Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

In the first part of this series, I looked at Michigan's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.

 

Defensive Overview

2010 scoring defense: 35.2 PPG (11th in the conference)

Total defense: 450.8 YPG (11th)

Rushing defense: 4.43 YPC (seventh)

Passing efficiency allowed: 144.79 (ninth).

Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.4

Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: fourth (2006, 2007).

Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2010).

Returning starters: DE Craig Roh, DT Mike Martin, DL Ryan Van Bergen, LB Kenny Demens, LB Thomas Gordon, CB Troy Woolfolk, CB J.T. Floyd, CB Courtney Avery, S Jordan Kovacs, S Ray Vinopal and S Cam Gordon.

Open positions: DE, LB.

 

Defensive Breakdown

Over the last three years, the once Bo Schembechler-led team has come in 10th, eighth and 11th in conference scoring defense. If there was any element of Michigan under Rich Rodgriguez that was absolutely stunning, that was it.

Last year, Michigan had a worse defense (statistically) than Indiana. Often, when watching the defense, it not only looked like they were out of position or possessed some fundamental, fixable flaw; it looked like they were timid and afraid to tackle. At times, they looked like they were playing flag football.

I have no idea what Rodriguez and former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson were trying to accomplish, but that will presumably change under Hoke. Or will it?

The fact is, despite his reputation and background, Hoke is decidedly an offense-first coach and the numbers bear that out. In eight years as a head coach (he has never worked as a coordinator), Hoke has never had a scoring defense in the top 20. He has only once had a defense in the top 30 (Ball State was No. 29 in 2008).

More often than not, Hoke's defenses have been mediocre at best and lousy at worst. He has yet to field anything resembling an elite defense.

The argument that you can't field an "elite" defense at Ball State or San Diego State due to an inability to recruit the necessary players flies out the window when one looks at Temple last year or Northern Illinois any of the last few years.

On the other hand, if Hoke hopes to remedy his past defensive woes, he has certainly hired the right defensive coordinator.

Like OC Al Borges, DC Greg Mattison has been around the mulberry bush quite a few times, though unlike Borges, Mattison is associated most heavily with the Big Ten, both geographically and professionally.

Mattison is a native Wisconsinite, and has coached on three different Big Ten teams, plus Western Michigan and Notre Dame.

Mattison will scrap Rodriguez's mess of a 3-3-5 scheme (the one many Michigan fans were singing the praises of before last season) and move back to a traditional 4-3. But more importantly, he will stress and drill the importance of basic fundamentals. By the time he has his defense in place, they will once again be an aggressive team that knows how to tackle. That is not in doubt.

Despite Hoke's record, I do expect the Michigan D to improve under Mattison. I expect to see an aggressive front four that looks to control the line of scrimmage. I expect to see linebackers that stay in their positions and flow to the ball. I expect to see a disciplined, athletic secondary. In short, I expect to see a fundamentally sound defensive squad.

The questions are: how much will they improve, how long will it take for this improvement to manifest itself, and just how will that translate to results on the field?

 

Defensive Line

Mattison's defensive philosophy starts with squashing the run. This begins with technically sound, responsible and aggressive defensive line play.

Following spring practice, the depth chart has junior Craig Roh and senior Ryan Van Bergen manning the ends, and senior Mike Martin and junior Will Campbell inside.

Quinton Washington is a sophomore that will also see significant playing time at defensive tackle. Also, Van Bergen can play inside or outside. Finally, sophomore Jibreel Black will see reps at end. Otherwise, Michigan will be depending upon a lot of unproven sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen to fill out the depth chart.

There is a lot to like about the Michigan defensive line and a lot to worry about.

The player to definitively like is Mike Martin. He will be a three-year starter, is a returning all-conference player, and this season, he will be one of the five best linemen in the Big Ten.

Ryan Van Bergen will also be a three-year starter, though he has suffered from inconsistency. He has had moments where he has matched Martin's play, and other moments where he has disappeared. In my opinion, Van Bergen will benefit greatly from Mattison's tutelage, and this could be the year that he puts it all together.

Craig Roh will be another three-year starter, though Roh has alternated between linebacker and end. He never looked at home at linebacker, and is much more suited to playing with a hand on the ground.

Still, as the probable starting rush end, Roh is the player that really needs to turn it up. The junior started five games at end last season (in the abortive 3-3-5, unlike this season). In those games he registered one tackle-for-loss, one quarterback hurry and no sacks. He needs to make his presence more keenly felt.

In preparation for his new role, Roh has been putting on weight like a madman, but will the added bulk help him win battles with left tackles?

At 330 lbs., Campbell has no problems with weight, but he has to begin to live up to expectations. He came to the Michigan program as a massively-hyped five-star prospect, but he has yet to make a name for himself on the playing field.

Is Campbell just another big body that pushed around high school competition, or can he learn to become a dominant player at the collegiate (and eventually pro) level? Will he be the next Gabe Watson?

If he doesn't improve, look for Quinton Washington to push hard for more playing time.

After that, it is pointless naming names. As previously mentioned, the depth chart will be littered with a bevy of inexperienced players. My guess is that it will include a true freshman or two.

Whichever of these inexperienced players steps up will get his spot on the two-deep. Nevertheless, the drop off from the first string to the second string will, in all probability, be substantial.

If Martin or Van Bergen get injured, the defensive front could evaporate.

That said, I feel the overall group will benefit greatly from the scheme and coaching change. That will be especially true of Van Bergen. If Roh can become more of a presence and if Campbell or Washington can become a 60-80 down player that embraces assignment football, there is substantial upside for this group.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 7

 

Linebackers

Linebackers were arguably the most disappointing position group from the Rich Rodriguez experiment. Almost without exception, the linebacker play for the last three years has been sloppy, tentative and ugly to watch.

