In the aftermath of the Sugar Bowl you would be excused from thinking too far ahead about What It All Meant. This was, after all, Michigan's first BCS bowl win in over a decade, the cap on an 11-2 debut season for Brady Hoke, and a remarkable moment in the careers of a group of seniors that had seen way more ups and downs than any group before them.
Those seniors included Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and watching those two perform in that game you could almost feel how much the opportunity meant to them. Time and time again the pair of defensive linemen made the kinds of key plays that kept Virginia Tech off balance and forced the Hokies to kick field goals instead of score touchdowns. The valiant effort of the two defensive linemen -- with little depth behind them because of injury -- was the difference in a game when the offense failed miserably for long stretches and Logan Thomas threw the ball effectively against the Michigan secondary.
So when you were living in the moment, soaking up the improbable win, you would have been excused for not looking at the depth chart for 2012, seeing the gigantic crater left in the place where the defensive line names once stood, and then crying at the thought of life without those two. But life goes on, and so too does football.
Nose Tackle (One-Tech)
Starter: William Campbell (Sr.) 6'5, 308lbs
And so the long road has come to the final stretch, and the end of William Campbell's career is now a spot on the horizon.
The journey thus far hasn't been what we expected. Campbell was the last major five-star recruit that Michigan brought in. It was the only time during the Rich Rodriguez years that Michigan topped Michigan State for the best defensive recruit in the state of Michigan, and he was ultimately supposed to be the next in a long line of mammoth tackles in the center of a dominant Michigan defense. Instead, Campbell saw his red shirt burned needlessly during his freshman year because of poor roster management, he failed to develop the technical abilities that allow defensive tackles to be successful at a position that routinely sees double teams from interior linemen, and he struggled with his weight and conditioning. He was, for the first two years on campus, unequivocally a bust.
Then Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison came to town and began to work with Campbell. While there was no rapid transformation, the 2011 season saw Campbell deliver some solid play in a reserve role behind Mike Martin. There were still missed plays and glimpses of still raw technique, but Campbell for the most part proved to be a serviceable backup for the first time in his career.
Naturally, this summer it has been all eyes on Campbell from start to finish. With Michigan seeing drastic turnover on the defensive line and Campbell being -- even as a third year player -- still viewed as an amorphous ball of recruiting hype and wasted talent, all anyone could talk about was what Campbell could do, you know, if...
The bad news is that it is too much to expect Campbell to have the kind of breakout year that everyone has been waiting for for the last three. He won't be an all-American or all-Big Ten. He won't make anyone forget about Mike Martin.
However, Campbell has slimmed down to the lowest weight of his career, he has spent the off season being praised by teammates and coaches for his work ethic and leadership, and he has a chance to finally be a solid Big Ten level starter. Given the events of the off season, it is reasonable to have modest expectations for Campbell as the starter inside. He should hold up well against the run, provide the occasional "wow" moment that makes you remember why you were so high on him in the first place, and then alternate that with a play where the center gets his pads under BWC and plants him firmly five yards away from the LOS. Such is life.
When Campbell isn't in the game it will be up to one of two yet untested players to step up.
The first is Richard Ash. The sophomore has yet to do much at Michigan, but he has the size to hold up on the inside, and was a well regarded recruit. He has gotten some praise so far in fall camp. The other -- and the player that Michigan fans are pinning their hopes on the most -- is five-star freshman Ondre Pipkins. Pipkins comes in with considerable recruiting hype, the size to make an early impact, and a surprising amount of athleticism (watch the army AA game clip to see him chase five-star WR Stefon Diggs down and force a fumble).
Pipkins was injured last week during practice, and his status in the short term is still up in the air. When he is healthy, Pipkins is an intriguing option on the inside, and a player that could have a major role as the year goes on.
The running theme at NT is one of untapped potential. Whether it be from the elder statesman of the group, Will Campbell, the heretofore unheard from Richard Ash, or the Next Big Thing, Ondre Pipkins.
If these players can find a groove and put together a solid season at the nose, Michigan's defense will have one of its major questions answered for 2012. As it stands, the talent is there for a solid season from these three, but the consistency will probably not reach the level required for greatness.
We miss you, Mike Martin.
