Coming into this season you would be hard pressed to find a deeper, more experienced unit on Michigan's football team than the linebackers. The three starters all have at least a year of starting experience under their belt, and the primary backup for two of those players has been the same primary backup for two years.
Naturally, this will be the one position on defense that will least resemble what it did last year. Jake Ryan is moving from the Sam spot inside to the Mike where he will be called on to play much more of a natural linebacker role than before. To replace him, James Ross III has shifted over to the Sam position as Michigan looks to get faster and more malleable on defense.
Was moving Jake Ryan a wise decision?
The explanation was simple enough. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison know that Jake Ryan is the defense's best playmaker and most explosive player, and both felt that it was too easy for spread teams to scheme away from Jake Ryan, who as a Sam linebacker last year was always placed on one side of the defense. Moving him to the middle of the defense opens up the opportunity for Jake to be involved in more plays and for Michigan to be able to use him in more ways.
The potential problem with this change is that by moving Jake Ryan to the middle linebacker position, the coaches are relying too heavily on the linebacking instincts Ryan hasn't needed in spades before now, while removing his ability to make the kind of plays that he is able to.
As a Sam linebacker, Ryan was able to be a vertical attacking threat as well as a sideline to sideline monster against spread teams. The best memories of Ryan are all either him slicing into the backfield around an end or on a stunt and getting pressure on the quarterback, or tracking a player in space along the flat and using his strength, balance, and agility to take on and defeat blocks while keeping the ball behind the line of scrimmage.
Those are typical Ryan plays. Attacking defense focused on creating chaos behind the line of scrimmage. Of course, Ryan was able to be so aggressive because some of the read and react elements weren't there. At the Sam position the reads are lessened and the responsibilities are narrowed down. With a move inside, Ryan is now going to be more responsible for reading and reacting. A middle linebacker is involved in more plays because of his position in the defense, but his instincts as a linebacker must be better because of this. Ryan hasn't played a position with as much responsibility before now, and there is a chance that he struggles with the adjustment.
Who Do We Know
James Ross III is the other player that will be dealing with a position switch. He is shifting to Ryan's old Sam position on the defense, and with the adjustment to the 4-3 over, that position will be changing as well. Instead of being a hybrid LB/DE, the Sam will be much more of a LB/S type player, lining up off the line of scrimmage, playing the flat and dropping into pass coverage. Ross struggled with some of his pass drops last year, but he has the athleticism and instincts to be very good in run support.
This will likely mean that Desmond Morgan moves back to the Will position after spending last year in the middle of the defense. While he was more suited for the Mike position in the 4-3 under, the Will linebacker will have less cover in the over defense, which will mean that spot needs to better be able to shed blocks — something Morgan has shown an ability to do.
The Next Big Thing
Given the established nature of most of Michigan's linebacking corp, the next big thing is the one new thing: Ben Gedeon. "The Freak", as he is called, is one of the strongest most athletic players in the linebacking corp, and he broke into the lineup late in the year, managing to impress with a few good plays. He will be a sophomore this year and if a full year in the program helps him make a leap in production, Michigan will have a hard time keeping him off the field.
Other Names To Watch
Joe Bolden - Michigan's primary backup at the Mike and Will positions the last two years. Bolden was a bit of a defensive scapegoat last year, but he has been a very solid player for Michigan so far and should be even more so with another year in the program.
Allen Gant - Second year player came in as a LB/S tweener and could make an impact now that the Sam position more closely fits his talents.
Royce Jenkins-Stone - Third year linebacker was the same class as Bolden and Ross but has yet to make an impact.
What Does It Mean
Michigan is making quite a few moves at linebacker, including bringing Greg Mattison back from the DL to work as the LB position coach. Having Michigan's DC coach the best group of defensive players on the team could be a boon for this defense going into the 2014 season, but it won't come without some growing pains. Michigan's experience linebackers need to quickly pick up the basics, and Jake Ryan needs to prove that he does have the read and react skills to play in the middle.