to take a block was just too much, they threw Morgan on the field for his first extended run since ND against Northwestern… and pulled him for Hawthorne again. The next week it was Hawthorne getting the hook, and that change finally stuck. In my eyes that was a lesser of two evils situation. Morgan's last seven games:
Confused but more effective getting to the ball.
An improvement on Hawthorne, but still a work in progress.
Not as bad as you might think, but still a problem.
Step forward from last week; still freshman.
Still a bit slow reading plays.
Worrisome lack of athleticism evident on a couple plays.
When Morgan biffed he tended to biff hard, and for obvious freshman-based reasons. Here's a pitch to the outside on which the guard in front of Morgan's nose pulls that he doesn't get to the POA on:
Dios mio, man. Slowing up in the gap that exists because a guard just pulled outside of it ain't right, and burns a nice play from Roh, who picked off the fullback and would have given Morgan the opportunity to thump Burkehead at the LOS.
And he would have, too. A lot of the positive Morgan clips above consist of him thundering down into a fullback and standing the guy up:
There was also that decleater against Illinois. Michigan made the switch to Morgan because he's a physical downhill football player who's got gritty toughness and will hit you. That's not sarcastic. Dude wants to smash face.
Morgan had a lot of issues similar to Ryan and didn't pick the defense up quite as fast thanks to some injuries and his late emergence as the starter. As a result I was fretting over him as late as Nebraska…
Morgan is about where Ryan was halfway through the season. This makes sense because he's had about half the playing time and was reportedly laid up with a nagging injury of some variety. As a result he's still missing some plays available. When Nebraska started their pitch series on their final touchdown drive Michigan had the first one thumped but for #43 [ed: see above clip]
While he's clearly getting better, linebacker hesitancy remains an issue with the D that may bite them if they ever face a team that can throw again.
Morgan in particular had difficulty scraping to the hole.
The good news is that Morgan was a true freshman and should improve a lot. One or two of these guys are going to disappoint and others will establish a ceiling; all should stop making many of the mistakes they did a year ago. Extra consistency from Morgan means more thumps at or near the LOS. Like Demens, he seems to lack the explosiveness to be a TFL machine; Michigan will settle for both of its ILBs making 90 tackles about three yards downfield. Coverage may remain an issue for those same athleticism reasons.
Morgan should develop into a pretty good Big Ten linebacker this year, and then we'll explore his ceiling in 2013.
Erstwhile starter Brandin Hawthorne returns for his final year behind Morgan. I'd been plugging him as a guy who might have a role in Michigan's nickel package earlier this summer. That seems like a longshot now that freshman James Ross is listed in front of him on the depth chart and was taking the limited second-string snaps at the Mott practice.
But he might come in useful at some point. He's still a small guy who might be playing safety in another life, which helped him knife into the backfield on two critical third and short attempts by Notre Dame. Unfortunately it also meant that once someone got their paws on you it was over, and since Hawthorne was probably the worst offender in a year when all of the ILB types were slow to read and react that happened all the time. Hawthorne was pulled for Morgan in the MSU game and was almost exclusively limited to garbage time afterwards. I still think he brings a cover skillset that might make him a useful piece in that nickel.
As for Ross [recruiting profile], he's not much bigger than Hawthorne (same listed height; he's got five extra pounds). What he is reputed to have that Hawthorne hasn't shown is a nose for the ball. His coach:
"He's one of the best instinctive players I've ever coached," Porritt insisted. "He reads plays so fast, and his first step is so explosive. He's physical, too, but it's his uncanny ability to read and get after the football that is his greatest asset. He's a great young man who works hard and is very humble.
That's what made him a touted recruit despite not having ideal size. He hit the Army game, got offers from all four Midwest power programs, and was a universal four-star. It's not impossible to see him ascend to the starting lineup next year if Morgan slides over to MLB; Bolden should stay on his toes.
Redshirt freshman Antonio Poole is laid up with some sort of injury that seems pretty serious. Don't expect to see him much.
