Preview 2015: Linebacker

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2015 at 11:17 AM

Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive Tackle. Defensive End.

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[Eric Upchurch]

Depth Chart
STRONGSIDE  LB Yr. MIDDLE LB Yr. WEAKSIDE LB Yr.
James Ross Sr. Desmond Morgan Sr.* Joe Bolden Sr.
Allen Gant Jr.* Ben Gedeon Jr. Jared Wangler Fr.*
Jabrill Peppers Fr.* Mike McCray So.* Noah Furbush So.*

This is music to a new defensive coordinator's ear: Michigan sports an all-senior linebacker corps. All have started for multiple years, give or take a hand injury or benching here and there. They've even got a high-quality backup. Senior leadership is out of control, man!

INSIDE LINEBACKER:

RATING: 5

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[Upchurch]

Approximately the fourth-best* thing to happen to the 2015 team's chances over the last year was DESMOND MORGAN breaking his hand after the first game of the season. That didn't have much impact on where 2014 went; it gives this year's team a three-year starter to slot in the Jake Ryan-shaped hole at middle linebacker.

By this point you're probably tired of me extolling Morgan's virtues, and since he didn't do much last year other than fall behind Joe Bolden just long enough for me to eat a lemon this is going to be a rehash.

Morgan is a heady, athletic enough, stick-em tackler who's been yelling at the rest of the front seven to get in the correct spot for a few years now. He is your proverbial quarterback of the defense. That role will probably be lessened this year since the entire front seven consists of upperclassmen, but expect him to thwack Lawrence Marshall and maybe Mo Hurst should the need arise. Mike Spath got a great quote about Morgan's ability in that department:

On U-M's linebackers: "We played them two years ago and the guy that everyone seemed to listen to was [Desmond] Morgan. Those guys are invaluable. Everyone respects them.

"Last year, you didn't hear a lot of talk from the middle linebacker. I don't think Jake Ryan was a talker. He just wanted to do his own thing. He was very good at it, but he wasn't that guy in the middle of a defense that was taking care of the other 10 guys on the field."

When called into duty to make a tackle, he brings the wood.

During the 2014 Minnesota game he uncorked this ridiculous thing where he flew in on a blitz, had to leap over a guy, kept his feet, held up two blockers, and helped stuff a third and short.

When he's not making eye-popping plays he's keeping things going down-to-down. The one glimpse at him we got last year was enough for me to bring out a Picture Pages about Morgan's LB instincts.

morgan-belly-2[1]

Morgan found himself in a bad stop here, taking on a free releasing lineman in a bunch of space. He popped that OL back; the RB ran into said OL, and Michigan saved some yards.

When Jake Ryan faced the exact same situation later on that drive, he tried to make a spectacular play. His attempt to teleport around that OL was an instinct that served him well as a chaos-sowing SAM linebacker; when moved to MLB that instinct meant he didn't delay the back at all. Instead of six yards, Michigan gave up 11.

That's Morgan in a nutshell. He will hit guys hard and funnel back to his help and drop into his zone. He'll make it difficult for a QB to get a completion on him; he'll make it difficult for a running back to get YAC on him; he'll make it difficult for an OL to stay attached to him. He's not going to turn in Ryan's Tarzan plays, but you don't have to do that to be a great middle linebacker.

As David Harris demonstrated, MLB is a thinking man's spot. Harris was just about flawless with his reads, and his understanding of the game extended to ways to get off blocks without even taking them—one of his trademarks was in effect juking OL by momentarily fighting to one side of a block and then cutting back once the OL took a false step. Morgan had some moments like that a year ago:

Do that consistently and you get to be David Harris too.

Morgan's coverage is good. Very rarely does he vacate big tracts of land, as both Ryan and Bolden were prone to last year. He of course saved Michigan's bacon in the 2013 UConn game (for all the good that did them in the long run) with a leaping spear of an interception. Add it up and you get a 2013 UFR in extended, trying circumstances that looks like a guy who is on the verge of stardom:

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.

