Preview 2013: Linebackers

Submitted by Brian on August 29th, 2013 at 2:53 PM

Previously: Podcast 5.0, The Story, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Friends, Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Special Teams.

Depth Chart
STRONGSIDE  LB Yr. MIDDLE LB Yr. WEAKSIDE LB Yr.
Cam Gordon Sr.* Desmond Morgan Jr. James Ross So.
Jake Ryan Jr.* Joe Bolden So. Royce Jenkins-Stone So.
Brennen Beyer Jr. Mike McCray Fr. Ben Gedeon Fr.

Stupid ACL injuries wrecking everything… well… some things. Michigan loses Kenny Demens to graduation and Jake Ryan to cruel fate, but returns everyone else, adds Brennen Beyer from the stacked WDE spot, and welcomes two freshmen. They have a decent amount of experience, a decent amount of depth, and a ton of promise. James Ross figures to blow up; Desmond Morgan's improvement will be more incremental but now he's at a more comfortable position. Joe Bolden gives both a quality backup.

Even at the depleted SAM spot you've got a fifth year senior and true junior who Greg Mattison says are both playing like starters, and then Ryan is supposed to be back by mid-October… or sooner. Could be pretty good here.

Inside Linebacker

These previews had previously split out the middle and weakside linebackers into their own sections, but the obvious interchangeability of the two spots (Desmond Morgan moves from one to the other, Bolden played both last year, supposed MLB Kenny Demens took the bulk of the TE-seam responsibilities) we're combining the two into an inside LB spot. Differences between the two spots exist, but are thin—according to Mattison, "inside is inside."

Rating: 4

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Morgan will hit ya [Upchurch/MGoBlue.com]

DESMOND MORGAN
hit and shed
gets in, gets upfield
sheds block, slows Bell
pow!
no more forward for you
can move
comes from backside to tackle 
kind of Ryan-like here
was young
lost on counter
accepts a block
slashed to the ground
cut like a mofo
read and react
nerfs counter draw
takes on two blockers
sidles all the way
shuts down Martinez draw

DESMOND MORGAN enters his third year as a starter by moving over from the weakside to the middle, as predicted by everyone in the world including myself. This is partly because James Ross demands entry into the starting lineup and partly because Morgan's skillset—thumpin'—was always more suited to the mike. Even when he was at WLB, it was Kenny Demens tasked with following tight ends down the seam. Morgan isn't quite a Sam Sword two-downs-and-out guy, but between he and Ross there's no question who you want dropping into coverage and who you want taking on fullbacks.

The best part of Morgan's game is how running backs stop when he contacts them. Morgan emerged into a bang-you're-dead tackler over the course of the year. Here he takes on a block, sheds it, gets an arm on LeVeon Bell(!), and robs him of most of his momentum:

Michigan would boot State off the field on the ensuing third and short. Having guys like Morgan around makes every first down a battle. Morgan also robbed a Minnesota power back of most of his momentum, amongst other events. Click play and HEAR FOOTBALL!

The guy is a brick.

After his first year this space criticized Morgan's hesitancy (mildly since he was a freshman), something that lasted through the first portion of last season. Michigan would slant the line and get gashed and I eventually pieced together a theory that the linebackers were uncomfortable predicting what would happen on that slant and late to the hole.

As the year progressed (and Washington and Campbell got more reliable with their angles), that tendency receded:

The linebackers are generally more decisive. The Demens see-gap-hit-gap-eat-soul is one part of it; also you can sense Morgan feeling the play behind that. He eases to the playside a bit to give him an edge on someone who might be releasing backside. He's reading the play through, and he shows up to help at the right spot. There's an air of "I am no longer a confused freshman" to him.

Morgan put a lot of previous worries about athleticism to bed last year as he got sideline to sideline effectively and made plays in space against tough customers like Taylor Martinez. Watching his read-and-explode is at times reminiscent of Jake Ryan. At times.

