Spring Position Battles: Defense Comment Count

Brian February 15th, 2010 at 1:47 PM


Roh is certain. Everything else is chaos.

This is going to be extensive. It would be much, much quicker to rattle off a list of positions we know are set this fall:

  • Craig Roh at quick defensive end.

That is literally all. We do know that a few other guys are guaranteed starters, but Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, and Troy Woolfolk could all switch positions. I should have thought of that before I did the offense. Now I'm stuck with this format.

Anyway. On with show:

Not Brandon Graham

The Departed

Three defensive line starters return, but the best defensive lineman in the country does not.  Normally you'd be looking at Brandon Graham's platoon of ready-to-go backups for an inadequate but functional replacement. Since this is the 2009 Michigan defense we're talking about that platoon is walk-on Will Heininger. The other options at his spot are freshmen.

So it's time to get creative, maybe…

The Candidates

Count me amongst the chorus suggesting that Ryan Van Bergen might move outside. Dubbing this position "Not Brandon Graham" is a clever way to not write "Ryan Van Bergen might move" at three different spots.

will-campbell-osu Michigan has three veteran backups at defensive tackle in sophomore Will Campbell and seniors Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks. All played last year, the latter two decently. Campbell was raw as hell but was one of them OMG SHIRTLESS recruits and can be expected to make a major jump his sophomore year. Putting one of those guys in the starting lineup seems less likely to result in disaster than dropping an underweight freshman into the starting lineup. Craig Roh did okay last year, but Michigan isn't bringing in anyone as touted as Roh was this time around. Also, Mike Martin is more of a penetrating three-technique tackle than a leviathan space-eater and moving him to RVB's old spot figures to get more production out of him.

If RVB doesn't move, then you're going to choose from Heininger, redshirt junior Brandon Herron,—Roh's backup at quick last year—redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota, or true freshmen. Herron was a linebacker a year ago and is likely to still be undersized and LaLota showed up two inches and thirty pounds lighter than people expected him to. He probably needs another year.

The thing to watch for this spring is the RVB move. Past that, the developmental paths of Campbell, Roh, and LaLota are the main points of interest.

Hoping for… as the guy that is not Brandon Graham? Will Campbell. This assumes RVB ends up at DE and Martin moves over to RVBs spot. Moving RVB gets a bunch of veterans and a five-star sophomore more playing time. It puts Mike Martin in a position to be seriously disruptive. And it doesn't force a freshman into the starting lineup. So this is a hope for the move and a hope for Campbell to explode.

Expecting… RVB moves, Sagesse and Campbell platoon. I was puzzled by Michigan's periodic attempts to give Campbell playing time over Sagesse last year. Campbell got sealed on a number of successful runs against Iowa; Sagesse wasn't Alan Branch but usually ended up with a +1 in UFR. I assume Campbell will show considerable progress but I'm also betting that Sagesse is basically a co-starter.


The Departed

Over the course of a year, Stevie Brown went from whipping boy to reliable outpost on a defense of chaos. Was it a position move? Greg Robinson's Just For Men magic?

The Candidates

103109_SPT_UM v Illinois_MRM They're young but they're not totally green. Michigan got both Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones in early last year and put them through their paces; by the UConn game next year they'll have been on campus for almost two years. Both saw special teams action only. Hawthorne will apply for a medical redshirt. Jones played too much for one. That's him burning his redshirt on the right.

Those two will be the main competitors in spring since I believe Isaiah Bell, who redshirted, is moving inside to ROL. This fall brings crazy athletic Josh Furman into the mix. He of the 4.3 electronic 40 is probably even faster than Brown and could press for playing time later in the season if Hawthorne and Jones aren't working out. He's unlikely to win the job outright immediately.

Hoping for… Hawthorne or Jones doesn't seem like it makes a difference since they have near-identical recruiting profiles and experience. I guess I'm pulling for Hawthorne since he's got a redshirt on him and I like the Pahokee kids.

Expecting… Again, Hawthorne and Jones have almost nothing separating them. One of those guys.

Regular Ol' Linebacker

The Departed

No one.

The Candidates

These two positions are here despite featuring two fifth-year seniors returning for their third years of starting because both Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton were yanked for performance reasons late last season. Indecision ruled the day:

No… seriously.

Mouton was pulled for JB Fitzgerald, a touted recruit entering his third year in the program. Ezeh was pulled for Kevin Leach, another walk-on. Both eventually won their jobs back when the replacements weren't much better.

