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2013 Season Preview: The Defensive Line

Michigan's defensive resurgence under Greg Mattison started up front, and the line is looking to be deeper than ever before under this staff. Now if it can only find a pass rush.

Jibreel Black will have to play big on the inside — literally and figuratively.
Jibreel Black will have to play big on the inside — literally and figuratively.

(Previously: The Secondary, The Linebackers)

Michigan's defense under Greg Mattison has been built from the front line out. The first year it wasn't any surprise. Michigan returned long-time starters Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and both were the unquestioned heart of the Michigan defense. That they finally had a scheme behind them to help clean up what little they let through was the supposed revelation.

But Mattison had done more than that in his first year. Michigan got a full season of solid production out of journeyman senior Will Heininger, a pleasant surprise at the time that would eventually be dubbed the Heininger Certainty Principle by MGoBlog (the place where all good Michigan memes come from).

Of course, that incredibly named theory came to life the next year when Martin and Van Bergen were no longer around, Michigan was seriously looking at Jibreel Black at 3-tech, and Quinton Washington made a last minute push to the top of the NT depth chart. Everyone on the internet panicked while Greg Mattison waved his hand to calm everyone down and said, "it's cool, guys. I got this."

Michigan would go on to give up fewer yards per carry in 2012 (3.81 compared to 3.99 in 2011) and fewer touchdowns (9 compared to 14). It would do that by turning Quinton Washington into a good, block-eating nose tackle; turning William Campbell into a competent Big Ten lineman, and dealing with a lack of experienced depth pretty much everywhere.

This year things are looking up for Michigan, which returns everyone but yeoman Craig Roh and the enigmatic Will Campbell. Parts of the line are primed to blow up, and everywhere there are two or three players fighting for significant minutes. While the unit is still lacking an established star — for now at least (I'm looking at you, Frank Clark) — it could be Greg Mattison's best all-around group since taking over.

That is a scary thought for opposing offenses, as long as the youth movement is successful.

Defensive Tackles

Nose Tackle (1-tech) Defensive Tackle (3-tech)
Starter RS-Sr. Quinton Washington Sr. Jibreel Black
Backup So. Ondre Pipkins RS-Fr. Chris Wormley
Backup RS-Jr. Richard Ash RS-Fr. Willie Henry

A lot of things inside aren't clear just yet, except one: Quinton Washington will be holding down the middle. Washington (32 Tkl, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 Sack) was the big surprise last year. Many had pegged Campbell as the presumed favorite to hold down the nose for most of the off season, but late in fall camp it came out that Washington had been playing quite a bit at the spot. He would soon grab the starting job and not relinquish it.

Coming out of high school Washington was a big-time offensive line recruit, but he was buried on the bench early in his career at Michigan until being part of the Great Position Switch Panic of 2010 in which Rich Rodriguez swapped Washington for Campbell across the lines. Campbell would move back to defense when Hoke came to town, but Washington would stay on the defensive line and garner a hushed bit of praise that first year.

In Washington, Michigan has a different type of nose tackle than Mike Martin. Washington isn't explosive and won't consistently slash into the backfield at every turn. He will eat blocks, hold his rush lane, and keep the linebackers clean to flow to the ball. This is enough for the defense to continue to be successful against the run, and both Desmond Morgan and James Ross will be in Washington's debt this year as he sets them up for clean gap fills at the line of scrimmage.

If Michigan is going to get its explosive presence at the nose, it will have to be from question mark number one, Ondre Pipkins. The sophomore showed up to campus out of shape, struggled with consistency, and battled to get his weight down ("Ondre's on a diet" pictures popped up on occasion). Now, he is weighing in 315 lbs. and with a year of technique work it is reasonable to expect Pipkins to start living up to his five-star billing. With defensive line rotation and Washington in front of him, the odds are good that Pipkins will still play somewhat of a secondary role on the defensive line, but he has the quickness and strength to make some very impressive plays from the nose spot. In a perfect world he flashes some of that potential while Washington is still able to control things the majority of the time, setting up for a big 2014.