Grade: B- (Starter B, backups C+)
Defensive Tackle (Three-Tech)
Starter: Jibreel Black (Jr.) 6'2, 279lbs
When you work down the list of who various players along the line are replacing, you'll eventually come to Jibreel Black, the former WDE and now 3-tech defensive tackle charged with replacing former walk-on Will Heininger in the starting lineup. You might snicker and say something about how Martin and Van Bergen are the much larger losses. You wouldn't be wrong, but you would also be doing Will Heininger a disservice.
Heininger may have been a walk on that nobody counted on for much going into the season, but he stepped into the starting lineup at the end of fall camp and put together a solid season at the 3-tech.
Now it is up to Jibreel Black to step into the same position despite being at least ten pounds too light for it, and hold up against a constant pounding of interior linemen.
Black spent the last two years playing behind Craig Roh at defensive end, and while he showed flashes of competence, he struggled against the run as a freshman.
Black's best hope at the 3-tech is to be the slashing, havoc causing type that occupies opposing backfields and makes life miserable for quarterbacks and running backs. He won't hold up well to double teams, but thankfully the position should see him presented with a number of single blocking matchups against guards. If Black can hold up in the run game, his athleticism should provide a spark in the pass rush department. He has already come in for praise on that end, at least according to Taylor Lewan who calls Black, "probably the most quick three-technique (lineman) you'll see in the Big Ten this year."
It will be a shift from what Heininger brought to the table last year, but with Black's athleticism he has a chance to make a serious contribution on the inside as long as he can hold up to the physical pounding.
His backup was the second piece in the 2010 Will Campbell Panic Position Switch that moved the defensive tackle to guard and moved the esrtwhile guard, Quinton Washington, to the defensive side of the ball. While Hoke eventually moved Campbell back to defense, Washington continues to provide depth on the inside. He hasn't played meaningful time on the defensive line yet, but he has the size to be at least a stopgap in the event that Black needs a blow once and a while. Washington has also gotten some positive mention from the coaching staff this fall.
Behind him is Kenny Wilkins, who we last saw getting shoved around in the 2011 spring game by walk-ons.
The final intriguing option is Matt Godin, a true freshman that has a college ready frame and could provide depth at either the three- or five-tech spots along the line. Godin isn't a freak athlete, but he is solidly built and fundamentally sound. Also, the guys at Tremendous and Brian at MGoBlog are have named Godin as a potential early contributor, which in these parts counts for something.
The expected production at the three-tech spot isn't as high as at the one-tech, but that is almost more beneficial, as it is the three-tech linemen that will receive the most benefit from solid play at the nose. If the one-tech spot can constantly command double teams it will simplify life for guys like Black, Washington, and Wilkins. Still, don't expect anything but solid play from this spot. It is arguably the weakest point on the defensive line.
Grade: C (Starter B-, backups C-)
Strongside Defensive End (Five-Tech)
Starter: Craig Roh (Sr.) 6'5, 281lbs
Craig Roh returns as the starter, and to be totally honest it is going to be pretty weird when he finally moves on. Roh has already accumulated 38 consecutive starts -- that is every game he has ever played in for those scoring at home. Roh started off as an undersized freshman pass rusher that got battered in the running game, and has since grown steadily (he has put on over 50lbs since his freshman year) into a senior leader and the cornerstone of the defensive line in 2012.
Roh makes the switch from the weakside to Ryan Van Bergen's now empty SDE spot. If you are keeping track, this is the fourth time Roh has been forced to learn a new position in the fall. With the added weight of the off season Roh should be fairly well equipped to handle the increased attention on the strong side of the line, but there will be some struggles as he shifts from the weakside (where he faced mostly one-on-one blocking against a tackle or tight end) to the strongside (where he will be forced to hold up against double teams by tackles and tight ends at the point of attack). Roh, an all-Big Ten honorable mention selection last year, is the one established player on Michigan's defensive line and should continue to perform at high level. Unless he really adapts to his new position it is hard to imagine him doing much more than matching his all-Big Ten H.M. from a year ago.
When Roh isn't on the field it could finally be time for walk-on Nathan Brink to jump in and grab playing time. Brink spent last fall as a serious "player to watch" -- a panic inducing development that everyone thought meant that something was terribly wrong -- before fading into the background with the start of the season. Brink has added a ten pounds of weight since then and is once again back to compete for playing time, but an injury last winter has limited his practice time this off season. Odds are that the coach approved Brink is second in line for playing time until one of the freshmen behind him establishes themselves.
