Preview 2014: Linebacker

Submitted by Brian on August 28th, 2014 at 12:54 PM

Previously: Podcast 6.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle.

Depth Chart
James Ross Jr. Jake Ryan Sr.* Joe Bolden Jr.
Royce Jenkins-Stone Jr. Desmond Morgan Sr. Desmond Morgan Sr.
Allen Gant So.* Mike McCray Fr.* Ben Gedeon So.

Despite the move to a 4-3 over we're going to keep the convention we've had in previous years where two of the linebackers are designated "inside" and addressed together while the third gets separate mention. In both cases the WLB and the MLB are designated "inside" and the strongside backer is addressed separately. In the under it's because the SAM is half DE; in the over it's because he's half DB.

Michigan returns their entire linebacking corps save backup-ish SAM Cam Gordon, and they now have a healthy Jake Ryan instead of one fresh off an ACL tear midseason. This is good. Better still is their depth: no freshmen on this three-deep and one guy getting praised to the moon when a very solid returning starter is available. If the DL improves these guys are going to seem shockingly better.

There's just that thing about moving that guy to a place…




please be this guy again somehow [Eric Upchurch]

Man, I do now know what to expect from JAKE RYAN this year. He was every bit the flaming meteorite your memory suggests he was in 2012. We've been talking up Willie Henry and Frank Clark based on UFR scores that were consistently positive and encouraging. Make no mistake, though: those are not star-level performances. Jake Ryan's 2012 is the last time a member of the Michigan front seven turned one of those in:

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.
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.

That is a star, and that is a guy on the verge of writing his name in sloppy red ink across college football. That's the kind of season before the season that Brandon Graham had as a senior, that Mike Martin had as a senior. Screw you, ACLs. Because that Ryan was not this Ryan:

Game Opponent + - TOT Note
6 Penn State 3.5 2 1.5 …this gentleman.
7 Indiana 5 2 3 Coming on a bit.
8 MSU 6 3 3 Good until ARGH RYAN on final play, still doesn't seem all the way back.
9 Nebraska 4 1 3 One RYAN BACK play, but not every-down impactful yet.
10 Northwestern 6 3 3 Showing that crazy redirect a little more often.
11 Iowa 6.5 - 6.5 Created free touchdown.

And while that's still a respectable player, I'm not into Jake Ryan because he's really respectful and mom likes him, you know? I would prefer Jake Ryan to mount his Harley and run roughshod across the league wearing a thirty-inch skull on his back. And maybe his forehead. As many skulls as possible, really. I mean, I didn't feel this quote from a 2012 Big Ten OL in 2013:

"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. "

So there's that. And now he's a middle linebacker. Hooray?

Look… I can't tell you this is a great idea. The way Ryan plays is 80% chaos, 20% hair metal, and he's kind of tall and weird-shaped for middle linebacker. It's easy to envision a guard getting under his pads and taking him for a ride. And it's easy to envision him failing to funnel to his help, because at SAM your help is always very easy to figure out: inside. Chaos!

Chaos is probably not great for a MLB.

But it might not be a bad one. Ryan has taken on a lot of blocks in his time and even if he has to invent and patent ways to get rid of them, he generally does. The guy does not stay blocked.

When Michigan had problems with wide receiver screens a couple years ago they slid Ryan over the slot; problem solved. That combination of tackling and the ability to get to the productive side of a block is encouraging. It's going to be a bigger project against OL instead of TEs, but he's been a defensive end an awful lot—he's not going to be surprised.

The concern at MLB is that his tendency to shed at all costs will put him on the wrong side of a blocker. That concern is considerably less urgent than the prospect of lining up a 256-pound strongside end, but your evaluation should be in that context: this is a move about what is best for the defense as a whole, not necessarily Jake Ryan's individual fit.

That said… healthy Jake Ryan.

Healthy Jake Ryan is a menace shot out of a cannon who impacts you fiercely and rocks you back and then runs really fast at the guy with the ball. While middle linebacker may be an awkward fit, there are not many Jake Ryans out there, and when the guy is sent on a blitz, opponents are going to feel it.

It is not going to feel good.

