Midseason Re-Eval: Linebackers

Submitted by Brian on October 26th, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Taking stock during the bye week. Previously: secondary.



Following straight on the heels of the secondary preview, the linebacker preview caused more stomach-twisting agony at projected incompetence. Craig Roh was covered as a defensive lineman, leaving Mouton, Ezeh/Walk-on, and Freshman Spur Rotation the guys covered here.

Mouton and Ezeh were lumped together as close to interchangeable backers and given a two, except it was actually Mouton and Moundros evaluated as starters. Doom was projected at MLB:

…"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?

All that was offered in hope was "Ezeh won't get worse and if he's replaced the guy doing the replacing will be better than him." When it came to address the backups, I was expecting "some" improvement from Ezeh thanks to the exit of Jay Hopson and the usual leveling up that comes through experience. The Enigmatic Kenny Demens was indeed dubbed The Enigmatic Kenny Demens; the tea leaves were not encouraging on him because he'd gone from pushing for a job in spring to all but absent in fall.

Mouton was declared a wildly inconsistent guy hopped up on bad angles but theoretically capable of becoming a "ruthless Crable-like playmaker." That was just a theory, though:

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.

Mike Jones came in for the most pub as a backup.

At spur, Carvin Johnson and Thomas Gordon were regarded as near-interchangeable parts based entirely on recruiting profiles of Johnson and Gordon; they were given a two for essentially no reason:

His [Johnson's] 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."

Fast forward to NOW!


Mouton has settled into the broad 50% level where he is okay, in no danger of getting benched or making an All Big Ten team at year's end. He's come in for clucking on two separate Picture Pages wherein tailbacks got outside of him despite having a clear mandate to maintain contain. Despite this, he's been in the black most of the year on the UFR chart and has turned in some huge positive plays:

Mouton leads the team in tackles and is in a big pack of guys with around 5 TFLs. Though he hasn't made the senior leap he was capable of he is appreciably better than last year and is going to get some NFL team to take a swing at him in the draft.

Ezeh managed to hold off the challenge from Moundros largely because when Moundros came in he looked exactly like you'd expect a fullback to look at linebacker. The problem was that Ezeh looked like a fullback, too:

At this point it's almost hopeless. What are the chances Obi Ezeh learns how to be a linebacker in the last ten games of his career if he's still making incredibly basic mistakes like that after starting for three years? This has nothing to do with scheme. This is basic play recognition/ability to remember how to make your legs go.  … The ugly fate foretold by the "Mark Moundros could start" preseason meme appears to be coming true.

That was after Ezeh scored a –8 against a I-AA team. That may have been harsh but if you're arguing that a –8 against UMass for a senior middle linebacker is really a –4 you're really just arguing about how obvious his future benching is. Frustratingly obvious, or eye-bleedingly obvious?

It was apparently the former. Ezeh hung onto his job until the Michigan State game, when a bizarre scheme that saw him fly out of the center of the defense on two long MSU touchdown runs was replaced by the usual thing where he was asked to read and react and did only the first:

The MSU game was finally enough. Michigan turned to The Enigmatic Kenny Demens, who'd been enigmatically buried on the depth chart. Placed on the field he hit the right gaps, made a number of tackles at or near the line of scrimmage, and could not be fingered for anything particularly negative that went on. Contrast the above clip with this:

I've got plenty more of the first clip to prove the trend. Demens hasn't seen enough time to prove anything but at the very least he's suggested he's already an upgrade as a sophomore. It wouldn't have taken much.

At spur it has been super boring. Johnson got knocked out of the UConn game and missed the next few weeks. He's reclaimed the starting spot after healing but he and Gordon alternate so much that it's hard to tell who is who. It doesn't help that neither of them has done much of anything good or bad. The hope was that maybe Cam Gordon would be able to pull the Brandent Englemon 1-0-1 this year. He hasn't come anywhere close, but the spurs are doing almost exactly that. Between them they have 25 tackles, 3.5 for loss and the one impressive sack of Dayne Crist.

Is that good? On this defense it qualifies. A couple freshmen are not huge issues. The 2 they were handed in the preview seems about right.

