Going into the 2009 season there are three positions on the Michigan Defense that are causing a great amount of concern among the Michigan faithful. Cornerback. Safety. Defensive Tackle. All three of these positions have highly touted players starting for the Wolverines. All three of these positions are also an injury away from becoming an aneurysm inducing mess. In an effort to assuage those fears (or stoke them like coals in a furnace) we'll be taking a look at Michigan Football's positions of need, the quality in place, the replacements on the way, and recruits that hopefully will carry the load for Michigan going forward.
If you're looking for an iconic photograph that basically encapsulates how Michigan fan feels about Michigan Football, you really need to look no further than the aftermath of Alan Branch planting Anthony Morreli in 2006.
The end of Times, via www.thewolverineblog.com
It's all there. Strength. Power. Devastation. Arrogance. This photo sums up both the expectations and historical results of Michigan Football. So, as emblematic as the Corner position has become for Michigan over the past couple of decades, Defensive Tackle may be a more apt symbol. Will Carr, Rob Renes, Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Terrance Taylor, and the lot. Just like Michigan's football seasons, they've run the gambit from overachievers, to underachievers, to just what you'd expect, good or bad. If you're looking for a positional representation of Michigan's Football fortunes, look no further than Defensive Tackle.
Along those lines, the last two years have been down ones at Defensive Tackle. The talent was certainly there in the forms of Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson and Mike Martin. Unfortunately the results (save Martin) haven't been. Taylor was projected to be a second round pick in 2007, came back to a revamped (totally screwy) defense and wound up dropping into the fourth round after a disappointing senior season. Will Johnson, despite being one of the strongest guys on the team, never lived up to his billing. As a result, teams ran all over Michigan. Now you can't pin the failure of the run defense on these two guys. But the reality is they were serviceable at best for most of the year, with the occasional flash of brilliance. Regarding Martin, it appears he's got star written all over him. But that's easy to say when you're coming off the bench fresh mid game rather than starting.
While game play at the Defensive Tackle position has been adequate, it's impossible to classify Michigan's recruiting at this position as anything better. When you think about the spectacular flame out of Marques Slocum; the underdevelopment Renaldo Sagesse and Jason Kates (transfer); and the fact that we've moved Vince Helmuth from fullback to DT, well, you start to wonder what the hell is going on.
Defensive Tackle has been such a frustrating recruiting slot that John Ferrara, a DT recruit, is now on the opposite side of the ball as an Offensive Guard! I mean how screwy do things have to be when you move a player to a position of need, and his former position becomes the most dire on the team? However you want to read it, with the graduations of Taylor and Johnson Michigan was down to one starter worthy player, a handful of guys whom we really have no idea whether they'll provide any serviceable time, a converted fullback, and an all-star freshman in the mold of Terrence Taylor. In a word: Yikes.
The DT position wasn't supposed to be this dire heading into 2009. Michigan had all but inked a pair of highly rated DTs to the 2009 class in Pearlie Graves and DeQuinta Jones to go along with uber-recruit Will Campbell. Unfortunately, as the weeks leading up to national signing day unfolded, Michigan lost both Jones and Graves to last minute defections. This left only Campbell to fill what was suddenly a cavernous DT void. This isn't to suggest either Jones or Graves would be contesting for starting time, but a couple of extra bodies in the middle would come in real handy this year, ready or not.
So where does that leave Michigan heading into 2009? Surprisingly adequate, but an injury away from a serious, serious problem. Greg Robinson's transition to the 3-4 Deathbacker defense takes some of the pressure off the middle of the line in terms of numbers. Michigan won't need to prance out both of its best DTs on any one play unless Robinson switches to a more traditional 4-3 just to mess with the other team. Based on Robinson's track record, I don't see that happening... too often. The Deathbacker means that Mike Martin will start the season as Michigan's 1st team DT. Martin had a solid year as a freshman in 2008 and on several occasions outplayed his senior teammates. You might recall Martin doing this against Wisconsin:
Skip to 8:00. Courtesy of Wolverine Historian, of course.
Yeah. The kid can play.
