Maize n Preview: Previewing Michigan Football's 2011 Linebackers

It's July. Things are quiet. It's time to start previewing things. Specifically Michigan Football things. Over the next couple of weeks we're going to be looking at what happened, who's back, who's new, and what to expect from each Michigan Football position group going in to the 2011 Football Season. We kicked off the 2011 Maize n Preview series yesterday with a detailed previewing of the Michigan Defensive Line. So, today, we're going through to the next group on the list, Michigan's Linebackers.

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 now it's time to preview the 2011 Michigan Linebacking Corps.

About Last Night Year

Ugh. I hate that I've got to start off another preview this way, but it's appropriate. Unlike the defensive line, where youth and scheme conspired to defeat an otherwise game unit, the linebacking corps was an unmitigated disaster in 2010. I will conceded that perhap I may be a tad bit overly critical, but I don't think so. Sadly, I predicted this going into the year:

Realistically, looking at this group with a cynical eye, you have to be petrified. Two seniors starters that regressed in each of their previous years. Highly rated backups that were beat out for the starting slot in the late season by a walkon, because they couldn't make tackles or play their assignments. A recruiting class that, at best, is likely two years away from contributing to the defense. These are things that will make you slam a Drano-Slushee.

And this was with the assumption that Criag Roh would be a good linebacker (which he wasn't). Together, Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh combined to form one of the worst linebacker duos in Michigan history. Missed assignments, poor tackling, bad angles, etc. I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but Ezeh was terrible last year and that honestly pains me to say because he's a great kid from all accounts. As for Mouton, he would alternatively do something incredibly athletic and awesome or something so inexplicably bad that you couldn't believe it was the same person. That, combined with Roh being completely miscast as a linebacker, meant the defense couldn't stop a ten year old from running for 160 on them. Don't even get me started on the Carvin Johnson Thomas Gordon Brandon Herron hodgepodge at deathbacker. It didn't work.

On the other hand, there was one incredibly pleasant surprise in the form of Kenny Demens. Demens came from the obscurity of Rodriguez' dog house to become Michigan's best linebacker last year. That said, 2010 was easily one of the worst years for linebackers in Michigan's 132 year history. I'm willing to put a lot of the blame on the coaching staff for this because, well, they couldn't teach defensive tatics to an armored porcupine. But some of that blame has to go to the players who play the game. 

2011 is a new year with new coaches and new players. It has the potential to be a much better year for Michigan's Linebackers, but there's a lot of work to do.

Outgoing

I'm struggling to find a player that was as much of an enigma as Jonas Mouton. A great kid, smart, insanely physically gifted, fast, with great fast twitch relfexes who could make plays that only a handful of players in the college game could make. By that same token, he would routinely run himself out of position, take poor angles, miss easy tackles, and blow obvious coverages. After three years as Michigan's starting SLB, he was a 2nd Round  pick (No. 61) of the San Diego Chargers. He finished his senior year leading the team with 117 tackles and countless "WTF is he doing!?" moments. All of us wish him the best and hope the good folks in San Diego can coach him into the player we all hope he can be.

Middle Linebacker Obi Ezeh departs as well. Ezeh was a three year starter at Michigan who lost his job mid season to Kenny Demens. This was a good thing. Ezeh's career started strong against Utah and pancaked blocked from then on. Routinely getting hammered by linemen, missing tackles, and misdiagnosing plays earned him a lot of scorn from Michigan fans over his four year career. This wasn't all his fault. Over his last two years Ezeh regressed under the constantly changing defensive schemes of GERGRIGUEZ. After coming in as a mildly touted fullback, Ezeh switched to middle linebacker and played all four years. He finished 2010 with 58 tackles and 3.5 TFL.

Also gone is back-up middle linebacker Mark Moundros, another converted fullback who played sparingly under Rodriguez. Moundros pushed Ezeh a bit at the start of the season, but the Captain wasn't able to seal up the starting slot and eventually fell into special teams duty and backing up the backups. He finished the season with 17 tackles.

Finally, you can probably put Craig Roh in here because he'll be playing Defensive End this season, so technically all three starters from Opening Day 2010 are either graduated or playing different positions.