Thankfully for Wolverine fans, one linebacker finally stepped up at the end of the last season, and he will have the opportunity to develop his game under coaches that know what tackling is.

That linebacker is junior Kenny Demens. In limited playing time (Demens only started seven games in 2010), Demens came third on the team in tackles. He is instinctive, aggressive and physical. He is by far the best linebacker on the Michigan roster, and he will start in the middle or MIKE.

The other two starting linebacker spots will be heavily contested.

At the other inside spot, or WILL, the top candidates are juniors Mike Jones and Brandin Hawthorne and seniors J.B. Fitzgerald and Marell Evans.

Fitzgerald is the only one of this group that has any notable experience, having started three games last season and having appeared in 37 games throughout his career. The problem is that he has been inconsistent.

The top candidates for the outside backer, or SAM, are Fitzgerald, redshirt freshman Jake Ryan and sophomore Cam Gordon.

Gordon spent a good deal of time last year at the safety-hybrid position. He certainly has the speed to cover receivers, but at just under 210 lbs., he is small for an outside backer that regularly has to go up against tight ends and fullbacks. Against a physical team like Michigan State or Wisconsin, Gordon would likely get buried alive.

Nonetheless, one of spring practice's biggest position battles was between Ryan and Gordon. Expect that competition to continue into the summer.

One other linebacker of note is senior Brandon Herron, who will compete with Evans and Fitzgerald for the backup MIKE spot.

Unlike defensive line, there are a lot of bodies at linebacker, all of whom will push each other. Regardless of who plays, the unit be stronger than it was under Rich Rodriguez.

However, the only established linebacker is Kenny Demens. Everybody else is either an upperclassman that probably has to relearn the fundamentals of his position or is an underclassman with no experience.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 10

 

Secondary

Last season, Michigan's secondary was deplorable, though given the attrition that took place, that was hardly unexpected. For much of the season, the Wolverine defensive backs were two converted receivers, one true freshman and a former walk-on.

Alone, any one of these elements of the secondary could have done quite well. However, when you consider that the converted wide receivers had just converted, as a whole, it was a mess.

This season, the Michigan secondary will automatically get better as it returns two of the backs that got injured last year.

First of all, senior Troy Woolfolk was lost for 2010 with a leg injury. He is back for a sixth year and he will take over one of the cornerback spots.

The other spot will be manned by either junior J.T. Floyd or sophomore Courtney Avery, probably the latter. Both got plenty of playing time and took plenty of lumps last year. This year, neither will be as exploitable.

Other players of note are walk-on senior Tony Anderson and early enrollee Greg Brown. Both were impressive in the spring and have a good chance at earning playing time.

The starter at strong safety will be junior Jordan Kovacs. Kovacs is a former walk-on and was the team's second-leading tackler both of the last two years.

It is an indictment of the poor play of the linebackers that a safety had the second-most tackles two years in a row. Nevertheless, Kovacs makes up for any lack of athleticism with hard work, discipline and effort. He will be a player that the coaching staff will expect to be a leader.

The starting free safety coming out of spring was sophomore Carvin Johnson. Other sophomores Marvin Robinson and Thomas Gordan and freshman Josh Furman will also push hard for playing time.

Still, the starting free safety will probably be Johnson or Robinson.

Overall, as with the Penn State defensive line, I'm being stingy and conservative in my final ranking of the Michigan secondary. There are a lot of good and experienced players in this group and there is a fair amount of depth.

This bunch has a nice upside. I am just a bit gun shy given the mess that was 2010 and basically, the last three seasons. If everybody plays up to potential and adjusts to the new defense, there is no reason the UM secondary won't be in the top half of the conference.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 10

 

Specialists

If you thought the Michigan defense was bad in 2010, then you missed the field goal kicking. It was the worst Big Ten field goal kicking performance that I can remember.

The Wolverines alternated between two kickers, with a third that presumably couldn't beat out the other two (which is a scary thought). The two kickers in question were both freshmen—walk-on Seth Broekhuizen and scholarship athlete Brendan Gibbons.

The end results of their carnage was a total of four of 14 field goals made, or 28.6 percent. Unfortunately, neither was much better in the spring game.

In effect, it is likely that true freshman Matt Wile will be the kicker in 2011. After all, he can't possibly be worse than the kickers last year, can he?

The good news is that sophomore Will Hagerup has established himself as a solid punter with a strong leg. He struggled with consistency and placement issues early in the season, but turned it on as he gained more experience. He will be an asset to a defense that could use all the help it can get.

In the return game, UM returns every player that fielded a punt or kick in 2010. Overall, the 2010 results were mediocre, but there is reason for optimism, however guarded.

The top punt return man in 2010 was Jeremy Gallon. Michigan ranked eighth in the conference in punt return average, but out of the four players that returned at least one punt, Gallon had the lowest average by far. He was taken off punt return duties for the final few games of the season.

Gallon was also the top kickoff returner, but once again, out of the four primary return men, Gallon was almost at the bottom.

In fact, Martavious Odoms took over kickoff return duties during the bowl game and performed quite well.

The lack of a substantial return game in 2010 is somewhat surprising given that virtually every offensive player is a slot receiver. Slot receivers are built to make plays in space, i.e. in the return game (think Steve Breaston).

Next year, there will be a good deal of competition for the return spot. Almost any of the receivers would be a good fit.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11 

 

Coming tomorrow, the schedule and the final breakdown.


Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Load More Stories

Follow Michigan Wolverines Football from B/R on Facebook

Follow Michigan Wolverines Football from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Michigan Wolverines Football

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.