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Spring Practice Primer: Defense

All eyes on you, Will.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
All eyes on you, Will. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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Spring practice starts tomorrow and Michigan has a few questions to answer on either side of the ball. I decided to ask some of the Maize n Brew writers what they thought about the various position battles, underclassmen, and biggest questions facing the defense this spring. (Tomorrow will be offense.)

Here are their answers:

The defensive turnaround of 2011 was driven mainly by nearly dominant play by the defensive line. With Martin, Van Bergen, and Heininger all departing, what are you looking for in the spring game to comfort you about the future of this position group. Is there any player you expect to lock down a starting role --- especially on the interior of the line? What do you think we get from the enigma that is Will Campbell?

Jeff Contizano - I'll be interested to see how Craig Roh adjusts to playing at strongside defensive end instead of the weakside. He'll need to be strong at the point of attack, and if he keeps bulking up I think he'll do well there. Michigan really just needs to find some guys who can play a high level. Jibreel Black has good potential as an inside rusher at defensive tackle, and I guess the real question will be what will Will Campbell do? By all accounts he's been a beast in the weight room this off-season, but he needs to be so much more on the field if Michigan wants to field an elite defense.

DGDestroys - The popular way to describe the center of the offensive line is the 'anchor'. On the d-line, that player is the nose tackle. Although Michigan is bringing highly regard 5* NT Ondre Pipkins this summer, I'm really hoping that Richard Ash has a solid spring game that solidifies him as the starter. Although I expected Pipkins to be a huge contributor down the road, I think relying on him from day 1 would be a mistake. On his highlights, he still shows inconsistency. Some plays he launches low off the ball and rips his way into the backfield, the next he'll passively stand up and get pushed out of the play. I understand the coaches are good, but expecting them to turn him into a reliable asset within a month would be a tough challenge. With Jibreel Black and Craig Roh moving away from the weakside DE spot, I will also be keenly interested to see how Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer (a) have gained weight and (b) are able to stand up to the run. Clark showed lightning athleticism in last year's Sugar Bowl, and Beyer was a pass-rushing freak in high school, but they'll also need to play well at a higher weight if they want to be reliable options on the weakside. As far as Big Will goes; we've heard how well he's conditioned in the offseason, now let's see how that translates to the field. Will he be a more reliable, consistent player? Or will he settle for the same flashes he's shown over the past few years?

Holdin' the Rope - I'm not sure that the Spring Game can actually offer any real comfort vis-a-vis the DL situation, but it's pretty obvious that we're looking much better at the edges than we are up the middle. I don't need to tell you that this is a pretty huge problem given that our next opponent is a power running behemoth like Alabama, but we'll cross that bridge when we get there. With Beyer moving down to WDE and Roh flipping to SDE, and Frank Clark--off a strong finish to the 2011 season--challenging at the WDE spot, we should be solid on the edges. Roh's ability to handle his new responsibilities as a heavier player on the other side remains to be seen, but he's a pretty smart guy, not to mention a senior.

The interior, of course, is a much different story. Will Campbell showed flashes here and there last season of being a serviceable player, which may be disappointing if you're still desperately clinging to his 5-star rating out of high school as the primary basis for what to expect from him. It's still way too early to make any real predictions, but I'm simply looking for competence; another year of S&C and the coaching from Hoke, Mattison, and Montgomery should do wonders for his technique and ability to hold up as the large man that he is should be able to. Quinton Washington is also in the mix, and Jibreel Black is an interesting player who has been moved to the 3-tech position. Pipkins is not one of the guys who enrolled early, but I think we all know that he will have to play from the get go. I think we can probably expect mixed results from him throughout the first half of the season or so.

Zach Travis - I'll work my way inside out. At nose tackle I just want someone already on campus to show an ability to hold up. Mike Martin isn't walking through that door, and for this defense to be solid whoever slots at NT will have to at least be capable of holding the point of attack. Can that guy be RIchard Ash? Who knows, but I haven't heard much to sway my opinion either way. I am resigning myself to expecting Campbell to be "just a guy" in the hopes that he proves me wrong (which is just another way for me to expect great things from him and be proven wrong). The 3-tech spot at least has a few experienced guys (Black, Washington, Wilkins) so that position should get solid production. The 5-tech worries me mostly due to depth. Who play when Roh rests? It's either Rock, Brink, or true freshmen. Could be scary. I hope that at WDE we see Clark and Beyer show more consistency than last year. Too many times did one of them make me go "what is he doing?" Considering how little experience they had and much they will have now, I think this could be a relative bright spot. Overall I'd be happy to get a solid B out of the d-line next fall. That is in no way guaranteed.