Fast forward to LATER!

Indiana's Mitchell Evans is chased down by Michigan's Jonas Mouton in the second quarter.       Photos are of the University of Michigan vs. Indiana University at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, September 26, 2009.  (The Detroit News / David Guralnick)demens-tackle

Mouton is what he is at this point. He'll use his combo of size and speed to nail down a fair share of impressive plays; his iffy angles and pursuit will open up the outside and cutbacks. His pass drops have gotten much better. He's probably going to end the year as Michigan's leading tackler and have maybe 10 TFLs. He's not a star. He's not a liability. Except he's both. It all averages out to an average-ish Big Ten linebacker.

Rotating Spur Freshman should improve as the season progresses and the collective's eyes get less wide, but it's hard to see a lot of plays from Johnson and Gordon until 2011 when one of them can get a solid grip on the job and can focus on doing a bit more than not screwing up. But they're not screwing up—or at least not screwing up much compared to other spots. One negative: they must be iffy in pass coverage in practice if the exploitable nickel package has persisted this far into its erratic 2010.

The upside in the unit comes in the form of The Enigmatic Kenny Demens, who turned in a legitimately good—not good-for-being-not-Ezeh—game against Iowa. It is highly likely he is better than Ezeh right now. It is unlikely he is as good as he showed against an Iowa team that IIRC did not run a counter or anything other than straight zone blocking all day. Where he falls in that continuum from Linebackers Obviously Better Than Ezeh to Legitimately Good will have a huge impact on Michigan's rushing defense the rest of the way.

Prediction accuracy to date: Pretty good, though the preview punted on making a call on Mouton and was taken in by whatever it was that caused Demens to plummet down the depth chart.
Level of play relative to prediction: Slightly optimistic, as Ezeh didn't seem to be any better this year than last.
Expected level of play for remainder of season: Somewhere between slightly and considerably better than predicted depending on how sustainable Demens's play is and how much of an upgrade Carvin Johnson is over Thomas Gordon. The guesses here: 70% sustainable and not much of an upgrade.



October 26th, 2010 at 10:47 AM ^

Again, I have to point out that a good part of the cutbacks and contain busts are on Kovacs and not Mouton.  As we've said in the linked picture page discussion, Kovacs was as much at fault on that play as Mouton.  Two of the plays linked in the defensive UFR were on Kovacs, not Mouton.  Mouton is better than average, he's just getting hit with Kovacs' mistakes.


October 26th, 2010 at 10:51 AM ^

Are you talking about the picture-paged play?  BC Mouton obviously had the choice of going inside or outside and his choice to fill the inside where his MLB compart was filling was the bad choice.

the LBs overall get more criticism than they need to, but that's not to say that Mouton could be making better decisions


October 26th, 2010 at 11:07 AM ^

Yes, but you'd have to read the discussion over there.  I don't know that it makes a whole lot of sense to go over it all yet again.  In short, yes, Mouton made a bad play and deserved a negative there for fighting to the inside.  But Kovacs was just as responsible for coming in out of control and getting easily chipped out of the play by the fullback, instead of taking on the block or cutting the block.  He did absolutely nothing to alter the RB's path.  Both guys, as well as Banks, were equally responsible on that play.  Yet Mouton got a -2, Banks a -1, and Kovacs got away with nothing.

Abd again, it's not just that play.  Two of the three plays Brian linked to show Mouton giving up contain were totally on Kovacs and the DE with Mouton having minimal, if any, responsibility on them.  Yet they were used as examples of why Mouton played poorly.  I have no problem linking them here and going over them if need be.  Hell, if I was any good at all at picture paging, I'd do that.


October 26th, 2010 at 11:15 AM ^

As I said, he had minimal responsibility on one of the plays (Kovacs and Black as the main culprits), and none on another one (Kovacs again).  On the specific picture paged play, he certainly had a shared responsibility with Kovacs and Banks.