Jay Hopson left to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis, and whether it was voluntary or not it's welcome. Ezeh went nowhere in two years under Hopson's tutelage and Mouton went backwards. If Greg Robinson can pull the same career revival magic he did with Stevie Brown on the two inside guys, he'll put to rest a large chunk of the skepticism at his hire and go a long way towards making the defense respectable again.

If he can't, then Fitzgerald and Leach will figure into the plans again, with potential assists from Kenny Demens and various freshmen. Demens hasn't gotten off special teams in his time at Michigan and got passed by a walk-on. That seems like a kiss of death there.

Ezeh and Mouton will be the main focus here.

Hoping for… I'd like Fitzgerald to emerge as a starter but in the place of Ezeh; last year the guy replacing Ezeh was Leach. Really I'd just like whoever plays at linebacker to look like he's got a clue. Obi-Wan Greg Robinson, you're our only hope.

Expecting… Ezeh and Mouton. They'll be better. Linebackers are the guys most screwed by Michigan's revolving door of defensive coordinators because they are almost always reading a play and executing a complicated assignment based on that. Also they've got a new coach who happens to be the defensive coordinator and thus knows exactly what he wants the guys to be doing.


The Departed

Donovan Warren took his budding skills and five-star hype to the middle rounds of the NFL draft. Boubacar Cissoko couldn't keep it together off the field and is no longer on the team.

The Candidates

Michigan State's Blair White leaps high for a first quarter reception over the top of Michigan's Troy Woolfolk, left, and J.T. Floyd.      Photos are of Michigan State University vs. the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, October 3, 2009.   (The Detroit News / David Guralnick)
I'm assuming both spots are open because of the possibility Troy Woolfolk moves back to deep safety in spring. The defense started imploding for serious once he was moved to corner and Michigan's safety tandem became Kovacs and Williams

Outside of Woolfolk, the one guy with any experience is JT Floyd. Floyd was the guy the coaching staff turned to to replace Cissoko when he proved dreadful early in the year. He wasn't much better and Woolfolk eventually had to move despite the other options at safety being a freshman student-body walk-on and Mike Williams. In his brief time as a starter, Floyd played ten yards off wide receivers and looked totally overmatched. Maybe that's a mental thing, but he seemed just too slow for the Big Ten.

So… yeah. It's more freshmen, then. Super-hyped recruit Justin Turner got in late because of some difficulties with the Ohio Graduation Test and ended up out of shape and unprepared to play. He redshirted. Even if he came in looking like Will Campbell, if Turner couldn't play in that secondary by the end of the year people are right to be at least slightly concerned he may not pan out.

And then there's the flood of true freshmen. With Demar Dorsey starting out at corner, Michigan has four in the 2010 class: Dorsey, Courtney Avery, Cullen Christian, and Terry Talbott. None enrolled early—unfortunately, all of Michigan's early enrollees were on the offensive side of the ball—and they will be just rumors this spring.

We won't get a read on this position at all unless walk-on Floyd Simmons is ahead of someone on the depth chart. We will get a first look at Turner, the team's most important redshirt freshman.

Hoping for… Justin Turner and either Dorsey or Christian. No Woolfolk == considerably reduced panic at safety. One freshman is as good as any other at the other spot, I guess, but I'd rather have the higher-rated guys off to fast starts. No offense to Floyd, but he obviously wasn't ready last year and I'd be surprised if he was this year. Maybe 2011.

Expecting… Turner and Woolfolk.

Box Safety

The Departed

Brandon Smith transferred to Temple.

The Candidates

It's clear that this is going to be another hybrid safety/LB type player. Early in the year, it was Mike Williams. A little later it was Jordan Kovacs. When Woolfolk moved to corner it was Williams again, and when Williams played poorly Michigan moved Brandon Smith and threw him in the starting lineup; Smith liked it so much he immediately transferred.

Of the two returners, Kovacs was by far the superior option despite being a walk-on. He's got the proverbial nose for the ball and was the only guy at the spot last year to turn in enough good plays to offset his poor ones. And he did this as a freshman walk-on. (He was technically a redshirt freshman but since he was not on the team last year he is much closer to a true freshman.) He showed himself way too slow to play deep safety, but the grit fantastic he is possession of should keep him in the mix despite a couple of athletes pushing him hard.

