This is the final installment of our week long series looking at the 2010 Michigan Football Team's Defense. What it comes down to when you look at this defense is that you're either an optimist or you're a pessimist. Don't sit there and tell me you're in the middle, because you're not. It's Kool Aid or Drano. But before you yell "Hey! KOOOO-LAID!" or reach for a coffee mug of Liquid Plumber, we're previewing the 2010 Michigan Defense. So let's sit down, look at what we lost, what we've kept, and what we're gaining this season before you open that office window to yell "Hallelujah!" or to jump out of it.
As you're probably aware, we've already talked about the Defensive Coaches, gone over the Michigan Secondary, and taken an indepth look at the Defensive Line. That leaves us with one defensive unit to go over, arguably the most panic inducing yet strangely talented group on the Michigan team, the Michigan Linebackers. [Ed. Note - I'm going to get some of the terminology wrong outside of middle linebacker, so please forgive me. feel free to offer corrections in the comments.]
The 2010 Michigan Defense, Linebackers
Out Going: Stevie Brown (#7DC - Oak). With Brown now plying his trade in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders, Michigan not only loses its leading tackler from 2009 but its best linebacker. Despite what can only be described as a difficult first three years at Michigan, Brown flourished under Greg Robinson's tutelage at the outside linebacker/spinner position. The difference between Brown in 2008 and and Brown in 2009 wasn't just an order of magnitude, it was like going from the creation of the wheel to jet propulsion in a single year. Perhaps I'm over stating things a bit, but it was hard to believe it was the same player from any point in his career to last year. Brown was the only member of Michigan's linebacking corps to seemingly understand his position, and the only one who consistently didn't take himself out of the play immediately following the snap. Even though Stevie wasn't going to win any national awards or become the next LaMarr Woodley at linebacker, he was incredibly consistent and steady last season and it will be difficult to replace him.
Incoming: Realizing how bare the cupboard had become at Linebacker, Coach Rodriguez set about restocking the pantry as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Michigan didn't come away with a surefire starting middle linebacker in this year's class. But Michigan did find some players who should become valuable contributors, if not stars, down the line.
The biggest name recruit to fit into a linebacking spot is Maryland RB/LB Josh Furman. Furman is one of those recruits I don't think people really knew what to do with. Furman racked up over 2,000 rushing yards as a tailback and soemthing like 30 plus touchdowns, all the while staring on defense at linebacker. Scout rated him the #7 safety in his class, while Rivals remained confused about where he fit in and slated him as a three star Athlete. Slight difference of opinion there. One thing that is not in question is Furman's wheels. At 6'3" 200 plus, Furman runs the Forty in (realistically) the 4.5 range. That's pretty friggin good. While the recruiting services drool all over his potential, there are some issues (tackling, gap responsibility) that will take a while to sort themselves out. Furman could be a star or he could take a long time to develop. It's impossible to tell. Judging from his film and the scuttlebutt around him, Furman will be slated at the "spur" Stevie Brown Memorial Career Saving Position or weakside linebacker. No word as to whether he can actually play MIKE, but lord knows there's a chance he could find himself on the field if things don't improve dramatically for the squad.
Next on the list is the towering Davion Rogers. At 6'6" Rogers is the tallest Michigan recruit in the class. It'd be one thing if he was an offensive Lineman, but he weighs in at 205 pounds and plays linebacker. Be that as it may, like Furman, this kid can fly (and no, that's not a Big Bird joke). Roger's senior year tape is basically him flying all over the place making tackles from the OLB position. Despite some nice film and obvious athleticism, when you're 6'6" 205 pounds there are legitimate concerns that you many very well... er... die playing college football unless you add weight. That, mixed with confusion as where he'd play (DE/LB/even S) and an early commitment to WVU, kept him pegged as a consensus three star recruit (though Rivals [#28 OLB] likes him considerablymore that Scout [#108 OLB]). Rogers is going to need a lot of ice cream, pizza and weight room time before he sees the field, so look for him in 2013 as a redshirt sophomore at OLB and potentially DE if he really bulks up.
Then there's Jake Ryan. Ryan was a no name two star recruit out of one of Ohio's predominant football factories. The fact that is the case is strange to me when you consider Ryan was that team's starting middle linebacker. It's even stranger when that kid is an ALL STATE selection in Ohio at middle linebacker. I dunno. People get paid to watch kids play sports and then report on them, I am not one of those people. When Ryan first signed with Michigan I was pretty excitedbased solely on the fact that Michigan had actually recruited a middle linebacker to play middle linebacker. he even played in the 3-3-5 in high school. But there's a hitch, there's always a hitch. Ryan does not at this time appear to be a high ceiling guy, nor does he appear to be the most gifted athlete in the world. Michigan was his only BCS offer and that was despite playing in Ohio's most covered high school program. He doesn't possess top end speed and didn't get his third star in either service until after he received his Michigan offer. Despite all of this, I think Ryan could be a good contributor for Michigan as early as this year. While he doesn't have Rogers' size or Furman's athleticism, he is a smart player who actually knows the linebacker position. That alone is an improvement over our past recruiting.
Stay the Same: The biggest returning talent in the linebacking corps is Craig Roh. Last season Roh earned freshman All-American honors and was legitimately becoming a satr on Michigan's depleted defense. Everyone expected the former US Army All American to be good, but his sudden and significant contribution to the defense was a bit of a surprise. This season Roh returns with the OLB/SLB/WhateverLB on complete lockdown. At this point, Roh will move around the defense in the LB/DE hybrid position alternatively stalking quarterbacks, running backs and the occasional tight end stupid enough to challenge him to a blocking contest. At this point Roh is arguably the second best player on Michigan's defense (behind Mike Martin), and I think everyone with an interest in Michigan football, and college football in general, projects him to have a big year now that he has 13 extra pounds and a year's experience under his belt.
