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MnB will break down the 2013 roster by previewing an offensive group every Tuesday and a defensive group every Thursday. Today we take a look at another young, promising group: the inside linebackers.
Michigan's inside linebacker play has been as inconsistent as any other position since the retirement of Lloyd Carr, and even before Carr retired the men on the inside looked lost at times. Play on the inside has picked up significantly since Hoke and Mattison came to town, thanks to everyone becoming Ray Lewis.
Greg Mattison: Ben, we'd love to have you at the University of Michigan. The academics, the tradition, and the opportunity to be the next Ray Lewis all await you in Ann Arbor.
Ben Gedeon: One of those didn't seem to belong...
Greg Mattison: Jesus kid do you want me to mold you into the next great middle linebacker, or are you going to sit there and haggle me?
Ben Gedeon: I'd love to be the next Ray Lewis. Count on seeing me in Ann Arbor.
Greg Massiton: [Smirks] It's that easy.
Maybe that conversation is a bit dramatized, but somewhere along the line Greg Mattison is telling young linebacker prospects that they have an opportunity to do what Ray Lewis did: play in the National Football League. At one point Mattison had so many high-level linebackers ready to commit that that he had to start turning them away. Thanks to his recruiting efforts linebacker will be one of the deepest and most consistent positions on Michigan's roster.
The MIKEs (Middle inside)
Mike Jones (RS senior; 6'2", 226)
Jones is the lone senior of all the inside linebackers; he's at least two years ahead of every other inside linebacker. He was one of the many SS/LB tweener projects that Michigan took on years ago, and he hasn't panned out. He played some under the Rodriguez staff before being beat out by Kenny Demens, and hasn't done anything else despite the occasional mention during spring ball. He isn't a run-stuffing monster or a player who's going to diagnose a play before it begins, and he's nearly a lock to be Joe Bolden's backup. It just goes to show you that an offer to a safety who could become a linebacker is a wasted offer.
Joe Bolden (Sophomore; 6'3", 223)
Before the beginning of the 2012 season began Bolden was knocking heads together at the Under Armour All-American game. He climbed the national rankings after flashing natural instincts and a willingness to lower his shoulder between the tackles, also showing solid athleticism and burst to the line of scrimmage. He enrolled early to Michigan and immediately gave Kenny Demens a run for his money, eventually playing serious minutes in some games because of Demens' inconsistency. He played like a freshman at times, and looked like a player ready to push Demens aside for good at others.
Bolden is the heavy favorite to take over the starting spot at middle linebacker. One of the few knocks on him is his weight and brute strength; those issues should be fixed after an entire offseason devoted to weight training. His ceiling is very high and I expect him to make great strides this year under Mattison.
Royce Jenkins-Stone (Sophomore; 6'2", 213)
Somewhat of a linebacker vagabond in the eyes of Michigan fans, RJS will probably find a home at middle linebacker. Some considered him to be the heir to the SAM position during his recruitment, but after he committed and played in the Army All-American game it became clear that he wasn't tall enough or long enough to be a true strong side linebacker. Still, Royce was rated highly by all of the recruiting sites because of his speed, strength and ability to bring down ball carriers in the backfield. He's slightly more explosive than Joe Bolden and could be used in blitz packages if he can't find minutes as Bolden's backup.
The WILLs (Weak inside)
Desmond Morgan (Junior; 6'0", 227)
Once considered a reach offer that many Wolverine fans complained about, Morgan has done a nice job of playing above his rating in college. He has played and started at weak side linebacker for two years now and is the favorite to remain the starter, although he'll have to hold off a host of legitimate competitors to do so. Morgan isn't an elite athlete, but is an above average athlete who has improved steadily in his two years at Michigan. A head injury last season caused him to sit out and watch as James Ross played, which lead to speculation that Morgan could be supplanted come 2013.
