If you had to guess who Michigan’s top returning tackler was I’m willing to bet good money you wouldn’t pick Ezeh. But that’s who it is. Ezeh, despite playing his first downs of football at the Linebacker position in 2007, notched 68 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 PBUs and even grabbed an interception from the middle linebacker slot.
While 68 tackles are not what you normally look for from a MLB, I’m willing to give Ezeh the benefit of the doubt for a couple of reasons: 1) He’d never played linebacker before; 2) the defensive line as a whole underachieved last year which allowed linemen free reign at the defense’s second level; 3) he was playing with Shawn Crable and Chris Graham who were #2 and #3 respectively in tackles last year; and 4) he was playing with Shawn Crable and Chris Graham who spent most of their time out of position either by design (Crable at DE) or just by being themselves. That’s some tough on the job training.
This year no one can use the excuse, "well, he’s a converted Full Back" when talking about Ezeh. No, this year he’s the sole returning starter at Linebacker and will have to anchor the middle of the field while Austin Panter, Jonas Mouton, JB Fitzgerald, or any one of the numerous square pegs in Michigan’s circular linebacking core sort themselves out. While normally this shouldn’t instill too much confidence in a position or a player there are reasons for optimism where Ezeh is concerned.
First, Ezeh brings something a lot of career linebackers just don’t have. Speed. It’s easy to forget that Ezeh was once a moderately recruited tailback with offers from other major conference schools. He just decided Michigan was the best fit. He’s got quick feet and great closing speed. So the things you desperately need at the MLB position and the things you simply can’t teach, Ezeh already possesses.
Second, Ezeh improved with just about every game he played last year. Sure there were some steps backward from time to time, but as the season progressed and Ezeh became more comfortable at his position the ratio of thinking to reacting swung dramatically into the positive. Case in point was the Citrus Bowl where Ezeh was all over the field, racking up tackles and hits, and perhaps more importantly, being where he should’ve been play after play.
Third, and most importantly, Ezeh is only a sophomore this year. Hard to believe, but Michigan’s starting middle linebacker last year was a freshman, and a freshman who’d never played linebacker. Whether it’s hard to believe, or just plain scary, Ezeh was the best player on Michigan’s roster to fill that slot as a freshman. And for a freshman campaign, learning a new system, a new position, and the speed of the college game, Ezeh performed adequately at linebacker. Now, with a year under his belt, his potential growth at the position has me extremely excited.
Look for a monster year out of Ezeh, potentially doubling his tackles and sacks, as well as bringing some stability to Michigan’s linebacking corps.