Maize n Preview: Previewing The 2011 Michigan Football Defensive Line

It's July. Things are quiet. It's time to start previewing things. Specifically Michigan Football things. We're kicking off the 2011 Maize n Preview series today, looking at who's back, who's new, and what to expect from each Michigan Football position group going in to the 2011 Football Season. As you know, we're unabashedly homeristic here at Maize n Brew, but we're going to do our best to be realists here. So you may like what we predict or you may not. But you're free to start off a discussion, point out our idiocy, brilliance, or mediocrenessin the comments below. More to come over the next few days, but we're kicking off the preview with the 2011 Michigan Defensive Line.

About Last Night Year

Ugh. From last year's preview:

Look, the defensive line is the deepest, most talented part of the Michigan defense. The starting defensive line comprised entirely of four or five star talent. The backups are either highly recruited or guys that have proven to be capable players. The young guys already in the system or joining it have tremendous potential.

Half of that was right. The other half notsomuch. The Michigan defensive line did its best last year to cover for inadequate linebacker play and a scheme that was better designed to wash vegetables than it was to stop a running game. While there were some highlights here and there, the line was ineffectual against most of the teams Michigan faced.

If you're looking for numbers, they're not very good. Michigan finished 95th nationally against the run, giving up 188.92 yards a game and an average ypcof 4.43. The numbers weren't any better when it came to pass rush either. The line notched a grand totalof 10 sacks in 2010, with Ryan Van Bergen leadingthe way with 4. Overall, the line only managed 28 TFL total in 13 games. Let me put this in perspective. In 2009 Bradon Graham notched 26 TFL and 9.5 sacks in 12 games. So... yeah. Not good.

Looking back on the preview, I have not clue why I was so excited about the defensive line. Mike Martin was the only returning bona-fide All-Big Ten level player on the defense and the scheme they were going to implement seemed to be designed to accentuate Michigan's shortcomings rather than cover for them.

There were glimpses from the defensive line last year, but nothing consistent. How much of that was scheme and how much of that was personnel... well... we'll see.

Outgoing

Michigan lost a number of depth-ish type players to the CFL and other strange, professionalish type leagues. Our favorite  DT Renaldo Sagesse is now playing in the CFL, Greg Banks is trying to make it as a NFL lineman (provided the league ever plays again), and Adam Patterson in doing something withhistime but it ain't playing football. Banks, surprisingly, led Michigan's linemen with38 tackles (or tied for the lead with Martin), while Sagesse and Patterson contributed 5 and16 respectively. Michigan also lost red-shirt freshman Anthony LaLota to a transfer, to Rutgers of all places. LaLota was a highly touted recruit, but his inability to see the field behind the limited andshallow depth in front of him did not speak well to his future in the winged helmet. TE Steve Watson was finally, mercifully, moved back to TE where hopefully he'll have a fine season on offense in his natural position.

Returning Starters

Michigan returns the bulk of its talent on the defensive line despite losing three contributors at defensive tackle. The headliner is, of course, Senior DT/NT Mike Martin. Martin is, without question, Michigan's best defensive player and the heart and soul of the line. Last season Martin racked up 37 tackles and 6 TFL despite spending the entire season being double teamed and playing on injured ankles. Despite his low numbers, the Big Ten coaching staffs knewwhat kind of talent Martin was and recognized him as 2nd Team All-Big Ten in 2010. This year, Martin is back for his senior season, healthy, and on a pile of pre-season watch lists including the Rotary Lombardi award (best lineman Offense or Defense), Outland Trophy (interior lineman) and Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player).

DE Ryan Van Bergen also returns for his senior year after leading the team in TFL and sacks in 2010. Last year Van Bergen was a man playing completely out of position in GERGRIGUEZ's 3-3-5 as some kind of DT/DE hybrid. Van Bergen is not a DT. He is a DE. Basically the outgoing coaching staff wasted two years of this kid's college career by playing him in a position he had no chance of succeeding at. A 270-280, 6'6" edge rusher should not be trying to stand up Gabe Carimi and Peter Konz. Going in to 2011, the spring hype around Van Bergen was nothing but positive and his move back to DE promises to free Michigan's edge rusher up for a great season on the edges.