The UFR chart is reflective of this:

Opponent + - TOT Notes
Alabama 5.5 10 -4.5 And this was the best ILB play!
Air Force 8 10 -2 Faded late after strong start, thus setting up allfrosh.
UMass - - - DNP
Notre Dame 5 2 3 Solid tackling day, looked pretty athletic.
Purdue 5.5 3.5 2 Overshadowed with +2, is this real life?
Illinois 7.5 4.5 3 This is relatively bad!
MSU 9 2 7 Remember the athleticism worries with him?
Nebraska 11 4 7 Hit Y on leaping bat that became INT.
Minnesota 11 5.5 5.5 You stop when he hits you.
Northwestern 4 9.5 -5.5 Rough outing with blown assignments; Ross out there on critical last two drives speaks for itself.
Iowa - - - DNP

OSU not done, sorry. South Carolina not listed because it was impossible to tell who was who between Morgan and Bolden, and South Carolina ran the tailback five times anyway.

For inside linebackers, anything above zero is generally good. After getting 'Bama'd and having issues against Air Force's triple option, Morgan started a run of six straight positive games—some very much so.

Of course, a couple games after I proclaimed him a star in the Nebraska UFR he got edged and outran all day by Northwestern. Hey, he's just not the best guy to take on Venric Mark. It happens. Moving him to the middle should mitigate those issues.

In year three, Mattison believes that Morgan has the mental and physical ability to be top notch as long as he fixes one issue:

"He's so smart. He can make the checks, and he's strong. That allows him to be able to strike a blow, punch and get off blocks. One thing our linebackers have to work extremely hard on that was a negative for us was there were too many times they ran into blockers and didn't disengage. That's been a big emphasis."

Morgan got consistently better at this as the year rolled along. He's too much of a blue-collar guy to get the sexy TFL stats to be All Big Ten (also, Max Bullough exists) but he should be a consistently plus player who fends off Joe Bolden all year. He will be an asset.

[After THE JUMP: James Ross! Depth! Jake Ryan as Loki! Cam Gordon! More depth!]

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Ross is going places, fast [Fuller]

JAMES ROSS
uncanny
beauty counter read
slash TFL
cuts down Mark
goes under OL to tackle
flows to hole
freshman stuff
doesn't understand line slant
clubberated by Bama
hit that guy harder
run over 
bites on PA 

On the weakside, damn near everyone who's even heard of Michigan football expects JAMES ROSS to be awesome right now. Your author counts himself amongst the thronging horde of fans after a freshman year during which Ross redeemed all statements about how instinctive he was in full. Yrs truly post Air Force: "If you need to figure out where to eat dinner with 12 people, invite James Ross."

I've still got nothing better to describe his game than this quote from his high school 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."

That is exactly right, down to the vocabulary. James Ross is uncanny. He decides what a play is and goes at top speed to where he should be.

Not all the time, not just yet, and sometimes he doesn't actually know where he should be. There's as much "freshman stuff" at right as there is "uncanny" stuff. He was not a complete product last year. But the direction this is going is obvious:

The next time they ran option playside to Ross the guy trying to block him had no shot to reach him because he was just gone at the snap:

I mean, that's Venric Mark. Yow.

I can't help but think that Ross's tendency to just go will catch up with him at some point where he's a starter people gameplan for but so far so good. It'll be hard to keep him off the field next year. Hard to keep him off this year.

When Morgan made a good initial read on That Goddamned Counter Draw, he hesitated and then could not make a tackle, and I thought "can't see Ross doing that" small sample sizes and all, sure.

Setting aside the Alabama demolition, Ross's UFR chart was quite good for a freshman linebacker. Low numbers generally, but positive save for sparing time in the Minnesota game and a a slightly negative outcome against Iowa.

That game exposed a lot of the Ross downsides: usual freshman stuff. A Picture Pages from the Iowa game broke down a play on which Ross's failure to react to motion from the tight end got him sealed inside and resulted in a nice gain for Mark Weisman. At other times in that game Ross just got run over by the converted fullback.

The mental stuff will come, and quickly. The pounding stuff… well. Ross is never going to be a huge guy. He's actually down five pounds from last year according to the roster. But he brought the wood in spring practice. Courtesy Devin Gardner:

ross-wreckage-2ross-wreckage-3

That's Drake Johnson and a walk-on OL he's pwning, sure, but if Ross is just a hair quicker getting to the hole this year he's got enough to bring it a la Morgan.