Weakside linebacker was an issue all through last year. Who steps up and seizes the role this year or does a second year in the program solidify Desmond Morgan in the starting lineup?

Jeff - I think you'll see Morgan with the starting job in the fall, but I'd love to see a guy like Antonio Poole challenge him there. Morgan is solid in run support, but he was pretty bad in coverage and with his athleticism he's not really a terrific fit at WILL. Then again, there is a guy like James Ross who could come in and challenge in the fall, but he's a bit undersized and with Poole/Morgan both having a year on him I think he'll redshirt.

DG - In my opinion, Desmond Morgan is everything Mattison loves in a linebacker. He's a hard hitter, relentless worker, and a smart player. For the most part, he should be a reliable run defender and a smart player in coverage. But if Michigan wants an elite defense, they need an upgrade in athleticism. Morgan didn't often look like a freshman on the field last year-but his lack of athleticism was exposed on several occasions. In my opinion, the coaching staff will likely give Morgan the starting fault, but give players like RS FR Antonio Poole and SR Brandin Hawthorne every shot to earn it away from Morgan with their superior athleticism. While I think Poole could pose a real threat (his offseason weight gains will be very interesting), I think Ross probably provides the biggest threat to Morgan.

HtR - I really liked Morgan's play at times last season, and everyone would do well to remember that he was just a freshman. From everything that I've read, Joe Bolden seems to be a prime candidate for early playing time of the linebackers in the last class (especially since he did enroll early). With that said, I have a hard time seeing Morgan not starting Week 1. Morgan might not be the most athletic guy out there, but, again, another year of S&C and top notch defensive coaching will do wonders for him, more so than any other player save perhaps Will Campbell.

Zach - I originally figured everyone would answer "JOE BOLDEN!!!!!" but that is before I heard rumblings that Kenny Demens' job might be under fire. I still think Demens holds it, but I could see Morgan sliding over to the MLB spot and Bolden sliding in. I'd love to see Ross make a move, but I think he needs a year before he goes HAM. I guess I have to say that Morgan seems like one of the ILB starters to me. How Demens and Poole/Bolden play will influence where Morgan lines up.

Are you worried about depth in the secondary?

Jeff - Not at all. At cornerback you have one senior, one junior, and a bunch of sophomores. At free safety, there should be good competition with Thomas Gordon returning, and Josh Furman, Marvin Robinson, and early enrollee Jarrod Wilson. I am worried about how the secondary will fare if Jordan Kovacs is injured for a long period of time. Dude is just such a gamer, and he really is the quarterback of the secondary.

In reality we just need to see improvement from Gordon and Countess. Both flashed great potential but struggled near the end of 2011.

DG - At cornerback, I am the most comfortable I have been in years. Michigan will likely retain its duo from last year, Blake Countess and JT Floyd, as the starting pair for this year, but give younger players like Taylor or Hollowell every chance to take the spot. Avery could also provide a challenge to the 2 incumbents, as well as Richardson in the summer. Competition breeds superior performance. Strong safety, as well, will be comfortably manned by a RS SR Jordan Kovacs, who will be pressured by Marvin Robinson and perhaps Tamani Carter. At FS, I'm still a bit concerned. As I've said in the past, Thomas Gordon is not athletic enough to be a true, roaming, coverage FS. It will be interesting to see if Josh Furman can make a serious bid for playing time, or if Jarrod Wilson can grasp the concepts and gain enough weight to make a stake before fall practices start.

HtR - Secondary depth is a worry for likely every team in college football save Alabama and maybe a couple others. It's simply unreasonable to expect to have more than about 3 competent to above average corners at once (and, likewise, more than 3 such safeties). I feel pretty good about a starting pair of Floyd and Countess on the outside, with Avery coming in as a nickel. I was pretty excited to see Avery build on his freshman campaign last season, so much so that I thought he would be a breakout guy in 2011. Alas, that didn't really happen, but that doesn't mean he can't and won't be a very solid 3rd option in the case of injury (knock on wood) and obvious passing situations. Raymon Taylor is also a guy that got some time early in the season, and I really think that he is, in standard Hokespeak, a "guy who can do some things" for us. At safety, Kovacs and Gordon are obviously as rock solid a pair of starting safeties as we've had in some time, but neither can get hurt or we are in trouble. Losing Carvin Johnson hurt, as I'm not too comfortable with the other options, which are: Marvin Robinson, Josh Furman, and the incoming 2012 safeties, Jarrod Wilson (who enrolled early) and Jeremy Clark. Worried about corner? Not so much? Safety? After the starters, yes, very much so.

