Preview 2010: Defensive Line

Preview 2010: Defensive Line

Submitted by Brian on August 31st, 2010 at 3:18 PM

Previously: The story, the secondary, and the linebackers.

Note: the confusion about if Michigan is actually running a 3-3-5 this fall or if it's more of the 4-3 with deathbacker hybrid, or if it's "multiple" or whatever leaves the previewer at a loss when attempting to slot players into familiar roles. I've decided to take Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez at their word and will treat Craig Roh like a defensive lineman who frequently fakes playing linebacker and occasionally (or more than occassionally) does. This may be off.

Defensive Line

Rating: 4.

Depth Chart
Deathbacker Yr. NT Yr. DT Yr. SDE Yr.
Craig Roh So. Mike Martin Jr. Greg Banks Sr.* Ryan Van Bergen Jr.*
Brandon Herron Jr.* Will Campbell So. Renaldo Sagesse Sr.* Jibreel Black Fr.
JB Fitzgerald Jr.* Richard Ash Fr. Terry Talbott Fr. Anthony LaLota Fr.*
The absence of Brandon Graham is immensely depressing but if you survey the above you'll see interesting things: seniors! Returning starters! Backups! A curious lack of walk-ons! Players with good recruiting rankings and promising careers to date! I totally went with the most depressing parts of the team first! Put away the gun!

Defensive Tackle

Rating: 4

(caption) Wisconsin center Gabe Carimi knocks heads with Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin across the line of scrimmage in the second half.  ***  For the fourth week in a row, Michigan's defense gave up too many points in the second half, as the Wisconsin Badgers rolled to a 45-24 victory over the Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison Wisconsin. The loss, Michigan's sixth straight in the Big Ten, drops the Wolverines to 5-6 overall, after starting the season 4-0.  Photos taken on Saturday, November 14, 2009.   ( John T. Greilick / The Detroit News )


sacks authoritatively
splits a double team
blows past the down-block attempt
zips around the center
forces bounce
deep into the backfield
wholesale destruction
darts past attempted down-block
does attack on this one
drives blockers backwards
drives the opposing center back

Martin blew up against Wisconsin, not that it ended up mattering.

Mike Martin was a promising freshman backup and promising sophomore starter. Now entering his true junior season, it's time for Martin to shed the promise and become the beast he has to be if Michigan's defense is going to tread water this season. With a position switch starter behind him at linebacker and Brandon Graham elsewhere, he goes from sidekick to superhero.

As you can see at right, Mike Martin is at his best using his agility and strength to zip past opposing offensive linemen and do mean things to ballcarriers in the backfield. The clips have a distinct lack of Watson-esque offensive lineman crushing; similarly, much of Martin's high school highlight video features him zipping around, not through overmatched kids. Though he can fight through opposition blockers from time to time and doesn't get blown back often, deploying him as a one-technique nose tackle exposes him to a ton of double teams—most of the highlights above feature him splitting two guys trying to zone him—and limits what he's able to accomplish. A switch to more of a 3-3-5, if that actually happens, will either mitigate this or provide outside linebackers windows to exploit; Martin's iron grip on the NT job is an indication that could be the plan. (More scheme discussion will take place later in the week.)

A quick survey of his UFR results from last year shows a guy who doesn't often end up in the minus column but also doesn't consistently produce like the star he has to be if Michigan's defensive line is going to maintain their productivity of a year ago:

UFR '09: Mike Martin
Opponent + - T Notes
WMU 5.5 1 4.5 Two great pass rush moves on the interior are most of those points.
Notre Dame 2.5 - 2.5 Decent tracking down the run but zero pass rush.
EMU 7 1.5 5.5 Much better job getting off blocks this week and more active; this is probably because of the competition. Still, he's promising. Probably needs another year before he's truly an anchor.
Indiana 4.5 - 4.5 Indiana could not move him.
Michigan State 7 5.5 1.5 Mental issues on the Cousins run and the final Caper run.
Iowa 9 4.5 4.5 Demonstrated great agility several times and had a couple good pass rush moves but got crushed off the ball four times, too.
Penn State 2.5 2.5 0 Off day.
Illinois 7 1 6 No frontside creases all day; too bad about the linebackers.
Purdue 4.5 0.5 4 Relatively quiet; not getting much pass rush this year.
Wisconsin 12.5 2 10.5 Huge day, especially early.

This, and the brief snippets of talent from Martin's freshman year when he was a backup to Will Johnson (after he snuffed out Wisconsin's second two-point attempt in 2008 I said he was "already kind of great" as a pass rusher), has seen this blog suggest/push/plead for Martin to slide to the three-tech spot made famous by Warren Sapp and occupied by backfield inhabitants Ryan Van Bergen and Alan Branch recently. In his third year in a college program, Martin has the potential to put up serious numbers if he can find himself one-on-one with sluggish guards. This requires a move away from the nose. It's also not going to happen, so you can put away your fancy dreams about Martin going all Babineaux on the Big Ten and dropping 28 TFLs.