[After THE JUMP: the Bolden Question, the Morgan Binkie, the Ross Explanation]


maybe grow the hair out again [Upchurch]

I'm not going to call JOE BOLDEN "Frank Clark 2014" over and over again, but only because that would get confusing. The pattern we have here is an exact replica of Clark's 2013: rising junior with a lot of uninspiring playing time to date is the subject of a veritable waterfall of offseason hype, hype so intense that big chunks of it are probably true.

I will admit this is a surprise to me. I thought Bolden was Michigan's worst linebacker by some distance last year. He came to Michigan with a reputation as a vicious hitter, but evidence of that was so scant as to be nonexistent his first two years. In 2012 there was a Picture Pages dedicated to Bolden not taking on blocks fiercely; that continued. In the same way that 2013 Willie Henry discarding an MSU guard after terrible technique kind of summed him up, I thought this particular third and short against the Gophers was Bolden's 2013 in ten seconds:

If I was a coach, another play would have been the one that made me hopping mad. …This playcall is 100% successful, getting Bolden unblocked with the RB running right at him. Bolden stops and catches the guy at the first down marker:

Bolden reads, goes… stops. Ack.

That's the kind of thing he was doing last year frequently enough to feature in a picture pages entitled "here come the CRUMPETS"; there he at least had a blocker. This is worse. It's third and one, you've got a gap to shoot that is about to be filled with tailback, go get a TFL and then pound your chest like a badass. Here he actually reads the play and starts this process, then loses his confidence and halts.

I mean… take on a block!

I have a lot of sad clips like that. The contrast between Morgan zipping around an attempted cut block and Bolden eating one hard leapt off the page after the MSU game.

It got to the point where I was probably suffering from confirmation bias. The way I go grab these clips is to C&P them into spreadsheets; each player gets a column and anyone mentioned gets the clip in their column until such a point as I have to cut things down. I mentioned Bolden a lot when he didn't do so well but the defense did. Like this against MSU:

Bolden got pancaked spectacularly, but I may not have noticed it if I wasn't ready to see Bolden get taken out. In my defense, some of these are hard to miss. Bolden was the source of a lot of +2 and +3 blocks in opponents' hypothetical UFRs. In the actual one…

Game Opponent + - TOT Note
1 CMU 1.5 1 0.5 Feelingsball take: looked more confident.
2 Notre Dame 2 2 0 Third LB not even negative.
3 Akron 0.5 7.5 -7 Bit on first Akron touchdown, didn't carry seam in first half.
4 UConn 2.5 4 -1.5 Needed to carry that seam.
5 Minnesota   4.5 -4.5 Yanked after infinite drive.
6 Penn State 5.5 2 3.5 Telling: got OT playing time over Ross.
7 Indiana 1 7 -6 Not a good way to follow up a good performance.
8 MSU 5 12.5 -7.5 Just seems lost to me. May be wrong.
9 Nebraska 3.5 7 -3.5 Also missed a free TFL; took some option minuses.
10 Northwestern 3 1 2 I'll take it.
11 Iowa 4.5 6.5 -2 Consistent mistakes; did help force an INT.

…out of these numbers are inadvisable e-lemon bets made.

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But he is fast [Fuller]

That's all the bad stuff. That's why I asserted I'd eat a lemon if Bolden started over Morgan on Saturday. I may have backed the wrong horse here; since the season ended, Bolden has been the subject of nonstop hype. Sam Webb hears a lot of stuff from the coaches, and these are the kind of things he's hearing:

U-M's top player the last 6 months... I think it's Joe Bolden. There have been others that I have gotten a lot of positive reports on, but none have gotten more praise than Joe. 

Greg Mattison told me this summer that no player had a better spring than Joe. Brady Hoke mentioned Joe’s name first when answering a question about which linebackers were playing the best so far.  Jake Ryan told me he goes to Joe for help when he has questions on what to do at the position. 

That's pretty good, but what about the whole falling over like a not-good-linebacker in the face of a block, what about that, Sam Webb?

"He has gone from catching blocks to destroying blocks," Mattison told me.

All right. Now I am intrigued. And skeptical. But intrigued.

People do get suddenly better when the morass of confusion suddenly settles into order, especially at linebacker. Linebacker is hard. It's hard to play. It's hard for me to figure out watching it. It's understandable that it takes people some time to grasp it. If you listen to anyone around the program, he has, in spades. Mattison:

"Joe Bolden has set the bar on how to communicate," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "I was with a guy one time coaching and when he was out there, every guy on the field knew where he was supposed to be, and Joe is trying to do that. When he does that, everyone seems like they can play a little better."