Returning Starters

There's one: Junior MLB Kenny Demens. And thank God for that. Demens was a genuine surprise last season. After being stuck behind Ezeh for two years, many observers were legitimately questioning if he'd ever see the field. When he finally did it was crystal clear how much of an upgrade at middle linebacker he was that it made you question the sanity and intelligence of the coaches who'd kept him on the bench. Demens was everything Ezeh wasn't: decisive, quick, capable of tackling, and capable of taking an angle. His insertion in the line-up was a shot in the arm for the beleaguered defense and it suffered mightily when he wasn't in the game. Demens started only 7 games last season and still managed to notch 82 tackles and 1.5 TFL. That's 11.71 tackles a game. That's the highest starts-to-tackle ratio on the team, and Demens missed three games due to injury (including the bowl) along with not really playing in three others. In short, he's pretty good and playing under Greg Mattison is only going to make him better

Returning Starter-ish Type Players

Redshirt Sophomore Cameron Gordon returns to the Strongside Linebacker position after playing safety, spur, and WLB last year. Gordon you may remember was recruited to Michigan as a wide receiver, moved over to safety during his redshirt year, was Michigan's starting safety for half the season and was later moved to the spur/bandit/deathbacker slot for the other half of the season. So in two years he's changed positions a little under a thousand times. Now it appears that Gordon's fantastic voyage around the defensive secondary is over and he's found a home at SLB. Reports out of spring practice indicate that Gordon has bulked up considerably, but when he's listed at 207, I'm a little leery of his ability to stand up to blockers. How this latest switch works out is one of the great unknowns heading into the season.

Returning Potential Starters and Back-Ups

Going into 2010 there was a nice buzz around red shirt freshman Mike Jones, and a lot of people thought he might challenge for one of the linebacker slots before a gruesome broken leg in the Nortre Dame game ended his season. Now a sophomore, Jones is back healthy and should be able to contribute. My concern with him is that bad injuries like that usually take a little more than a year for a full recovery. Jones was on track to take over one of the OLB slots following Ezeh and Mouton's departure, so it's a fair assumption that if he's healthy he'll challenge for the starting slot. I thought he had a good spring game, so I'm penciling him in as the starting WLB.

One guy that got a lot of press in the Spring Game was red shirt freshman LB Jake Ryan. Ryan was a tackling machine at arguably Ohio's best football program (Cleveland's St. Ignatius), yet barely garnered a third star in any of the recruiting services' eyes. But at 6'3" 224, the measureables for the position are there, and after the spring game it's pretty clear the ability is there too. I was very impressed by Ryan's speed at the linebacker position. While a lot of people point to his interception return for a TD, I think Devin Gardner should get more credit for that, I mean, he threw it right at Ryan. No, I was impressed with the kid's wheels and his understanding of the position (something that's been a rarity among Michigan Linebackers recently). Ryan's still probably a year away from being a solid contributor, but I can see him getting a lot of snaps this year in Michigan's LB rotation.

Senior Brandon Herron returns for his final year at Michigan as kind of an odd man out. He played a bit last season as Michigan's hybrid DE/LB, but never really excelled in that capacity. At 220 he's a little light for DE, but he doesn't really seem to have the wheels for linebacker. He'll likely contribute some back-up time, but I'd be shocked if he found his way into the starting rotation.

A few years ago Senior LB J.B. Fitzgerald was one of the brightest stars in Michigan's incoming recruiting class. A four star linebacker in every service who lookd like he'd be able to step in a sieze a starting job by his sophomore year. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. Fitzgerald has spent the last four years backing up two really questionable linebackers and never shown any of the flash that earned him a lot of breathless anticipation from Michigan fans. He's got adequate speed and size, but he's never really gotten it all to click with a full understanding of his assignments. I'm anticipating he'll be one of Michigan's primary backups this season.

If there's one guy who's taking the "I gotta bulk up" meme to an extreme, its redshirt sophomore Isaiah Bell. At 6'1", 244, Bell is the heaviest of Michigan's linebackers. Bell came in to Michigan two years ago at 200 pounds. Yikes. In terms of playing time, well, I'm not too sure. Bell was a lightly recruited linebacker who hasn't sniffed the field yet and I haven't heard his name mentioned at all in the spring buzz. Unless something surprising happens and he suddenly blossoms, I'm anticipating another year on the bench with special teams duty being about it for Bell.

Redshirt Freshman Jordan Paskorz was one of GERG's hybrid DE/LB recruits that now seems to be caught in the transition back to a normal defense. Paskorz is a big kid at 6'3 242, but he was primarily a DE in high school, IIRC. I really don't have a lot of information on him as he really hasn't been listed in the media or talked about much during spring ball. I think you'll see Paskorz on the bench or on special teams this year, and I'd be really, really surprised if he saw any playing time at LB in 2011.

