Michigan Defense Preview: The Front Seven
I wrote up previews for offense in two parts, Part I and Part II. The Wolverine defense will be vastly different from last season with a new coordinator and a new system for them (unlike the offense) the players may have to adjust to the new alignments more this up coming seasons, which may in turn put pressure on the Michigan offense to perform.
First let's talk about the new coordinator Greg Robinson. Robinson is well known for being the most recent fired Head Coach at Syracuse, before that he was the defensive coordinator at Texas, and the Denver Broncos, winning a championship with both teams.
Robinson runs a 3-4 scheme where the defensive linemen are generally used to occupy the linemen while the linebackers take up the field and tackle whoever is carrying the ball while not being blocked.
If there is anybody on the Michigan defense who knows how to occupy offensive linemen it's senior Defensive End Brandon Graham. Graham was one of the best linemen in the conference this past season leading the team in sacks, in spite of the fact that he was injured for several games last year and was also double teamed in every game he played that season. He could be a blessing or a curse for this team depending on how well the other guys up front play, and how often this team brings serious pressure.
Joining Graham up front will be sophomores Nose Tackle Mike Martin and Tackle Ryan Van Bergen. Both of whom, in spite of not being starters, had substantial playing time last season.
Martin, at 6'2" 292 lbs, is considered a player with a very large upside for this team. Last season he led all freshmen with 20 tackles, playing every single game. He also came up big in the clutch making two big plays in the comeback victory over Wisconsin. He stopped PJ Hill from behind short of a first on a third down late in the fourth quarter, then hit quarterback Allen Everidge as he was attempting a pass on the two point conversion that would have tied the game and sent it to overtime.
Van Bergen mostly played defensive end last year, coming in to replace Graham or Tim Jamison whenever either one of them was tired. If there is any player who may need to adjust to the system more it may be him. He was used to playing in the 4-3 and was seldom double teamed the way Graham was. Hopefully for the Wolverines, he's improved in the offseason.
Backing them up will be upperclassmen Dominique Ware, Renaldo Sagesse, Greg Banks, Adam Patterson, and Tim North. As well as freshmen Will Campbell, Anthony LaLota, and Nathan Brink.
Campbell comes in as the jewel of the most recent recruiting class as a Rivals.com five-star 6'5" 318 lb tackle. He will get some playing time this season, although it his highly unlikely that he will start this year. LaLaota also comes in as a highly touted recruit as an end and should see substantial playing time as well. Both of them enrolled early and participated in spring practice, so they know their way around the defense.
Of the upperclassmen listed above, only Greg Banks has experience that doesn't involve goal line situations and special teams.
This brings up another major issue for the defense as a whole. Experience further down on the depth chart. If one of the top three linemen get hurt then whoever steps in is either going to be a freshman, or a guy who's barely had any playing time in the past. This will be a concern for this team once the season starts.
The Linebacking core will be shaken up by the 3-4 system, with new players and new responsibilities. On the outside there will likely be Stevie Brown and Brandon Herron, in the middle will be Obi Ezeh, and on the inside is Jonas Mouton.
Brown, Ezeh, and Mouton were all defensive starters last season. Brown was a free safety who bulked up during the offseason to play a nickel/LB hybrid position called "the spinner." Ezeh, a junior, was a standout his redshirt freshman year in 2007, breaking up a crucial pass in the Capitol One Bowl against Florida and becoming one of the leaders on the defense last season. He started every game last season, led the team in tackles with 98, and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten.
Mouton, another junior, was solid as a weakside linebacker, was second on the team in tackles with 76. He will be expected to have a very good season if he stays healthy.
Herron is a redshirt sophomore who, at the moment, seems to have beat out Junior Marell
Evans for the job of outside linebacker. He also, it seems, is going to be the primary blitzer from that position. Brown will probably play more of a read-and-react role as a linebacker, looking out for running back and covering the tight end on the outside, while occasionally blitzing.
Backing them up will be Evans, Kevin Leach, JB Fitzgerald, who are all at least sophomores on the team. The freshmen backups at linebacker will be Brandin Hawthorne, Brandon Smith (redshirt last year), Isiah Bell, Craig Roh, and Mike (who?) Jones (I couldn't resist).
If Michigan's defense wants to avoid having an untested freshman play at linebacker they hope that their starting four remain healthy. If they do, and the freshmen are able to get playing time an experience without lots of pressure they will be able to ease into position when the current starters graduate.
On both parts a lot of the success depends on two things: staying healthy and providing pressure. If the Michigan defense can do that they will be able to get more stops and give up less points. Of course it will help a lot if the offense is able to posses the ball and score and keep the defense off the field as much as possible and fresh for when they need to be there.
In practice reports on the athletic department website, it seems like the defense performs best when the offense is in bad field position. It also, appeared to be a 50-50 split when the offense had to drive the ball from the opposing 20. We'll see whether that is because of the offense being better or the defense being worse, however, it is clear that field position will be a key. Thankfully they will have Zoltan Mesko to take care of that.
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