That's quite a statement with Morgan on the team. Morgan is a senior who I've watched slap teammates into the right spot for years. If Bolden now Gets It™…

"I was definitely more hesitant last year," Bolden admitted, noting his desire to master the defense had the opposite effect.

"I really wanted to know the system. I really wanted to understand the whole defense - what all 11 guys are supposed to doing on every play, and how they fit together - but it was overwhelming and I was probably thinking too much on any play."

…he does bring more athleticism to the position than Morgan. Morgan has not made the kind of play Bolden did against Iowa when a blitz got him into the QB's chest with Ryan-like speed in his career, and he probably never will. Michigan is hypothetically a more dynamic, attacking team with a fully weaponized Bolden.

Since this is basically Frank Clark I'll stick with my Frank Clark prediction from last year: Bolden is obviously, considerably improved and yet still some way short of great.



lemme get my TRUCK STICK [Fuller]

The other half of my Bolden skepticism: DESMOND MORGAN is my new Kovacs. I like the guy way more than anyone else does, and eventually everyone will agree with me. They may agree with me because if they do I will finally put them back on the ground so they can enjoy their beer in peace, but by God they will agree with me.

Even if Bolden does end up usurping Morgan's spot that is likely to be a small distinction. Michigan rotated heavily at all linebacker slots last year and will do so again this year; during the fall scrimmage Morgan saw as much if not more time than either nominal starter, as he spotted both Bolden and Ryan. He is going to be essentially a third starter at the position. I am not just saying this because of lemon reasons. On the initial depth chart he is listed as an OR at both ILB spots with the starters.

I like Morgan because he brings the wood, something we haven't seen Joe Bolden do yet. This was an I Be Like Dang from Minnesota:

Minnesota short yardage conversions : Desmond Morgan :: Iowa safeties : Michigan QBs. When you want to limit YAC, he is your guy.

He found himself in a lot of space at the end of the Akron game and made no mistake, as well.

And Morgan takes contact so, so much better than Joe Bolden has to date. This is not a spectacular TFL but it's a lot harder than running into the backfield unimpeded and flexing.

That is bad news for Michigan if Morgan gets put on either side of that block, but once he reads draw he stands up the fullback and successfully two-gaps him, first peeking inside and then extending back out once the back tries to cut away from him.

Sometimes linemen catch him instead of vice versa even after free releases.

He is solid in coverage as well. When completions happen on his watch they're often barely over an outstretched hand, and the MGoBlog theory of coverage is "if the QB is perfect you're screwed." He bailed Michigan out with a leaping one-handed interception against UConn.

There are the occasional busts. To my eyes his were less frequent than Bolden's. His UFR numbers are way better, certainly:

Game Opponent + - TOT Note
1 CMU 4 0.5 3.5 Crunch crunch bang bang
2 Notre Dame 7.5 4.5 3 Coped pretty well in coverage. Responsible for both EZ deflections.
3 Akron 6 3.5 2.5 Negative coverage number should be factored in here.
4 UConn 6.5 3.5 3 Saved the game.
5 Minnesota 11 3 8 First real test this year passed easily.
6 Penn State 9.5 4 4.5 Rough start, strong finish.
7 Indiana 4.5 2.5 2 Blitzed effectively.
8 MSU 5.5 4 1.5 Okay.
9 Nebraska 5 4.5 0.5 Blew one TFL big. Otherwise solid.
10 Northwestern 6 5 1 Drawn in by some misdirection.
11 Iowa 1 - 1 Pulled early with injury.

He tailed off late in the year, but for any linebacker to not put up a negative number is impressive. Linebacking is hard. Michigan clearly suffered when he left the Iowa game.

Maybe he doesn't have much NFL upside. He's certainly not the explosive ten yard dash guy Ryan is; he doesn't flash into the backfield much. But to take a guy like him sort of out your starting lineup… well, it's either going to work or be short-lived.


freak vs freak [Fuller]

After Morgan, BEN GEDEON [recruiting profile] is next in line for snaps. He started seeing occasionally time midseason and looked pretty good. That look evaporated when he was forced into extended playing time against Iowa. The usual freshman stuff was the culprit:

Gedeon made a number of rookie mistakes on which he got pwned by OL and did not even try to funnel to his help:

That video of Clark owning Polish Hat above also features Gedeon taking a crap angle and then getting flung yards backwards by an Iowa OL.