UFR is tough on linebackers, so anything above zero is good. To consistently go over it over the course of a season, generally on heavy usage is very difficult.

The main drawback here is explosiveness. Morgan doesn't rack up TFLs and sacks; he's not great at getting to the quarterback on blitzes. (Run blitzes, on the other hand, he is excellent at, especially on short yardage.) He is not the kind of athlete that is going to make the NFL salivate.

But there are few guys I'd rather have on third and one. Morgan should reprise his 2013 with some incremental improvements. That would make him an All Big Ten level guy even if the lack of fancy stats prevents that from happening in real life.

*[Your top three are Dave Brandon late night email sessions, Harbaugh, and Jake Rudock's transfer.]

[After THE JUMP: seniors are made of leadership]

Next to Morgan will be JOE BOLDEN. Bolden improved a great deal in 2014. In past years this space mostly talked about how Bolden didn't hit anyone, or about how he looked hesitant. Last year the light started to come on, and violence crept into his game.

On occasion the violence annihilated an entire offensive line.

Last year, Greg Mattison told people that Bolden had gone from "catching blocks to destroying them," and there was some truth in that. Bolden took and delivered contact much better than he did as an underclassman.

But that thing remained. That one where Bolden finds himself unblocked with a running back looking for a first down and doesn't come close to getting the stop. This, against Northwestern's Justin Jackson, was frustratingly familiar:

Later in the year he'd find Jalin Marshall in space and end up looking at lot like Tanner Miller against Denard. It remains a work in progress, and Bolden will tell you that. He'll go farther than that, actually. He was witheringly blunt at Media Day:

“I didn’t play good,” Bolden said matter-of-factly.  “You don’t have to sugarcoat it. … I’m to the point where my first two years here I didn’t play good football and there is no sugarcoating it. …

“ I sat down with my brothers and my dad and I was trying to figure it out.  (They) talked about how I was playing in elementary school and little league, just flying around.  ‘Who cares if you take one false step as long as you get to the ball?’  That kind of registered."

This echoes what he said before 2014:

"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."

That fits our pattern. The past two years, offseason Bolden hype has been out of control because after weeks and weeks of practicing against the same stuff, Bolden downloads it and starts walloping on people. This spring was no different:

I have long been a skeptic about Joe Bolden's ability to hit people hard, but I thought he looked great. … Bolden showed up in the backfield a ton and hit guys hard when he showed. If that is not a spring mirage that sets Michigan up excellently for fall.

Moments where he's been able to do that in games have been considerably rarer. They did get more frequent a year ago:

On plays like that where Bolden figures it out and goes you can feel that he's Bolden is more explosive than Morgan. He gets there fast when he's going. He can also get impressive depth on drops that come literally from the line of scrimmage.

Bolden could be anything from a slight improvement on last year—occasionally good, frequently frustrating—to a guy who lays waste to those around him, like he did in spring. Split the difference and the heart of the bell curve is a version of Bolden that consistently finishes above zero in UFR and makes more spectacular plays than bleah ones.

BACKUPS

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[Bryan Fuller]

The primary backup at both inside linebacker spots is BEN GEDEON [recruiting profile]. For some reason, Gedeon got a reasonable amount of playing time as a true freshman, then disappeared last year despite the loss of Morgan. He did not play defense (he did return a blocked punt for a touchdown) except in garbage time until Penn State, and even then time was sparing:

A wild Gedeon appears. Oddly, Michigan has dropped linebacker rotation to zero after Desmond Morgan's injury. It's odd because Michigan did a reasonable amount of rotation last year with Ben Gedeon and now he's gone. I think the sack he got early may have been his first meaningful snap of the year. And then he went away.

Rumors had it that he was so frustrated with his playing time that he was not likely to stick around if Hoke was retained, not that we live in a universe where that was ever likely.

