There is an alternate reality in which the 2012 Michigan defense makes that vague descriptor of overall improvement that we love to call The Leap. The losses on the defensive line are overcome by the deft deployment of a old pieces in new places and new faces in contributing roles. The young linebacking corp feeds off this, and a secondary that finally has its first taste of year to year continuity thrives. In year two of the Greg Mattison defense there is a more thorough and nuanced understanding of not just what the call on the field is, but where it fits in the flow of the game and the overall strategy for that week's opponent. It becomes "their defense" in which "they" are one cohesive unit of destruction.
Then there is the opposite side of the coin, as there always is when we start talking about best case hypotheticals.
There are a lot of possibilities for the 2012 Michigan defense, and ascribing too much importance to any single factor is a recipe for disappointment. It wasn't long ago that Michigan went through a year long series of calamities that were second only to those nine separate misfortunes that befell Springfield's nuclear power plant softball team in both strangeness and totality (But that will never happen. Three misfortunes, that's possible. Seven misfortunates, there's an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that!). There are players who aren't going to develop, others who are going to get injured, and then there is just the random nature of the game of football (also known as: don't get your hopes up that this team recovers fumbles at a rate far above anyone else in college football for a second year in a row).
However, there are a few linch pins on which the improvements and failures in production rest, the things that drive a change of degrees. Michigan's 2008 defense would have went from below average to pretty good had the offense not continually shot itself in the foot. Plug just one competent safety into the defensive backfield in 2009 and production goes from bad to simply below average. These aren't wholesale changes, but gentle shifts up and down. Sometimes the problems are just too widespread --- 2010 being a prime example --- but for defenses in the fat part of the bell curve, one piece can make a lot of difference.
This is a large part of the reason that every bit of information surrounding Will Campbell's spring camp is hung upon by so many. Campbell enters his final season as a Wolverine having yet to deliver on any of the promise that seemed so assured when he committed to Michigan originally (and then committed for the second time). It is hard to argue with the physical specimen that we see before us. He has all the tools: strength, size, and an unnatural quickness for a man of his size. The pieces of the puzzle are there, so it is easy to see why fans so desperately want him to put it all together.
However, what is most tantalizing to think about is also the thing that many only speak about in hushed tones: if Campbell puts the pieces together, this defense could make The Leap.
There are, of course, some caveats. First and foremost, this is predicated on assuming everything else works out somewhere in the neighborhood of its best case scenario. This is possible (2011 was a good example of a confluence of events bringing about a better product than expected), but we aren't far enough removed from the last crippling injury or departure to think that everything is going to turn out just fine. Something bad will happen and this team will be forced to weather the storm. C'est la vie.
There is also the fact that the positive changes of spring camp could simply be a host of illusions propagated by deficiencies elsewhere. If the interior of the defensive line or the secondary shines, could that not be heavily influenced by questionable situations opposite those units on offense? It is hard to know for sure until there are different colored jerseys on the other side of the line.
Finally there is the simple fact that Campbell won't be able to do it alone. The one-tech tackle spot is incredibly demanding, and if played the right way Campbell will be playing against double teams and chip blocks on a regular basis. Without solid depth from Richard Ash, Ondre Pipkins, and/or Quentin Washington it would be hard to expect this defense to perform at a high level for extended periods of time.
What then does best case scenario look like? If Will Campbell flips the switch what can we expect? If he doesn't improve or regresses, what would things look like then? Let's peer inside the crystal ball.
The Switch Goes On
At this point in his career, the main knocks on Campbell are leverage and effort. Given what we know about Big Will's skill set, his background, and his career to date, none of this is particularly surprising.
Campbell was the kind of athletic freak that could dominate high school level competition on less than maximum effort and little to no technique. It didn't help that he came from Cass Tech high school --- a program notorious for producing division one level talent with underdeveloped technique. Campbell was able to have his way on Friday nights and in the camp circuit because he was just plain bigger than the other guy.
This is a story old as time, but it comes with an important addendum: Campbell was arguably too tall for his stated position. It was easy to project him to offensive line --- and at least one of the services, ESPN, did --- because his overall physical profile fit in well on that side of the line. On the defensive line, especially playing the one-tech defensive tackle where leverage is key to holding up to a constant stream of double teams, being 6'5 isn't an asset. Despite Campbell's natural strength and quickness it was nearly impossible for him to consistently throw around college linemen with the same ease he did to the high school linemen that weighed in 100 lbs lighter. Thus began the talk of "pad level". Namely: fire off the ball low to establish leverage, use your arms to create separation from the offensive line, and hold the point of attack. For someone like Mike Martin or Terrance Taylor this is an easier proposition because both were short, compact, and strong (their wrestling backgrounds didn't hurt either). Campbell had less room for error when firing off low, because his center of gravity when he is just a bit high is going to be as high or higher than an offensive lineman across from him.