It will be no surprise that this preview predicts James Ross blows up. He is on a stardom track that has not been derailed by injury or underperformance of expectation. If anything, the buzz aroudn the program only lends more confidence to this prediction. Unlike Clark, the other breakout candidate in the front seven this year, Ross has displayed the qualities he needs on the field and has a steady improvement to his name. I'm sold here. All Big Ten linebacker.

Backups

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Sophomore JOE BOLDEN [recruiting profile] did not have quite as smooth a transition to the college game as Ross did. More than once Picture Pages posts dwelled on Bolden's tendency to get to the right spot and then fail to MANBALL up:

bolden_thumb[1][5]

Ross makes a bad read here so even if Bolden gets outside of the lead blocker it'll still get yards. Still, hit that guy and funnel back to help.

Once you've committed to the run you should COMMIT TO THE RUN. Whenever you're hitting a blocker in the backfield you get a check-plus for your read. But because Bolden just impacts the guy softly, he does not force Cox into a new hole. He doesn't even get the diving arm-tackle attempt Ryan puts in, and Ryan has contain responsibility.

Compare this GIF with the Morgan clip above from the Nebraska game. Or this play from Notre Dame in which he takes on a lead blocker as if he doesn't want to spill his tea:

HIT, and have faith that your partner is flowing behind you.

That, in a nutshell, is why Morgan's starting over Bolden.

That's just a freshman being a freshman, something that's hard to remember about when Ross is also playing. Linebackers take time—Morgan's freshman UFR chart was ugly, and he lost his job to Brandin Hawthorne for a good chunk of the year. Bolden displayed the same symptoms on the above play, an Air Force QB draw on which he got lost, etc. He looked like a first-year linebacker in a new system, and his UFR chart reflects it with a number of small-amplitude, slightly negative days.

There were signs of improvement. Bolden flashed some Ross-like read-and-destroy late, like this zone against Iowa on which he shoots a gap to rack up an impressive TFL:

He hits Weisman with violence, which is a step forward from the GIF above. He also had an impressive read-and-react in the bowl game.

A significant step forward beckons in year two. Bolden has all the size and athleticism you could want for the MLB position, he's the nephew of the coach at Colerain (and son of the AD), and he came fully-guru approved. He'll spot Morgan frequently and may take over on some passing downs if he can show more blitzing/cover prowess than Morgan. It'll be tough for Bolden to pass either starter, but if he's the primary backup at both spots (and he probably is: "inside is inside") he will get as many snaps as the two guys nominally in front of him on the depth chart. That's a good situation this year; next year it'll be great.

221441[1]

Looks the part [247]

On the weakside, ROYCE JENKINS-STONE [recruiting profile] showed up at 205 pounds, instantly kiboshing any idea he'd be a strongside backer like people (read: I) expected. A year later he's added 20 pounds and is now a plausible option as a linebacker instead of a mewling kitten to run over. Unfortunately for RJS, he's been slotted on the weakside and has to beat out one James Ross if he's going to start.

There's zero indication that'll happen this year, if ever. But that's not to say Jenkins-Stone won't step into a more prominent role this year. TE/ST coach Dan Ferrigno told Tim Sullivan that RJS would get "a ton less special teams time this year because he's going to play significantly at weakside linebacker." I'm not sure why they'd want to pull a guy good enough to spot Ross off a dozen special teams snaps a game, but that at least speaks to the staff's confidence in RJS as a solid two-deep performer.

As a recruit—still all we have to go on, really—RJS was regarded as an excellent vertical attacker who struggled as a senior when asked to read and react. Another year of apprentice work is in order; he'll spot Ross from time to time, but not in crunch time—or at all against tough opponents.

11517251-standard[1]McCray[1]

Gedeon and McCray are the next generation [Plain Dealer/DDN]

Behind the two sophomores are two freshmen, both around 6'3" and just short of 240 pounds. These are large freshmen. BEN GEDEON [recruiting profile] reportedly ran a 4.6 at 237 pounds and pounded out an NFL-combine worthy number of bench press reps as soon as he arrived on campus. It will probably not surprise you to know that he was known as "The Freak" in high school. This site compared him to Ross when it thought he was a 215 pound weakside 'backer. He's apparently a 240-pound weakside 'backer. He could be useful on special teams right now, but it would be nice to get another year of separation between him and Ross.