Gedeon didn't do particularly well during his extended run as a freshman…

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 freshman linebackers rarely do.

Since then, the drumbeat that kid can play has been regular. In spring, 247 talked him up:

[Ben] Gedeon has popped out early as a potential contributor in this year's defense. He has potentially the best combination of size, athleticism and intelligence at the position and it might turn into a situation where it's difficult to keep him off the field.

This fall, Scout had heard that Gedeon is "playing really good football" and was looking "particularly good" as he challenged the seniors.

While displacing either doesn't seem particularly likely, Gedeon should rotate in at both spots, both to keep the starters fresh and to keep the pressure up. The goal is for him to emerge into a clear starter for his—sigh—final season in 2016.

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McCray, Wangler [Upchurch]

After Gedeon there is suddenly very little. Redshirt sophomore MIKE MCCRAY [recruiting profile] has some variety of injury and made some ominous noises about it a few weeks ago; he's not available for a bit and if he doesn't show up at some point during the season concern for his career will start in earnest. Chase Winovich got moved to tight end; Michael Ferns transferred before last season was even over.

The two guys who are around and available are NOAH FURBUSH [recruiting profile] and JARED WANGLER [recruiting profile], both redshirt freshmen. 

Furbush was a truly enormous linebacker recruit at 6'4" 240 who showed up on campus 30 pounds lighter than he was supposed to be. Now he's back to 242, having added 32 pounds in a year. Typo? Probably not since the spring roster had him at 217. Mono? As good an explanation as any but we have no data to that effect. In any case, nobody's said a word about him and he doesn't appear on the depth chart; he is likely to need another year of seasoning before he's a serious candidate for playing time.

Wangler is in a similar boat, though he added a less implausible amount of weight. A high school safety, Wangler is in the mode of Ross or Stevie Brown or other space-backer types. He will get a chance at Ross's job next year, but for now it looks like he's being deployed on the inside. He, too, did not make the depth chart.

STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER

Rating: 4.

Michigan has gone back to a defense where you might expect the strongside linebacker to be a Jake Ryan type. You know, a guy who weighs 250 who you can line up as a DE if you feel like it. JAMES ROSS is not that guy, but he's the strongside linebacker anyway. How is this going to work?

Well, if Ross can do this on the regular…

…it'll work just fine. You probably thought that was going to be the thing against Penn State…

…which it wasn't because I thought I'd lead with a play against a team that was not starting a confused hamster and TV's Patrick Duffy at guard. But also that Penn State thing happened, and I went "WOOO!" 

Ross had an awkward settling-in period last year that he got over about midway through the season. Once he figured out he could hammer the guy assigned to block him and use his momentum to two-gap effectively on plays where the hit didn't knock the OL into next week, he looked damn good.

It looks like Michigan will be an eight man front this year. If Peppers is in or around the box consistently that allows you to protect your light-ish SAM in the same way Michigan protected Stevie Brown when he was the "spur" in a 3-3-5 his senior year. The 3-3-5 is an eight man front with a couple of DB/LB hybrids flanking the front six, and while I want to make it explicitly clear that Michigan is in no way running a 3-3-5, they do have a couple guys who look like the spur and bandit from said defense.

You probably don't remember this because you were busy clawing your eyes out whenever Michigan was on defense, but Brown was a highly effective run defender who doubled as a good pass defender; his year at spur was his route to the NFL.

Ross feels like he can be a similar player this year. His breakout sophomore year never happened in large part because Michigan's line got injured and could neither penetrate to break up blocking schemes or protect him from linemen getting in his face.

When that happens as an inside linebacker it's a whole different deal than the clips above where Ross can ID and go jack somebody up with a full head of steam. At most you get a couple steps and you have to be a thick, thumping guy like Morgan to do even a decent job. Ross couldn't pull it off in 2013:

Once Ross actually got on the field last year he had a middling adjustment period; by midseason he was performing well against both run and pass on the edge. This is the kind of chuck that blows up aroute:

And this is the kind of edge play that a safety-ish SAM has to make if he's going to be an asset to a defense:

While it seems like the time during which Ross could become a star have come and gone, his play over the second half of last year was encouraging. He's also come in for some positive offseason chatter. Sam Webb:

James Ross' drawing raves for his pursuit to the football in camp.  He seemed to take a turn in last years PSU game, and that's the way his play has been described to me thus far.

