Spring Game Primer: Defense

Submitted by Ace on April 13th, 2012 at 12:06 PM

What, you expected a picture of someone else?

The two-part preview of the spring game concludes with a look at the defense. Part one, covering the offense—including some staggering insight on the kicking game—lives here.

Big Will Style. It is Year 4 of the Will Campbell Breakout Watch, and the stakes are raised this season, as he'll be playing on the first team unless... he'll be playing on the first team. Campbell showed flashes of his five-star talent last season, displaying an ability to overwhelm interior linemen with his strength and surprising quickness. To have the desired impact, however, he must play with more consistency. Yes, this is where we talk about pad level. If Campbell shows he can stay low, regularly push the pile, and simply occupy two blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays, there will be optimism abound about the defense. No pressure, big guy.

Touch (Don't Hit, Please) The Quarterback. Michigan generated a decent pass rush last season, finishing 29th in the country with 2.3 sacks per game, but much of that pressure was generated by now-graduated linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The line underwent a major overhaul this spring, with Craig Roh moving to strongside DE and Jibreel Black to three-tech DT, leaving sophomores Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark to battle for the weakside DE spot. The new line is more athletic than last year's edition; Black could be a terror rushing from the inside, where he'll no longer have to deal with his issues playing in space, while both DE spots get an upgrade athletically. The key here is Roh, who's on his fourth position in four years, which has understandably led to less production than expected when he hit campus after a stellar high school career. If he can handle the occasional double-team from the tight end and find a way to get to the QB, this could be a fearsome unit when they pin their ears back, especially with Madman Mattison pulling the strings.

More D-Line, Because It Scares Me. The starting unit (counting Beyer/Clark as a two-headed weakside monster) should be just fine [insert Campbell caveat], but the backups inspire less confidence. Richard Ash hasn't proven much at Michigan except his ability to resemble a small planet while struggling with injuries; that's your backup nose tackle until Ondre Pipkins gets to Ann Arbor. Quinton Washington has seen the field sparingly and hasn't really produced since switching over from guard; that's your backup three-tech unless one of the true freshmen is game-ready this fall. Nathan Brink should be passable at strongside DE, but he's out for the spring game. I guess we'll see how Chris Rock looks as a redshirt freshman. All we're hoping for here is competence, enough to allow the starters to get the occasional breather—remember the Sugar Bowl if you're asking why that's necessary—without putting fans into full-on panic mode.

New Blood. Early enrollee Joe Bolden has seemingly passed everyone but Kenny Demens on the depth chart at middle linebacker, and of the three true freshmen who will play tomorrow he's the most likely to have a big role come fall. He should see the field a lot tomorrow, especially with Demens recovering from a "mild" concussion*. Don't sleep on safety Jarrod Wilson, however, who's also impressed practice observers. Wilson isn't a likely candidate to start with Thomas Gordon returning, but he should provide valuable depth and has the potential to turn into the ball-hawking free safety Michigan hasn't seen since... [racks brain, shows youth, leaves space blank {Ed-S: Tommy Hendricks? Daydrion Taylor? Chuck Winters? Corwin Brown? Ray/Shazor/Adams were all SS} ].

Secondary... Depth? That Can't Be Right. Heading into the spring, the cornerback position appeared settled with returning starters Blake Countess and J.T. Floyd set to reprise last year's role, with Courtney Avery penciled in as the nickel corner. But now, there are rumblings that junior Terrence Talbott is very much in the mix to start, though I'm not sure who the odd man out would be in that situation; Floyd has the experience and was a consistently strong performer last year, while Countess had his ups and downs but clearly has the higher ceiling. Throw in Raymon Taylor providing good competition at nickel, and all of a sudden Michigan has something resembling depth at cornerback. I'll let that sink in for a second.

Sorry not sorry. Heads asplode again when you realize that Wilson and Marvin Robinson allow Michigan to go two-deep at both safety spots as well. Timez are weird these days.

Killa Cam. Cam Gordon spring practice hype? YOU DON'T SAY. We've been through this song and dance before with less-than-desirable results, so color me skeptical when practice rumblings have Gordon pushing Jake Ryan for the starting gig at SLB. While I highly doubt Ryan is displaced—he's poised for a run at all-conference status—Gordon could be a very solid rotation guy, bringing athleticism off the edge and the ability to drop into coverage. With Bolden pushing for time at MIKE and a whole group of players—senior Brandin Hawthorne, redshirt freshman Antonio Poole, and early enrollee Kaleb Ringer—providing competition behind Desmond Morgan at WILL, it appears there's also lots of linebacker depth to go around.

Can I Get a Consistent Big Leg? Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are battling it out for the starting punter spot, something Brady Hoke addressed in yesterday's presser:

“I think they’re kind of neck and neck. One day one of them is really consistent and one day he’s not. The other guy’s consistent. We’re going to do some stuff on Saturday to really put some heat on them and see how they handle that part of it. We’ve been doing that some, but I think in that environment you get a couple more speed guys on there, I think it will be interesting to see.”

Hokespeak translation: Hagerup = inconsistent big leg, Wile = consistent less big leg. We'll see what happens when there are punt cover teams running at them.

The situation would be resolved if Hagerup could eliminate the 30-yard shanks from his repertoire. Unfortunately, he hasn't done that in two seasons as the starter-when-not-suspended. Wile doesn't have the Zoltan-level upside of Hagerup, but his reliability could give him an edge. We won't really get any definitive answers tomorrow—sample size and all—but it's worth keeping an eye on as we edge closer to football season.