Even so, it's time for Martin to make the same leap Brandon Graham did between his junior and senior years. I can't offer anything more powerful than this wonderfully ungrammatical assessment from Jibreel Black:

You look at the rest of this defensive line and there’s a lot of talent there, but is there anyone in particular that you look at and say, ‘wow man this dude is better than I thought he was? ‘

“Not necessarily better than I thought he was, because I know all of them are good, but when I see some plays that Mike (Martin) makes in practice, I be like dang. His explosiveness, his technique that he uses. You can tell the work that he put in with it.”

I hope to be like dang for large sections of the season.

Martin's reached the point where he's being held out of hitting because he's Mike Martin…

“Defensively, Mike Martin has had a tremendous camp. We limited him yesterday because we know what he can. He has been really good and probably our most consistent defensive player since camp started.”

…he's in good enough shape to crush the rest of his position group when Michigan does post-practice runs, he's an upperclassman with a year of starting experience under his belt… now is the time. I'm not sure if Martin will be on All Big Ten teams after the year, especially at a position at which statistics don't always tell the tale, but I'm confident in asserting he should be on them.

(caption) Michigan defensive tackle Greg Banks (92) clobbers Eastern Michigan running back Dominique Sherrer after a one-yard gain in the fourth quarter. *** Michigan defeated Eastern Michigan 45-17 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, rushing for 380 yards, but passing for just 68 yards. Photos taken on Saturday, September 19, 2009. ( John T. Greilick / The Detroit News )


Banks left; Sagesse right


burst past blockers
knifed through the line
cuts under his blocker

The other tackle spot will be manned by the two seniors. Michigan lists Greg Banks first on its UConn depth chart but moved 289-pound Renaldo Sagesse away from the nose tackle spot he played decently at a year ago to back him up; to me this signals an intent to wear Martin out and keep the three-tech/DE spot fresh with constant platooning. We'll address the two as co-starters.

Sagesse and Banks are like senior versions of the two 5'10 freshman corners. They were middling recruits; they've established themselves solid but uninspiring Big Ten players. The closest comparison I can think of in the recent history of Michigan linemen is Rondell Biggs, the other guy on the ridiculous 2006 line.


blasts the LT back
forcing a cutback
shoots past the center's block
both blow into the backfield

Last year Sagesse was a "mysterious entity locked on the bench" after arriving at Michigan from the wild hinterlands of Quebec pegged to provide "functional depth." He actually did a bit better than that, as the clip reel shows: nothing negative enough to be worthy of pulling off, a few impressive plays, albeit against lower-level competition. The worst thing I've seen Sagesse do to date is get sealed and pancaked by Patrick Omameh in the spring game but we'll just chalk that up to Omameh being wicked sweet.

I was openly campaigning for Sagesse to get more playing time:

So this Sagesse guy is okay?

He hasn't seen much time but I have him down for +5 in that time with no minuses. Given the depth situation at DE and RVB's seeming inability to hold up—not surprising at 6'5" 270 something—doesn't it make sense to try Sagesse out as a starting NT and slide Martin over to the 3-tech? RVB can then back up the 3-tech and Graham. The line adds 30-40 pounds and doesn't have to roll out a walk-on when Graham needs a blow.

Van Bergen found his footing on the interior and that never came to fruition, but I remained on Sagesse's side to the point where I was campaigning for him to start this year, again so Martin could slide out.

Last year both started out well, with Sagesse picking up a total of 9.5 to the good against just one minus in the three nonconference games before Indiana; Banks had plus 6.5 and minus 0.5 in the same timespan. But from there both went radio silent, playing regularly but getting little in the way of up or down recognition. Sample reactions from the Big Ten schedule: "quiet," "meh," "played little," "also played little," and "one nice play for naught."

This isn't a terrible thing for a sparely-used defensive tackle, especially the nose spot Sagesse was at. Ideally you'd like some plays from the interior, but if Mike Martin is going to provide those you can deal with the other spot being functional. On the '06 Line of Doom, sophomore Terrance Taylor wasn't a star and that worked out okay. It is concerning that I didn't see either play in the Purdue game and Sagesse remained totally absent for Wisconsin.

Michigan's formations will go some way to determining which player gets more time. In three-man lines Sagesse is clearly going to be a pass-rush liability as a defensive end, but when Michigan goes to four (or brings in the "double eagle" package with the DEs lined up over the opposition guards) Sagesse's got more heft. I wouldn't be surprised to see both lifted for Jibreel Black or maybe Craig Roh on passing downs.

Take your pick of adjectives: workmanlike, yeoman, gritty, etc. Expect something okay here; the upside is low, but so is the downside.


And now everyone's worried about Will Campbell since his '09 cameos were unimpressive and he's stuck behind Adam Patterson on the depth chart. He's back on the upswing with his weight after losing a ton between the end of his senior year and fall camp, adding 15 pounds from '09 to '10. He now checks in at 333, the heaviest guy on the roster.

That could be good as Michigan starts putting good weight back on Campbell after his freshman year slim-down. It could be bad. Rodriguez complained about the conditioning of a "small handful," and Campbell seemed like an obvious candidate for the wingless doghouse. He wasn't in it, but that doesn't mean Rodriguez is pleased with his conditioning:

"He got a lot of reps in the spring with Mike Martin [out], and I think he got better. he's still got some things to work on, but he's a big, strong guy. Depending on what kind of shape he's in when we start will determine how quickly he can battle for that job.

