In another life, Joe Bolden might have been Ohio State's next great linebacker. The somewhat local prospect out of Cincinnati's Colerain high school was one of those Ohio prospects that in most years wait for, and eventually receive the coveted Ohio State offer, then sign on the dotted line.
Bolden is certainly good enough. He ended up as a consensus four-star linebacker that picked up a host of solid offers from both regional programs (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa) and a few impressive national offers (Penn State -- as legitimizing an offer for a linebacker as there is -- as well as academic powerhouses Stanford and Northwestern to boot). Bolden, given time on the camp circuit, probably could have earned that Ohio State offer had he waited around for it.
He didn't, of course. Instead, he pledged to be Michigan's third linebacker commit in April of last year and spoke glowingly of the Wolverines, and how at home he felt being at Michigan.
Of course, Michigan welcomed Bolden with open arms, and the reason why is that Joe Bolden is about as pure bred a linebacker as you will find. In the rush to judgment world of college football recruiting where players are often split into two wildly different (and soaked in underlying meaning and judgment) categories, either the "classical/old-school type" (read: a kid with great instincts but only good athleticism) or the "freak athlete" (the opposite: great athleticism but bites on fakes like a fat kid on pie). When talking about Bolden, scouts often spend a lot of time raving about the first category, and for good reason. Bolden is a smart kid on and off the field, and shows advanced play recognition instincts for a high school kid. Tackling form isn't a problem either as Bolden is already ahead of the curve fundamentally, and can lay the wood.
However, what gets lost in this swirl of nostalgia for linebackers past, their hard nosed approach to the game, and how Joe Bolden makes old school scouts feel all tingly inside because of it is that Bolden is also a pretty impressive athlete that can cover a ton of ground side to side and has the physical ability to be a good coverage linebacker as well. Bolden showed all of this off late in the year at the Under Armor All-American game, where he continually impressed coaches and observers with his work ethic, knack for finding the ball, and ability to make plays all over the field.
Remember when Michigan used to recruit safeties for linebacker? Aren't you glad those days are gone?
What We Know:
Bolden was one of two linebackers from the 2012 class to enroll early, but given Kaleb Ringer's size as well as the fact that he spent most of his senior season injured, Bolden was the one who most pegged for a shot at playing time. Originally it was thought that Bolden was a WLB type, but as things have shaken out with the depth chart, it seems that Bolden will most likely take on the duty of backing up Kenny Demens.
Demens enters his third year of starting duty and is about as entrenched in his starting role as anyone on the defense. Demens isn't an exceptional MLB, but he displays solid play recognition skills, is surprisingly good in coverage, and thus far hasn't shown severe emotional scarring from repeated run ins with Greg Robinson's stuffed beaver (a phrase that sounds way dirtier when I read over it a second time than it did when I was writing it).
Bolden may not be able to supplant Demens from the starting job, but he has already proven that he can mount a serious challenge for the backup role. There aren't a lot of MLB types on the roster currently. Antonio Poole, Brandin Hawthorne, and Ringer are all WLBs; smaller, speedier, and better suited to attack the play from the backside. Mike Jones is Mike Jones, i.e. not a viable option from everything we know about Mike Jones. The other two 2012 recruits are either raw (Royce Jenkins-Stone) or slated to compete elsewhere (James Ross at WLB).
Through most of spring camp the coaching staff was bombarded with questions about the early enrollees (presumed backup FS Jarrod Wilson was the third) and of the three Bolden probably got the most praise.
It would seem that barring anything major happening on the defensive side of the ball that Kenny Demens will reprise his role as tackle gobbling vacuum in the middle and any time spent on the sidelines will be spelled by Joe Bolden. Given what we know about Bolden's athletic gifts, play recognition ability, and the added benefit of a full off season spent in the program already this is...well less scary than one would usually associate with a true freshman backup at the heart of the defense.
Bolden should hold up well in the limited snaps that he sees in real game situations (remember, Demens played a lot last year and probably won't spend a lot of time on the sideline). A major injury to Demens could see Morgan shift over to MLB if the competition behind him is strong enough, but even then Bolden should mount a strong challenge for playing time.
When all is said and done, Joe Bolden is looking at a solid year of backup duty before his status as heir apparent at MLB sees him get the start (or fight the aforementioned Morgan for the spot; a positive bit of competition if I do say so myself).
Ultimately we aren't in that alternate universe, and thank god for that, because it looks like Bolden might have the opportunity to be the next great Michigan linebacker. Welcome to the good team, son. We're glad to have you.