*I think we'll reach the point in the not-so-distant future where we look back and realize there is absolutely no such thing as a "mild" concussion. Oh, my brain had a minor thump into my skull. No biggie.



April 13th, 2012 at 12:13 PM ^

As far as Roh's back-up at the 5-tech/SDE, I expect it to be Heitzman, not Chris Rock (NTCR), at least until Brink gets healthy or the freshmen come in the fall, but maybe even then.  Heitzman is a sleeper, but I think he can be at least back-up serviceable.


April 13th, 2012 at 12:27 PM ^

Can't wait.  I think your point yesterday about how the D should dominate the offense in a spring game was right on.  I hope they do dominate them 90 percent of the time and Denard throws 30 yard dimes the other 10 percent of the time.  Part of me though wants BWC to just sandbag tomorrow and then go apeshit on Bama in the fall when they're expecting him to be movie Michael Oher before Sandra Bullock gave him a kick in the pants.


April 13th, 2012 at 12:35 PM ^

Roh and Black will be fine as pass rushers. But Roh gave up the edge too often at WDE, let alone SDE. And I haven't seen much (has anyone) on Black to make me think he can hold up on the interior.

DL is still a huge concern, and it's their performance vs. the run game we need to be watching tmw.


April 13th, 2012 at 12:46 PM ^

Maybe we're already to the point of 'no mild concussion' and this was a hard hit they're being overly-cautious (not really possible w/ situation, I know) with?

As you pointed out, it's like having "a little cancer".


April 13th, 2012 at 12:50 PM ^


With the secondary being deeper than usual and freshman playing above their projections, is it conceiveable that Countess actually sees LESS of the field at corner this season?

I doubt it, but if the newcomers indeed play well (see also: consistent), I'm struggling to see another option.


April 13th, 2012 at 12:53 PM ^

Unless Tablott beats him out for the starting job, I don't think Countess sees the field less. Instead, I think it's more likely that Mattison is much more willing to go to nickel and dime sets on defense in really obvious passing situations, especially since he likes blitzing guys from the secondary (speed off the edge is big for him).


April 13th, 2012 at 2:04 PM ^

Black is a former WDE, now at 260 playing DT?  I am having the same gut reaction to that as Cam Gordon at free safety.  Just like FS at 2010, we've simply got nobody that we can put in there.  That 3-tech spot might be a major Achilles heel this year.  I'm guessing that Black won't be the starter by the end of the year.


April 13th, 2012 at 2:36 PM ^

If our NT is constantly drawing a double team, that leaves our 3-Tech on just a guard.  Sometimes a smaller DT is just going to get mauled by some giant planet sized guard.  Sometimes his speed with will let him blow by the guard and blow the play up in the backfield.  

Also depends on what shows up.  The big fear is if the NT doesn't command a double team, the smaller 3Tech can just be put on rollerskates and blown right out of the way by a double team, leaving a massive hole for the run game.  Center and guard take the 3Tech out.  Center releases and then you have the FB and Center to clear out linebackers.  Bad things happen from there.  


April 13th, 2012 at 2:24 PM ^

Wasn't there an interview with Black a week or so ago where he said he was up to 270 and plans/hopes to be 280 by fall? 

Sometimes, especially with a 4-man front, have a slightly undersized but quick player at the 3-tech spot isn't a bad thing.  We might just see more of QW against teams that run the ball a lot, or in obvious running situations. 

When you make the guess the Black won't be the starter by the end of the year, who do you guess will take his place?


April 13th, 2012 at 2:41 PM ^

It seems to me that Ash/Washington are perfect complements to Black.  Ash/Washington likely won't provide much pass rush, but they seem suited to stuff the run.  Black should be disruptive against the pass, but might struggle against the run. 

I think with these guys and Clark/Beyer that Mattison will have a lot of fun working the matchups this year.



April 13th, 2012 at 2:46 PM ^

I believe you are correct about the weight statement. I remember reading that somewhere within that last couple weeks as well.

I am not too worried about Black's weight as I think his speed will help make up for it. But I am mostly worried about the overall experience and depth (as is just about everyone else) at defensive line.

I think Black will turn into a pretty good 3-tech defensive tackle. In my opinion he is a pretty good fit, as is Roh at SDE. Time will tell, but although I worry about depth I think we will make it out this year better than expected at defensive line.


April 13th, 2012 at 4:29 PM ^

I honestly have no idea, but I expect to see a lot of shuffling around and experimentation until we find a 4-man combo that works the best .  It sounds like we have 4 guys physically suited to play NT (Ash, Campbell, Washington, Pipkins), but the pickings are a lot leaner at 3-tech.  Maybe we'll see two of those four on the field at the same time instead?  How much of a disadvantage would it be to do that?  Maybe we'll see Godin or the guy that they got at the last minute out of Glenville? 

What concerns me is that if we go "quick and undersized" at DT, we are probably that way at SDE and WDE too (according to the official roster weights).  I wouldn't be surprised to see them experiment with a true frosh at SDE and Roh shifted back over to WDE.  I expect our D-line to be monstrously good in about the 2014/2015 timeframe, but until then, it might be pretty shaky if not downright bad.

Mr. Yost

April 13th, 2012 at 2:44 PM ^

Where in the world is Tamani Carter?

Jarrod Wilson is backing up Thomas Gordon at FS, but where is Carter? He's apparently been out --- anyone know the deal?


April 13th, 2012 at 4:33 PM ^

I just want to say I graduated in 2010, and my roommate is a recruiting/mfootball junkie (im a huge fan, follow the sites and "the blog" regularly, but not a JUNKIE) and I remember him telling me about Cam Gordon blowing shit up during spring ball in 2010 and 2011...just funny thats all.