"If he's in great shape when we come in, he can battle to start. If he's not, he'll struggle until he gets in shape."

On the field, Campbell lived up to his reputation as a very large guy in need of serious technique work. I've seen a lot of zone stretches by now and rarely has a nose tackle eaten it like he did against Iowa:

I'm not at the point where I can tell you the ten different things Campbell did to get blown four yards downfield, but I can blather on about pad level: man, pad level. Am I right?

That happened about midway through the year and Campbell virtually disappeared after it; the only other clip I've got on him is what seems in retrospect to be an excessively harsh evaluation of a big Baby Seal U run on which Vlad Emilien got pancaked and Kevin Leach blasted out of the play, too. But even so he did get sealed by the BSU center all too easily. There wasn't a lot of buzz about Campbell coming out of spring, and he failed to live up to this blog's expectation of a regular job in the rotation with an "an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin." As the Iowa cameo showed, that would have been a bad idea.

HOWEVA, planet-spanning defensive tackles take time, as West Texas Blue demonstrated in a diary running down the fates of Campbell's DT classmates. None of them did anything save OU's Jamarcus McFarland and (sigh) Arkansas's Dequinta Jones. Most redshirted, like Campbell should have. Since he's third team right now don't expect much more than short-yardage duty early in the year, with the hope being he can emerge into a competent Martin backup by midseason,

Meanwhile, Adam Patterson's odd Michigan career has taken another turn in his fifth and final year: he's now a nose tackle. An easy top-100 recruit out of South Carolina whose selection of Michigan was almost as surprising as Carlos Brown's, Patterson's been locked on the bench his entire career. My assumption was that the nose move ended any chance he had at regular playing time, but he's now second on the depth chart at a position that sees a lot of rotation. He'll play; I don't think he'll be much good. The dropoff after Martin will be similar to that Michigan experienced when Graham came off the field, though less severe since Martin won't be Graham and the backup is at least a senior.

There are a couple freshmen, about whom we know nothing that hasn't been covered by their recruiting profiles. Pahokee native Richard Ash went from 263 pounds about a year ago to 320 on the fall roster; with concerns about his fitness and drive dogging his recruitment he is a guaranteed redshirt as Barwis attempts to whittle him down to something approximating the player who briefly had Florida and USC offers before the weight got too sloppy. Everything the blog compiled on Ash is located at his recruiting profile.

Finally, Terry Talbott is a three-tech in the making. He's got the inverse issue: listed at 248 on Michigan's roster, he'll need a year and 20 pounds before he's viable. Neither appeared on the UConn depth chart; redshirts beckon.

Strongside Defensive End

Rating: 4.

ryan-van-bergen-vs-wmu 110709_SPT_UM v Purdue_MRM


blows the RG back,
gets under Stewart
gets playside of his guy
tearing around the corner
drives LG three yards back
blows into the RG
blasts into the backfield
drives RVB out of the hole
Tackle blocks down on RVB
Ezeh(?!?!) follows him
trouble holding up
deep into the backfield
slices through two blockers
again through the line
splits a double team
gets playside of his guy
tackling(+1) at the LOS

Brandon Graham is currently racking up defensive rookie of the year hype in Philadelphia, but the position is seemingly in good hands. Redshirt junior Ryan Van Bergen slides outside after a year starting at the three-tech defensive tackle spot. He was productive there, acquiring 40 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and five sacks in his first year as a starter. He even tacked on four pass breakups, presumably on bat-downs at the line of scrimmage.

His season in UFR was okay for a DT:

UFR '09: Ryan Van Bergen
Opponent + - T Notes
WMU 5 0.5 4.5 More effective on review; did not give ground, albeit against a MAC team.
Notre Dame 2.5 3 -0.5 Looked a lot like an out of position DE.
EMU 1 2.5 -1.5 Not holding up very well against doubles.
Indiana 8 1 7 Did virtually nothing until the 85-yard run, then single-handedly killed the next drive.
Michigan State 9 4.5 4.5 Great day against an MSU OL that planned to turn him into dust and could not, but irresponsible pass rushing cost Michigan more than once.
Iowa 5 - 5 Very competent against a day of single blocking, which got him a lot of half points.
Penn State 4 3 1 Also not a great day.
Illinois 2 - 2 Not a major factor. [here this just becomes true so i say it again]
Purdue 2 2 0 Not a major factor.
Wisconsin 1 1 0 Not a major factor.

Disclaimers about UFR being a DL-friendly grading system apply; even so, that's pretty good for a redshirt sophomore entering the lineup for the first time. The drive after Indiana's "doomed from the start" 85-yard touchdown you may have seen on the sidebar when Jordan Kovacs or JT Floyd was discussed was probably my favorite series in last year's UFR process. Michigan desperately needed a stop and RVB provided:

Do you know what I did when Indiana had that 85 yard run?


