With star strong-side linebacker Jake Ryan out until mid-October, the Michigan Wolverines defense, particularly its linebackers, must approach the season with a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
Ryan, one of the nation’s elite, tore his ACL during spring practice. Typically, the injury requires a lengthy recovery period, but the junior’s progress has impressed the coaching staff. Should he return when predicted, Ryan will join his team in the nick of time.
On Oct. 12, Michigan plays Penn State in Happy Valley. On Oct. 19, Michigan hosts Indiana—and then comes the home stretch, with Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State waiting for their shot against coach Brady Hoke and Co.
Touting a strong defense, Michigan shouldn’t encounter many hurdles with Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon in as replacements. Both have experience that could pay off while they await Ryan’s return.
The Big Ten will provide a challenging race to the finish. According to ESPN, the Buckeyes are the No. 1 team in the country entering 2013; the Cornhuskers are ranked No. 22, and the Wildcats are No. 24.
There won’t be any easy weeks, just some more difficult than others—and the more difficult weeks aren’t until later in the year, when Ryan is scheduled to take the field.
Michigan Can Survive Prior to Big Games
If Ryan’s status is borderline in October, Hoke may choose to sit him until Nov. 2 against the Spartans, leaving the pressure on Beyer and Gordon to perform against Penn State and Indiana, the first real tests other than Notre Dame.
In Gordon’s case, that could be an advantage. Although at safety in 2010, he had a career-high 15 tackles in a 42-35 victory over the Hoosiers, who frequently used the aerial attack. If Ryan is out, Indiana may choose to run more, giving Gordon another opportunity to shine. Michigan’s secondary has improved. Indiana may not want to take the risk.
In a 41-31 loss to Penn State in 2010, Gordon, a freshman, had a respectable game with three tackles and a pass deflection. He hasn’t faced the Nittany Lions since. Aiding the Wolverines to a win this fall over a league contender would be the best-case scenario for Gordon; he’s stood up to conference foes—he’s not a newbie to the rigors of the B1G.
In 2012, Beyer averaged nearly two tackles per conference showdown. Switching positions is trying, but the former defensive end has played nine games at linebacker. His relocation shouldn’t be much of a liability.
Gordon and Beyer’s resumes indicate their effectiveness. However, replacing Ryan, an All-Big Ten second teamer, won’t be simple. Because of Ryan, Michigan’s defense wasn’t gouged by the run, giving up a modest 150 yards per outing. Now that he’s earned a reputation as a run-stopping dynamo, that average should decrease.
Gordon and Beyer just have to be steady, not great, replacements in his absence. Opposing coaches will likely devise game plans in an attempt to expose them.
What Ryan Means to Defense
When the lights are brightest, Ryan takes center stage. As a sophomore, he had nine tackles in a 26-21 loss to Ohio State and 10 in a 12-10 victory over Michigan State. As a freshman, he had seven tackles in a Sugar Bowl win.
Ryan’s motor can’t be questioned. He plays with intensity during every snap. However, he has an extra gear. Other than seven tackles each Saturday, Ryan is an emotional leader. The defense may lack certain zeal without Ryan, but it won’t shatter due to Beyer and Gordon.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81