Desmond Morgan (left), Kenny Demens (right) and the rest of the linebackers should play more consistently with a year of experience under Greg Mattison (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
2012 Michigan Season Preview* WR's and TE's
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line
For the first time in a long time Michigan returns an entire defensive back seven that is both experienced and talented. This includes the linebacker core, which shows promise across the board and is expected to improve upon a good but not great showing in 2011. Although much of the play of linebackers depends on the interior defensive lineman, and Michigan loses both interior starters, this group should make up for it by playing more confidently in a scheme they were once unfamiliar with.
Strong Side LB (SAM)
Starter: Jake Ryan (RS So.) 6'3", 242
Backups: Cameron Gordon (RS Jr.) 6'3", 236
Some might consider the MIKE group to be the best of the bunch, but I vote for the SAM spot. Not only does it have the linebacker with one of the highest ceilings, it has a backup who's very capable of starting.
Jake Ryan, a player with great potential for a breakout year, returns after a year in which he flashed both youth and playmaking ability. He locked down the starting spot in 2011 because of his slashing skills and a knack to make tackles for loss, and even though he struggled with outside leverage at times he improved during the course of the year.
This season will be Ryan's time. He showed up to camp looking thicker and stronger, and will certainly start for the entirety of the season should he stay healthy. The extra twelve pounds he put on over the off season should help him in defeating blockers and setting the edge, and could also allow him to put his hand in the dirt at WDE if Frank Clark never returns. Having two spring camps and an entire season under his belt means he'll now be playing with more confidence. Players who go from unfamiliar to familiar with schemes tend to play much faster, and Ryan is no exception. Expect him to be a major help in the run game and a minor contributor in rushing the quarterback.
The backup, Cam Gordon, doesn't have the same upfield burst as Ryan but will still be utilized. Coming out of high school many thought he had the potential to be a head-busting linebacker, and after a failed attempt at safety during the Rich Rodriguez era he was thought to be penciled in at SAM last season until he suffered a back injury. The athleticism is there and so is the familiarity with the system, so if it weren't for a youthful Ryan stealing the limelight we could easily be talking about him as a starter. Michigan could do much worse at the backup SAM spot.
Grade: B+ (Starter A-, backup B)
Middle LB (MIKE)
Starter: Kenny Demens (RS Sr.) 6'1", 242
Michigan is strong at MIKE because of its experience and promising youth. The oldest of the group, Kenny Demens, is also the starter. Last season was an up and down kind of year for Demens, who struggled for no particular reason in some games while countering the lows with games full of tackles and an uncanny ability to cover the deep middle.
Things should balance out for Demens in 2012. He has dropped some weight from his compact body, and a leaner body means a quicker body. On top of that he should play the entire season with the consistency that he ended the season with. I said that Jake Ryan will improve because of his grip on the system, and this applies even more to Demens. Middle linebacker is one of the most instinctual positions in football, if not the most, but a player can only rely purely on instincts after his scheme has become second nature. This is now the case for Demens, and I expect his tackle count to rise slightly.
The backups are intriguing. Joe Bolden is a player who still needs to get stronger but is too talented to keep off of the field. He will see time in goal line situations or if Demens needs to be taken off of the field, and should develop into an all-conference middle linebacker down the road. His instincts are great, as are his measurables, and he had a spring to get ahead of a freshman curve that many teammates said he was already ahead of.
Brandin Hawthorne saw some time at WILL last year before playing at the MIKE position in the spring game this off season. He's not going to wow anyone with physical tools but he has been making plays in the opportunities given, drawing praise from the coaches. If Demens goes down there's a possibility that Hawthorne gives Bolden a run for his money because of his experience. A former safety, Hawthorne demonstrated decent ball skills and instincts in the spring game and in small dosages in 2011.
Finally, Mike Jones is there in case something catastrophic happens. Jones is a former safety much like Brandin Hawthorne and saw spotty time early in 2011.
Grade: B (Starter A-, backups C+)
Weak Side LB (WILL)
Starter: Desmond Morgan (So.) 6'1", 227
The WILL is by far Michigan's youngest linebacker spot and consequently its worst. That isn't to say that the WILL spot is an overall weak position, but it's definitely an area for improvement.
Starter Desmond Morgan returns after a solid freshman year. Morgan is a bit undersized and had trouble shedding blocks and making plays on the ball but possesses great football knowledge and a competitive edge. He showed signs of improvement against Illinois and beyond and will certainly play with more consistency in 2012 after a full year of coaching and practice. Playing as a freshman is difficult, but Morgan played for a reason and will develop into a consistent tackler at the WILL position.
Antonio Poole, a relative unknown, saw time in the spring game and has an advantage over Ringer and Ross because of the year he had to play in the scheme. Seeing plenty of snaps in the spring game, Poole is the biggest WILL linebacker Michigan has to offer and will look to beat Ringer and Ross out for the backup role.
Outside of Antonio Poole the backups are even younger than Morgan. Kaleb Ringer was a tackling machine in high school and is seen as an underrated recruit by some. Similar in stature to Morgan, he would have a similar season to Desmond's 2011 if he were to be forced to start. At worst he has risen close to the level of Poole and Ross, who was a more highly rated linebacker coming out of high school. At best he's second on the depth chart.
I hesitated to add James Ross to the list of backups as Brandin Hawthorne could very easily slide over and play if something were to happen to Morgan, meaning Ross is almost certainly going to redshirt. Still, he's the most naturally gifted WILL linebacker Michigan has and could impress enough over the remainder of the fall to push his way into the two-deep, leaving Ringer to redshirt.
Grade: B- (Starter B, backups C)
Overall the linebacker group is solid and improving. With three solidified starters returning within the same scheme the outlook for the year is good. Ryan has the potential to be a great player at SAM, Demens was good but had room to improve, and Morgan is a budding young linebacker who shows signs of being a very good starter.
Depth isn't great but it also isn't a major problem. Even if Morgan is injured Hawthorne and a plethora of young players can step in, and I have great faith in both Cameron Gordon and Joe Bolden (even if he's a freshman).
Grade: B (Starters B+, backups C+)