Michigan Football 2013 | For Better or Worse: Defensive Line

USA TODAY Sports

Michigan's defensive line has been one of the defense's strengths the last two years, and with depth finally filling out behind the starters and a couple interesting playmakers looking to take a step forward, this unit could be anywhere from good to scary good.

(Previously in this series: Linebackers, Secondary)

It shouldn't be a surprise by now that this coaching staff can have a large effect on the defensive linemen in the program. In year one Michigan rode it's experienced line to a total revival of the entire defense, one that included a dramatic improvement in just about every defensive statistic and metric. The GERG defenses were gone, replaced by Greg Mattison and the "Michigan defense". The Wolverines dedicated themselves to being a smashmouth, run stopping unit, and it paid off. Both Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen played the way many knew they could, but the big surprise was Will Heininger, a former walk-on and longtime reserve that nobody expected much out of. He went on to have a very good season and held up well. It was a harbinger of player development in the program.

Of course, graduation stripped Michigan of all three of those players, and a lack of depth left from the former staff meant that the Wolverines would need to get creative to fill those spots. There was the Will Campbell reclamation project (started basically the day after he arrived on campus but never really went anywhere until Hoke and Co. showed up), the fight for WDE snaps between two sophomores, and an interesting transition where Michigan's former options at WDE, Craig Roh and Jibreel Black, would shift to SDE and 3-tech defensive tackle.

When the season started, something new caught fans by surprise. Quinton Washington, a player most had assumed would flounder on the defensive line after a late position switch from offense under Rodriguez, emerged as the starting NT. Michigan's defensive line, a huge question mark coming into the season, was once again a solid unit capable of stuffing the run and holding up on third and short.

Now, Michigan once again has to replace two starters on the line, but with more depth and experience with which to do it, that proposition is less scary and more exciting. This unit has a big opportunity to step up, and a lot of bodies capable of providing the dynamics that Michigan has lacked recently (i.e. a pass rush).

Nose Tackle

Last year: Jr. Quinton Washington

This year: Sr. Quinton Washington

Mark it down: Quinton Washington will be your starter at NT this year. This is very much a good thing.

Washington caught a lot of people off guard a year ago when Michigan trotted him out against Alabama. There had been rumors swirling that he was getting time with the first team, but most of us had ourselves convinced once more of the Will Campbell hype to really listen. We were wrong.

Washington stepped in and played well for most of the year. He didn't show up on the stat sheet much, but that's not what NTs in a 4-3 under are supposed to do. What he did was eat blocks, keep linebackers clean, and hold the point of attack. Run defense, whether against spread or pro-style teams, is predicated on holding the line of scrimmage and controlling blockers so that A) the ball carrier goes where you want him to go and B) the defense's free hitter is kept free. Q was not Mike Martin -- the kind of athletic freak that forces a pitch on a speed option from the NT spot -- but he was what this defense needed in the middle. That is, a guy that makes everyone else's job easier.

Michigan will get snaps from a couple backups. First and foremost will be sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who showed up on the field at times as a freshman and provided some solid play. Another option could be Pipkins' classmate Willie Henry, a late 2012 recruit that was a bit of a sleeper but has garnered some praise in the spring thus far. Depth on the line:: Michigan has it.

Verdict: Slight upgrade

3-Tech DT

Last year: Sr. Will Campbell

This year: Sr. Jibreel Black

As last year taught us, this is tentative. Black was thought to be in line for the starting 3-tech job a year ago before Washington took over at NT and pushed the bigger Will Campbell over a spot. And that is really where the problem lies for Jibreel Black: he has the build of a defensive end. This is great when it comes to getting penetration from the interior of the line, but at 275 pounds, he is going to be giving up at least 10 pounds to most guards, if not 20 or 30. You can survive against blocking from a bigger player, but that size discrepancy has to be made up for with impeccable technique. Early returns on that are: good, but not quite.

Still, Black presents an interesting prospect on the inside. He is quick and athletic enough that he ranked third last year on the team in sacks (3.0) and was within one TFL from tying for third in that too (5.0). He also has a great deal of experience, having been a rotation player for the last three years, and having practiced at his current position all last year.

If Black isn't in there it will be one of a few second year players getting time. Willie Henry could slide over and get snaps at the position, as could redshirt freshman Chris Wormley, a promising young defensive lineman coming off a torn ACL last summer.

The uncertainty makes this position hard to grade. Black provides a steady starting option, albeit one that was too small to stick in the starting lineup a year ago and was used more as a situational player. His backups are second year players that come with a lot of promise but are, again, second year players. Although Michigan is only replacing the enigmatic Will Campbell -- a solid DT by the end of his career. The biggest thing this unit has going for it is that there are a couple talented but young players competing for the spot against an experienced senior. Whoever wins out will at least have earned the job.

