Previously in this series: The Secondary.)
Long gone are the days of Obi Ezeh eating blocks and Jonas Mouton alternating huge plays with huge busts. Michigan linebacking in the Brady Hoke/Greg Mattison era has been a steady ship of solid play and otherworldly potential.
Kenny Demens was the mainstay of this unit for the first two years. He was the fundamentally sound, sure-tackling middle linebacker that every defense needs. He wasn't an exceptional athlete, and there were issues at times, but overall his steady play was a microcosm of the defense as a whole learning to play the right way and stepping forward.
But there is always adversity around the corner, and this unit has found its share now that it must confront life without Jake Ryan (at least for the time being, as his return could be sooner than later). But man, this could still be an exciting group.
Last year: Sr. Kenny Demens
This year: Jr. Desmond Morgan
As I said above, Kenny Demens was a valuable piece of this defense, one that in most cases wouldn't be so easily replaced. Fortunately, Michigan seems to have the right player ready to slide into the position from the weakside.
Desmond Morgan started pretty much from day one. He was a true freshman and waded through the competiton to lock down the starting spot on the weakside in his first year on campus. Just a three star recruit from the west side of Michigan, Morgan still had a lot of people excited early on. He was already a big kid, and he was smart as well. He had played quarterback for his high school team and seemed like the kind of three-star in-state kid that turns into a solid Big Ten player. His career has tracked that way ever since.
He does have issues, and on the weak side those were exposed at times. Early in his career he struggled with the decisiveness of his first step. Sometimes getting caught looking and others making the wrong move. It also took him a couple years to develop into a downhill run stopper. It isn't just about running at the ball, but taking the correct path so that even if you don't make the tackle, you make sure that someone else will. Morgan has gotten better in both of these areas. However, he isn't a great athlete and with the emergence of James Ross (who we will get to in a minute), made Morgan's future clear: he would be a middle linebacker.
It is a move that seems to be perfectly suited for Morgan's skills. A sure tackler and now an experienced run stopper, Morgan will be the one to work in traffic and take on blocks at the point of attack, allowing James Ross to flow freely to the ball. While Michigan will have to replace the steady hand of Kenny Demens, doing so with the equally steady and experience Desmond Morgan is as sure a thing as you can get.
Verdict: No dropoff
Last year: So. Desmond Morgan and Fr. James Ross
This year: So. James Ross
Sometimes a recruit comes along that seems almost too good to be true. Not the type of recruit with otherworldly physical gifts or a high ceiling, but the kind of recruit that you just know deep down is going to be really good and at the very least be, well, really good.
That recruit is James Ross. Read the scouting reports and you hear the same refrain: instincts, instincts, instincts. In linebacking, instincts are the difference between a stop at the line of scrimmage and a safety pulling a guy down after a first down run. James Ross came to Michigan with capital-I Instincts and despite beingon teh small side for a linebacker (6'1, 220 lbs) in his first year, he fought his way into playing time over Desmond Morgan at multiple points thanks to those instincts. After the season we all breathed a sigh of relief. James Ross was right on track to being as good as we all hoped.
Then spring happened and holy god he might be better than we thought. At least better faster than we thought. Read the spring reports and you get a chorus of oohs and aahs in response to his performance. He was named the most improved player of the spring, appeared in a .gif where he blew up lineman Dan Gibbs, and looked like the best defensive player on the field in the spring game.
The sky is the limit for James Ross. While he is never going to be tall enough to look the part of an NFL prospect, it won't matter much because everything else about him screams success. He is an instinctual, fast-twitch linebacker capable of playing sideline to sideline, and so good that other starters switch positions just to make room for him in the starting lineup. He will be really good. We knew it all along.
Verdict: clear upgrade (could be very big)
Last year: So. Jake "Destroyer of Worlds" Ryan
This year: Sr. Cam Gordon (or Jr. Brennan Beyer)
You don't replace Jake Ryan.
Watching him last year was a revelation: the perfect player in the perfect position on a defense that let him use his odd skillset to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Jake Ryan is equal parts pass rusher, run stopper, flat defender, and heady scrapper. At the Sam linebacker position in Greg Mattison's defense you need a whole lot of disparate skills that most often come from a platoon of players. When you have Jake Ryan, you have the full package. Without him, you just do your best to scheme around his loss and use different players.
One of those players is Cam Gordon, who you may remember from such films as "Misadventures in Safety Play" and "Kyle Rudolph Drank My Milkshake". Gordon's short stint at deep safety was yet another example of Rich Rodriguez's staff horribly mismanaging its roster, and soon Cam moved up to linebacker -- where he should have played all along.
He may have even started -- at least for a nano-second -- if a nagging injury hadn't kept him from playing much in 2011. But that happened and so did Jake Ryan and pretty soon Cam Gordon was about as well remembered as Nick Sheridan after Denard Robinson became "Denard Robinson".
Still, Cam presents an intriguing prospect for the position. His athleticism might not have been safety material, but it was enough to at least get him an ill advised look there, and his size is enough to hold up at the spot (6'3, 233 lbs as of spring). Gordon has been the focus of quite a few positive practice mentions over the last couple years, but, and let me say this again in plain English: you don't replace Jake Ryan.
Gordon had a solid spring game and could be the kind of player capable of handling some of the different tasks that Sam linebacker requires. If he isn't, Brennan Beyer will get some time at the spot after moving over from the WDE position.
If Gordon can put together a few good games and Beyer can carve out a role as a capable backup, Michigan can weather the loss of Ryan -- at least until he returns, whenever that may be.
Verdict: You don't replace Jake Ryan. Period. But Michigan shouldn't be in too bad of shape.