Going into the 2011 season the major question marks lay in the back seven. How would a battered and bruised secondary, a unit that was bad in 2009 and that redefined bad the next year, respond to a new coaching staff? How would the linebacking corp, a unit almost totally devoid of any starting experience and depth, handle learning a new defense? Who, oh god who, would make a tackle if the ballcarrier made it five yards down field?
The one area that we could all breathe easy while discussing was the defensive line. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen returned for senior seasons and there was little doubt that both were -- even when beat up -- solid Big Ten linemen. They were joined by guys like Criag Roh, Jibreel Black, Will Heininger, and Will Campbell to fill out starting spots and provide a little depth here and there.
A year later the situation is completely reversed.
The secondary now looks to be the strength of the defense. JT Floyd turned into a serviceable corner and Blake Countess announced himself as potentially the next great Michigan corner. The safety duo of Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon put together the position's best season since 2006 (and possibly before). Even the linebackers stepped up as Jake Ryan grabbed ahold of the starting spot at SLB and looks to be a strong candidate to start for four years. Kenny Demens continued to do what Kenny Demens does -- just tackle people with unerring consistency. Even true freshman Desmond Morgan put together a solid season (with the expected amount of bonehead freshmen errors).
What about the defensive line?
Craig Roh and Jibreel Black return but in different positions than WDE. Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer will look to fill that role in 2012 after a promising freshman campaign. Meanwhile the Big Enigma, Will Campbell, will finally look to deliver on some of his substantial, but untouched recruiting hype. Because of the unknowns in Will Campbell and the previously WDE -- and now worryingly undersized -- Jibreel Black, the depth concerns at defensive tackle stand out.
There are a number of options of varying age and experince level, but as these things go, none are a sure thing.
Richard Ash is entering his third year in the program and is the main option on campus right now to spell Will Campbell when the big man is off the field. Ash is another Pahokee kid that came in as part of Rich Rodriguez's last full recruiting class. He had a very good offer sheet early in the recruitment cycle with Florida, Miami, and USC showing interest, but those offers dried up and Ash ended up committing to Michigan in December of 2009.
As for what we know about Richard Ash as a player...it isn't much (get ready to hear this a lot more before I finish this article). Ash spent his first year on campus as a redshirt, and saw limited game action -- three appearances as a backup NT -- in his second year. He has also struggled to maintain his weight early on and has spent time on the injured list. Practice reports out of spring weren't overly positive or negative. He was simply there and mostly solid but not the kind of solid that turn heads.
The elder statesman of the group is Quinton Washington, a redshirt junior that was once a promising high school recruit -- at offensive guard. Washington didn't do much on that side of the ball, failing to beat out guys like Patrick Omameh and Mark Huyge early on in his career. Late in his second year he was part of the last great panic trade that Rich Rodriguez tried -- switching Washington to defense and moving Will Campbell to offense. When Brady Hoke and staff came in, Campbell moved back and Washington stayed put.
Washington's time on the field has primarily been as a special teams player thus far. When he has seen time at the 3-tech tackle spot in practice or garbage time he hasn't shown much. Washington has some physical skills (he was a top-ten guard prospect to both ESPN and Rivals) and at 6'4 300lbs he has the size to hold up at the 3-tech -- something Black has yet to show. However, entering year four it would seem that Washington's ceiling as a player is pretty firmly established: if he becomes a solid bench contributor and a reliable special teams player, it will be a positive for the team.
The other known quantity vying for time at 3-tech tackle is Kenny Wilkins, a redshirt sophomore out of Pennsylvania. Wilkins came in as a bit of a tweener between the line and linebacker, then he blew up. Not that way. He put on a bunch of weight and eventually slid from defensive end to 3-tech tackle. Still, his 280lbs probably signal a cross between A) "hey we need bodies on the interior" and B) "adding forty pounds after high school had an adverse effect on his athleticism, lets slide him inside". Wilkins made an appearance in the 2011 spring game getting stoned by walk-on linemen. He didn't register any game action in 2011.
So, pretty scary, right? There is good news: that isn't the extent of the options.
The bad news is, those other options are freshmen.
The first, and most likely to play is five-star mammoth, Ondre Pipkins. Pee Wee, as he is called was perhaps the biggest riser that Michigan picked up last year. He started the summer as a three-star-type and after a couple strong camp appearances and a solid showing at the Army All-American game, he ended up a high four- to five-star type. You want your savior? He just got to campus (and was immediately put on a diet).
Now, Pipkins is certainly big enough and strong enough to see early playing time. He stood out in the Army AA game, so much so that Rivals analyst Mike Farrell called him out by name:
Q: Who was the most pleasant surprise to you during either Army Bowl Week or Under Armour Week?
A: DT Ondre Pipkins heading to Michigan. He was impressive in size, he was so athletic for a big man that it blew me away and he was such a nice, high character kid as well. I haven't seen a defensive tackle that big with the ability to move like that since Haloti Ngata years and years ago.
However, Pipkins was not an early enrollee and his first two games will be against A) Alabama and B) A team that runs the triple option (Air Force). If Pipkins plays significant time in those two contests and you don't have a heart attack, then it is okay to start getting excited about him.
Flanking Pipkins as potential back ups at the 3-tech spot are fellow freshmen Matt Godin, Chris Wormley, and Willie Henry.
Now, Matt Godin probably has the best shot of all three to crack the lineup as a true freshman. Godin is a big kid, solid athlete, and already pretty technically sound for an interior lineman. Tremendous has been high on Godin for a while and he seems likely Godin gets a serious look next to Washington if the elder DT struggles.
The other two options -- Wormley and Henry -- are projects. Henry has always been pegged as more of a project, while Wormley is going to start his career at the 5-tech spot and only slide down if his weight and skill set dictate.
The best case scenario for the unit is a combination of Pipkins coming in and living up to his billing while Richard Ash finally gets his weight under control. That would keep Michigan fresh at the NT spot and allow Michigan to clog the middle with multiple 300lb-ers. This would also take some of the pressure off Quinton Washington and Kenny Wilkins and relieve Matt Godin from having to step into too big a role early.
The worst case scenario is that Ash is still just a guy and Pipkins comes in just like a lot of freshmen DTs: not ready for a major role. If this is the case then It'll be all Michigan can do to keep the NT held down (especially given that we don't know what to expect of Will Campbell). That will mean that Jibreel Black will have to play even more unless Washington or Wilkins proves to be a reliable back up.
The likely outcome will probably be somewhere in between. Ash is entering his third year and finally seems to have a little positive momentum building in his career. Pipkins already has the tools to be a situational contributor, and that should be enough to help shore up a little depth on the inside. Between Kenny Wilkins and Quinton Washington, plus freshman contributions, Michigan should be able to solidly back up Jibreel Black provided he plays solid and injury free.
Whatever happens, the fate of Michigan's defense largely rests on the shoulders of the defensive line. If Michigan can't find solid depth, it is going to be a loooooong season -- especially on third and short.