That's apparently not happening, as the first player out of Mattison's mouth in response to a question about freshman who will play was Gedeon. If he's going to shoot past Jenkins-Stone in year one, okay, I guess.

The other freshman, MIKE MCCRAY [recruiting profile], is the son of a former Buckeye captain and an even larger man at an inch taller than Gedeon. He's currently at MLB, and while he hasn't put up the freakish athletic numbers Gedeon his, he knows the rivalry and should develop into a player. Again, it would be great to get another year of separation between him and the standouts from the last LB class but special teams may intervene. McCray just switched numbers from 9 to 3, implying that he's going to be on the field at the same time as Drew Dileo. Grumble grumble.

Strongside Linebacker

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I'd be scared too, baby. [AnnArbor.com]

Rating: 4

Obviously much of this rests on two questions. How soon will Jake Ryan return? And will he be Jake Ryan when he comes back?

If you listen to the coaching staff, Ryan may return soon enough to be declared the starter in this preview. His ACL tear seemed a devastating blow in the immediate aftermath of its announcement, but then Brady Hoke started telling anyone who would listen that he'd be back by mid-October, and recently Roy Manning has been saying he'd be back even earlier than that. Michigan's Big Ten games before November are Minnesota, Penn State, and Indiana, so the effect Ryan's injury has on Michigan's Rose Bowl chase may be zero as long as Michigan can take out a depleted Penn State outfit starting a first-year quarterback.

But he's out, for now. And who knows how long after? So we'll go with CAM GORDON as the nominal starter in this spot. For half of his career, Gordon was a positional vagabond. He started out at wide receiver, moved to safety for a brief, unhappy time, and then slid down to the "spur" position in Rodriguez's 3-3-5. That is basically analogous to the SAM in a Mattison's defense, so he's accumulated quite a bit of experience there. Mattison's been rumbling about wanting to play Gordon more for going on a year now, and was actually talking him up before the Ryan injury:

"Jake [Ryan] and Cam [Gordon] -- Cam’s had a tremendous winter. It will be exciting and fun to see the different things that we might be able to do with both of them on the field. Jake is one of those guys with his hand on the ground can rush the passer sometimes. It gives us some things that we can do.”

Can Jake and Cam be on the field at the same time?

“Can be.”

His UFR chart is not particularly remarkable, mostly of the 2.5-1.5-+1 sort. I did note that he "will be viable depth for Ryan" after Alabama and that he "could probably step in without huge downgrade" after Illinois. Gordon appeared all over the first scrimmage video…

There is a lot of Cam Gordon in here. Cam Gordon pressures and chases Fitz Toussaint and hits guys and blitzes and whatnot. Beyer's supposed to be pushing Gordon quite a bit, but you can't tell that from this video, not only in terms of appearances but also in terms of Cam Gordon play. Since Beyer was not held out, that would seem to mean something.

…and I liked him in spring:

Many eyes were on Gordon, including mine. I thought he did fine. In that aforementioned zone drill he was consistently getting the right amount of penetration into the backfield, holding the edge without opening up a crease inside of him. That ability to get the edge flashed on the negative Norfleet run. When deployed as a pass rusher, he was effective; nothing seemed to be on his head. Michigan will be fine at SAM.

Mattison seems pleased enough with his SAMs, repeatedly describing both Gordon and Beyer as starter-worthy material.

Gordon has a ton of practice experience and has looked good to my eye when he's gotten in the game, whether it was spring or last year. He'll be fine. He may even be pretty good. He's not going to be Jake Ryan, obviously, but even if Ryan doesn't come back at all this isn't a spot that's going to be a big negative. Michigan issue is that they need it to be a big positive. About that…

Wildcard

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DOOOOOOM [Eric Upchurch]

How much is Jake Ryan doing now?

"Jake's doing a lot. Jake's doing a lot."

-Mattison

As if anyone could be more of a wildcard than JAKE F RYAN, the Loki of Michigan football. He was a completely irresponsible maniac as a freshman (last year's preview on that: "He did… well, there was a lot of it"), then a slightly irresponsible, massively good sophomore. Now he's a junior coming off a spring ACL tear projected to return midseason… or even earlier. Because he is the god of chaos. Even ACLs have to shout.