I thought to myself "I bet Ryan Van Bergen missed a check and will spend the rest of the game personally destroying the Indiana offense."


No. I threw the cat at the TV and vowed to find Jim Herrmann and find a way to blame it on him.

Ah so.

His hulk up after that play continued through Michigan State (when he was "going from a non-entity to a guy who's making plays") and Iowa, when he "only got a +5" because of an array of half-points. Unfortunatley it evaporated on a meh day against Penn State and for the rest of the year Van Bergen was hovering around the zero that is not a good day for a DL. I think some of that has to do with the rest of the defense: Illinois just kept going outside and Wisconsin passing over the middle, leaving few opportunities for him to make plays.

The move outside is a complicating factor, though it remains to be seen just how much of one it is. In the clips at left there's a section in which RVB gets MASSEY'D back; understandable since at 6'6", 271 there's only so much you can do to avoid getting blown back on every play. The ratio of good to bad there is encouraging, but more encouraging for his future as a defensive end is the section on agility and those five sacks. As a bonus, before he slid into the starting lineup he was Graham's backup.

Van Bergen knows the position, was recruited to play it, and is entering his fourth year on campus with a season as a solid starter under his belt. Least useful phrase ever: he's not going to be Brandon Graham. Mitigating phrase: but he should be solid. At a spot more amenable to pass rush and with more experience, RVB should brush up against double-digit sacks and see his UFRs climb into the consistently good realm inhabited by, say, Tim Jamison as a senior.


Here's a change: instead of massive attrition and injury bringing a walk-on into play, at this spot a walk-on's unavailability is a problem. Will Heininger tore his knee up in spring practice and will miss the season, leaving Van Bergen backed up by… some guys… I guess.

The guy who most prominent in the fall practice was true freshman Jibreel Black, a stocky 6'1" 262 pound pass-rush specialist who was issued the just-vacated 55 and has a special section in his recruiting profile in which people either say things that sound like Brandon Graham or just flat-out compare him to probably the best defensive end ever to play at Michigan. Here's Rodriguez:

“He wears No. 55 and looks a little like BG at times. But he’s got a burst and some natural athletic ability. I’ve been really pleased with his progress.”

No pressure, kid. 

Rodriguez further called out Black as "the freshman lineman most likely to have a chance to play." Black won't be much of a factor as a true freshman; hope for a year in which he holds his own when RVB needs a breather and maybe makes a couple of MAC offensive tackles look silly.

Redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota is also in the mix for playing time behind Van Bergen; he was a high four-star to the recruiting sites (recruiting profile) before a disappointing week at the Army game saw his rankings take a significant hit. He still checked in as a Rivals 250 guy and was just outside the Scout 100, so it wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, his height and weight were significantly overstated by the same sites and when he hit campus two inches and 30 pounds short of expectations, he was destined for a redshirt. He got that redshirt, got up to 256 by fall of last year, and is now listed at 270—possibly time to play, possibly in need of another 15 pounds since he's a couple inches taller than Black. The coaches have been radio silent on LaLota (a Google news search turns up zero, whereas Black is getting some pub), so it might be the latter.

Former tight end Steve Watson is also here, but he's pretty much David Cone on defense. I imagine if push comes to shove LaLota will see the field before he does despite the initial depth chart. That seems like a nod to seniority.




blows up WMU draw
making an ankle tackle
cavernous gap
dropping into coverage
spinning inside of the OT
Incredibly open dig/seam
hit Cousins as he throws
excellent on the stunt here
murders this dead
reads the pull
gets outside and avoids a cut
two guys double Roh

Roh against Purdue.

Rating: 3.

Craig Roh is the Denard Robinson of the defense: a highly touted recruit that should have spent his freshman year redshirting and sucking up Breaston-level practice hype before debuting as a promising but still so raw redshirt freshman in 2010. Since it's the Age of Doom, Roh had to start as a 225 pound defensive end in the Big Ten.

The results were mixed, trending towards negative. When opponents got a solid block on him he was done, something Michigan tried to prevent by slanting him extensively. That worked well enough, but since there's only so much you can do with a defensive end that small his pass rush repertoire shrunk from the Swiss Army Knife set that saw Roh rise to become a top 50 prospect on at least one site to the hope he could run around guys.

There was one major positive the clips at right don't show: he was seemingly better in coverage than Michigan veteran linebackers, able to track tight ends up to 20 yards downfield and surprisingly capable of doing something about it if and when the ball arrived. The hope at linebacker is that Roh's advanced coverage skills were Greg Robinson's doing.

But without further adieu, Roh's '09 numbers, keeping in mind that UFRs are slanted towards defensive ends and getting a small positive is treading water there:

UFR '09: Craig Roh
Opponent + - T Notes
WMU 5.5 1 4.5 Pretty good debut; showed a variety of pass-rush moves including a sick spin.
Notre Dame 2 3 -1 Drew a key hold but mostly neutralized. Looked like a freshman.
EMU 6.5 3 3.5 A couple of nice plays when EMU put him on the edge and tried to fool or read him. Athleticism should be an asset against zone read teams.
Indiana 3 1 2 Not really in on much.
Michigan State 4.5 0.5 4 Not getting as much pressure as you'd like, though.
Iowa 5.5 1 4.5 Had a couple hurries, used his athleticism well from the backside on a couple runs.
Penn State 4 1 3 Got a sack against the real side of the PSU D.
Illinois 7 2.5 4.5 Effective slanting all day; not great in pass rush yet.
Purdue 6 4.5 1.5 Extensive discussion below.
Wisconsin 4 6 -2 Wisconsin was always going to be the team to own him.

