Entering 2013 spring practices, Jake Ryan was considered one of a few defensive players of interest.
Is Ryan the defense's most important player this spring?
Had he not suffered an ACL injury, he would have been a strong contributor in the fall for the Michigan Wolverines, who finished 7-6 in 2013.
This year, the circumstances are the same but different. Ryan is once again a player to watch on defense—if not the player to watch—and he’s expected to be one of Team 135’s top linebackers.
The only differences are that he’s healthy and at a new position, making the switch from SAM to MIKE for his final year in Ann Arbor.
He's one of our best football players instinctively, but when he's playing SAM and you face those detached formations, it gets him away from the action at times. Just think back to the Ohio (State) game, where we had a guy who is a pretty daggone good football player and he's out of the box not (being able to) make plays.
This will give him an opportunity to be more prolific for us.
One season remains for Ryan, who, when fully functional, is without question one of the Big Ten's top linebackers. After his solid 2012 season, a reasonable argument could have been made for his place in the nation's top 10.
However, those individual accolades likely mean little to the eyes and ears of the defense. Being in the middle should only increase Ryan's overall reach on the field, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison certainly needs a reliable playmaker this fall.
Progress starts now.
Unfortunately, most of the material referencing Ryan’s abilities is dated—he didn’t join the Wolverines until Oct. 12 against Penn State.
That being said, the linebacker didn’t exactly need another year to carve out a reputation as a hard-hitting ball hawk—that was known prior to the 2013 Outback Bowl.
After viewing film, former Gamecocks receiver Ace Sanders said the following about Ryan’s presence, per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com:
The first thing I see is 47 flying across the field. That guy's a monster. Saw it right away.
Every time he tackles you, you know it. It hurts. Some people make tackles, and you just bounce up. But he makes those tackles, and he plants you into the ground. He’s just relentless.
Thirty tackles don't scream "monster." However, it's fair to assume that Ryan was never 100 percent despite reports stating that he began feeling better toward the conclusion of 2013.
|2012||88 (led team)||13||6.76|
Leads by Example
The senior touch is usually appreciated, and Mattison’s linebackers will have to adapt—they’re young, and they’re under (kind of) new supervision now that Mattison is diverting most of his focus to linebackers.
The young players may not be used to such change, but Ryan’s been around long enough to cope with staff alterations. Being a veteran has its benefits, and since he’s already well-respected among teammates, Ryan’s role of leader should carry some weight.
He’ll talk. They’ll listen. That’s how it’ll go.
In November, teammate Allen Gant, who moved from linebacker to safety after Ryan's injury, said the following about Ryan's persuasion, per Bill Landis of Cleveland.com:
He helped us through everything. I’ve had a great relationship with him. Coming from safety, I didn’t know much about linebacker. During the summer and through his rehab he took me under his wing and helped me progress.
Toward the end of the year, Hoke knew the deal.
Forcing Ryan back too quickly or expecting too much from him would have been counterproductive. At the time of his statement, the Wolverines were out of Big Ten title contention.
Hoke on LB Jake Ryan - Has given us a ton of leadership on & off the field, but we don't want to push him too fast. #B1GCoaches— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) November 12, 2013
Save Ryan for 2014. Seeing how that unfolds will be a key storyline, and it'll start in spring.
Kenny Demens left two years ago, Cam Gordon just completed his final year. Hoke needs a standout senior to top his stock of linebackers.
Of course, leadership—outlined above—is part of the experience factor. On paper, having a guy with regular playing time looks better than a starting lineup clustered with green redshirts.
|James Ross III||SO/JR||6'1"/220|
|Allen Gant||RS FR/RS SO||6'2"/212|
MGoBlue; *eligibility at start of 2013 season; UM signed 2014 LBs Noah Furbush, Chase Winovich and Michael Ferns.
Tabbing Ryan as the "pulse of the defense" would be an understatement. He's the pain, passion and energy that drives Mattison's group.
How's a 6'3", 240-pound heart and life force?
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81