Antonio Poole (RS sophomore; 6'2", 224)
Poole was a three-star linebacker coming our of high school who some thought could be a sleeper at linebacker, and after redshirting and being injured for another year he's ready to battle for playing time. [I got lazy here the first time I wrote this. I did so at 4am while on flu meds so give me a break.]
James Ross III (Sophomore; 6'0", 225)
If anyone is going to take the starting spot away from Morgan it's going to be Ross. He rated as a consensus four-star linebacker coming out of high school, and he played like a four-star linebacker should during his freshman campaign. He took a few minutes away from Morgan when the linebackers were playing poorly, then played admirably when Morgan was out with a head injury. He had 6 tackles against Northwestern before accumulating 12 against Iowa, causing many to type some form of the words "James Ross is going to be good" on Twitter. His combination of acceleration, instincts and tackling ability could make him very good.
Ben Gedeon (Freshman; 6'3", 215)
Gedeon is yet another highly-rated linebacker coming out of high school, as he too was rated as a four-star prospect by every major scouting service. He brings decent size to the WILL position to go with great burst and decent instincts, and although he'll sit for a while waiting for others to graduate he'll make noise when he sees the field.
Kaleb Ringer (RS freshman; 6'1", 231)
Ringer is the younger brother of former Michigan State star running back Javon Ringer. Kaleb wasn't a consensus four-star coming out of high school, but many watched his film and saw another James Ross because of his instincts and burst. He suffered an injury early in the year that forced him to redshirt; if that doesn't happen we're probably talking about him instead of James Ross at this point, as Ringer enrolled early for spring practice and took an early lead on the other youngsters. Ringer is capable of battling with Ross and Morgan for playing time.
This group is one of the youngest groups on the roster, but is also one of the most talented. The MIKE group will field two players who were both chased by programs like Ohio State and Alabama. The WILL group has not one, not two, but three highly-rated youngsters looking to steal minutes from a proven junior.
Who starts? The MIKE position is obvious: Joe Bolden. I loved his high school film, but when I saw him play in the Under Armour game I saw just how good this kid could be. He stole playing time from a legitimate starter in Kenny Demens, and now he's the clear leader of the middle inside linebackers. Bolden is taller, more explosive and just as intelligent as any MIKE Michigan has had in years, and I expect him to take steps toward stardom by the end of 2013. Inconsistent play might mark up the beginning of his year, but Mattison will have him playing solid football by the end of the season. He'll be a star by 2014 and be backed up by a great talent in Royce Jenkins-Stone.
The WILL position is much less clear. Desmond Morgan returns from a year that saw him lose minutes and get injured, and he doesn't have the same physical abilities as his competition. He remains the favorite to be the starter in 2013, but there's a real chance that James Ross steals the limelight and never gives it back. Ross is more gifted physically and would help to create a more athletic defense, which is something that staff has been trying to do since it came to Ann Arbor. Poole, Ringer and Gedeon also wait in the wings, and all three are capable of making an upward move on the depth chart. Expect Morgan to start the opener and Ross to start against Ohio State.
Overall, be happy that we have depth.
EDIT: Zach brought up an interesting point that I thought I could build on, so here goes. I tend to have the same opinion as people like Zach and Brian of MGoBlog when it comes to depth chart matters, but I disagree with them on the inside linebackers. Many Michigan fans believe that Desmond Morgan will slide to the MIKE spot and start beside James Ross at the WILL, and they have good reason to believe that will happen. Greg Mattison recently told the media that he sees the MIKE and WILL positions as interchangeable, meaning that Morgan and Ross technically both already know how to play the MIKE. Morgan has more game experience than both Ross and Bolden, but I still see him as the third option between the three of them. Morgan is an above average athlete with solid instincts, but he lacks the length and explosion to defeat blocks and is exposed in the open field every Saturday. This isn't an issue for either of Ross or Bolden, who are both more explosive than Morgan. Linebackers in their second year under a defensive coordinator like Greg Mattison tend to break out, and I believe we'll see Morgan watch Ross and Bolden do work from the bench.