Redshirt freshman Keith Heitzman is also in the mix for playing time behind Roh. He has bulked up to 270lbs since arriving on campus -- 20lbs more than last year's weight -- and could mount a challenge as he acclimates himself to the position.
Other than those two options there is true freshman Tom Strobel, who is most likely to redshirt but could be pressed into duty if something happens to one of the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Also keep an eye on Godin here.
While the proven depth isn't there, Craig Roh is as solid a returning starter as the defense has, and the backup options all have the potential to be solid. As long as Roh stays healthy, SDE should be the steadiest position on the Michigan defensive line.
Grade: B (Starter A-, backups C+)
Weakside Defensive End
Starter: Brennen Beyer (So.) 6'3, 252lbs
A few months ago this was the position along the defensive line most likely to see dramatic improvement. Last year the WDE spot was occupied by Craig Roh and Jibreel Black, and while both were solid players, neither of them flashed the kind of edge-terroizing skill that the 4-3 under requires from its WDE. The position is a pass rusher's dream. Constant single blocking matchups on th backside of the formation. It is tailor made for athletic freaks to ply their trades and work pass rush moves against tackles or tight ends.
Roh and Black simply lacked the explosiveness for the position (which says something about just what the coaches look for out of the WDE when both Roh and Black are praised for bringing uncharacteristic athleticism to their new positions). The two combined for just 5.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs. Contrast this to Ryan Van Bergen's production by himself at the SDE position -- 5.5 sacks, 12.5 TFLs -- and it is clear that the coaches needed more from the backside rush end.
The two players in line to start in 2012 both bring the kind of athleticism necessary for success at the position.
Brennen Beyer is the probable starter at the position after shifting down from the Sam linebacker spot a year ago. Beyer backed up Jake Ryan most of the year, and while he struggled with run containment on the edges -- not uncommon for a freshman -- he also flashed some pass rushing potential. Beyer bulked up over the off season and now has both the size and athleticism to be dangerous on the weakside pass rush.
For most of the off season Beyer was being pushed hard by fellow sophomore Frank Clark. Clark, perhaps best known for his dazzling interception against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, also has a lot of untapped athletic potential, but he is more fundamentally raw than Beyer, and would most likely be a year away from being a dependable every-down type of player.
I say "would" because his status as a member of the team is up in the air right now. After an off season arrest for felony second-degree home invasion, Clark was suspended indefinitely. This is a very serious charge and could signal the impending end of Clark's career as a Wolverine. However, if he is able to get his life in order, take care of his legal problems in a satisfactory way, and find his way back on the field, Clark could be a valuable asset as well as much needed depth at a position that essentially has none.
The only other depth? Teeny little freshman Mario Ojemudia, who comes in at 231lbs after playing defensive tackle for his high school team. Ojemudia has a great deal of potential, but he would benefit immensely from a redshirt. Unfortunately, that isn't in the cards and he will most likely be pressed into duty to relieve Beyer.
The other option for depth at the WDE spot is a shuffling of positions. Michigan might opt to move Jake Ryan from the Sam spot over to WDE while substituting in backup Sam, Cam Gordon. This has the benefit of getting a higher number of experienced players on the field.
As it stands the WDE position is a dangerous mix of inexperience that doesn't run deep. Getting a positive contribution from this spot without Frank Clark available for depth would be a big win for this defense as a whole.
Grade: C- (Starter C, backups D+)
Michigan's defensive line will struggle at points in 2012, you can mark that down as a certainty. There is too much youth, too many position switches, and too many challenging tests. Michigan will face one of the best offensive lines in the country to start the year (Alabama), then face a triple-option team where following assignments is absolutely critical, followed by a game against fiesty UMass before traveling to South Bend to face a deep Notre Dame offensive line. All of that is before Big Ten play even kicks off.
On the bright side, at every position other than WDE there are a few bodies to choose from, and the line has three different coaches that specialize in coaching them. If there is any staff in the country that could nurture this young line through the growing pains that are ahead, it would be this one. Hopefully that is enough to squeeze out solid play sooner rather than later, as the fate of the defense as a whole rests on how quickly the line gels.
Overall Grade: C+ (Starters B-, backups C)