Since Michigan's Jake Ryan will most likely miss all or most of the upcoming season due to Tuesday's torn ACL, a replacement must be found at strong-side linebacker where Ryan started 24 games over the last two seasons.
Thanks to the patience of a talented veteran and a much deeper defensive unit, Ryan's loss will not be a crippling blow.
Replacing Ryan's 125 tackles, 27 TFLs and 7.5 sacks in two seasons of work won't be easy. U-M fans will miss the havoc he created in opposing backfields.
Ryan, now a redshirt junior, burst onto the scene during the 2011 spring game when he returned a Devin Gardner pass for a touchdown and often harassed then-quarterback Denard Robinson.
"You always hate when anyone gets injured, and unfortunately we've dealt with our share of injuries in the last 12 months," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement via mgoblue.com. "We will support Jake to make sure he has everything he needs to get through this. I know he will attack his rehabilitation just like he does everything else and will be back when he's ready."
Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will most likely turn to redshirt senior Cam Gordon, a 6"3", 233-pound holdover from the Rich Rodriguez regime.
Gordon appeared to be a star in the making back in 2010 when he made 77 tackles and was named to the CollegeFootballNews.com Freshman All-America Second Team. After a back injury slowed him during 2011, Gordon slowly returned to his former self, posting 17 tackles including three TFLs in 2012.
Before Ryan's injury, Hoke spoke so highly of Gordon that he figured Ryan and Gordon could get onto the field at the same time. "Cam’s had a tremendous winter," Hoke said at his pre-spring press conference (via mgoblog.com). "It will be exciting and fun to see the different things that we might be able to do with both of them on the field."
Instead, Hoke must turn his attention to finding a backup for Gordon, or for that matter, a player who might beat him out.
Here are the six Wolverines who could challenge Gordon for the starting SAM position:
Royce Jenkins-Stone: 6'2", 215 lbs, SO
One of several Wolverines from Detroit Cass Tech, Jenkins-Stone played mainly on special teams in 2012. Rated as the nation's No. 9 outside linebacker by ESPN.com, he was also a U.S. Army All-American.
Jenkins-Stone arrived at Michigan with the reputation as an excellent run-stopper, in addition to possessing good coverage skills.
Projection: solid backup.
Mario Ojemudia: 6'3", 244 lbs, SO
With the current glut at weak-side defensive end, Ojemudia has plenty of quickness to slide over to the SAM linebacker spot. By September, Ojemudia will have a full season and spring practice behind him, so bouncing around from one position to another should not be a problem.
The 4-star recruit from Farmington Hills, MI is a natural for the “joker position” which is simply a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. Michigan could use Ojemudia in that role when defensive coordinator Mattison dials up the 3-4 defensive scheme.
Projection: Plenty of reps at multiple positions.
Joe Bolden: 6'3", 222 lbs, SO
Kenny Demen's backup at middle linebacker in 2012, Bolden was slated to take over in 2013.
But the emergence of James Ross III at WILL and Hoke's desire to keep Desmond Morgan on the field might result in Bolden playing SAM on occasion. He will definitely see time at both MIKE and WILL, but Hoke is looking for more pressure on the quarterback in addition to better pass coverage from the linebacking group.
Even with Ryan's injury, Michigan has plenty of options: Should Michigan suffer another injury, you could see Bolden in a variety of roles.
Projection: Starter at MIKE to start the season.
Kaleb Ringer: 6'1", 236 lbs., RS FR
The nephew of former Michigan State and current NFL running back Javon Ringer, Kaleb missed all of 2012 recuperating from knee surgery. How fast Ringer gets back into playing shape will obviously determine his immediate future.
Mike McCray, 6'2", 220 lbs., FR
McCray's dad was a captain at Ohio State, so the pedigree is there.
A 4-star recruit from Trotwood-Madison (Ohio), McCray could also play all three linebacker positions. He was forced to miss the Under Armour All-American Game, but should be fully recovered when he arrives in June. Projection: Redshirt.
Ben Gedeon: 6'2", 200 lbs., FR
Another 4-star (Hudson) Ohio product, Gedeon is Scout.com's No.14-ranked outside linebacker.