But yeah, man, linebacking is hard. I'm not going to hold that against him going forward; I'd prefer to concentrate on the fact that he's a 4.6 240 pound guy who can put up NFL-combine level bench press numbers already. They called him "The Freak" in high school, and he is Ryan's heir apparent. This is a change in expectations from last year, when he was supposedly 215 pounds and headed for the smallbacker spot.

Hopefully Gedeon works his way into fourth wheel playing time and shows well in preparation for the starting spot in 2015.

And there are a bunch of dudes cooling their heels behind. Redshirt freshman MIKE MCCRAY [recruiting profile], the son of a former Buckeye captain, was probably ticketed for Jake Ryan's role in the 4-3 under; now he is trying to adapt to MLB. Fortunately, Michigan doesn't have to worry about his readiness just yet. 

After McCray there are three true freshmen of the inside-linebacker variety. MICHAEL FERNS [recruiting profile] is the most highly touted; NOAH FURBUSH [recruiting profile] is the biggest; CHASE WINOVICH [recruiting profile] is the guy most like Jake Ryan. M beat out OSU for Ferns and Winovich, FWIW. All will probably redshirt; at the fall scrimmages I kept an eye out for true freshman on return/coverage teams and it didn't look like any of them were out there.


Rating: 4.

With the line shifted to the strength of the enemy formation This is now the smallbacker spot. That changes the role here, since this gentleman is going to line up over the tight end and will draw a lot of coverage responsibility on him. That goes double if Michigan is running a butt-ton of man.

The man possibly running a butt-ton of man will be JAMES ROSS, who I slavered about after his freshman year, projected a huge breakout season in this space 12 months ago, and then watched play… I guess okay for most of the year.

What happened? IME, Ross was hurt more than anyone else by the issues on the defensive line. Opponents free to single-block the nose tackle and three-tech had a much easier time getting a hat on Ross. In 2012 the three-tech was Will Campbell, a space-eater whose main talent was preventing OL from releasing off him by hook or by crook. Ross could flow free, and did with gusto. 

When he can't do this it nerfs his main talent. 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."

And he's not great when he's trying to do the same hit and shed stuff Morgan does above.

He's never going to be 240, so preventing him from getting isolated on a free-releasing OL is a priority. Let the man run and you are in much better shape. 

Now, linebackers have to hit even if they're the designated protected fast guy, and some of the contact Ross made a year agou was just not good enough. When you get bashed to the inside on a simple power play against Indiana that is not on the DL, that's on you. Funnel to help.

Ross also had some bad habits in pass coverage. He tended to sit way too close to the line of scrimmage even when there was nothing coming underneath, and he was a major target in the Penn State game:

The item that probably jumps off the page is Ross coming in negative. That's because there was a lot of this:

Four or five of James's receptions were on TE outs like this where Ross was not able to react, and often gave up some YAC on the tackle. On the first one or two, okay, but at some point you have to get there faster—to tackle on the catch, at least. On that clip if Hackenberg puts it in front of James he's got a nice catch and run.

He did enough to keep his head above water most of the time, but the breakout was not there.  He was… eh.

Game Opponent + - TOT Note
1 CMU 2 1 1 Quiet, as run game was pretty nonexistent.
2 Notre Dame 7 6 1 Not really at fault on the runs. Did blow some things.
3 Akron 10.5 4.5 6 Ditto on the coverage; played pretty well.
4 UConn 8 3 5 people of earth please lay off James Ross
5 Minnesota 11 3.5 7.5 Ditto. These are very good LB numbers.
6 Penn State 5 8 -3 Struggles covering TEs in space, also tackling them.
7 Indiana 7 7.5 -0.5 Faded late. Tired?
8 MSU 4.5 2 2.5 Lost a lot of PT to Bolden, which is about to confuse me.
9 Nebraska 9 7 2 Option culprit; had some nice read and destroys.
10 Northwestern 6.5 2 4.5 M not afraid to put him in man against a slot sometimes.
11 Iowa 4.5 6.5 -2 Put on skates a lot but with DTs struggling he was also going to do so.