This is where the "lack of effort" tag gets thrown around, but sometimes unfairly so. It isn't that Campbell was lazy, he was just struggling with the ins and outs of the position which made it look a lot worse. If Campbell came off the ball too high against a double team in the interior and got blown back some would mark it down as a failure of technique, but others might decry a lack of effort, when that isn't always the direct cause. Campbell's inconsistency had a tendency to make him look lazier than he was, but struggling with his weight off the field certainly didn't help.
Thankfully it is easier to teach technique than raw talent, so in year two under Greg Mattison there is a chance that the light goes on and Campbell improves dramatically. Not only is he working under a defense staff that has already proven to be better than the last staff at putting its players in the right positions to succeed*, but the defensive line position has, in effect, three coaches: coordinator Greg Mattison who has coached defensive line on and off for most of his career, head coach Brady Hoke, who coached defensive line while at Michigan in the 90's, and position coach Jerry Montgomery, who played defensive line at Iowa and has coached the defensive line for the last five years at various stops. With this much expertise and specialized attention there is a distinct possibility that Campbell's technique finally catches up with his raw talent. Add to this the positive statements coming from spring camp about Campbell's work ethic and leadership qualities, and what you have is a complete player on the defensive line.
What does this mean for the team?
First, the defensive line, while stocked with some talented pieces, is still to a large extent unproven. Most of the burden of production last year fell on the shoulders of Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Will Heininger and all three are gone this year. Craig Roh returns from a starting role, but is shifting positions to the strong side. Jibreel Black is moving from weak side end to the three-tech tackle position, while Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark are fighting for the opportunity to replace those upperclassmen at the weak side end.
Like I said, a lot of talent, but a few questions. One thing this group doesn't have is size. Roh and Black are both around 270lbs and will need to add 10 or 15 pounds by fall to hold up to the pounding at the three- and five-tech spots. Clark and Beyer are both under 230lbs and are nothing more than glorified SLBs at this point size wise. It is possible that all four players add 10-15lbs of good weight before the season, but that still leaves each on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to the size of a contributing defensive lineman. When playing small, technique and quickness are paramount.
All of this means that Campbell will be the de facto big guy on the line, and in that role he must excel to take pressure off the others. If Campbell turns into an all-Big Ten level player that can command extra attention from offensive lines, it would help free up the rest of the defensive line to work against single blocking --- something guys like Black, Beyer, Clark, and Roh are athletic enough to capitalize on.
With Will Campbell consistently holding the point of attack at the one-tech tackle position and getting penetration against double teams from a guard/center combo, the rest of the line will have a better chance to make plays (MAKE PLAYS!) as secondary concerns to opposing offensive coordinators, and a dog pile in the middle of the line will help limit cutback lanes and line pulls, further hindering the opposing offense.
The positive effects don't just stop there, however. If Campbell is wreaking havoc in the center of the line it is going to free up open lanes for the MLB and WLB to flow downhill to the ball and fill at or behind the line of scrimmage. Michigan doesn't have an elite linebacking corp, but what it does have is a few heady players that are adept at reading the action and getting to the ball. Kenny Demens is a solid MLB that has shown the ability to be a hoover vacuum of sorts behind the line, cleaning up all the dirt. Next to him is Desmond Morgan, now a sophomore that is drawing great praise for improvement this offseason. Morgan struggled at times last year with his reads and his technique (attacking the right gap, keeping contain, etc.) but looks to be much improved.
If either of those guys gets passed on the depth chart it will most likely be a positive sign. True freshman Joe Bolden has a college ready frame and a great understanding of the nuances of the linebacker position, and RS-Fr Antonio Poole is built in the mold of a speedy WLB tackling machine. With Campbell controlling the middle, these guys will have a much easier time taking on lead blocks in the backfield and bottling up running plays for no gain.