Funny how those first two pictures show our colors as being so different. They're both a bit off what the color actually is imo, but fwiw I like the more maize-y one much more. Not that we need to get into this debate again so close to the season. Great writeup, as always! I see the LB core being a strength this year, I think a lot of us have been conditioned by the RR years to not expect much if any offseason improvement, but with these great coaches in their 2nd year I expect the unit to become a strength. I think the hesitancy they played with especially will become much less of an issue in their 2nd year.
It's all lighting. We wear helmets with the same paint and the same pants. The Nebraska game was under a grey sky in Ann Arbor in the afternoon in November. Most (if not all) of that light is natural.
The Northwestern game was in late September/Early October and played at night under stadium lights (not to be confused with UTL). Between those differences in how the scene was lit, and what camera was used (no flash, dunno about the zoom of either picture) you get some color differences.
"Over? Did you say, over? Nothing is over until we decide it is!"
Freshmen running backs can have lots of success. Our last 2 freshman LBs.... sure looked like freshmen and made lots of mistakes. My guess is the struggles of Ryan and Morgan as freshmen have tempered Brian's excitement towards freshmen LBs for the future.
"Over? Did you say, over? Nothing is over until we decide it is!"
I contend Morgan and Ryan had good to very good freshman season's. Both these kids made the ESPN and BTN.com All Freshman Team. Not too shabby. Jake Ryan tied the Sugar Bowl record for TFL's.
Freshman (2011) ... Sugar Bowl champion ... earned first varsity letter ... ESPN.com and BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman Team ... appeared in 12 games; played 12 games as an outside linebacker, started seven times at linebacker (Notre Dame, Purdue, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State, Virginia Tech), played in 12 games on special teams ... VIRGINIA TECH (Jan. 3) ... tied a career high with 10 tackles and 1.5 TFLs ... OHIO STATE (Nov. 26) ... set career highs for tackles (10), assisted stops (7), TFLs (1.5) and notched first career sack ... led the team with first double-digit-tackle performance of career ... ILLINOIS (Nov. 12) ... led U-M linebackers with eight tackles, matching career high with four solo stops ...IOWA (Nov. 5) ... posted six tackles and first career PBU ... PURDUE (Oct. 29) ... led the team with a career-high nine tackles in second career start ... MICHIGAN STATE (Oct. 15) ... recorded four tackles ... tallied first career tackle-for-loss and fumble recovery ...NOTRE DAME (Sept. 10) ... made career debut as a starter vs. Notre Dame, assisted on one tackle.
Sophomore/Freshman (2011)... Sugar Bowl champion ... earned first varsity letter ... ESPN.com and BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman Team ... appeared in all 13 games; played all 13 games at linebacker and/or defensive end, starting 11 of them (Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, San Diego State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State, Virginia Tech), contributed on special teams in all 13 contests ... VIRGINIA TECH (Jan. 3) ... set career high and tied Sugar Bowl record with four TFLs ... OHIO STATE (Nov. 26) ... made three tackles and added an assisted sack ... NEBRASKA (Nov. 19) ... recorded three tackles, an assisted sack and first career forced fumble ... ILLINOIS (Nov. 12) ... set career high with four assisted stops and had an assisted TFL ... PURDUE (Oct. 29) ... four tackles, including one TFL for a loss of five yards ... MINNESOTA (Oct. 1) ... made one solo tackle for first career sack ... SAN DIEGO STATE (Sept. 24) ... recorded a career-high five tackles, including one for a loss, and first two career fumble recoveries ... WESTERN MICHIGAN (Sept. 3) ... made career debut and first collegiate start at strongside linebacker, notching one assisted tackle and deflecting a pass into the air that Brandon Herron intercepted and returned 94 yards for a touchdown.
Freshmen RBs mostly have to run to the right hole and avoid tackles, which is the same thing they've been doing since elementary school. Freshmen LBs have to read offensive line movements, diagnose plays, maintain gap responsibilities, and a litany of other assignments. Mentally, there's no comparison.
No, I think it's the other way around. Usually how highly touted a recuit is has little do with the mental aspect of the game, because there's less asked and expected of HS LBs, so that's a very tough thing to scout. You can tell a kid's nose for the ball, but that's about it.
