In a highly publicized move during the offseason, the Michigan coaching staff decided a new philosophy was in order and shuffled around coaching responsibilities. The Michigan defense a year ago suffered a production drop-off and is looking to get back to their winning ways.
With a defensive group that returns many of the same starters and will look relatively the same, here's a look at five defensive players to look out for during Saturday's spring game:
1.) Jake Ryan
With the coach shuffling also came player position changes. One of the more talked about and logical moves of the offseason was moving Jake Ryan to the middle linebacker position. One that makes sense for many reasons other than something that fills a void. Much like Devin Funchess to wide receiver, this move into the middle is a natural move that will set Ryan up for success next season.
Ryan will be someone to pay attention to during Saturday's game (practice) because not only is he fully healthy, it will be interesting to see just how natural this slight change of scenery will be for him. Being in the middle allows Ryan to get right into the middle of the action, arguably more-so than before. Fans are well aware of Ryan's ability to sniff out the ball handler and be a disruption in the running game, he also has a great ability to blitz the quarterback. With Greg Mattison as his position coach, look for signs of new packages designed for Ryan and the other linebackers to get more involved.
2.) Blake Countess
Not quite the veteran on this staff, but undoubtedly the most talented defensive back on roster right now, Countess is being pegged early as the leader of the defensive backs. Considering the fantastic season he had a year go, it is will deserved. But, is he ready to lead?
It is unclear how much playing time Countess, and many other first-team defensive players, will see on Saturday but look to see if Countess can build off an excellent statistical year the season prior. The Michigan defensive is looking to get more aggressive by playing man-defense and, if done correctly, could be a benefit to Countess and the entire defensive back group as a whole. With the more aggressive style of play, look to see how Countess can take advantage of the less-experienced receivers Michigan has on roster to see if he can be any type of disruption. In looking back at seasons past, the talent level says that he can. Like Ryan, Countess is also fully healthy without any future worries of a lingering knee issue. Can Countess top last season statistically? We will get our first glimpse of that on Saturday.
3.) Dymonte Thomas
Ever since he committed to Michigan he was being pegged as the star safety of the future. Now, with a clear shot to take a starting role, will he seize the moment and live up to the hype? That story-line alone will make Thomas a player to watch this weekend.
A player who did not see the field much last year, many fans will get to see Thomas for the first time as a Wolverine (even though he did have some special teams duties primarily). It will also be a great glimpse at whether or not Thomas has made any strides in the defense. With the safety position being a bit of a weakness for the defense, it will be important to see if Thomas can handle more duties. If not, he could at least be a serviceable backup to whomever wins the position. However, the biggest thing to take away from Thomas' performance on Saturday is to see how well Thomas has commanded the safety position during the offseason.
4.) Willie Henry
Another one of those "dark-horse" picks, but Henry is due for a breakout season. Considering the hype the coaching staff and players have placed on Henry's shoulders, it is time he shows it to the people.
The biggest thing to look for is fairly simple: Does Henry show flashes and promise of the hype that has been surrounding him by people around the program? Considering depth and experience at the defensive line is lacking, Henry could see some playing time this season and possibly even getting the start. Someone will need to step on the line in order for it to be successful, is Henry that guy?
5.) Taco Charlton
The safe pick for a player to watch on the defensive line would be Frank Clark. But, I don't want to be safe here. Charlton, like Thomas, is another player who was hyped coming into Michigan but didn't see very much time on the field save for the very few games he saw at the end of the year.
Can Charlton become a serviceable back-up to Clark? Considering his playing time will have to increase due to being in better shape and more familiar with the defense, he will get plenty of attention on Saturday. Charlton made a splash last spring game for playing hard and tackling Devin Gardner (even though they're not allowed to tackle) during the game. He proved to be a fierce competitor, but didn't really make much of a splash after that. If Charlton can prove himself over the weekend and into the fall, there is a definite chance for playing time.