MI Expat NY

October 26th, 2010 at 12:29 PM ^

I'm not sure what the third referenced play is, but on the second picture paged play (or first?) against UMass, I can't fathom a way in which Mouton isn't mostly to blame.  You see Mouton flowing towards the outside and Kovacs crashing in almost from the snap.  The result is Mouton, unblocked, one-on-one with a RB to the outside.  He gets toasted because of a bad angle and nobody is able to get to him for 15 yards.  A correct angle either sees him making a TFL or a cut-back by the RB to a flowing Ezeh for minimal gain.  Sure, Kovacs doesn't do much on the play, but the scheme works and Mouton should be there for an easy play.


October 26th, 2010 at 1:15 PM ^

He is going to be a stud. I am really looking forward to him in the winged helmet, especially since the way he told RR that he was coming to UM. What better way to commit to RR and UM than to sing the Victors with your family in RR's office?

Yard Dog

October 26th, 2010 at 11:12 AM ^

As previously mentioned, Kovacs will never back down from taking on a blocker, but his lack of size does not allow him to alter the path of the play and funnel the runner back to the LBs.  If you had a Kovacs plus 3" and 30 pounds, some of these plays may be redirected back to the pursuing LB.

No matter how you cut it though, Mouton, as exciting as he is, still takes horrible angles about once a game.  Is he better?  Yes, as we have yet to see an angle like he took last year against MSU when Cousins was scrambling.  But I have to hope that Brian is right and things get marginally better and do not degrade over the coming weeks.

Plus, I know PSU's O line is not really good this year, but I'm really excited to see how Demens performs against Royster and Co.


October 26th, 2010 at 11:13 AM ^

the question about the spur position is whether their near zero marks are because they haven't been asked to do that much or because they've been asked to do everything and are doing a fine job at that.


October 26th, 2010 at 11:39 AM ^

Hey guys,

Apologize in advance, I know Brian has covered this before, i just can't seem to find it.  I still don't understand what the differences are between the Spur vs Bandit role - anyone have a quick answer?



October 26th, 2010 at 11:58 AM ^

"Spur" is our mini-linebacker (think Stevie Brown his senior year) 

Bandit is our "strong Safety" role (Kovacs) They're both hybrid strong safeties,  one typically plays more downhill (spur) and one drops back to safety if we go 2 deep (bandit)

Someone correct me if I'm wrong/add more detail


October 26th, 2010 at 12:07 PM ^

if you're watching a formation, I believe that typically Spur is strongside and Bandit weakside.

This is all as compared to the third safety-type position, the deep safety (currently Cam). 


October 26th, 2010 at 2:09 PM ^

to remove all references to "Spur" and "Bandit" and just call them the "Stevie Brown" and "Kovacs"?  This way, I don't have to do the immediate conversion in my head to "let's see... spur... oh yeah, what Stevie did, so he's that... and the other guy... oh yeah".

For example, our starting Stevie Brown is Carvin Johnson (or Thomas Gordon), while our starting Kovacs is Jordan Kovacs.  Next year, we hope that Marvin Robinson will take over at Kovacs, while one of the two freshmen will improve as sophomores such that we'll be seeing more production out of the Stevie Brown.

I also note some on the board have suggested moving Cam Gordon to Stevie Brown, where his linebacker-type physicality might be more useful, but personally I would like to see him stay back at Ernest Shazor and learn the game.


October 26th, 2010 at 12:41 PM ^

I think that it depends on who we play.  Against PSU, Illinois and Purdue - yes.  These teams will be run heavy, so stopping the run will be criticial to our chances of victory.    Against Wisco, probably not, since they will be able to take it to our biggest liability - the secondary.

Against OSU - maybe?  Demens will help cut down on OSU's potent run game, but OSU's receivers are going to torch our secondary.  Maybe if Demens increases the inside pressure on Pryor, he will have more difficulty hitting his wide open by a mile receivers. 

So yeah, I think that you are right that Demens will have a positive impact, but with our defensive backfield, I am not sure how visable that impact will be in the score. 


October 26th, 2010 at 12:38 PM ^

also had to play while at staring at patterson getting blocked into him (or put on his back) all day against iowa.  When Martin comes back and takes up two blockers and Demens can run unmolested a bit more, its gonna get wicked.