The Purdue game exposed Roh's limitations more obviously than any other. The Boilers lined up in an array of 3x1 sets and got big gains by running right at Roh when he lined up to the open side of the field:

Michigan flipped Graham to that side of the field and Purdue started rolling away from him to the receiver-heavy side of the field, completing a bunch of wide open passes. Michigan flipped back and Roh was again unable to fight through blockers to maintain his edge:

As the UFR made clear, there are a lot of reasons Michigan's defense was so porous last year but running out a freshman defensive end was one of them. The end result:

Roh did some good stuff on slants and was responsible when he had an opportunity to overrun plays, which gives him that modest positive score above, but big minuses in pressure fall mostly on the shoulders of the DEs and when one of the DEs is Brandon Graham they fall mostly on the shoulders of the DE who isn't Brandon Graham. So if you apply a chunk of that pressure metric to Roh, you get a solidly negative day.

This year Roh is better prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten. Rodriguez:

“He played last year at about 225 as a true freshman and did a good job. Now, he is probably closer to 240 to 245 and running just as well if not better. I think that and the experience that he has been out there before, you can see. He’s guy that we want to move around a little bit. Craig is a very active, high-motor player and being able 245-250 pounds is going to let him hold up…especially with those big physical team, starting with the first game.”

Going from 225 to 245 and from freshman to sophomore means Roh should make a greater leap than anyone else on the defense. He came to Michigan with a mountain of recruiting hype based on his diabolical array of pass rush moves and dominating Under Armor Game performance. He's got the hype; he's got the weight; he's got the experience…

Sort of! The catch in the Craig Roh explosion is this niggling move to the 3-3-5, where he's a strongside linebacker:

As Michigan's defense worked more in the 3-3-5 set during spring ball, Roh divided his time between linebacker and defensive line.
"There’s some changes," he said. "I’ve never been in a linebacker [position], second-level, setting up there. Some guys are playing basically the same position they played last year. For me, this is something new and different.

"[Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson] is helping me a lot with the learning curve."

No one's sure how much Michigan will be running a three man line this fall but it will be some, which will give Roh the ability to attack from surprising angles and use his vertical speed to get into the backfield. It will also expose him to play action, counters, and other plays he's not used to dealing with much that can take advantage of the inability to change direction that had everyone projecting him as a defensive end despite being linebacker size. Now, you could just say he'll blitz all the time but that would get predictable; it would also impinge on Jonas Mouton's ability to do the same thing, and Mouton's a guy who has the exact same strengths Roh does. They'll have to split the fun bits where they tear into the backfield.

All this makes it difficult to project what Roh will do this season. A guess: doubling his 7.5 TFLs and significantly adding to his two sacks is a good bet. I don't think he'll be a crazy star just yet, but I expect to be saying the same things about him next year that I'm saying about Mike Martin this year.


It's here more than anywhere else that confusion about exactly how "multiple" the defense is going to be wreaks havoc with position projections. One man's guess at the setup here: Roh will be able to flip from linebacker to defensive end with some aplomb, but his backups are likely to be one or the other.

The defensive-end-ish backup will probably be redshirt junior Brandon Herron, Roh's backup last year. Though he lost his job to the touted freshman he got a regular shift like Sagesse or Banks; unlike Sagesse or Banks his performance didn't register even the brief slices of notability the aforementioned seniors managed. The only clip I got that involves him is a single passing play against Indiana on which he successfully walls off a TE seam, and his UFR notes read "did make one good tackle," "eh," "some good run defense," "nonfactor," "meh," and "eh, ok." You get the idea.

That's not good because of Herron's position, which is supposed to be a source of big plays. As long as a guy like Sagesse holds the fort at his position things are pretty much good. If Herron does nothing positive or negative that's a much greater opportunity spurned. Gradual improvement is likely; Herron will remain a guy Michigan kills time with until Roh can get back in there.

While Herron was out in spring and Michigan was running something approximating a 3-3-5, JB Fitzgerald acted as Roh's backup. The linebacker preview already addressed his shaky '09 performance. As a backup here I imagine Michigan will always be in a three-man line so Fitzgerald can play linebacker; he's never played DE. His best shot at playing time is if Michigan has a passing-down package that sees Roh put his hand down.

Preview 2009: Defensive Line

Preview 2009: Defensive Line

Submitted by Brian on September 4th, 2009 at 9:54 AM

Part eight of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, and secondary, and linebackers.

Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.

A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because 1) there are actual returning players and 2) there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.

Defensive Line

Rating: 4.

