Brady Hoke has been steadfast in his insistence that Jake Ryan will be back by November of this year from the ACL injury that sidelined him this spring. That's all well and good, but what the hell will Michigan do until then?
Two years ago Ryan was a ball of fury slowly settling into becoming a consistent destroyer of worlds. Last year he became that consistent force and established himself as one of the Big Ten's best linebackers. Whether it was rushing the quarterback, holding the edge on power run plays, or playing defense against spread offenses out on an island in the slot, Ryan was continually able to make big impact plays and avoid mistakes that lead to big gains. He was the do everything force that Greg Mattison wants at the SAM linebacker spot.
Now he is gone and Michigan looks to replace him with three different players. The first is Cameron Gordon, whose long journey to this spot has seen him play just about everywhere else. However, given his hitting ability and athleticism, SAM linebacker seems like it should be a good fit. At 6'3 233lbs, Gordon is linebacker big with enough quickness and tackling ability to go sideline to sideline. However, as a point-of-attack run defender, he could be a liability on contain without showing great form and technique taking on blocks.
Thankfully, Michigan also moved Brennen Beyer from WDE back to SAM where he had spent some time early in his career. Beyer won't bring the same athleticism as Gordon, but he will be a better option to take on tight ends and tackles in the run game in short-yardage situations.
Finally, given that Ryan was such a usable force, be it against power run offenses, option teams, and spread passing outfits, Michigan will need to have another card up its sleeve for when teams look to spread the field wide. With Dymonte Thomas already showing well at the nickle corner spot in the spring, Michigan has yet another weapon to roll out when opposing offenses look to create mismatches. Thomas is still freshman small at 6'2 187 lbs, but he has the speed and athletic ability to make plays in space that his larger counterparts may not be able to make. If teams spread the field, Thomas could be the first one in and the SAM the first one to the bench.
While all of this is great, and the myriad of looks that Michigan can trot out should help ease the loss of Ryan, the real question is: how will Michigan be able to get similar production out of three players when it could depend on just one last year?
Having three players that hold different strengths gives Greg Mattison options, but it also has the effect of tipping his hand a bit and setting Michigan up for mismatches that weren't there a year ago when Jake Ryan was on the field and could do just about everything. While no combination of players can approximate the production of Jake Ryan, getting close would go a long way toward helping a defense that just lost its biggest playmaker for — at least — two-thirds of the season.