Athlete the first is incoming freshman Marvin Robinson, who everyone thinks is destined for linebacker except Robinson. At Michigan he may be a linebacker in spirit if not in name. This is a spot he's a superior fit for athletically but it may require some adjustment.

Athlete the second is hypothetical, but Rodriguez mentioned in a Signing Day press conference: they're looking at moving wide receiver Cam Gordon to defense, but to safety. [Update: YEAH THAT HAPPENED.] That's another indicator that Michigan's base set is going to be an eight-man front, as Gordon is a strapping 6'2" fellow who everyone expected would end up at… wait for it… linebacker. If Gordon makes the move it will give Kovacs and Williams some competition from an NFL-sized guy right away.

This is also where Carvin Johnson goes, but I'm guessing he'll redshirt.

Hoping for… I don't really know, actually. I guess I'd like Robinson to win the starting job, but a true freshman over Kovacs and Gordon could bode unwell for immediate production. Maybe Kovacs to start and eventually giving way to Robinson.

Expecting… I have no idea. Truly.

Deep Safety

The Departed

No one.

The Candidates

As discussed above, if this is Kovacs Michigan is at least kind of screwed. I mean no offense to the guy, but…

Indiana's Darius Willis runs 90 yards for a fourth quarter touchdown.        Photos are of the University of Michigan vs. Indiana University at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, September 26, 2009.  (The Detroit News / David Guralnick)

…he is not a deep safety*. In an ideal world, two of the young corners would establish themselves quickly enough for Michigan to boot Troy Woolfolk back here. That world is much easier to envision if any of those guys had enrolled early.

If Woolfolk doesn't make the move back, Michigan has a couple options not fresh off the turnip truck. Vlad Emilien and Thomas Gordon are redshirt freshmen who will be given a shot at the job. Emilien was more highly touted and actually held the starting free safety job in spring until late, when Woolfolk took over and he was relegated to backup duty. He saw some special teams time in fall but will apply for an injury redshirt. Gordon was primarily a high school quarterback at Cass Tech—he only started playing DB as a senior-year audition for a Michigan scholarship—and never threatened to see the field last year.

Freshman Ray Vinopal will reinforce in fall, but as the lowest-rated player in the class he will probably redshirt.

Hoping for… Woolfolk. I'd rather have the freshmen playing at corner, where Woolfolk can tackle their mistakes.

Expecting… Emilien. I'm a little hesitant about him since he enrolled early last year and still wasn't good enough to crack last year's secondary, but maybe he had a lingering injury issue.

*(RVB owned up to a botched line check on that touchdown but it was a lack of footspeed from Kovacs and, more disturbingly, Floyd, that turned that play from 20 yards into 90.)


What others? Apparently Teric Jones might stick on defense, apparently at box safety. I think I've mentioned every other scholarship defensive player on campus except Steve Watson and James Rogers.


Smitty D

February 15th, 2010 at 2:09 PM ^

Did anyone else think Obi was held on that play?? The O-lineman basically hugged him, than let go. Not defending Obi (not a big fan of him) just kinda looked like a hold.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:13 PM ^

a) Kovacs isn't going to play deep safety.

b) If I'm not mistaken, Ezeh would be a four-year starter in 2010. Didn't he start as a redshirt freshman?

c) I would be incredibly surprised if Woolfolk isn't the strong safety.

West Texas Blue

February 15th, 2010 at 2:25 PM ^

Well, I'm worried, greatly, but I want to see how things sort out during spring practice. If it looks bad after the spring game, then it's panic time. Hopefully a month of practices, S&C, and scrimmages will help get things into place for the defense.


February 15th, 2010 at 2:35 PM ^

I am holding out hope that Williams will have the light bulb go on inside his head, which would allow us to field at least four decent scholarship DBs (Turner, Woolfolk, Williams, Emilien) that aren't true freshmen. I notice that Williams is being written off almost everywhere, but maybe a new coach could improve his play ala Stevie Brown.

Blue in Yarmouth

February 15th, 2010 at 2:49 PM ^

I agree, it would be nice if Williams had that light turn on. I would be beyond happy if we could field a secondary that didn't HAVE to include freshmen or walk-ons. If the freshmen or walkons played their way into the lineup, beating out good players ahead of them, that would be one thing. However, last year there was simply no competition (at least no decent competition).


February 15th, 2010 at 3:19 PM ^

Williams was the best of the bunch at Safety last year (besides Woolfolk). To me, his case is a lot like Mouton/Ezeh - despite some horrendous performances I'd expect him to stay there and hope for improvement.