JAKE RYAN
explosive athlete
annihilates WR screen
doesn't even let 'em throw it
beats Bell for sack
blows upfield for TFL
ouch
first step slant boom
fool me once you die
run D
club wingback, helps tackle
shed and destroy
burrows under TE
penetrates, sheds
leaps forward to tackle
argh edged
Bama blows him off ball
gets cut by AF
bites on jet fake
Abdullah outside
can't contain Colter 

If Ryan comes back and plays like Jake Ryan, that is a massive boost for a defense in need of playmakers. Massive.

Opponent + - TOT Notes
Alabama 4.5 3.5 1 I may have not picked up some things he was doing that were bad.
Air Force 13 2.5 10.5 Ran up the score with +4 on final three plays. Option blame fell elsewhere.
UMass 8.5 - 8.5 Essentially a DE in this game.
Notre Dame 8.5 3 5.5 Great tackle on screen.
Purdue 10 - 10 I call him mini Clay Matthews.
Illinois 14 3 11 I call Clay Matthews mini Jake Ryan.
MSU 17.5 3 14.5 I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS
Nebraska 10 7.5 2.5 Got edged a lot; Nebraska used his aggression against him successfully.
Minnesota 14 6 8 JMFR; did get edged a couple times.
Northwestern 8.5 4 4.5 A bit of a quiet day, only 4 tackles, no TFLs.
Iowa 5.5 - 5.5 Nearly had an explosive sack.

Option edge teams (Air Force, Nebraska, Northwestern) did cause Ryan some trouble; he has not quite forced the "argh Ryan gave up the edge" from his game yet. Against twits who didn't (or slugs who couldn't) exploit that he owned their faces.

What is the most Ryan play from last year? For my money it's his zombie-fling TFL against Minnesota:

When Mattison calls him an "unorthodox" player, what he means is "no one has made me scream 'GODDAMMIT JAKE… uh… good job jake' more often." Ryan had an amazing knack for avoiding blocks, even if that meant getting blown up by them from time to time.

What's more, Jake Ryan is an incredible ten-yard dash guy. His upfield burst is elite, which makes it extremely difficult to block him.

Ryan is basically what we expect of him now. I would like to emphasize that sometimes when he comes on blitzes and accelerates through a hole in the OL after a change of direction, the feeling in your scalp is not entirely unlike the one when Denard does it. He is a man of unusual speed. I mean, goddamn he hits this hole HARD:

Don't just take it from me, though. Anonymous Big Ten defenders:

On Jake Ryan: "Versatile. We were watching film and our coach stopped it and said, 'Where's he at?' And it took you a second to realize he was lined up at defensive end. Then he hits the play button, and it's like the guy gets shot out of a cannon. He has speed, and he just has this ability to know where the football is and he attacks it. "

No one else brought that on Michigan's defense last year. Hopes that Clark will do that this year are just that—hopes.

Ryan is an explosive edge player, yes. He showed he was capable of more than that last year, though, both when he put his hand down in nickel situations and on short yardage. There is plenty of run D in the clips above, much of it based on his ability to get under whoever happens to be assigned to him on the edge fill the hole without making a tackle.

From time to time he got OL back on their heels and disengaged; if Michigan really needed him to he would be an effective WDE.

Ryan's major downside as a freshman was getting hacked to the ground and giving up the edge, plays which caused me to involuntarily emit a strained "RYANNNN!!!" in the stands. Those were massively down in year two, but still extant. They are never going away entirely, for such is the turbid soul of Jake Ryan. Errors and irresponsibility will continue to decrease, but we've gotten most of the way to a slightly low asymptotic endgame here. And that's okay as long as he's doing Jake Ryan things.

Ah, but: the injury. ACLs are six month things these days, yes. But as we've heard about Chris Wormley they come with tentativeness when you first hit the field again. This seems like it'll go one of two ways: it completely ruins Ryan for the first few games back or he doesn't even notice, because he is insane. I'd guess the latter.

As far as losing athleticism, if it was a clean tear it's not likely he loses much in the long term. He has been rehabbing furiously since his injury and was running at the beginning of fall camp; by the time he returns he should be fine. MSU basketball player Braden Dawson didn't lose a step, and the recovery timeline for Ryan's injury implies that he had the most benign version of an ACL tear. He should be back by mid-October and revved up for the stretch run.

