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2013 Season Preview: The Linebackers

The Wolverines could have one of the best groups of linebackers in the conference with Jake Ryan healthy. Even without him, the unit has a promising combination of untapped potential and experience.

This is Cam Gordon's last chance to make his mark.
This is Cam Gordon's last chance to make his mark.
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

(Previously: The Secondary)

It is remarkable to think about just how much production Michigan has been able to squeeze out of its three top linebackers in such a short amount of time on campus.  If Jake Ryan were to play in the season opener, Michigan would be trotting out three starting linebackers that each have two or more full years of eligibility left.  Two of those linebackers played significant time as freshmen, and the third was a wall to wall starter in his redshirt freshman year.  Projecting future depth charts, Michigan knows its linebacking corp until the start of the 2015 season, when James Ross will be the only one with eligibility left.

The last time Michigan's linebacking corp was this set in stone was in the early days of Rich Rodriguez when Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton had the spots locked down.  Of course, the difference is that those two went largely unchallenged.  Michigan hadn't brought many potential linebackers to campus, and most of those that showed up never panned out.

The only Rodriguez era recruit to crack the starting lineup in the past few years was Kenny Demens, but after Mouton had graduated, Michigan turned to its youth movement.  This bodes well for the future as the Wolverines have done a good job stockpiling talent behind these established starters.

In the present, Michigan is very well off, and depending on the recovery time of Jake Ryan, this unit could be even better.

Starter Sr. Cam Gordon Jr. Desmond Morgan So. James Ross
Backup Jr. Brennen Beyer So. Joe Bolden So, Royce Jenkins-Stone

The real tragedy here is that Michigan doesn't get to play a full 2013 season with its top three players.  Jake Ryan (88 TKL, 16.5 TFL, 5.0 Sacks), destroyer of worlds, was sidelined in spring practice with an ACL injury.  Despite the fact that he injured his leg at almost exactly the wrong time (a spring ACL tear often can cost a player a year and a half as the end of the season is just eight months away), Ryan's timetable for recovery is being set at around six months, which would put him back in the lineup for Michigan's stretch run in November.

If Michigan gets him back at that time, it is hard to know exactly what it will be getting.  Ryan's game is predicated on freak athleticism and the ability of a 250 lbs man-child to stop and start like someone 50 pounds lighter.  That is exactly the kind of thing that an ACL injury hampers for quite some time until full recovery is reached, so the odds of Ryan taking the field at 100 percent in November are low.  Although, 80 percent of Jake Ryan is still as good or better than 100 percent of most anyone else.

Since he won't be available, Michigan will turn to a pair of upperclassmen to hopefully replace his production.  First up is Cam "no longer a safety" Gordon (21 Tkl, 3.0 TFL combined the last two years).  The positional vagabond settled in at SAM linebacker in 2011 just in time to get buried behind Jake Ryan as the youngster made a name for himself.  Gordon fought through injuries that year and couldn't push past Ryan in 2012.

Now, Michigan will need Gordon to step up.  That isn't outside the realm of possibility.  While he was never much as a safety, Gordon has good size for a SAM (6'3, 230lbs.) and has been the beneficiary of a number of bits of unprompted praise from the coaches over the last two years.  The kind of praise that is more believable when a guy isn't playing because the person in front  of him is just that good.

Gordon gives Michigan a nice piece that should be valuable in passing situations and against spread teams.  If Michigan is more focused on stopping traditional run teams, the coaches may go with Brennen Beyer (19 Tkl, .5 TFL in 2012).  Beyer started out as a SAM in his freshman year, but moved to WDE last season in part to get out from behind Ryan and also because Michigan needed some depth at the spot after moving Jibreel Black and Craig Roh to different spots on the line.

Beyer was a steady, if somewhat underwhelming presence on the line a year ago.  He started the majority of the season over Frank Clark, but Michigan never managed to get much from the WDE position.  Now that the Wolverines have the Frank Clark Hype Train as well as promising youngsters Taco Charlton and Mario Ojemudia at WDE, Beyer is free to fill in at SAM (and perhaps stay there longterm if the fit is right).