Depth Chart
Deathbacker Yr. NT Yr. DT Yr. SDE Yr.
Brandon Herron So.* Mike Martin So. Ryan Van Bergen So.* Brandon Graham Sr.
Craig Roh Fr. Renaldo Sagesse Jr. Greg Banks Jr.* Adam Patterson Jr.*
Steve Watson Fr.* Will Campbell Fr. -- -- Anthony LaLota Fr.

Three starters depart but the big guy is back: Brandon Graham returns as Michigan's best player and a serious candidate for post-season honors. Joining him is a wildly unbalanced collection of players. At nose tackle there are two hugely promising underclassmen. At defensive tackle there's a potentially solid starter and then Some Guy. And at a new position no one knows what to call, what it does, or who plays there there's virtually nothing.

With the changes, this preview is going to treat the defensive ends as separate entities. Defensive tackles remain bunched.

Defensive Tackle

mike-martin-line mike-martin-wrestling

Rating: 4

Mike Martin
Sam-owns against UW
Saves UW game
"Big time from frosh"
Sacking M(NTM)

Last year, Mike Martin had the luxury of playing behind two productive veterans. In his limited time, he impressed. Everyone expects he will be the breakout star on defense this year; expectations are higher for him than they are for even Mouton. But… well. Here's a bunch of praise and some trepidation wrapped into one package. It's from the Wisconsin game:

Man, Mike Martin is kind of sweet.

Yeah, man, he's kind of great as an interior pass-rusher already. I'm a little leery that he's going to be a true sophomore starter on the line next year just because he came in so in-shape that he's probably not going to improve drastically, and therefore his sophomore year will seem disappointing, but the kid should be gangbusters (yea, see?) as an upperclassman. Now about the other guys at DT…

Martin might slightly disappoint people who expect him to be 100% awesome right now, but people pegging him at 80% are probably going to see their expectations met.

As a recruit, Mike Martin was a slightly smaller version of immovable fireplug Terrance Taylor. Both were state champions in wrestling and powerlifting. Both were in-state. Both were defensive tackles at or near the tail end of top 100 lists. HOWEVA, on the field the two played very differently. Taylor is a bull of a defensive tackle who will get under your pads and shove you backwards; Martin is more of a penetrator. His high school highlights often saw him slice through the line and tackle like a linebacker, and last year much of his deployment was as part of Michigan's three-man line pass rush Okie package. You can see the penetration in the highlights at right, and that sort of activity was the reason Martin picked up a steady stream of 3-0-3 lines in UFR.

This is why I'm a mite concerned, though:

Opponent + - Total Notes
Penn State 1.5 4 -2.5 A lot of negatives late when he was in as a 4-3 DT; unsurprising he took a beating from Shipley & Co; he's just a freshman.

That was Martin's longest exposure as a true 4-3 DT and he suffered at the hands of Penn State's excellent, veteran line. This could be a blip that has no impact going forward. Martin was, after all, a freshman going up against fifth-year seniors, and good ones. And there could be considerable difference between the role he was asked to play in that game—absorb two blocks—and the one he'll be asked to play in the light, quick, slashing defense Greg Robinson has apparently installed.

This year, Martin will be the only true defensive tackle in the lineup and is backed up by a to-date anonymous Canadian and a true freshman. Even if that true freshman may be enormous and highly touted, Martin's responsibility takes a more severe uptick than anyone else's this year. He might struggle a bit early; by the end of the year he should be very good.

At the other spot, redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen enters the starting lineup. Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit—he was ranked at about the same level Will Johnson was—who spent his first couple years backing up Brandon Graham at strongside defensive end. Michigan's moved him to their three-technique defensive tackle, a position that's traditionally been occupied by the nimble penetrating sort of defensive tackle instead of lumbering goo-beasts.

So he might to be too out of position at his new spot; he was something of a DE/DT tweener as a recruit. He still is at 6'5", 275. And he'll be one on the field: multiple people from the coaches who pop up from time to time on this site to the Michigan coaches to Van Bergen himself have noted that RVB will flare out from time to time and act as a five-tech defensive end, either on passing downs or when Michigan flips the deathbacker to Brandon Graham's side of the field.

There's not a whole lot of data on RVB to be had, unfortunately, and he seems a little tall and light for the spot he's at. With few reasonable backups, chances are production here isn't much better than okay.

Backups and Whatnot

Unlike… uh… everywhere else on the defensive line, there are a couple reasonable backups here. True freshman Will Campbell is the one with the recruiting hype, and lord almighty:


Dude put in work after enrolling early. His rep is enormous, agile, and strong—he's not a five star for nothing—but deficient in technique in all the ways that 350-pound men who can hurl high school offensive linemen into low Earth orbit usually are. In short: he needs to learn how to play low. He'll get that opportunity, as he should rotate in for Martin frequently with an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin. (The assumption in this case is that Martin slides over to DT and Michigan goes with a more conventional 4-3 look.) His recruiting profile also exists if you want to hear an awful lot about a large man.

Campbell will probably have a freshman year much like Mike Martin's, where he rotates in frequently and mostly does well with the occasional "yep, that's a freshman" play mixed in.