Backups

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In the aftermath of the Ryan injury, Michigan moved junior BRENNEN BEYER from weakside end to SAM, where he'd played as a freshman. Given the WDE depth chart that might have happened anyway. Beyer was the responsible, run-oriented weakside end (as opposed to Frank Clark) last year, emerging into the nominal starter over the course of the season. After a minus day against Air Force in which "Clark seemed a lot better," Beyer missed two games with injury. Then the Big Ten season happened:

Opponent + - TOT Notes
Purdue 2.5 2 0.5 Got cut pretty badly that one time.
Illinois 0.5 - 0.5 Eh
MSU 4.5 1 3.5 Beyer surges into tentative WDE lead on run heavy day.
Nebraska 6 0.5 5.5 Had a number of two for one type plays.
Minnesota 5.5 1.5 4 Second consecutive pretty good day.
Northwestern 4.5 3 1.5 Favored WDE option at the moment.
Iowa 3 0.5 2.5 Run D guy.

All of that is run defense. All of it. Clark's playing time was significantly cut since he wasn't getting to the quarterback and wasn't doing as well on the ground as Beyer.

The nature of Beyer's play meant I barely clipped anything involving him all year. He let a guy get outside against Alabama, flowed down the line for a half-point on the Morgan-stops-Bell play, and slashed upfield for a TFL against Minnesota. He beat up on an Iowa tackle in the "One Step" Picture Pages but did not get a cookie because of Ross. The most impressive thing he did all year was in the bowl game, when he disengaged nicely on one of South Carolina's exceedingly rare tailback runs:

And that was about it. The rest of it was getting upfield enough to pick off pulling blockers and other assorted RVB-like non-boxscore plays.

That says uninspiring backup to me, but Heiko's insider connect has been promising up and down that Beyer would seriously challenge Cam Gordon for the starting spot and that he was clearly one of the best pass-rushers on the team. I know. Like Frank Clark, I'd like to see the faintest whisper of rumored ability on the field before I assume it's a real thing, and Beyer has not gotten much in the way of penetration, let alone sacks.

It does sound like the coaches are impressed with the guy, and that Gordon is not a slam dunk:

What have you seen from the competition at SAM?

"Again, Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer are doing very well this spring. They are both competing like crazy. … I think they would both know that they are both equal.

Mattison could "very easily" see Brennen and Gordon split snaps. A little earlier this fall:

You look at Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer. Who knows who the starter is? They're both the starter. When we go out there, one series we'll have Cam be the first SAM backer. On our next series you're going to have Brennen do it. Me? I don't see the difference. That's a positive. That's a real positive.

Like Clark, I think a quantum leap is asking too much; he is also switching positions, which will lead to at least some awkwardness. Beyer will spot Gordon on plenty of snaps  but remain the clear backup, and neither guy is going to get many of the primo pass-rush opportunities in the nickel. As backups go, having a junior who's seen quite a bit of time and done decently with it is a pretty good situation.

Finally, Michigan filled an obvious hole in its roster by moving safety ALLEN GANT [recruiting profile] to SAM. Gant was always dodgy long term as a safety project due to a lack of speed; at SAM his deficiency is size. The latest roster lists him at 6'2", 212. He can fix the 212 part to some extent, but he's never going to be a 250-pound menace like Ryan. He can still be an effective player as a Stevie Brown-style space SAM, but he's a special teams guy only this year.

Comments

alum96

August 29th, 2013 at 3:07 PM ^

My favorite group on the team right now - we all love Ryan and I think Ross is the breakout player of the team (sorry Mr. Clark).  And Gordon might actually surprise to the upside and make this a 4 headed monster.  And depth. Finally.

reshp1

August 29th, 2013 at 3:21 PM ^

Get Ross a neckroll, because he looks just like The Waterboy in those two clips. He's looking for the next guy to wreck before he's even done wrecking the first guy.

markusr2007

August 29th, 2013 at 4:01 PM ^

This is a good LB corps.

Reminds me a little bit of the days when Michigan fielded guys like Dhani Jones, Sam Sword, James Hall, Clint Copenhaver and Rob Swett.