It's safe to say the disaster of the Rich Rod era defense is about as close to an after thought as possible and that's a credit to Greg Mattison and what he's done with this defensive unit in just two seasons. However, that change will be tested here in year three as there are few "stars" that will be in the Michigan defensive lineup out of the gate and with only six returning starters back patience may be the key for fans.
One thing that could really help this team is some good news on the Jake Ryan front. He claims he'll be ready to go in October, but that would require him to be Adrian Peterson-esque and we're not buying that. However, even if he doesn't see a down on the field in 2013 there is plenty to like about what this defense offers in 2013 too.
It just may take a few games for it to all come together.
If this team wants to make a move on the defensive side of the ball it has to start with someone, anyone getting a pass rush going. So, who are the contenders? The first guy that comes to mind is sophomore Keith Heltzman, a 6-3, 277lbs end who took on the challenge of stepping up this offseason and came out of spring with a firm hold of one of the end positions.
Opposite of Heltzman is where the intrigue is at as Frank Clark, a junior, clearly has the experience on his side with 25 tackles, 2 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss last season - those are good numbers, not great and that leads to the potential of Mario Ojemudia. He is a bit more slender, but in brief moments on the field as a true freshman last season he showed some explosive talent and with increased playing time a guarantee it's hard not to see how he doesn't end up with a major effect on this team.
What about up the middle? This is where this team really has it on lock as senior Quinton Washington looks to build off a great 2012 season as a run plugger and space eater. Joining him at the defensive tackle position is fellow senior Jibreel Black. Black isn't the heavy road grader that Washington is, but is a great compliment to him.
Behind these starters are some very intriguing youngsters and two names that really jump out to watch this season are Taco Charlton (DE) and Ondre Pipkins (DT). Charlton is a freshman who could be in for a very bright future and his future could be on the field in a big way in 2013. Pipkins is a massive tackle and perfect backup to Washington as the nose tackle. He played some as a freshman in 2012, recording seven tackles, but look for him to have a nice role increase in 2013 and could be a name we all know by the end of it all this year.
It's hard to know what to make of this group because of the Jake Ryan situation, but we're erring on the side of caution here and saying he doesn't play in 2013. No doubt that'll hurt, it should considering he's an all-Big Ten linebacker and all. Replacing him will be either Cam Gordon or Brennen Beyer, who's a speedy edge rusher, but is more of a hybrid end/linebacker and it will be interesting to see how he holds up on the edge in pass defense. Gordon is a more natural linebacker, but with questions at the other spots in terms of pass rush Beyer could be a hell of an option to see a lot of time at the strongside spot.
With Ryan out Michigan is lucky they have a guy in Desmond Morgan who has some of the same makeup as Ryan and is showing to be the most versatile linebacker the Wolverines have. Morgan was thrown into the deep end of the pool and didn't sink coming up with over 60 tackles his freshman year and improved to 81 tackles as a weak-side linebacker last season. He also had 5.5 sacks as well. In 2013 he'll move to the middle this season, so he'll need to be every bit of what he was last season and then some.
Morgan's move inside was made easier because of now sophomore James Ross' performance as a freshman last season. Ross, who will take over as a full-time starter on the weakside came up with 36 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2012 in a part-time role. He'll need to step up even more this season and he's got the production to show he can. The question for Ross is if the old sophomore slump will rear its ugly head. If not, then this unit could be the best on this side of the ball.
Depth is a bit light at all three spots as players look to fill roles that they may not be suited for, especially the likes of Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone.
This is the area that features one of the few stars coming into the season and of course we're talking about senior safety Thomas Gordon. He was third on the team in tackles a season ago (81) and added two interceptions and two pass breakups. He'll be counted on as a leader as well, a role he should fill with ease. Gordon also happens to really help this team because he's versatile enough to play either safety position.
Next to him is likely Jarrod Wilson, a rising sophomore who's size is perfect for the strong safety spot at 6-2 and 196lbs. The problem is that he had just eight tackles last season and that Michigan recruited one of the top safeties in the country for this season in Dymonte Thomas - who could eat into playing time and possibly become a starter as the season goes on if he lives up to potential right away. Either way, expect him and fellow freshman
As for the all important corner positions it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Michigan could have a dynamic secondary or a below average one and a lot of that hinges on the health of Blake Countess who has shown a ton of potential, but wasn't healthy last season. He looks to be back and teaming with returning starter Raymon Taylor could really do wonders for a front seven that will be going through transition to say the least.
Questions to answer in fall camp:
- Is there any depth at linebacker?
- Can Countess be the guy we saw in 2011 or will injury history hinder him still?
- Who gives this team a pass rushing threat?