ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 10: Cierre Wood #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tries to get around the tackle Desmond Morgan #44 of the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on September 10, 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
In the summer of 2010, Rich Rodriguez offered Desmond Morgan, a linebacker from Holland (MI) West Ottawa, and Morgan quickly committed to Michigan over Northwestern and a host of MAC schools. Morgan was under-the-radar for the big three recruiting sites, but they each eventually determined him to be a three-star -- probably fair considering his offer list and lack of major interest from regional recruiting powers. After Rodriguez was fired, Brady Hoke and the new coaching staff decided to keep Morgan's commitment.
There was a fair bit of excitement about Morgan when he committed and as the recruiting cycle came to a close and commits were analyzed more closely. Most of the enthusiasm centered around his high school career -- Morgan wasn't only a standout linebacker but he also played quarterback during his senior season at West Ottawa.
General Excitement Level: Irrationally high. Most of the time I try to stick to offers and scouting reports and rankings when formulating this section but sometimes random three stars get me pumped up. Here we've got a punishing 225-pound coach's kid with excellent intelligence and enough athleticism to play quarterback. Everyone already moving him to fullback ... is doing him a disservice. Desmond Morgan is this year's MGoBlog Sleeper of the Year.
I understand why he's a 3-star kid. He's not a quick-twitch athlete. He looks like the type of player who will fill out to be about 245 lbs., plug his gap, make a bunch of tackles, contribute as a blocker or wedge buster on special teams, and just be a solid overall player. I would expect that he will redshirt in 2011 and spend another year or so on the bench before really pushing for playing time (Kenny Demens runs out of eligibility after 2012). I'm not expecting Morgan to win the Butkus Award, but I'm looking forward to him putting on a winged helmet. Between Morgan and fellow Class of 2011 defender Kellen Jones, the Wolverines are putting together a solid crew of linebackers.
During his senior season, Morgan was already at 6'1" and 225 lbs, so he did have the size to play right away. Still, he wasn't quite quick enough and didn't have the type of elite athleticism to be more highly rated by the recruiting services. Almost everyone predicted that he'd play MIKE linebacker in college -- understandable, seeing as how his best assets were his size, hitting ability, and instincts (and on the other side, his biggest weakness was his quickness -- but there was some speculation about moving him to fullback in the future.
I saw Morgan play in high school -- his school was a conference rival of mine -- and, even though he was apparently nursing a shoulder injury and didn't play linebacker in the game, he still played quarterback. The biggest things that stood out to me were his size and strength: the Panthers didn't have to throw the ball much, if at all, because their offense basically consisted of "run Morgan off tackle left, run Morgan off tackle right, and run Morgan up the middle." They also had a speedy running back to keep the defense honest with sweeps to the outside, and they did throw the ball every once in a while, but essentially Morgan was a battering ram -- even though he was on the other side of the tackle, he still delivered a blow and fell forward on nearly every play. It was impressive and slightly bizarre, but it was certainly striking to see him be so much bigger and so much more physical than pretty much anyone else on the field.
As fall camp approached and there was general fluff across the board, there was one mention of Des Morgan from a mainstream media outlet: Howard Griffith of the Big Ten Network specifically pointed out Morgan as a freshman who could make an early impact when the BTN crew was on campus for their preview series. There was one highlight of practice that featured Morgan -- with Fort Schembechler back in place, footage from practice was extremely elusive to say the least -- and it showed him getting driven back by an anonymous, backup offensive lineman because he was too small. Griffith and all of the other fluff (there wasn't much) centered around how college-ready he was physically and mentally, but that size and strength advantage that the scouts saw when Morgan was in high school, that I saw, was gone. (That statement's pretty obvious, but it was still striking to see a player that was much bigger than everyone else to be tiny in comparison a few months later.
Surprisingly, Desmond Morgan managed to emerge from the logjam that was the WILL linebacker spot -- remember that most predicted that he'd play MIKE, but as he was a bit undersized, WILL seemed to be a better immediate option -- and started over the likes of Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones for 7 of the 12 games that he played in. He finished fifth on the team in tackles with 63 (four tackles for a loss) and, while part of that was due to where he played on the defense -- WILL linebackers tend to get a lot of tackles regardless of who they put in there -- he was still pretty solid in his play throughout the year. It was a surprise to see Morgan get a bit of playing time throughout the year and it was an even bigger surprise to see him win a starting spot, but that was certainly due to the lack of upperclassman talent at the position for the most part. Morgan was decent, definitely good for a true freshman, but there wasn't a whole lot more there.
As expected, Morgan's best asset was his tackling ability. He was a big hitter in his own right, and when he squared up properly to the ball-carrier he was able to deliver a de-cleater, but he was also fundamentally sound -- wrapping up and bringing his feet when he tackled. Usually big hitters, especially freshmen, struggle with making good, solid tackles and avoiding whiffing on big hits, but as I recall, Morgan didn't really have that problem. His main issues were pretty consistent with his scouting report: he wasn't quite fast enough to provide contain on outside runs, struggled a bit in coverage, and even though he was an instinctive player who was certainly precocious, he still had the standard struggle adapting to the speed and complexity of college offenses -- he had issues with pass coverage and misdirections. Still, a lot of his issues are correctable and there should be a leap heading into 2012.
Brian succinctly describes Morgan with his early look at the 2012 defense here:
WLB Desmond Morgan. Wrested the job away from a couple veterans once he got healthy, whereupon he was okay for a freshman; problems in coverage; problems with misdirection; a big chunk of Michigan's outside vulnerability; will either improve or see someone yoink his job.
That seems about fair -- Morgan should certainly be bigger and faster with a year of conditioning under his belt, but if he doesn't improve enough, his job could be up for grabs. Of the three returning starters at linebacker, Morgan probably has the most tenuous grasp on his starting spot -- even though Kenny Demens and Jake Ryan have promising backups behind them, they're pretty entrenched as starters. If Hawthorne puts it together, or if someone else emerges from the cast of young linebackers (James Ross could be interesting when he gets on campus), Morgan could be replaced. Still, I'd look for moderate improvement from Morgan as he develops into a pretty decent Big Ten starter, although if he gets replaced, Michigan would have a good starter at WILL anyways.