Zach - Yes (obviously since I wrote the question) but it probably has more to do with me being like a shell-shocked WWII vet returning home and jumping every time he hears a car backfire. Last year was solid, but it always felt like it was cobbled together. Without a stellar defensive line to do most of the dirty work I think the secondary gets exposed a bit more. Mostly that problem will come at safety where I still don't know what to expect out of the backups.

Last year Jake Ryan was the player coming off a redshirt that made a big impact. What member of the 2011 recruiting class that hasn't done much yet do you expect to step up big in his second year on campus?

Jeff - As I mentioned before Antonio Poole could be a big time player at LB, but I think Michigan could use some help from a defensive linemen or two. Chris Rock and Keith Heitzman could both be in the rotation on the D-Line if they perform well this spring. And with the losses that you mentioned before up front, Michigan really needs some help there ASAP.

DG - On defense, the RS FR with the most serious potential for impact has to be Antonio Poole, a weakside linebacker. He wasn't heavy enough last year, so he was redshirted, but word out of practice was mostly positive. I think Poole, provided he added substantial weight, could be a real threat to Morgan's stake at the WLB position. He's a very quick player that does a tremendous job cutting through traffic and getting to the ball carrier. I'm hoping he'll get significant playing time during the Spring Game, so we can't get a handle for the progress made during his redshirt year.

HtR - He did get a little playing time early in the season last year (and throughout the year on special teams) but as I already said, Raymon Taylor is a guy who I'm interested to see develop this year. He looked like a freshman in his brief playing time last year, but I think he's got the wheels to be an effective situational player, maybe as a blitzing Brandon Harrison type.

Zach - I think someone young steps up in the secondary. I don't know if it will be Raymon Taylor or incoming freshman Jarrod Wilson, but I think one of those two breaks into the two-deep early due to lack of bodies and experience. By the end of the year I wouldn't be surprised to see either getting serious playing time.

What is the one thing you will be looking for from the defense this spring?

Jeff - I think the spring is a great time to get the young guys a chance to play and see how they perform. Marvin Robinson, Josh Furman, Poole, Joe Bolden, Kaleb Ringer, Rock- there are so many young talents that need to be coached up. Michigan's coaches did a great job of rotating the two-deep last season, and I expect that to continue.

DG - During the spring, my hope is that the defense will show progress. I hope Richard Ash will prove that he's taken well to coaching, I hope that Frank Clark becomes a pass-rushing terror, and I hope that BWC has finally put it all together. We saw several small successes in player development over the course of last year, but after a full year under the helm, will the coaches finally be able to get something out of some of the projects like Josh Furman, Cam Gordon, Marvin Robinson, Kenny Wilkins, or Quinton Washington? Several of these players are nearing a make-or-break point in their career, where significant strides need to be made quickly, or they could be left hanging out to dry when some of the freshmen and underclassmen get onto campus and stake their claims in the depth chart.

HtR - It's a pretty boring answer, but it's basically the only one you can have to this question. I'm looking for the basics: tackling and technique. The offense will likely be as vanilla as it was in last year's game, so all you can really ask for is the defensive line to not get blown off the ball when they know the run is coming and for tackles to be made when they need to be made. Even when they're not made immediately, you always want to see multiple hats near the ball. I'll mostly be looking to see how Campbell, Black, and to a much lesser extent Roh hold up against the run, particularly since the offensive line will be looking to replace some starters itself and will thus be trotting out some different combinations.

Zach - I expect that the offense will be good. There is enough carry over that even running a pretty bland playbook the offense should execute well (unlike last year). Therefore, I want to see the defense at least in position to make plays (MAKE PLAYS!). If the defensive line gets put on skates, the linebackers do their best Obi Ezeh impression, and the secondary falls for All The Pump Fakes then it could foreshadow a serious defensive regression. I don't expect it, but man, it's been a long few years. I'm just not ready to trust again.