Verdict: slight upgrade

Strongside (5-Tech) DE

Last year: Sr. Craig Roh

This year: RS-So.. Keith Heiztman

The last time Craig Roh wasn't a starter on Michigan's defense, Rich Rodriguez was finishing his disastrous first year on campus and Denard Robinson wasn't even on the team.

Roh stepped into the starting lineup immediately at defensive end, next to Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and continued to start in some form or another for the next four years. There was the DE in the 3-3-5, then the hybrid linebacker position in the same scheme (which almost drove him to transfer, and I don't blame him), then WDE in Greg Mattison's 4-3 under defense, and finally SDE last year. All he is missing is a start at safety -- not out of the question; Greg Robinson once ran that defense -- and a couple snaps on offense. Fifty-one games. No one in maize and blue has started more.

And you don't start that long without being a damn fine football player. Roh probably didn't develop as much as he could have given all the positional and defensive changes he was forced to live through, but as he grew he became more and more of an all-Big Ten caliber defensive end. Strong against the run and capable of providing pass rush pressure, Roh wasn't ever the kind of edge rusher that could post double digit sack numbers in a season, but he was an integral part of Michigan's staunch run defense the last two years, and his shoes won't be easy to fill.

As of right now, smart money would be on redshirt sophomore Keith Heitzman to take over Roh's place in the starting lineup. Heitzman was a three-star recruit in Brady Hoke's first class, taken from Vanderbilt and made to bulk up for the defensive line. Bulk up he did, as he is now 6'3, 277 pounds, Heitzman has the look of a SDE. He emerged last season as Roh's primary backup, and while he didn't wow anyone with highlight reel plays, he provided the kind of steady presence you look for in a backup.

While Heitzman has the pole position for the starting lineup, both Tom Strobel and Matt Godin are coming off redshirt years and could provide competition for starting minutes. Odds are this battle isn't settled until fall camp, and even then the chances are good that at least two of these guys split playing time around 60/40. With the edge in experience, Heitzman looks to be the one to beat, but Roh will be one of the the toughest starters on the defense to replace.

Verdict: downgrade

Weakside DE

Last year: So. Brennan Beyer and Frank Clark

This year: Jr. Frank Clark

Step right up Mr. Clark, now is your time.

Frank Clark has been quite an interesting story so far in his Michigan career. He was the first player out of Cleveland's Glenville HS to commit to Michigan since Pierre Woods. Just 6'2, 210 pounds as a recruit, he was a bit of a wildcard coming into the class. As MGoBlog pointed out, Clark was mentioned at all sorts of positions, not really fitting into any one. A little too slow for safety or WR, too short for TE or DE, kinda linebacker sized but not really.

To be honest, I can't really project Clark anywhere. - Magnus, TTB

But athletically, Clark had something, and pretty soon we would get a taste of what that was. He didn't redshirt and got time both as a reserve DE and a special teams player as a true freshman. Still pretty small, he managed to turn heads in the Sugar Bowl with a spectacular interception, a TFL, and five total tackles. With shakeup on the defensive line coming that off season as Michigan lost three starters, Clark was assumed to be a big piece of the 2012 defense.

Of course that was before the legal problems that got him suspended for the opener against Alabama and nearly cost him his Michigan career. Clark would come back and start four games, appearing in all but the Nebraska game. There would once again be flashes of potential, but Clark never really seemed to have recovered from his off season turmoil. Brennan Beyer got the majority of the starts in 2012 and played solid at the position.

But once again, it is an off season and we all have Frank Clark on the brain. We have heard all the stories. How he has taken motivation from his legal trouble, that he is a physical freak that provides a tough match up for both Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield in practice, and that he was among the biggest weight gainers on the team, adding 15 pounds to his already chiseled frame.

And herein lies the key for Michigan making the jump from really good to great on defense. If Frank Clark delivers on the hype of the off season, and can provide the kind of pass rush threat from the DE spot that the Wolverines haven't seen since Brandon Graham was still wearing the winged helmet, this defense goes from good to scary good.

Will that happen? There is a lot of evidence that would make one think that it is a strong possibility. Clark has long been an exciting athlete. If he now has the size and mental maturity to match that, it could be a scary combination.

When he isn't on the field, we will most likely see sophomore Mario Ojemudia -- a situational rusher last year that has added some bulk -- or true freshman and early enrollee Taco Charlton, a player that already has the size and athleticism to make an impact somewhere. But still, Clark is the most important piece. Not only at WDE, but perhaps the whole defense.

Verdict: upgrade (slight or massive, won't know until fall)

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