To assume a true freshman or guy who backed him up last year will leap him this season seems like wishful thinking to me. Not to say it won't happen, just that it'd surprise me.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:37 PM ^

Williams, as a former 4-star, seems to have the edge in talent and experience. Kovacs (and Smith) may have replaced him at times, but he played a lot, presumably earning the time based on besting others in practice. My point is the coaches saw him as one of the best options in the secondary (over people like Emilien and Turner) and I don't expect that to change even though Williams was as frustrating as Ezeh and Mouton last year.

That said, if he keeps playing like an idiot, it wouldn't be a total shock to see Kovacs or even MRob pass him.


February 15th, 2010 at 6:03 PM ^

Williams was a four star HS player but in the Big Ten it seemed like he had a lot of trouble with tackling. Kovacs might be a little less athletic but he could finish a tackle. From the games I saw, Kovacs was a much better option.


February 16th, 2010 at 10:38 AM ^

I don't remember Williams ever missing a tackle, quite the contrary, in fact. I thought he was a good tackler. I think the problem with him was that he wasn't in the right position to make a play, or completely blew his assignment. I'd have to check the UFRs, but I can't remember many missed tackles by Williams.

EDIT: having checked a few UFRs, it appears that the majority of Williams' negatives were running out of the play, being blocked too easily, etc... There is mentioned of not wrapping up against PSU to force a loss, when the play eventually resulted in no gain. One missed tackle that goes for 5 yards. The common theme when looking at Williams was blitzing to far and losing contain.

Williams dropped his assignment against Iowa a few times, which resulted in Moeaki being wide open for 6 pts.

Jon Benke

February 15th, 2010 at 2:56 PM ^

We keep talking about the players on defense, but I am interested in seeing what Greg Robinson does in year two. He took a near worthless Stevie Brown and gave him some value, lets see what he can do this year. He's a good coach, it'll be interesting to see what he does in the spring, and as all the new defensive recruits come in.


February 15th, 2010 at 2:54 PM ^

I know spring practice hasn't even started yet but I would like to see some of our young guys can significant PT. I hope Will Campbell, JB Fitzgerald, Demar Dorsey, Justin Turner, and Marvin Robinson perform really well and maybe get a starters job. To be honest, they lack experince but aren't short on talent. I hope that talent carries over unto the field next year.


February 15th, 2010 at 2:57 PM ^

Obi just seemed to be moving along with the flow until he caught up with the play ten yards downfield, if I understand Brian's reason for inserting this Youtube.

Either he(and Mouton) has to play better or we need another player(s) at ILB.


February 15th, 2010 at 2:58 PM ^

Campbell needs to play well and so do the freshman in the secondary (Turner, maybe even Dorsey or Christian). Obi and Mouton need to stop sucking as well. The D should be better, but still not great.

Jon Benke

February 15th, 2010 at 3:15 PM ^

on the shoulder pads of our two senior linebackers; Obi Ezeh and Jonus Mouton, and that's scary. I think the line will have a chance to be better, especially with Martin, RVB, and Roh all coming back, and the secondary should be okay, even with all the youth. It's the linebackers, and the inept play of both Ezeh and Mouton, that is the key to the season. Brian stated that the frequent changes of DC probably hit the LBs more than any other position on defense, so that being said, maybe year two under Greg Robinson will help these two, though I am not holding my breath on that one.


February 15th, 2010 at 3:01 PM ^

I don't expect the defense to be a force...just be adequate. They were not that last year. We need at least 3 guys to dramatically step up their game at their position. Hopefully that starts with the defensive backfield and LB.

I agree that Mouton and Ezeh will be better. Robinson is thought of as great LB coach...and both of these guys are talented. Their problems are mental. If Robinson can't make them adequate, then we have a serious problem.