Ross is also competing on the inside. Michigan's first depth chart listed him as the top backup to Joe Bolden at WLB, and Webb reported that he was repping with the ones for a healthy chunk of fall camp:

While I don't think he has supplanted Joe Bolden there, but I also don't thing the staff is simply cultivating depth. 

Bolden is likely to hold on to his spot on regular downs for the same reason Ross feels like a more natural fit on the outside, but Ross could boot Bolden to the bench on passing downs. Expect Ross to have a much more prominent role than he did last year despite the prevalence of nickel. He won't bust out; he'll be a quality player.

BACKUPS

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[Eric Upchurch]

Nobody other than Ross has seen a meaningful snap. ALLEN GANT [recruiting profile] got moved from safety a couple years back and is now listed second on the depth chart. There's been very little talk about him since his enrollment; as a recruit he was a middling three star guy. That was quite a comedown from his underclass exploits, when it was expected he'd be a national recruit.

Gant will undoubtedly start seeing the field this year; nobody knows how that will go.

I listed JABRILL PEPPERS here, and in this case that's only kind of a joke. Michigan looks set to play a ton of nickel as long as they get reasonable production out of their second cornerback; he will eat up linebacker snaps as a result. If Ross gets knocked out for an extended period of time, Michigan will run even more nickel, making Peppers a kind of SAM by default.

Comments

csmhowitzer

September 1st, 2015 at 11:48 AM ^

This is the core of our defense. I'm very excited to see how we've progressed and how we can handle tough situations. Seeing Peppers play at any position this year is exciting. Seeing a good rushing team unable to make short yardage when they need it is even more exciting.

Last year's rankings aside (and ours were good, #15 Rushing Def.) I thnk we look solid in the box and are poised to have one of the best rushing defenses in the nation. Gotta thank last year's staff and how well they did with recruiting these guys.

GO BLUE!

zeyalanilu

September 1st, 2015 at 11:47 AM ^

 

 
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ryholly

September 1st, 2015 at 11:55 AM ^

Stopping the run is going to be key.  Their star RB barely even played against us last year (Utah version of Drake Johnson) and is coming in with all the confidence in the world.  Stop the run, you slow down the offense.

A few turnovers would be nice too...

WestSider

September 1st, 2015 at 12:08 PM ^

I think we have a strong unit starting, with little depth. I expect linebacker to be fairly strong, not a liabllity. I like the group, and think it is capable of being very goo to excellent. Lets begin with the Utes, can hardly wait to see that game. I know the Wolverines are fired up to play it. Go Blue  

Gustavo Fring

September 1st, 2015 at 12:12 PM ^

I know it may not seem like Morgan's interception to save the UConn game meant much, but as someone from Connecticut, I can say it did. I went to Michigan, but nearly eveyrone I went to high school with went to UConn (and so does my younger sister).  It would have been worse than the Horror, at least for me.

DonAZ

September 1st, 2015 at 12:31 PM ^

Others have commented on the depth at LB.

Brian hints at addressing the depth issue in part by bringing Peppers in as an LB in spots.

But what about the DL corp?  I know with Mone's injury depth is a bit of an issue as well.  But I think there's some possibility for our DEs to slip back into LB roles if needed?

Wolverine fan …

September 1st, 2015 at 4:33 PM ^

Loved seeing Ross blow up those plays against OSU and PSU. Mostly OSU though, seeing as how they didn't field any confused hamsters. That one had me laughing at work... With the lack of girth at NT, these guys have to be ready. Feeling more confident about this group than any other.

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