The Wolverine

2014 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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THE WOLVERINE 2014 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 155 LB athleticism to disengage, or slide past, blockers. The Sam spot is not yet his, though, with Ross readying to reclaim his role this season. "James is a good football player, and he's not out of this by a long shot," Mattison said. "He's someone we can put on the edge when we go with a bigger look [a traditional 4-3], and he can cover people better than other linebackers because of his speed. "He can be a bonus that way because if we get caught with the of- fense showing us a look we're not expecting, like putting a receiver out in the slot, he can handle that coverage assignment better than some others that play that position." In a perfect world — whether it's Bolden or Morgan, Jenkins-Stone or Ross — the weakside and strongside linebackers would serve as complementary pieces because the middle backers are almost always the most important players. Consider that of U-M's eight first-team All-American linebackers, seven were inside linebackers — John Anderson in 1977 is the lone outside backer to receive the honor — including Larry Foote in 2001 and Jarrett Irons in 1996. "Ray Lewis. That's the prototype," said Mattison, who coached Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens from 2008-10. "Another kid by the name of John Offerdahl has his name on the wall with the Miami Dolphins. I coached him at Western Michigan, and his freshman year he led the MAC in tackles and ended up being a second-round draft choice and was All-Pro. He was 6-3, became strong and physical, and he was always around the ball, making the plays that needed to be made. "Our linebackers should lead the team in tackles. I made that point this spring. I'd have the laser pointer on when we were watching film, and I'd say, 'This is a good play. Why? Because both inside lineback- ers are on the tackle.' If your defensive line does its job, your inside linebackers better lead the team in tackles." PRESEASON ANALYSIS: LINEBACKERS Starters ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ Michigan's starters at weakside and strongside linebacker will be decided in fall camp, but with four upperclassmen on the two-deep competing for those spots the coaches feel confident a consistently strong player will emerge to flank fifth-year senior Jake Ryan. He's the key because a great defense and linebacker corps builds around its middle backer, and in Ryan the Wolverines should feature one of the Big Ten's best. Depth ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ U-M's linebacker corps includes four players with starting experience: senior Desmond Morgan (31 starts), Ryan (29), junior James Ross III (11) and junior Joe Bolden (four), while sophomore Ben Gedeon also appeared in six games a reserve linebacker in 2013. Michigan's second-stringers would probably be good enough to start for most Big Ten teams, and if a starter goes down the drop-off will not be significant. X-Factor Michigan has not boasted a great middle linebacker since David Harris earned second- team All-America honors in 2006. That season, Harris racked up 14 tackles for loss and three sacks in leading the Wolverines to an 11-2 mark. In the seven seasons since, U-M's starting Mike linebackers have averaged 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 QB takedowns per year, failing to perform as difference-makers. A strongside linebacker from 2011-13, Ryan showcased an ability to do just that, registering 7.5 sacks among 31.5 tackles for loss, and at his new position in the middle, he needs to translate his playmaking potential into plays. Overall ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ Last year should serve as a cautionary tale about putting high expectations on a particular unit after coaches, players and the media pegged the defensive line to be among the Big Ten's best and the group struggled mightily. Sometimes, though, play- ers and position groups do live up to the hype, and Michigan's linebackers hold that promise. They are talented, but more importantly they are experienced and proven performers. With Greg Mattison their personal tutor, this group really should be among the conference's best. Note: Star rankings are made on a scale of 1-5 stars. Senior Desmond Morgan has started 31 games in his first three seasons at U-M, and at least seven contests each fall, posting a combined total of 217 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss, in his career. PHOTO BY TIM NELSON 152-158.LBs.indd 155 6/20/14 9:16 AM

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