Meanwhile, junior Renaldo Sagesse remains a mysterious entity locked on the bench his first few years after coming to Michigan out of Quebec. Yes, that Quebec. In Canada. He probably doesn't have much upside but there's no shame in behind behind Taylor, Johnson, and Martin and should provide functional depth.

Redshirt junior Greg Banks backs up Van Bergen; Banks has seen the occasional snap as part of the rotation but hasn't done much with them. If he can give RVB breathers without drawing attention to himself, that's a win.

Strongside Defensive End

brandon-graham-is-bad brandon-graham-northwestern

Rating: 5.

Brandon Graham
Snuffing a draw
Sacking Painter
Hates Gophers
Sack wsgs Mouton, Brown
Crushing backwards
Beats double to sack
"Sacks authoritatively"
Sack wsg Mouton
Disrupts screen
frowns: not infallible
Sack +3 Pressure +2
Hates Gophers

The most striking thing from my tour of last year's defensive UFR was how preposterous Brandon Graham was. Here's his Big Ten season minus Ohio State (which did not get UFRed for obvious reasons):

Opponent + - Total Notes
Wisconsin 10.5 1 9.5 +6 of this comes from two sacks late when he got to the QB on three-man rushes, killing one drive and damaging another.
Illinois 7 4 3 More effective in the run game than others, but was exploited a couple times.
Penn State 9 4.5 4.5 Best player on defense without question.
Michigan State 12 1 11 He backed up his prediction as much as he could.
Purdue 9.5 2 7.5 Would have had some sacks if anyone was ever covered.
Minnesota 8 - 8 Le beast
Northwestern 10.5 - 10.5 Excellent

The note above points out that defensive linemen tend to do better than the back seven in UFR ratings but once you start getting into the 7.5, 8, 9.5, 10.5, 11(!) range that is elite, elite production. Graham's impressive statistics—10 sacks, 20 TFLs—back that up. Graham is an unquestioned star, a lock for All Big Ten, a probable first round NFL draft pick, and the team's best player.

What's more, Graham's production took a major step forward last year. As a sophomore, Graham was impressive but mostly as a pass rusher. He had 8.5 sacks but just one other tackle for loss and 15 tackles outside of that. Last year a newly slimmed Graham added 36 tackles on people other than the quarterback, fully ten of them behind the line of scrimmage.

The best way to see Graham's transformation into a complete terror is to compare Michigan State games. In '07 Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham in the second half, and he came in for some clucking:

He's got a -2 up there, by far his worst total of his career, and it was largely because he got booted out of the line by double teams frequently.

In '08 Graham unwisely guaranteed victory and then went about attempting to make that happen singlehandedly. An abridged run-game-only Michigan State UFR:

Graham crashes inside in an attempt to jam the play up and force it to bounce outside but ends up shoved past the play, opening up a small hole Ringer can squeeze through. … Graham(-1) needs to shoot inside on this to take out the pulling guard and the fullback, which would delay Ringer and force him to bounce it into unblocked players; instead he stays outside and the resulting carry goes for six yards.

That's it in a game where Javon Ringer ran 37 times. The rest of the UFR that isn't "oh look it's another mass of bodies play for 2-4 yards" is Michigan State running at Tim Jamison over and over and over and over. Michigan State had seen the film, and they didn't even bother with that side of the line.

As far as the passing game, just look at the numbers and the highlights to your right. Brandon Graham is a bad man.

Backups and Whatnot

There are none. The opening depth chart has walk-on Will Heininger actually ahead of redshirt junior Adam Patterson, which… wow. Patterson was a top 100 recruit in this day and is currently behind a walk-on who's younger than him. Michigan acquired an injury redshirt for Patterson after he missed most of last year, but will they actually offer a fifth year to him?

When that's the relevant question instead of "can he reasonably replace the best player on the team?" it's time to light a candle for Graham's various ligaments, tendons, bones, and so forth and so on.

Ryan Van Bergen
ND sack
Easy PSU sack
Indiana sack



Rating: 1.

AKA "quick" or "elephant" or any number of other things, the deathbacker and what he is has been discussed ad nauseum throughout the offseason. One final recap: the deathbacker is half man, half machine, half defensive end, half linebacker, and 200% awesome. Robinson's defense has the flexibility to flip him from weakside—where he operates as an out-wide dispenser of havoc with a practiced sack dance—to the strong, where he becomes a human shield for an undersized strong-side linebacker and general threat to penetrate into a running play. In spring practice, Michigan mostly used him as the latter in order to better single up terror defensive end Brandon Graham.

Your one and only option at this spot is redshirt sophomore Brandon Herron, who has not been heard nor seen from except on special teams so far. Herron was only a middling recruit—Nebraska was his best other offer—and wandered around a man without a position his first couple years. He, along with linebacker Marell Evans and tight end Steve Watson, were thrown in at the position during spring practice. Evans transferred and Watson's initial buzz gave way to the sort of radio silence that sees you drop behind a true freshman, about whom more later, leaving Herron the starter by default.