Also in rotation could be RS-Jr. Richard Ash of Pahokee, FL. Ash briefly flirted with big time interest as a high school player, but questions about his conditioning and motor cooled some of those top offers, and he ended up a three/four star tweener with potential. Since arriving on campus he has done little, playing in just nine games. He could factor into the rotation depending on where Michigan uses another second-year linemen (who we will get to in a minute).

For the second year in a row, the starting job at the 3-tech DT spot is looking to be Jibreel Black's (20 Tkl, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 Sacks). Last off season Michigan shifted Black inside from his previous home at WDE, but Black only got up to around 280 lbs. — woefully undersized for an interior lineman — and with the emergence of Washington, Black lost his starting job to Will Campbell and settled into a fairly productive reserve role on the defensive line.

Black will once again be too small for the spot, but the fact that the coaches continue to work him in as a 3-tech means they see something. Most likely, that is quickness and penetrating ability. Black didn't quite have enough to excel on the outside as a rush end, but going against guards he can do damage as long as a double team doesn't arrive. Black can be used as a situational DT and find success. However, Michigan will feature a lot of rotation on the inside, and Black may be used more on passing downs to generate pressure up the middle.

When he isn't in, Michigan will most likely look to a pair of redshirt freshmen that could well be playing different positions on the line were they not needed on the inside.

Early uber-recruit Chris Wormley was expected to be all-everything until somewhere between the end of his junior year and the beginning of his senior year when his rankings trailed off to mostly four-stars (and a three-star rating from Rivals) for two reasons: there were questions about how hard he played and he had been such a major recruit early that it was hard to develop in line with the expectations.

Despite that, Wormley probably would have played in 2012 had he not gotten injured in fall camp, losing his season to an ACL injury. This year he is fully recovered and should factor in at both 3-tech and SDE (somewhat interchangeable positions in the 4-3 under defense). At 290lbs. he has a bit more size to hold up in the middle.

There is also a chance that Michigan uses another redshirt freshman, Willie Henry, at the position as well. Henry was a late sleeper recruit out of Cleveland's Glenville High School, and has spent his first year on campus turning heads. Michigan upperclassmen had rave reviews of him when asked after last season, and Henry brings a combination of size (6'2, 306lbs.) and quickness that could be useful at both the 3-tech and nose tackle spots. In fact, it is a good bet that he will find time at both positions during the season, even so much as displacing Richard Ash completely and moving up the depth chart at 3-tech if the coaches want to feature a bigger line.

Overall, Michigan has a lot of depth at both positions, and will look to deploy a lot of different looks and lineups to keep players fresh. For the first time in Greg Mattison's tenure, he has the bodies to pull this off.

Defensive Ends

Strongside Defensive End Weakside Defensive End
Starter RS-So. Keith Heitzman Jr. Frank Clark
Backup RS-Fr. Tom Stroble So. Mario Ojemudia
Backup RS-Fr. Matt Godin Fr. Taco Charlton

Can you remember the last time Craig Roh wasn't a starter for Michigan? No, don't think about it — you'll only want to beat your head against the nearest wall. Roh was an ironman. He walked onto campus as a freshman and into the starting lineup despite being somewhere between 30 and 40 pounds too light to play defensive end in the Big Ten. While he never developed into a dominant end rusher, in his upperclassmen years he was a steady presence on the line, a solid run stuffer, and one of Michigan's unsung heroes. He also started more games than any other Michigan player in history.

In his place at strongside defensive end, Michigan is faced with a lot of youth. The most experienced of these players is Keith Heitzman. The redshirt sophomore was part of Brady Hoke's accelerated first class — stolen away from Vanderbilt — and was unanimously considered a three-star with "solid backup" potential. He was that last year, spelling Craig Roh in those times the senior needed a break. He didn't do much of any consequence while in the game, just seven tackles and one tackle for loss last year, but also no horrendous mistakes (that I can remember).

The good thing about the strongside defensive end position in the 4-3 under is that it doesn't require a flashy playmaker. The weakside defensive end is supposed to be the big-time rusher, and the SAM linebacker the guy on the strongside that makes the highlight reel plays. The SDE acts a lot like the 3-tech, which is why the positions are somewhat interchangeable. Hold ground against the run game (in this case, hold the edge vs. the 3-tech that is more concerned with cutback lanes) and make a few plays in the backfield. While Roh was more talented than Heitzman, his contributions were easy to overlook because what he did made things easier on everyone else around him, allowing them to make more plays.