Middle Linebacker Obi Ezeh and Outside Linebacker Jonas Mouton also return to the linebacking corps. As Doc Saturday points out, the duo "have been consistently singled out as the root of the [defensive problems] over the last two years." While that might not be necessarily be fair, the two seniors were not very good last year. Frankly, they were awful. Both were repeatedly cited for overpursuit, misdiagnosis of plays, and shoddy tackling. But both of them have shown signs of life during their careers and both of them are endowed with enough natural talent to be decent linebackers. Part of the issue at Linebacker was coaching. Over the last two years Ezeh and Mouton suffered under the blind leading the blind teaching of Jay Hopson, and it showed. This season they finally get a real linebackers coach in Greg Robinson. Another issue was injuries, Ezeh in particular suffered through a good portion of the season with an undisclosed back injury. But the off season seems to have been kind to both men. Both seems to have undergone physical transformations over the off season, with Troy Woolfolk saying both young men look like different people (added bulk and speed). We've gotten our hopes up before on these types of reports, so until they prove it on the field it's hard to get excited. Going into the season, they remain your incumbent starters.
I could probably have mentioned Mark Moundros in the Incoming section, but since he's a senior and three year letter winner, I'll put him here. Moundros approach Rodriguez at the end of last season about switching to linebacker. Rodriguez told him they let him try it, but would most likely move him back when the infatuation wore off. It just never did. Moundros impressed the coaching staff to the point that he's being talked about as a potentially challenger for the starting middle linebacker slot. Mark's got plenty of natural ability and people rave about his game smarts, but I'd be shocked if he won the job. Watching him in the spring game, I got the impression Moundros might be a capable back up, but it's going to take a leap that I can't see anyone taking for him to go from fullback to starting MLB in one summer. Still, his intensity and dedication is something you have to love. Further, he willabsolutely push Ezeh and Mouton to be better players. He's just that kind of competitor.
While Moundros switch in the spring game was a surprise in the "wow, isn't he a fullback?" sense, the play of Kenny Demens was surprising in a "wow, that kid can play" sense. Of the linebackers on the field, Demens was easily one of the more impressive players. Demens was a highly recruited 4 star/3 star prospect out of Detroit Country Day, and was ranked as the #23 OLB by both services. Now a redshirt sophomore Kemens may be on the brink of blowing up. He's slated to compete with Moundros and Ezeh for the starting MLB slot.
Also returning is true junior J.B. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a former consensus four star recruit who is still looking to flash the promise of his recruiting rankings. Fitzgerald saw plenty of time last season at OLB/SLB but never really supplanted Mouton for the starting slot. This season, Fitzgerald is almost a lock to see ample time in relief of Mouton and possibly Ezeh should either falter. However, until J.B. truly breaks out and starts making plays, it's really difficult to project where he'll end up or how he'll play this season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise at the linebacking position last season was the Kevin Leach. Leach was an unheralded walkon who went from special teamer to starting middle linebacker by the end of last season. Part of this was due to injury and part of it was due to poor play of the aforementioned players, but the rest of it was because Leach is a fundamentally sound player. He's not fast. He's not really athletic. But he plays the position he's assigned to play. Basically a Michigan version of "Rudy". And no, Jordan Kovacs is not Rudy, Rudy barely played and didn't get freshman All-American honors. Leach stepped in for a game or so and promptly stepped back out when team realized you could simply throw over his head becasue he was over matched in coverage. Despite this, Leach turned in a more than impressive performance for a guy that was a walk on.
Providing needed depth are Isaiah Bell, Brandon Herron, and Mike Jones. Bell was a bit of a LB/S tweener coming into school, but now as redshirt freshman Bell has added a pile of weight and bulked up to 245! This is a 6'1" dude. If that's all muscle... holy hell... he could actually see some playing time. Herron is a little different story. The former 4 star/3 star redshirt Junior was slated to be the starting LB/DE hybrid in 2009 but quickly lost his slot to Craig Roh. At this point look for Herron to back Roh up, but not to play as significantly as last season. As for Jones, he played a little bit last season, but never seized any position away from a starter. The true sophomore could've used a red-shirt year, but lack of depth put him on the field far earlier than he should've. I see Jones contributing on special teams, but little else. Past that, we're getting into walkons that I really don't know anything about.
Kool-Aid or Liquid Plumber? Gack. Other the Roh it's impossible to know what to make of this group. Roh should have an outstanding sophomore season, but I can't really think of another linebacker that's shown any ability to be "special" player on this defense. Ezeh and Mouton were just awful last season, awful to the point that you have to believe it can only get better. Right? I tend to think that with Robinson as their coach and as seniors they'll bounce back and have adequate years. But that could be the Kool-Aid talking. Realistically, looking at this group with a cynical eye, you have to be petrified. Two seniors starters that digressed in each of their previous years. Highly rated backups that were beat out for the starting slot in the late season by a walkon, because they couldn't make tackles or play their assignments. A recruiting class that, at best, is likely two years away from contributing to the defense. These are things that will make you slam a Drano-Slushee.
With so little of what we presume to be Michigan's prodigious talent ready to contribute, I can easily see this unit only being a fraction better than it was last season. Worst case scenario, say Roh goes down (please don't say that), this unit could be much worse than last year. However, I do believe that Ezeh and Mouoton will improve. Both are healthy, both are seniors, both are in the same defense as a year ago, and both now have a real coach. I'm hopefully that some of the Michigan backups like Demens, Fitzgerald and Moundros can contribute meaningful minutes in a breather role, rather than as starters. If that's the case, Michigan should have an above average defense for the first time since 2006. However, if things don't improve even a little at linebacker, this defense is doomed.
Which way to the drain opener?