Junior DE/LB Craig Roh also returns to the line as a straight up DE after a season lost playing some kindofhybrid linebacker that I completely fail to understand. Roh's freshman year showed all kinds promise off the edge as the true freshman racked up 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 35 tackles. A year later Roh's stats pale in comparison to his freshman year, totalling only 43 tackles, 5 TFL and .5 sacks.  Put simply, Roh's season at linebacker was a disaster. Thankfully, the talented junior moves back to his natural position at DE and will be able to use his speed andskillon the edges rather than trying to cover running backs out of the backfield with skills he doesn't have.

Returning Back-Ups

This is going to be a tricky year after Michigan's top three linemen. Michigan returns a number of players to the defensive line, but like last year they're either unproven or high touted players that have yet to pan out. Their continued development will determine whether the defensive line's season is a good one or not.

Headlining this group is Junior DT/NT William Campbell. Campbell is a former all world, 5 star recruit whose first two years at Michigan can properly be labeled as wasted. Campbell was supposed to be a defensive line savior who instead has contributed 5 total tackles in his first two Michigan seasons and got himself moved over to the offensive line for a long stretch of last year. Let's be clear though, the failure of high touted defensive players recruited by the out going staff to live up to expectations is clearly documented, and Campbell may well be their poster child. Still, there is so much talent in the big lineman that you have to believe a real defensive co-ordinator and coach might be able to finally unlock whatever mental gate is keeping that talent pent up. The spring practices had Michigan's defensive coaches raving about Campbell's progress and talent. Right now Campbell is penciled in as Michigan's starting DT, but who knows if he'll start the season there. I think everyone's taking a wait and see approach to Campbell in 2011.

Next is DT/NT Quinton Washington. Washington was originally an offensive line recruit who seemed to take great joy in mauling his defensive opposition. Picture a large bear and a seal pup. While that's an awesome image, it will get you flagged for holding more often than not and the coaching staff decided to move Washington and his mean streak to the defensive line. If my memory serves, Stephen Schilling was amazed by Washington's freakish strength and that asset will serve him well on the defensive line. Washington played a little on defense during 2010, but not much. I think he'll be more of a spot player in 2010 simply because there really isn't anything other than guess work to tell you how he'll play. Look for Washington to back up Martin and Campbell if things go well. If Washington's starting in place of Campbell, that's either a sign that he's really, really awesome and beat out a 5* recruit or a sign that the line is in deep, deep trouble. My bet would be on the latter in that instance.

At Defensive End, Sophomore Jibreel Black should give Michigan a steady, speedy backup off the corners. Black actually played quite a bit last year at DE, but registered only 7 tackles. While the recruiting services loved his motor, they dinged the hell out of him for his (relatively) diminutivesize at around 6'2" (ish). 2009 proved the services right as Black was routinely steamrolled by the larger, veteran lines in the Big Ten on running plays. That said, when black was able to pin his ears back and rush the passer, he was pretty good for a freshman playing on a three person line. He's got great speed off the edge, good hands and a non-stop motor. I'm thinking the switch to a four person line will be a tremendous advantage for this kid and will allow him to speed rush opponents anddeal with single blocks rather than getting overwhelmed by double teams. Black had a great spring, so look for him to contribute meaningful minutes this year.

Redshirt Freshman DT/NT Richard Ash is a potential contributor this year, but a guy no one has made much noise about. Ash was a well regarded recruit in that 3/4ish star range depending on your recruiting service who clearly needed a red-shirt year to develop physically and learn technique. Out of high school he was labeled as a raw, freakish athletic talent. That's really all we've got to go on. Ash was a little light in the britches at 260 out of high school, but MGoBlue.com has him listed at 320, so... um... I guess he bulked up. Or he ate another person. One of the two. At that weight, Ash should see plenty of action as a back-up DT/NT but I think we're a year or two away from seeing him make any impact.

Redshirt Freshman Kenny Wilkins will add a little more depth at DT, but I'm not sure how a 262 DT is going to hold up in the Big Ten other than supplying spot duty. Wilkins was a relatively highly touted Weakside DE recruit who's been moved inside since arriving on campus. Like Ash and Black, Wilkins had a decent but not spectacular offer sheet and needs more time to develop physically before he's going to be able to contribute.

At DE, senior Will Heininger will also contribute some minutes. The former walk-on is going into his final year of eligibility andhas finally settled at DE after switching around from LB the last year or so. Heininger will contribute some minutes here and there, but don't expect him to surprise you at this stage in his career. He'll be a serviceable back up this year.