Finally, Campbell could have a huge domino effect on the defensive backfield's performance. If Campbell holds the middle of the defense while still getting penetration, that frees up the rest of the line to go ham on the quarterback --- something all three other positions with a new emphasis on quickness are built to do. More pressure on the quarterback means the secondary will need to hold cover for less time, and will have more opportunity to force for easy turnovers.
A prime example of just how far reaching an effect an interior defensive lineman can have on a defense can be found just up the road in East Lansing, Michigan. For the last three years Jerel Worthy has developed from solid performer to All-Big Ten beast and potential top-10 draft pick. With him, the Michigan State defense has grown from average to top-10 nationally, a unit that confounded two of the best offenses in the Big Ten last year (Michigan, and long stretches of both Wisconsin games).
Looking at the numbers, one can't directly see the contributions of Worthy. He didn't register near the top of MSU's stat sheet in sacks or tackles for loss, and he didn't even crack the top-100 in the Big Ten in both tackles and tackles for loss.
However, watching any of the 2011 Michigan State games quickly makes it clear that Worthy was the most important player on the field at any one time. Worthy controlled the line of scrimmage, jumped snap counts, and harried any pocket development, and because of the chaos he was able to foster on the inside, Michigan State was able to bring pressure from all over the field and get favorable one on one match ups.
Michigan State was in the top-10 nationally in rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, and sacks, while being top-20 in pass efficiency defense, pass yardage defense, and tackles for loss. A good deal of this success starts in the center of the defense where Worthy created constant havoc and opened up lanes for his teammates.
If Will Campbell can keep his weight down, keep his motivation up, and improve his technique to the point where he can consistently challenge against double teams in the center of the line, the rest of the defense will have an easier job, and should be able to exploit favorable match ups in both run and pass defense.
Michigan was a top-25 level defense last year with largely the same players returning all over the field. All three starting linebackers (Demens, Morgan, and Jake Ryan) are back, and depth should be bolstered by the addition of true freshman Joe Bolden, RS-Fr Antonio Poole, and the now healthy and adjusted Cam Gordon at SLB. Both starting corner backs return in JT Floyd at the boundary corner position and Blake Countess at the field corner position. Behind them will be an older, more experienced group made up of Terrance Talbot, Raymon Taylor, Delonte Hollowell, and Courtney Avery. Both starting safeties are back (Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon) with early enrollee Jarrod Wilson and presumably the legally entwined Marvin Robinson providing depth.
With a retooling along the defensive line, Michigan could see an even stronger overall unit take the field in 2012. Roh is the only returning starter on the line, but Black, Beyer, and Clark all have game experience and Nathan Brink, Ken Wilkins, Keith Heiztman, Richard Ash, Quinton Washington, and Chris Rock have garnered praise at various points and could provide solid depth.
The key to all of this is the development of Will Campbell. If he can turn in the type of season that sees him capitalize on some of the potential that he has flashed over the past few years, Michigan's defense could be in line to take another step forward after last year's drastic improvement.
*(While there are a few very good examples of the previous staff failing spectacularly in individual player development and deployment (e.g. Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh never improving, Craig Roh to linebacker, etc.) that cast a negative light on the Schaffer/Robinson defense as a whole, one must also consider the positives that occurred: Brandon Graham's physical transformation under Barwis and subsequent domination in 2009, the emergence and development of Jordan Kovacs from walk-on to solid Big Ten safety, and the combo of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Campbell has long been Exhibit A in the case against the previous staff's ability to coach on an individual level, but it isn't necessarily fair. Campbell came in with buckets of hype, stepped into a position smarting from losses to graduation, and missed opportunities both his freshman and sophomore year to redshirt. On top of that, Campbell's problem with weight hindered his conditioning and strength and added another impediment to his making any significant contribution to the defense. It is clear that the staff struggled in some aspects, but the failure isn't entirely with the Rodriguez era defensive coaches. Like anything else, it's complicated.)
The Switch Stays Off
The other side to the coin is that because we are still talking about the potential of Will Campbell we necessarily have to consider the potential that he fails to reach it.
While his maturity and work ethic have been complimented this spring, the fear is that ultimately the lack of conditioning and weight problem just exacerbated the underlying cause of Campbell's struggles: his poor technique. Campbell's taller build is going to continually ask for more of him when it comes the way he attacks every play. Campbell has less room for error. After three years in which the finer points of interior defensive line technique never clicked, there is a sizable chance that Campbell just never puts it together mentally no matter how much better his coaching is now.
