The Wolverine

November 2011

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Final Exams Michigan���s Linebackers Must Elevate Their Play In November O By Michael Spath n second-and-goal, at the Michigan 4-yard line, Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder dropped back expecting the comfort of at least three seconds to make his reads and fire a touchdown pass, but before he could set his feet, U-M redshirt freshman strongside linebacker Jake Ryan burst through the middle of the line, forcing Carder to uncork his throw early. Ryan spread his arms into the air, tipping the toss. It fluttered momentarily while fifth-year senior weakside linebacker Brandon Herron stepped into the void, corralling it at the 6. He made a move, and then another, and off he went, 94 yards for a touchdown. three of his five starts, Demens averaged just 6.9 stops in U-M���s first eight games, while Ryan had a miniscule bottom line of 19 tackles for the year entering November. ���We���ve been average,��� linebackers coach Mark Smith said, matter-offactly. ���We have to be more consistent; we have to be more of a force on the field. ���To say we���re going to be patient and be understanding ��� that���s not the case at all. The expectation is to perform at a high level, and in order to do that you have to prepare and get better every week.��� Regardless of who is on the field, Smith has been disappointed in the lack of big plays from his unit; the linebackers contributed 11.0 tackles for loss, including three sacks, in the ������ Linebackers coach Mark Smith ���You want them to make more plays, and right now, ��� we���re not getting enough plays out of the linebackers, ��� plays that change the game.��� Michigan���s linebackers were responsible for the first big play of the season. Perhaps that effort would be a positive sign a unit that battled inconsistency for three seasons under Rich Rodriguez had turned the corner and would be productive for the Wolverines in 2011. At times, the linebackers have been. Ryan notched a tackle for loss in four straight victories, beginning with Notre Dame in week two, while redshirt junior middle linebacker Kenny Demens recorded 12 tackles in that win over the Fighting Irish and 10 stops, including a sack, in a 4224 triumph at Northwestern. Junior Brandin Hawthorne, who stepped in for an injured Herron, had 10 tackles in a week-three win over Eastern Michigan, and had nine tackles with a key interception in the comeback victory in Evanston. But the impact has not been there week after week. Hawthorne finished with five or fewer tackles in 32��� the wolverine��� ������ November 2011 first eight games of the season. By comparison, Michigan State sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen (six sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss) had that many by himself after eight games. ���We���re not making the gamechanging plays, whether it be a tackle for loss, a sack, a hurry, a deflection,��� Smith said. ���We try to blitz these linebackers a lot, and we have to improve on our blitz technique. We seem to get too wide or we don���t get wide enough. We get cut blocked. ���You have to be able to get some pressure on the quarterback, if not a sack, at least hurry him. ���I���m proud of my guys. They���re giving great effort, and they���ve progressively gotten a little bit better, but we need to get better quicker, in bigger jumps, if we want to be a championship team. ���You want them to make more plays, and right now, we���re not getting enough plays out of the line- backers, plays that change the game.��� Demens should be the most consistent of the bunch after entering 2011 with the most experience, starting seven contests during his sophomore campaign. Demens led the Wolverines in stops with 55 through eight games, but he���s contributed five or fewer tackles in four contests. He hasn���t met expectations ��� his or Smith���s. ���On a scale of 1-10, I���d say he���s been average,��� Smith said. ���That���s being honest and up front about it, and that���s no secret I haven���t told Kenny. We have to play better at that spot and at all three spots.��� ���There are a lot of things I can be doing better,��� Demens added. ���Gap control, reads, getting off blocks. And I need to make plays when they���re in front of me. I need to get the job done more consistently.��� Ryan has started every game at the strongside linebacker post, taking over in the opener after a back injury sidelined redshirt sophomore Cam Gordon. Ryan was a revelation early, seemingly making big play after big play when the Wolverines needed one, but he���s been largely ineffective in conference competition, contributing just six total stops in four Big Ten games. ���We���re not going to accept mediocrity,��� Smith said. ���To say ���OK, he���s a redshirt freshman��� is an excuse. We don���t want him to have any excuses, and we don���t make any excuses for him. ���Granted our kids will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but the goal is to eliminate as many as we can and play as fast and as physical as we can. At times, Jake has done that, and at times, he hasn���t. But he���s not the only one.��� Ryan may be hitting the freshman wall, and he will have to prove himself capable in the final month or risk losing his job to Gordon, who is now finally healthy. ���We���re going to play the best player, and if Cam shows he���s able to do the things we need him to do, we have no problem playing him,��� Smith said. Redshirt junior Kenny Demens (shown at far right, along with Brandin Hawthorne) notched 55 tackles in Michigan���s first eight games this season and ranked 15th in the Big Ten with 6.9 stops per game. photo by lon horwedel

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