What Michigan will get will be a solid run defender that still has yet to display any of the explosive skill that made Jake Ryan so good as a SAM.  Beyer hasn't shown much in the way of a pass rush, and hasn't played much in pass coverage.  He can be a solid option, but as of now he seems limited in what he can provide.

In the middle, Michigan has moved junior Desmond Morgan (81 Tlk, 5.5 TFL, .5 Sacks in 2012) over to replace the graduated Kenny Demens.  Morgan is entering his third year as a starter after walking into the job as a true freshman.  While he doesn't have quite the size and athleticism you would want in the middle, Morgan has a long history of solid production and good instincts.  He should prove to be a reliable hole-plugger and tackling machine.

Nipping at his heels will be sophomore Joe Bolden (31 Tlk, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 Sack).  The highest rated of Michigan's 2012 linebacker recruits, Bolden is more of the MIKE prototype than Morgan.  But Bolden spent last year coming off the bench and occasionally looking a step slow as he was adjusting to the college game.  In the long run, Bolden has a good chance to unseat Morgan as the starter, but that will take further mental development on the part of the youngster, something that more experience in a backup role should help provide.  All in all, Michigan is pretty well set at the MIKE position

Of course, one of the reasons that Desmond Morgan was moved to the middle was the emergence of James Ross (36 Tkl, 2.5 TFL, .5 Sack).  Ross made his way onto the field early as a freshman despite being freshman sized (220lbs).  He did this because he is a Football Player that makes Football Plays.  In that I mean, there is the one ineffable quality that everyone always talks about when evaluating linebackers.  Instincts.  You know it when you see it, and when you don't.  Obi Ezeh never had it.  He more often caught blocks than attacked them, he filled the wrong holes and led with the wrong shoulder.  Playing three yards off the line of scrimmage, a linebacker has to upon the snap of the ball A) read his cues to know where the play is going, B) watch the warning signs so as not to get countered or play-actioned, and C) do all of it in the time it took you to read the first three words of this sentence.  It is a gift you can nurture, but you can't really teach.  James Ross showed up on campus and it was plainly clear that he just had "it".  That is how a 220lbs freshman ends up playing meaningful snaps at WLB a little over a month after he moved into his dorm.

What happens when those instincts are paired with a more college ready frame?  Pain, I suppose, but I've never been hit by James Ross (/crosses fingers).  Sometime early this year there was a quick GIF of Ross destroying a backup lineman in practice and going on to make the tackle.  James Ross has been riding a wave of hype ever since.

This is for good reason.  His struggles as a freshman were related to his strength.  He wasn't quite big enough to take on some bigger running backs or blockers.  While he still isn't big (weight 220 lbs. for the second year in a row), his strength and technique have made up for his size.  Also, his instincts.  It is hard for a guy to get a good block on you when you beat him to the spot.

James Ross is going to have a breakout year.  I'm not the first to say it, and I won't be the last.  He has a solid line in front of him, and has been on campus for a full year.  Michigan is in very good hands now.

Behind him will most likely be Joe Bolden.  The two inside linebacker spots are largely interchangeable, and Bolden has experience at both.  he will be the first guy off the bench for either position.  When he isn't, Michigan will look to sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone.  The second year player out of Cass Tech is a wildcard.  He came to Michigan with a college ready frame that barely had any weight on it, and he came in raw from a technique and instinctual standpoint.  He may be a year away from being a big time contributor.  He may never get there.

* * *

While Michigan is without Jake Ryan, the linebackers that the team will rely on bring a very good mix of experience and talent.  The few question marks at SAM are outweighed by the excitement over just how good the interior linebackers can be.  If Jake Ryan comes back healthy in November, Michigan will have one of the best groups of linebackers in the conference for the most important part of the season.  Even if Ryan doesn't make it back, this unit is going to be pretty good this year.

And next year?  Hoooo boy, just you wait.