He was not as eh as a lot of people suggested he was, though. He still has that ability to just GO GO GO when he IDs a play that catches a lot of would-be blockers off guard.

With him you don't have to hold up to a double forever, you just have to hold up for a second or two and then he's darting through the gap. The development of Willie Henry, who will be the DT to his side of the line is going to be huge for Ross. If single-teaming Henry becomes a very bad idea, Ross is the guy who will beneft. Brennen Beyer will also figure in there, because if he can consistently win against TEs it puts the offense in a bind.

Ross should continue to improve, and while I overrated him a year ago the extent to which his play disappointed has been overstated. If the line takes the step forward it should with, Ross should break into double-digit TFLs and start fulfilling his Larry Foote 2.0 destiny.




Junior ROYCE JENKINS-STONE [recruiting profile] is Ross's primary backup, at least insofar as it's not Jabrill Peppers. Jenkins-Stone was supposed to be a largebacker until he showed up at a safety-like 205 pounds his freshman year; now up to 234, he is actually the bigger option here.

There has been a considerable amount of insider chatter that Jenkins-Stone was seriously pushing Ross after Ross's meh sophomore year, so expect him to play a lot more than he did last year (which was not at all). Then again, I said the same thing before 2013:

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."

In high school, RJS was regarded as an excellent vertical attacker who had some issues reading and reacting; he is also a Cass kid, and those gentlemen usually take their time before making an impact. He should be set to start doing that now.

Converted safety ALLEN GANT [recruiting profile]  was moved to SAM even before it was where the light cover guys go, apparently on the theory that since he had been a safety that maybe they could make him into the senior version of Stevie Brown. Little has been heard from him since the move; he should get a lot of time on special teams.

Michigan brought in one obvious SAM type in this recruiting class when they pirated JARED WANGLER (yes that Wangler) [recruiting profile] away from Penn State. Wangler, a converted safety, hopes to be a cover-oriented linebacker who can excel against spreads and hold it down against pro-styles. A redshirt is just about guaranteed.



August 28th, 2014 at 1:08 PM ^

     "I would prefer Jake Ryan to mount his Harley and run roughshod across the league wearing a thirty-inch skull on his back."

Add a necklace of ears collected from RBs/QB's please




micheal honcho

August 28th, 2014 at 1:42 PM ^

It really warms me to have been the one that, when he was originally recruited by RR, that predicted he would be a solid contributer and possibly senior captian for Michigan.

I watched almost every game of his Jr & Sr seasons in HS since he played for my alma mater West Ottawa. He was by FAR the best player on the field in every game I watched. Tough as nails, football IQ off the charts and on top of that a really nice and genuine young man.


August 28th, 2014 at 1:44 PM ^

The most memorable blitz I remember of Jake Ryan was in his first game against Western in 2011. Blitzes right up the middle from a middle LB spot, easily dispatched the guard, and next thing you know, record setting pick-6 after tipping the ball off the QB's hand. Let's hope he continues that this year.

steve sharik

August 28th, 2014 at 1:45 PM ^

We will soon be known as the new Linebacker U.

The guy who I think will be the best--maybe not this year, but ultimately--is Gedeon.  He is one of the best natural tacklers I have seen wear the winged helmet in a long time.  And if he is as freakish as people say, once he learns technique and which gap is his (cough, Ohio game, cough), look out.

Indiana Blue

August 28th, 2014 at 1:47 PM ^

takes the best angles I may have ever seen a Michigan LB have.  His ability to get to players faster than him is simply amazing.  Football instinct is an asset that Jake seems to have been born with.  I really loved him getting to the outside - guess I'll just to focus a little more to the middle of the field ... and hopefully the opponents backfield.

Go Blue!


August 28th, 2014 at 2:45 PM ^

I cannot wait to see jmfr destroy someone on Sat. I'm interested in seeing bolden play as well since I'm pretty skeptical that he has truly gotten that much better. I hope to eat these words and bask in the glory that is our defense!


August 28th, 2014 at 8:46 PM ^

I immediately tried to forget about it but this clip made me realize how close we were.. Akron had the ball at the 1 with :13 left. Holy Moses now I remember why that was The Worst Win Ever