The Michigan Wolverines spring game will kick off on April 13 in Michigan Stadium at 1:00 p.m. ET. This is the time for fans to catch a sneak peak of what to expect this upcoming season, for coaches to experiment with a few things and for players to prove they deserve to crack the two-deep depth chart.
There will be plenty of things to keep an eye on, but the defensive side of the ball may be the most important. The defense has improved drastically over the years and if Michigan truly wants to take that step as far as competing for a Big Ten title and reaching another BCS bowl game, this is where it all starts.
While the spring game should never be taken too seriously, as this is simply a glorified scrimmage, there are things you should be looking for as a fan. Progress should be made in certain areas, players should step up and things should be accomplished to help you go to sleep at night knowing your team is doing alright.
On the defensive side of the ball, here are a couple of things you should want to see.
The Jake Ryan Replacements Perform
The talk of the defense is going to be the fact that Jake Ryan is injured and will likely miss the entire upcoming season. Hey, did you know Ryan has a torn ACL and won't be able to go this year? Even if you did, you will continue to be reminded by commentators and Michigan fans that believe the sky is falling on us all.
Now that we can move past all of this, it is time to see how the replacements are going to step up. This is the chance for both Cameron Gordon and Brennen Beyer perform, as those will be the two guys who will be forced to shoulder the load. Gordon provides experience playing last season and picking up 17 tackles, but it is Beyer who could make all of the difference in the world this year.
Beyer hasn't seen significant playing time the last two years and has spent most of his time on the field at defensive end. With the injury to Ryan, Beyer moves back to linebacker, a position he played his freshman year, and Wolverines want to see him blossom in a big way.
From a strong-side linebacker, you want somebody who can shed blocks, play with a high motor and run through guys to make the tackle. This type of ability jumps off the screen when watching some high school film on Beyer. Here you see the young man driving back the right guard into the running back, shedding the block and tackling the ball carrier for a loss. While he lined up as a defensive end on this play, much of the same principles hold when playing strong-side linebacker.
Beyer is a physical and nasty player, who gets after it and plays the game like his hair is on fire. This style of play is exactly what Michigan needs to replace one of its defensive leaders and arguably best player on this side of the ball. Gordon is considered the front-runner for the position, but I think Beyer may have the biggest impact, and Michigan fans need to see him take that step forward in the spring game.
Defensive Line Pressure
Michigan had one of its better defenses in recent memory last year, but lack of pressure from the defensive line was the major flaw. Finishing the season with only 22 sacks and three quarterback hurries is simply not good enough to be considered elite in today's game. To make matters worse, Ryan was the sack leader last season, finishing the year with five sacks and two of those quarterback hurries.
Whether you were watching the game against Notre Dame:
Ohio State (Notice the circled left guard having the privilege of pretty much taking this play off):
Or even Illinois. Michigan struggled mightily all season long to get to the opposing quarterback. Guys couldn't shed blocks on one-on-one matchups, blitzes were rarely effective and there were a few big plays in the passing game produced due to the lack of pressure in the quarterbacks face. It doesn't matter how great the secondary is; players can only cover for so long until somebody will get open on the opposing team.
This is an area that must improve right away and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison knows it, as he recently told Perry A. Farrell of the Detroit Free Press:
"I want a defensive line that says, 'Coach, don't blitz, let us get there with four men,' " Mattison said. "When you have that, then you've got your defense where you want it.
"We've spent more time this spring working on pass-rush techniques, trying to get more pressure with a four-man front than we've ever done.
Going up against an offensive line that only returns two starters from last season, this will be the perfect opportunity for the defensive front to build some confidence. If guys can't get to the quarterback in the spring game, it would then be time to hit the panic button if you are a Wolverines fan.
Development of the Young Secondary
Last season Michigan was tied with Boise State for the fifth-best pass defense in the country. When the team takes the field for the spring game, a lot of those guys won't be participating, including J.T. Floyd and Jordan Kovacs, as well as Blake Countess, who is still recovering from a torn ACL. This now leaves many young players in the mix fighting for playing time.
The good news is that senior cornerback Courtney Avery told
"They're just really coming into themselves and having more fun, making plays and celebrating plays," Avery said this week. "Those are the things you want to see. You want to see those confidence-building plays. Especially at such a lonely position at corner."
One of the players to watch closely in the spring game is 2013 recruit Dymonte Thomas, who is fighting for immediate playing time at the safety position. Arguably the top recruit for Michigan from the entire 2013 class, Thomas brings toughness and terrific instincts that you usually don't see from such a young player. Although the safety position looks a little better than corner at the moment, Avery told Meinke that the depth in the defensive backfield makes the overall team better.
"It definitely helps having a lot of depth," he said. "You know you have to bring it every day because there's a guy behind you waiting for his opportunity. So it's just a mixture of helping those guys out and also competing every single day you come in."
Keeping a close eye on the defensive front and linebacker position is a little more important, but seeing some of the younger guys in the secondary make plays should be another encouraging sign from this Michigan defense.