Redshirt Senior Marell Evans was originally a Michigan player. Then he left. Now he's back. And he's back with a legitimate shot at a starting job. Evans has gotten a lot of pub this spring and off season for his story, but he also got a lot of press becasue hewas playing pretty well. I thought Evans had a decent spring game and his athleticism was pretty apparent, but I'd be surprised if he took the starting spot after a few years floating around. I do think he's going to be listed on the two deep as a back up OLB and get plenty of playing time.

Incoming

Freshman Antonio Poole was one of Michigan's primary recruiting targets after Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison came on campus. According to TTB's player profile, Mattison really wanted him. Of all Michigan's freshmen linebackers, he's probably the most physically ready to play. The O-Zone had a write up on Poole's performance at the Big 33 game and said thus:

I think Poole may have been the most impressive defensive player on the field. He's only listed at 6'0" 195 pounds, but he sticks ball-carriers right between the numbers and they stay stuck. When he's in pursuit, he looks much bigger than he is. He certainly hits much bigger than he is. He may not be big enough to play linebacker in the Big Ten right now, but the Wolverines may not be able to wait.

I'd love to let the kid wait, but if he's good enough to see the field now, we could use the help. Still, I suspect he'll play a little this year but (hopefully) not end up starting until a year or so down the road.

Frank Clark was a first for Michigan in a long while, a Glenville commit. Glenville High School in Cleveland churns out D1 prospects the same way dairies churn out butter, but over the last decade or so Glenville has been impossible for Michigan to crack into. So Clark's commit was a big deal in the grand scheme of things. He is, however, not ready to play at the D1 level. He's skinny and lacks technique. No question he redshirts.

Texas freshman LB Kellen Jones may actually get some playing time this year. Jones is a gym rat with a reportedly great understanding of his position, which, again, willl be welcome at Michigan. Jones was a middle linebacker in high school and I suspect he'll end up 3rd on the depth chart at MLB, or maybe even 2nd if Marell Evans ends up starting at OLB. TTB profile here.

Desmond Morgan, like Jones, is another one of Michigan's middle linebacker recruits that looks like he could contribute this year. Morgan is a big, thick kid who's played middle linebacker and quarterback in high school. He was kind of a high school Tebow, simply pounding the ever living crap out of his opponents down after down. Physically he should be able to play this year (225lbs) but a year to grow a little more might not be a bad thing. TTB has him as a solid potential contributor down the road, but like me, doesn't really see him contributing too much this year.

The 2011 Season

If you're a Michigan fan you're praying that the old saying of addition by subtraction rings true. Michigan is vastly more inexperienced at linebacker than it's been for the last four years, but it's impossible to find a Michigan fan who isn't relieved by that. Kenny Demens should be a good Big Ten middle linebacker. I don't see him receiving All-Conference honors this year, but his presence at linebacker should make things a lot more stable against the run than they've been in years. But after Demens it's all guess work.

Even though I'm a huge Cam Gordon fan, I'm a little concerned about his move to linebacker simply based on his size. Gordon's a little too light for my liking, but you can't question his athleticism, so perhaps it'll work out. The real question becomes who will lock down the other starting slot. It's a crap shoot between Ryan, Evans and Mike Jones. If I have to guess I'll take Evans to start the season and for Ryan and Jones to rotate through the positions along with J.B. Fitzgerald. We'll get a chance to see the occasional appearance by Bell or Herron, and I think you'll see at least one of the freshmen play some minutes this year.

Overall, the switch back to a traditional 4-3 will really help the linebacking corps simply by virtue of the fact there's one more big guy on the defensive line to gobble up a blocker. This will free up the backers to make plays and not force them to take on blockers or assignments they're simply not suited for. Another off-shout will be that I suspect Michigan's top two tacklers this year will be linebackers, and not a linebacker and Jordan Kovacs. There's enough talent here to improve Michigan's horrific run defense and I think Mattison's and Hoke's tutelage

While I'm excited about the change and the players, I think it's worth noting that it's a relative excitement. Things have been so bad at linebacker the last few years that it's finally hit the point where you have to expect the law of averages to finally kick in and something good will finally happen to the Linebackers. It's not rational or supportable, but it's definitely a feeling you get looking back. The linebacking corps will be better than last year, but it's still not going to be very good. They key thing this year is simply for Michigan to have it's linebackers in the right position. If they can do that, things will automatically be a lot better.

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