If Michigan wants to develop someone more capable of making some of those highlight plays, it will look to either Wormley, or his two classmates. The first is fellow Ohioian and holder of an Ohio State offer, Tom Strobel. A four-star to everyone but ESPN, Strobel is the kind of athlete that can develop into more of a playmaker at the position. He is lighter than Heitzman (265 lbs. compared to 280 lbs.) but could make up for that with an ability to get into the backfield with more regularity.

Also in the mix will be Matt Godin, the least highly rated of Michigan's three SDE/3-tech tweeners in the 2012 class. Godin is taller (6'6) and as heavy or heavier (280 lbs.) than the aforementioned options ahead of him, but he has the least practice buzz and projects to be another solid run defender that isn't much of a threat to get to the quarterback. The depth he will add at SDE (and could possibly add at 3-tech) will be a welcome addition to the team.

So while Michigan lines up a trio of solid run defenders at SDE who don't ooze havoc wreaking potential, there is a chance that the other side of the line makes this a moot point.

The weakside end in the 4-3 under defense should be built with one main goal in mind: rush the hell out of the quarterback. While he will still have run responsibilities, a 4-3 under team looks to generate its pass rush starting with a strong push from the backside of a formation. The last two years Michigan has not had this. Craig Roh was an adequate rusher, but couldn't generate a strong one-on-one rush to beat the guy across from him. Last year, Brennan Beyer struggled to do the same while Frank Clark was inconsistent both in his ability to stay on the field and hold up his end of the run responsibilities.

This year, that could have all changed. Clark (25 Tkl, 9.0 TFL, 2.0 Sacks) spent the off season adding weight and strength and going up against two of the Big Ten's best tackles in practice. What followed were glowing reports from just about everyone indicating that it is finally time for Clark to make The Leap and become the pass rush nightmare that this team really needs.

He certainly looks the part these days, having gotten his weight up to 273 lbs. while still supposedly maintaining his freakish athleticism. Clark's legal troubles are behind him, and he has spoken of the maturation that has followed his brush with the law that almost cost him his football career.

If Clark can live up to the hype, or even most of it, this defense can take another step forward. Last year's squad was tied for 78th in sacks per game, and a lot of that came from different blitz packages that Greg Mattison was able to dial up. The same was true about the 2011 team that was 29th in sacks per game because of an array of zone blitzes. Once Michigan's defense can mount a strong four-man pass rush, it will take pressure off the secondary and linebackers and give the defense more options and ways to catch other teams off guard on passing downs.

When Clark isn't on the field, Michigan has a pair of young pass rush specialists it can trot out. The first is Mario Ojemudia, a sophomore that played last year despite being a whisp thin 230 lbs. He held up against the run about as well as you would expect for being the size of a small-ish linebacker playing with his hand on the ground across from offensive tackles. He did flash some potential, adding a sack and 2.5 TFLs along with 11 tackles last year, but the biggest reason for optimism is his weight this year: a solid 250 lbs.

Ojemudia will be pushed for playing time by an even younger player. Early enrollee Taco Charlton came to campus in January and turned heads in the spring, not only because he already physically looks the part of a college ready defensive lineman at 6'6 270 lbs., but by flashing some athletic pass rush moves in practice and the spring game. As with any freshman on the line, technique and holding up against the run will be the major obstacles that hold Charlton back from a bigger role, but given his size and athletic ability, he should be able to provide a dangerous option on passing downs.

* * *

The major takeaway from all of this is that Michigan is still very young on the defensive line. Of the defensive ends, Clark is the only upperclassman (not counting RS-So. Heitzman), and while each position goes three deep, there will be a lot of young players tested early and often in games. Michigan will get veteran leadership from Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black on the inside, but with all the line rotation, it isn't out of the question that there will be more than a few times when the Wolverines will have plays in which every defensive lineman on the field is in his first or second year on campus.

This bodes well for the future, but could be a source of growing pains this year unless some of these young players can step into bigger roles without many mistakes. The talent is there, the production needs to follow.