After all, Campbell had already been under the tutelage of Mattison, Montgomery, and Hoke for months when last season began, and he wasn't able to establish himself as a regular contributor (to be fair, he was playing behind Mike Martin). Even worse, the results were decidedly mixed when Campbell did get on the feild; sometimes he would show flashes of otherworldly potential, others he would simply get out-muscled.
If this continues into the 2012 season, Michigan's defense could be in trouble.
The defensive line, easily the position hit hardest by graduation, needs a serious influx of production from a cast of characters that weren't heavily depended on in 2011. If Campbell can't step up and take pressure off the rest of the line, those guys could struggle. First and foremost would be Jibreel Black, who is still undersized for the three-tech defensive tackle position and needs a solid player next to him on the inside so that Black can focus on using his speed to disrupt plays. If Campbell doesn't automatically command the attention of two players on the line, that is one extra player that can slide over and help neutralize Black. The same is true with Craig Roh at the strong side defensive end position and whoever ends up playing at weak side end; less focus on Campbell from the offense means more focus on the rest of the line.
The linebackers will also suffer, as Campbell's inability to challenge double teams will leave interior linemen free to just chip him before moving on to the second level. This means that the MLB and WLB will spend time fighting with more blocks on the second level rather than having open paths to the ball carrier. Furthermore, if Campbell can't hold the point of attack in the middle, there will be more opportunities for cutbacks by running backs when the playside defense closes holes.
The passing defense will suffer as well. A strong push from the interior of the defensive line is pressuring the quarterback on pass plays. If Campbell can't consistently mount a strong interior pass rush it will open up opportunities for opposing quarterbacks to step up into the pocket free of pressure and away from the defensive ends coming off the edges. It will also provide escape routes underneath the outside pass rush in which quarterbacks like Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez, and other capable runners can get to the outside and pick up yards on the ground when plays down field aren't open. This could make life a lot harder on the back seven that has to execute pass coverage for longer and longer behind a weak pass rush.
Michigan got a lot of contribution from the interior of its defensive line last year. Mike Martin was the kind of player on the interior that was quietly disruptive, well outperforming his meager statistical profile. Meanwhile, Ryan Van Bergen was both top-10 in sacks and tackles for loss in the conference, and led the Wolverines in both categories. Furthermore, Michigan's secondary was solid for the most part, but just average in pass efficiency defense and downright poor (10th in the conference) at forcing interceptions.
This all paints a picture of a defense perched near a ledge. Without a significant uptick in production from what is left of the defensive line, the Wolverines could see a step back in defensive production in 2012.
If Campbell can't step into a big role on the defensive line it won't just affect the other positions, but the one-tech tackle position as well. Behind Campbell are two even less experienced options. Quinton Washington is a RS-Jr but switched to defense after a couple years at offensive guard. RS-Fr Richard Ash has no meaningful game experience, and has struggled to keep his weight in check so far in his career. There is even less hope behind Campbell if he doesn't pan out as a senior.
There is, as always, the hope that true freshman Ondre Pipkins can step in and have and immediate impact. While many seem to take that as simply a matter of fact, it is interesting to note the parallels between Campbell and Pipkins: namely that both were five-star prospects with questions about weight and consistent effort. Expecting Pipkins to immediately handle the interior of a Big Ten offensive line is at best optimistic and at worst ignorant of just how hard it is to play defensive tackle in the Big Ten. Expect nothing and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
/End ridiculous speculation.
The fact of the matter is we don't know what to expect from Will Campbell and the rest of the defense this year, but we can rest assured that it will probably fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Campbell probably won't turn into an All-American or even All-Big Ten caliber player. That kind of meteoric rise in production rarely happens this late in a player's career. However, it certainly isn't ridiculous to think that Campbell, with a year and a half under the new coaching staff and a fully embraced leadership role as a senior, steps up and becomes a solid Big Ten defensive lineman.
The best part of all of this is that Campbell exists as somewhat of a singular question mark on Michigan's defensive prospects in 2012. The back seven returns intact with added depth, and the defensive line has a number of unproven but potentially great players being placed in new positions to create a fast, attacking defensive front.
The reason that Campbell stands at the forefront of our fan consciousness this spring --- outside of his prodigious physical skill set and outsized recruiting profile --- is how important a role he could play on team 133.
If Campbell can start to cash in some of the potential that has marked the early years of his career, the 2012 Michigan defense could take another significant step forward in development.
Until the fall, however, all we can do is wonder.