As you can tell by the decidedly non-action photo above, Herron hasn't seen much time on the field. The only pictures in Mike DeSimone's insanely comprehensive Michigan picture database that feature Herron on the field are fuzzy shots of the field goal block team. So… yeah. I've never seen the player in question play. I've never seen Michigan deploy the position in question. There's considerable debate as to what, exactly, this position is even going to entail when it hits the field. Any projection here is the purest guesswork.

Here's my guesswork: Herron hasn't seen action despite Michigan's paper-thin depth chart at linebacker the last couple years and has the position by virtual default. He wasn't a big recruit. He's getting talked up, but that talk has the distinct whiff of Johnny Sears. Remember that brief window before The Horror when Only Reasonable Corner Option Johnny Sears was getting talked up left and right? Yeah… about that.

Herron does have one thing going for him: his teammates were throwing around ridiculous numbers about weights lifted and pounds (235) and 40 times (4.4). You take FAKE physical attributes at your peril, though.

Backups and Whatnot

craig-roh-crazy-ninja-stanceGood thing this positional preview is the last one to drop: this site's message board has an unconfirmed report that true freshman Craig Roh is actually going to get the start tomorrow. This would be bad, as it would thrust a true freshman who's been called "wiry" so many times that he bristled at it when someone dropped it at Media Day into the starting lineup, but it might not be that bad. Roh was a big-time recruit who picked Michigan over USC and many others, and I was ape about him when it came time to hit up his recruiting profile:

He should get immediate use as a situational pass rusher and could move into the starting line up by midseason. It might take longer but I don't think Evans, Watson, or Herron is going to keep him off the field for much more than a year.

So were Texas fans who watched him go up against one of their commits at the UA allstar game, in which he's pictured at right in his crazy Crab People stance:

Craig Roh DE (Michigan)
Straight baller that showed a Dwight Freeney spin on Kelley for a sack and sacked/tackled Russel Shepard in space. Had a handful of QB pressures over the course of the game. Rich Rod got himself a good one.

When Rodriguez started talking about how Roh will play immediately upon his arrival, the general tone of it was "…as a situational pass rusher." That's definitely in the cards, but I've been advocating the idea Roh will end up something more, and soon… I wouldn't be surprised if the unconfirmed report was true.

There is also redshirt freshman Steve Watson, who moved from tight end after it became clear his lack of athleticism would see him permanently buried behind Koger, Webb, and Moore on offense at a position that's strictly optional in the spread 'n' shred. As mentioned, there were  some positive notes coming out of spring practice about him, but Roh quickly passed him. Watson's career arc looks like Coner on defense.

More Linebacker Guys: Brandon Herron Commits

More Linebacker Guys: Brandon Herron Commits

Submitted by Brian on December 6th, 2006 at 7:15 PM

Commit #18 is another linebacker: Brandon Herron from Sugarland, Texas, a high school teammate of Michigan legacy and cornerback commit Troy Woolfolk.

One word to describe Herron: project. He's 6'2" and under 200 pounds. He plays defensive end for his high school. So he's the size of a safety, playing defensive end, and projected at linebacker. You can mark the redshirt in pen. If I could make an analogy, he's like Toney Clemons, if Clemons had spent much of his time playing running back.

The upside is treasured and cliched athleticism. I guess this is supposed to be a good quote from his coach:

"Brandon is a carnival fair freak. There is not a drill that a coach put him through that he can't do better than anyone else."

That could be a way of saying "can't really play football right now." Freelance recruiting guru Jim Stefani agrees:

80 Brandon Herron LB 6'2 198 4.55 Sugarland Fort Bend Dulles Texas Herron has tested exceptionally well the past couple of years at combines, but he didn't really start receiving offers until this past spring and is still emerging as a high-level prospect. Perhaps because he's a bit of a 'tweener between LB and safety. He will need to get bigger to play 'backer at the next level, but there's no doubting his speed, quickness (4.25 shuttle), strength (15 reps as a soph) or leaping ability (37-inch vertical). Looked very good at the Texas summer camp. OFFERS: MO,UTAH, UTEP, MICHST, MIN,NW, OKST,KANST, NEB,AZ, TT,LSU

Texas was reportedly on the verge of offering...

The Longhorns apparently were close to offering two prospects after their camp - linebacker Brandon Herron and defensive end Brandon Joiner. Apparently, nothing new has developed if any new in-state offers go out, those are the ones to expect from UT.

... but didn't. That's no shame, as Mack Brown picks and chooses whoever he wants from the fertile recruiting grounds of Texas these days. Herron then was a soft verbal to Nebraska before reversing course, claiming Michigan as his leader. He officially visited last weekend, got an offer today, and committed. Rivals and Scout have him a three-star; ESPN rates him a 77 ($), which is pretty meh.

Side note: On Woolfolk from an article on Dulles:

Defensive back Troy Woolfolk was the first to commit to Michigan and followed up his verbal with superb play. The 6-0 defensive back excelled at safety, picking off six passes.

"Moving Troy to free safety made all the difference," Dulles coach Jim Creech said. "No one could break the long one on us because of his speed and he really helped us on defense with his physical play. I really believe he's a safety."

Chances he's a safety at Michigan are reading zero, but it's more data.

Oh, yeah: wool judging!