Finally, there's Redshirt Freshman DT Terry Talbott. Talbott was a late signee in the 2010 class and was not expected to see the field at all last year. He's small for a DT, was too light, and needed some time to grow. I still think, at best, Talbott's two years from seeing the field, provided he's healthy. Sadly, there are rumors that he's suffered a pretty severe injury so who knows whether he'll see the field at all this year or any time in the future. He's on the roster, but I wouldn't expect to see him this year.

Incoming

The 2009 class wasn't a particularly spectacular class on the defensive line, but there some contributors in there and one or two guys that might see some time.

DE Brennan Beyer headlines the D-Line class. Beyer is a lot like Craig Roh in that he's a lanky, explosive DE/LB type player who can and should turn into a pass rush specialist. Unlike Roh, there is little to no chance he sees the field this year. He's just too damn skinny. 215 for a DE? No way. Redshirt is almost a given. TTB profile here.

DE Chris Rock had arguably the best offer sheet of any of Michigan's defensive recruits, choosing Michigan over Notre Dame, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Even so, he's a guy that will require a lot of work to refine his technique. TTB has him rated as one of Michigan's lower in recruits, and a guy in need of massive amounts of coaching. He's likely a redshirt as he's still a little light for DE and way too unpolished. He does, however, have the chance to grow into a DT. Unlikely to see the field.

Finally there's Jack Miller, a OL/DLtype player who could go either way. Jack had a nice offer sheet and seems to be a solid contributor on both sides of the line. I don't think he'll turn into anything all-world, but could be a nice depth or moderately successful starter down the road. Redshirt is a given.

The 2011 Season

Going into this piece I was all jazzed up that Michigan was going to have a stud defensive line that would turn the tables on 2010. Now I'm not so sure. Even though Michigan returns three really good players to its starting defensive line in Roh, Van Bergen andMartin, depth is a massive question that won't be answered until kick-off. The starting line-up is easy enough to project:

SDE: Ryan Van Bergen
DT: Mike Martin
DT: Will Campbell
WDE: Craig Roh

But after the top three mentioned above, it's a crap shoot. Really, the key to the whole line is going to be whether Will Campbell can finally live up to his heady billing that had him rated as the #1 or #2 defensive tackle in the 2009 class. Michigan has to have a secondary interior presence to help take the pressure off Martin if the 4-3 is to be effective. Without it, teams will double Martin, single Campbell and double the edge rusher they want to run at, which is bad news for the D.

Overall, I suspect that Campbell will be decent. Along the lines of Greg Banks last year as he gets used to playing every down and hopefully have an All-Big Ten season next year. But expecting anything more than honorable mention Big Ten is a stretch I'm not willing to make. Moving on to the back-ups, I suspect that Jibreel Black will have a very good year spotting Roh and Van Bergen. Inside, Quinton Washington is a big talent (as his four star ratings suggest) and he'll find a way to make an impact backing up Campbell.

But uncertain depth is going to be an issue. Richard Ash and Kenny Wilkins are uncertain question marks, and other than Heininger, I don't see anyone else really contributing. The real issue comes down to health. If Martin, Roh and Van Bergen stay healthy (which is a lot to ask of three guys that will see a lot of minutes), Michigan should be fine. I think Michigan's got enough depth at DT/NT to temporarily plug any injury gaps, but there's going to be a big production drop off after Martin, so there aren't any other season long solutions. Even though the Wolverines have added DE help through the 2011 recruiting class, I'm dubious that any of it can help right now. I think you'll see Black and Heininger as the first two off the bench, followed maybe by Wilkins. But if we get past that stage in a meaningful game, Michigan's in trouble.

The bottom line is that I expect this unit to be considerably better than it wa in 2010 based solely on the quality of coaching and the scheme they'll play in. However, I just don't know whether the sum of the parts will take that improvement from a step forward to a leap forward. The 2011 Michigan Defensive line will be considerably better than last year's incarnation. But given where the line is coming from, that's a relative endorsement. Against the run, I think the 4-3 will be a definite improvement and Michigan shoudl improve into the low 60's nationally in run defense. Look for Michigan's sack and TFL numbers to its 2009 numbers (around 80-90) and look for their sacks to reach around 30 +/1 two sacks.

The scheme will help, but the players have to show they can manage it. And whether Campbell can stick on the inside will be your first clue.

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