The fact that a search of "Cam Gordon" on SB Nation's photo database widget turns up nothing is kind of representative of Cam Gordon's 2011 season...so, here's a picture of the other Gordon and the guy that took Cam's spot at SLB. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Cam Gordon's Michigan career has been a decidedly up and down one. Gordon, a Class of 2009 recruit, redshirted in his first season on campus. Gordon had mixed reviews coming out of Inkster (where he played with Devin Gardner as a senior), as he was a generic 3-star to Scout but a 4-star to Rivals.
Some of this disparity can be attributed to the ambiguity regarding what Gordon's skill set would translate best to: was he a wide receiver or a linebacker? He played both in high school, and seemed to do pretty well on both sides of the ball. Although his offer sheet and the assessments of various recruiting services do not indicate that Cam was some sort of blue chip prospect, he was definitely an interesting player that you could envision playing in the Big Ten. Rivals was the only service that was bullish about him, and his only big offers, other than Michigan, came from Michigan State and Iowa. However, a soldily-built 6'2''-6'3''ish guy with supposedly 4.6 speed is an intriguing prospect, rankings nonetheless. It's hard to call a guy that was in Rivals's 250 a "sleeper," but based on the aforementioned--and his lack of a truly impressive/extensive offer list--you could say that, yeah, he was sort of a sleeper.
I didn't remember this until consulting the oracle that is Google, but according to MGoBlog's always useful (especially in retrospect) Hello series, Cam was considered a wide receiver coming in, which is amusing considered that is one of the positions he hasn't played at Michigan. Cam came in explicitly stating his desire to play wide receiver, but that never actually happened; he had an obvious positional preference, but, in the end, Cam is a team-first guy.
In what will go down as one of many questionable defensive decisions of the RR era, Cam started out the 2010 season as a safety*. As an aside, as if you needed another jolt of "things were so bad back then"
Depression RR Era-esque tidbits, Cam, a high school wide receiver/linebacker, was starting for us as a redshirt freshman...at safety. The horror, indeed.
To be honest with you, I was a huge fan of Cam's: I had always longed for competent safety play, just like every other Michigan fan, but I will admit to being partial to the big rangy safeties capable of delivering earth-shatteringly powerful hits a la Taylor Mays at USC. The prospect of Cam playing safety quickly reminded me of Ernest Shazor's highlight reel hits and run-stopping prowess. The problem with this comparison is, if you truly remember Shazor's 2004 All-American year...if was a Tale of Two Seasons. Everything before the Michigan State game that year was pretty darn good, but everything after was not so great, and Shazor was a huge part of that decline.
So, Cam Gordon's best case scenario at safety? Ernest Shazor. Worst case scenario? Ernest Shazor...if that makes any sense. Unfortunately, the worst case scenario became true very quickly. I'm pretty sure Kyle Rudolph is still running away, just a few steps ahead of a Cam Gordon who will forever be just a few steps behind.
*This, including the "Craig Roh at linebacker" experiment, were the most obvious mistakes. I guess sticking with Obi Ezeh for as long as they did in 2010 is also a "mistake," although Ezeh was a senior and I'm sure it's difficult for coaches to give the hook to a guy that's supposed to be a team leader. Whatever..."it's in the past."
What We Know
Things got a little bit for better after that Notre Dame game, but only after they got a little worse. The Michigan defense got shelled at home against UMass and at Indiana, then later putting out poor performances against MSU and Iowa. Cam then was moved to the "spur" position, which, even if you didn't fully understand its schematic meaning, was understood to be a good thing because it meant that Cam would typically be operating closer to the LOS.
This worked out alright for Cam, but it didn't have any noticeable effect on the Michigan defense at a macro level. It was simply moving one piece that obviously didn't make sense (i.e. Cam at safety) to a place where it maybe made a little more sense (i.e. Cam as a hybrid safety-linebacker). That doesn't mean that this change yielded quality play, although it did, at times, appear that Cam was more comfortable in his new role than he was before.
Cam moved from wideout to safety before the 2010 season, only to move from safety/spur to OLB before last season. Cam appeared to be all set to continue to improve as a player, set to begin the 2011 season as the starter at the strong side linebacker position (no more "spur," no more confusion). Finally, Cam and the rest of the defense would be receiving quality defensive coaching, and 2011 was going to be Cam's third year in the program. Unfortunately, a back injury sidelined Cam for over the first month of the season, during which time Jake Ryan took his spot.
It's a tough way to lose your spot, but it's not as if all is lost: Michigan will still need Cam to contribute going forward. As great as Jake Ryan was, Michigan cannot continue to rely on iron man performances from guys like Jake Ryan, Mike Martin, and RVB as they did last season. It's just not a tenable strategy, as any of the best defensive teams in the country will show. Teams like Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Penn State, USC, etc.--and yes, Michigan not too long ago--have always been able to roll out at least one guy at a given defensive position. Although the SLB spot is Jake Ryan's to lose, Cam will not only see the field on special teams, he will get some key snaps backing Ryan up.
As much as it stinks for a guy to lose his spot due to injury, the fact of the matter is that Cam is not a starter now that Jake Ryan has established himself as of the emerging stars of the Michigan defense. Cam sort of fell off the face off the earth last season, even after he had returned from injury. I still find it kind of odd that he didn't get much play on defense at all, not even in backup duty.
Luckily, Cam seems like the type to take it in stride and work harder in order to improve his chances of getting on the field. If you need to be convinced of the importance of depth, here's the defensive mastermind himself, Greg Mattison:
I'm really excited about (Gordon) because Jake really never came off the field last year. He truly played almost every snap of every game. Now, it allows you to (have) a very, very good player that can complement him.
Making statistical predictions for a backup SLB is somewhat of a pointless exercise, but I'll state the obvious: Cam will definitely have a much bigger role than he did in 2011, which is not unlike saying that Gheorge Muresan is taller than that blade of grass over there. If anything, Cam is representative of the overall defensive zeitgeist, which includes: a) having depth on defense and b) having quality depth. Juxtaposed with the sad point in time when Cam was forced into duty at safety as a redshirt freshman and converted wide receiver, things on the defensive side of the ball are looking much better these days in Ann Arbor.