Backing him up, though not confirmed, will likely be freshman Will Campbell. Campbell was an all-world recruit in the 2009 class who enrolled at Michigan early, despite rumors and a head fake toward LSU. The book on the kid is he is a monster in that Alan Branch mold... when he wants to be. The fear is Campbell is a lot like Terrance Taylor in that he was known to have lapses mid game, and take a play or two at 50%. Even so, he's a dominant style DT that absolutely throttled anyone who challenged him at the recruit camps or on the high school field. The key to Campbell, at least from what I've read, is when he's challenged he's a beast. When he's bored, meh. Still, a bored Campbell would start for all but the top 5% of college football teams, so it's hard to nit pick too much. But if Michigan can motivate this kid, Michigan will arguably have the two best DT's in the conference by the season's end.
The next player on the depth chart depends on who you talk to, when you talk to them. It could either be large, Biggie-lookin' Canadian Renaldo Sagesse or new to the position Vince Helmuth. My money's on seeing a bit of Sagesse this season. He's a monster, size-wise, at 6'5" 300+. Unfortunately, three years in, the kid hasn't cracked the starting rotation. He's been good enough to see the field, but not good enough to log appreciable minutes. It's hard to blame the kid for not taking the leap forward we'd like when you consider he's had a new position coach every year he's been at Michigan. But players step up, and Michigan needs Sagesse to do just that because after him things are more than dicey. Vince Helmuth, while more than talented, isn't a DT. He's a fullback playing DT, strike that, learning to play DT. Maybe in a year or so Helmuth can contribute, but I'm not holding my breath that he's going to be a difference maker anytime soon.
DT Recruiting for the 2010 class is at best, questionable. Michigan continues to pursue this year's all world DT prospect Sharrif Floyd of Philly. Floyd's been fairly tight lipped about where he'll end up, but Michigan hasn't really garnered a lot of press in his recruitment. Without the instate pull that Michigan had on Campbell, I'm not high on Floyd's prospects of ending up a Wolverine. Though it'd certainly help. After him are a plethora of prospects who don't seem to be decided one way or another.
Richard Ash 4* Pahokee, FL
Ricky Heimuli 4* Salt Lake City, UT
Mike Thornton 3* Stone Mountain, GA
Johnathon Hankins NR Detroit, MI (no offer/claims OSU offer) (3* Scout)
Michigan's best bet a DT appears to be with Ricky Heimuli. Heimuli stands 6'4", 280, and appears to be one of the risers in the recruiting process. Michigan offered him in early May, but that offer simply piled on top of an impressive sheet that lists 20 other offers (including USC, LSU and Oklahoma). While Heimuli is from Salt Lake and the cold might not be as big a turn off as it is for other recruits, he recently camped at USC and his mom liked USC. On the plus side, a recent Scout article said Michigan's history with LDS athletes help it stand out. So we've got a shot. TIFWIW.
After Heimuli, things aren't so rosy. Despite Michigan's connections at Pahokee, Ash appears to be looking at the Florida instate schools. If he goes out of state I'd be shocked. The only other DT in this class that's still available and actually holds a Michigan offer is Georgia DT Mike Thornton who received his offer this week. Thornton seems to have rocketed up the recruiting charts over the last few months and holds a number of offers from top tier BCS programs, including Georgia and Alabama. It's a little early on in Michigan's recruitment to get a picture as to whether Thornton's a legit candidate to accept, but you have to expect that other schools who've been on his trail for a while are in a better position than Michigan at this time. Finally, there's the curious case of Johnathon Hankins, a Detroit kid with an unrequited love of Michigan who can't seem to buy an offer from the Wolverine. Hankins camped, but didn't receive an offer apparently due to conditioning issues. Unless Michigan changes its mind, Hankins will probably end up at OSU or MSU. I'd list the remaining DT prospects, but none of them are holding Michigan offers, so it's the above guys or nothing.
So that's where Michigan stands. A position that really needs at least two 2010 commits, but realistically will only see one guy accept an offer. With Martin a sophomore, Campbell a freshman, and Sagesse still with two full years to live up to his potential, Michigan's in a not-bad, but not-good position. Going forward, unless Michigan pulls in another DT or two, it could get ugly. If Michigan lands a commit for 2010, start breathing again but don't relax. Two commits, breath easier. None? Panic Cloverfield style.
But for this year, Michigan's playing with two kids and one underachieving upperclassman. Only one player at DT has logged significant playing time. Even though Michigan's got talent at DT, an injury to either of the top two and it could be a rough year up the middle for Michigan.