Turner is guaranteed to win either the CB/S spot, and Woolfork the other. I would love for Emilien to step up...if we are stuck with Kovacs and williams back there, it is going to be a long year. The other CB...that is going to be tough because it is very likely going to be a true freshman. Some people can live up to that (see Warren). Hopefully Dorsey or cullen makes that jump.

fingers crossed.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:11 PM ^

If you're starting a true frosh at corner it helps if the other corner is a solid veteran you can count on so you can rotate the safeties over some to help the true frosh. UM isn't going to have that luxury this year. Neither corner is probably going to have that much experience. I'm not expecting a ton out of the secondary in 2010 cause they are going to be young and inexperienced for the most part. I do hope that it pays off dividends a year or two down the road though.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:11 PM ^

If you're starting a true frosh at corner it helps if the other corner is a solid veteran you can count on so you can rotate the safeties over some to help the true frosh. UM isn't going to have that luxury this year. Neither corner is probably going to have that much experience. I'm not expecting a ton out of the secondary in 2010 cause they are going to be young and inexperienced for the most part. I do hope that it pays off dividends a year or two down the road though.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:11 PM ^

If you're starting a true frosh at corner it helps if the other corner is a solid veteran you can count on so you can rotate the safeties over some to help the true frosh. UM isn't going to have that luxury this year. Neither corner is probably going to have that much experience. I'm not expecting a ton out of the secondary in 2010 cause they are going to be young and inexperienced for the most part. I do hope that it pays off dividends a year or two down the road though.


February 15th, 2010 at 3:18 PM ^

I'm hearing that Turner and Woolfolk will not play together at CB. One of them will play SS and the other will play CB.

As far as for the FS position, I'm still expecting Kovacs to be the leading candidate for the starting job.

As far for the other CB spot opposite Turner/Woolfolk, it's a toss up between JT Floyd and other true freshmen(Dorsey is probably the leading candidate IMO).


February 15th, 2010 at 4:11 PM ^

It sounds like some sort of chastity belt. Do you mean a safety rolled up into the box? Yeah, that should be called the "8th man in the box because this ill-conceived three man line and 4 LB front 7 is getting their collective asses handed to them" Safety.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:27 PM ^

Just yesterday I was thinking, "Who the hell is going to play where on defense???" Perfect timing! My fingers will remain crossed and my eyes...sometimes covered.


February 15th, 2010 at 4:34 PM ^

But i have a feeling a lot more freshman are going to get playing time this year. Depending on how Demarr Dorsey plays in the Spring, and a couple of good, young DB's could work wonders for our struggling defense. Marvin Robinson looks strong, and I'm wondering if he can get some starting time too. Please respond.



February 15th, 2010 at 4:43 PM ^

To use one of the oldest cliches in the book, it all starts up front. I'm mildly anticipating a D-Front consisting of Martin, Campbell, RVB, and Roh. With a few semi-capable backups. That might give the secondary a chance. Yeah...about that secondary. Turner was reportedly strong during practice and I'm hoping the coaches felt the red-shirt was more important than getting him on the field last year. If that is true, one corner spot will be locked up by the third or fourth game. The other interesting off season quote comes from Emilien who did not seem pleased. Paraphrasing, "I don't know why I didn't play more, coaches kept telling me I wasn't ready". Not good. Sadly I don't see Mike Williams fitting into this D; can't read plays well enough to be the deep guy and not big enough to be the box guy. Oh well, let's hope they can truly play team D this year.

The Impaler

February 15th, 2010 at 4:48 PM ^

I know that recruiting evaluations are more important to those of us who cannot see how non-starters are progressing in practice, however many of neglect the fact that this game is 80% mental. The reason Jordan Kovacs was starting over Mike Williams was for the sole reason that Kovacs understood the schemes and executed better than Williams did. This is not to say Williams is a lesser athlete, but that he was not understanding concepts. Ezeh and Mouton are both great athletes, but obviously have had retarded growth due to coaching and possibly adapting personally to new schemes. I know it is an abstract thing, but don't you think Emilien would have been starting last year if he wasn't struggling with the mental aspect of the game? There was obviously no lingering injury. I understand this is a delicate subject, but it is a huge part of player evaluation that we as fans are not privy to.

Blue boy johnson

February 15th, 2010 at 4:58 PM ^

I'm hoping we can field a defense where every player understands his postion and what Coach Robinson wants, don't think we had that last season. I'm thinking with the continuity at DC the incumbents are going to have a huge advantage over the true frosh and it is going to take quite an accomplished freshman to gain a starting role. I see zero true freshman starting in the opener.


February 15th, 2010 at 5:30 PM ^

That's the word that keeps popping into my head. I'm really hoping that finally getting some continuity, though 2 years is hardly that, on the defensive side of the ball will help with the mental aspect of the game for the players.

I also liked Brian touching on Mouton and Ezeh--hopefully Robinson can at least revert them back to their old forms. Their regression was one of the most frustrating things about the '09 season.