The highly touted RB can probably jump in right away and play, so you're really excited about him. The LB might be physically ready to go out there, but 5 stars doesn't mean he can pick up Mattison's offense quickly enough in 6 weeks to live up to his hype. This is why you hear about freshman RBs all the time, but not to much with freshman LBs.
Go Blue! I hate to say it, but it's also not impossible to see Morgan out of a job next year, just as easily as it's not impossible to see Morgan sliding over and Bolden being out of a job. Mattison was also high on Royce in his last press conference, but he needs to at some ell bees. We are loaded at LB now.
I watched the replay of the UTL game against ND the other day. I'd forgotten this, but Hawthorne did make a few nice plays in coverage in that second half. It does seem like he could add value as a pass-coverage specialist on third & longs.
"You will suffer humiliation when the team from my area defeats the team from your area." -- The Onion
Replace "universe" with "Dave Brandon" and I am right there with you.
This game is going to be so deflating if (as I am predicting) UM gets beaten handily. So much of the positive mojo from last year will just slip away with an embarrasing loss on prime-time national TV.
Prediction for Satuday evening's game: Alabama 31 UM 13...ugh.
BONUS: Since I know many on this blog hate people who predict bad things for UM, I am stating right now that if UM (by some miracle) wins the game against Bama, I will be changing my signature line to read, " I am a douchey, negative Nancy." for the remainder of the season. The humiliation would be a small price to pay for the elation of a win over Bama on Saturday.
Having watched the defense improve so much from beginning of the season to the end last year and having forgotten that it happened, I wish we could fast forward and gain some experience and then come back and play this game. Alabama of course would have been stuck in a time nexus, so the growth via experience would be ours alone.
And in that obvious sense, it's the universe's fault. Fuck you, universe.
...the Canadians make up for it with their emotion and classic ice-dancing skill.
Yeah, fuck Dave Brandon for scheduling a game against top competition in prime time that everyone who cares about colleg football will watch. Fuck him for giving our team a good challenge. If only he scheduled another game against Delaware St. so I could complain about that instead.
Huh? You realize that Alabama is probably twice as inexperienced as Michigan, right? Having Alabama as the first game of the season gives us the best chance to win. By the end of the season, they'll probably be playing like the world-beaters that won the NC last season. At the beginning of the season, anything can happen, and experience usually trumps talented inexperience.
See 2008. A terrible Michigan squad nearly beat a tough Utah team that went on to win all 13 games that season, including a season-ending win vs Bama of all teams.
Twice as? I'm not sure where you're getting that, or how you would even define that. It looks like they've got two guys in the secondary who didn't play a ton and lack the usual recruiting stars. Beyond that, they've got experience where you need it: on the lines and at QB.
Moreover, I'm pretty willing to bet they have talent that exceeds ours, given their lack of attrition thanks to oversigning and recruiting rankings, so even if they were a little bit less experienced (which, not sure where that's coming from) I'd still prefer to be in their situation.
...the Canadians make up for it with their emotion and classic ice-dancing skill.
I'm not saying that I wouldn't prefer to be in their position, I'm saying we have a much greater chance of beating them in the first game of the year than we would in the 12th. They are filling in a lot of new starting spots, and those guys are all talented, but inexperienced.
We return 8 on D and 7(?) on O, which is more than them on both sides of the ball. This is why I say our team is more experienced.
For whatever reason, I like our team after we've had the chance to learn a few things in game. We might lose to Bama AND (god forbid) ND, but I think our chances in conference are very good. Perhaps that's too much faith in the coaches, but I'm looking forward to our conference schedule. It's early when we're gonna be vulnerable, more so than the typical team. Even Bama, whatever you think of their experience.
...the Canadians make up for it with their emotion and classic ice-dancing skill.
But I think Bolden is going to be a great LB for Michigan. Just listening to him when he committed, reading about his performances in the HS all star game, seeing him ascend to No. 2 ML already. This kid is someone we will be talking about years from now. I think Ross and he may become the best MLB/WLB tandem we have had in years.