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April 16, 2013As Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has said time and time again, the middle and weakside linebacker spots in the Wolverines' 4-3 scheme are very similar to each other.
But there are subtle differences. And junior Desmond Morgan, who spent the last two seasons as a WILL, is in the process of finding those out. Although the coaching staff expects Morgan and the rest of the linebackers to be able to switch between both spots, Morgan has worked exclusively in the middle this season.
For starters, the MIKE and WILL have very different responsibilities in the passing game. Morgan explained that the WILL keys on the flats, covering slots and wide receivers there. As a MIKE, Morgan will be covering backs and tight ends in the middle.
Morgan believes he is more suited to the coverage schemes in the middle, and has jumped right into the position.
"Playing in space was something I definitely had to adjust to my first two years here, because I wasn't used to that in high school," Morgan said. "I was always more of an inside-the-box guy. Going back over to the MIKE, I feel a little more comfortable because of that, in a sense. During the spring, it has been an adjustment, but it is also something I grew up playing."
The biggest adjustment for Morgan during his move to the middle has been the vocalization that is required from the MIKE.
The middle linebacker is, as the old saying goes, the quarterback of the defense. In Morgan's first two years as a starter, the defensive playcalling responsibilities were handled by now-graduated MIKE Kenny Demens.
"I would say that is definitely one of the main differences," Morgan said. "Being the WILL with Kenny over there the last two years, the MIKE was the more vocal leader, sat in the front and made a lot of checks and things. Kenny was making those and I was echoing them. So I have worked on my communication to get everyone where they're supposed to be."
Morgan said he now feels comfortable in the middle. And the coaches are starting to take notice, too.
"Desmond had a very good spring," Mattison said. "He showed what we're looking for from a linebacker position, being more vocal, getting everybody set, his footwork has improved a great deal, his strength; he's just starting to understand more and more every day what we expect from a linebacker.
"The next step is to become a better blitzer. He has to beat someone one-on-one. But I would say Desmond is one of the guys you would look at that you would say he had a good spring every day."
Behind him at MIKE, sophomore Joe Bolden took the majority of his snaps in the middle.
Sophomores James Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone are working mainly at WILL.
"James has made a lot of plays all spring," Morgan said of the likely starter. "He has made a lot of plays all spring and really understands that he is the key guy in this defense. He understands the defense better. Having a year under his belt, you could tell he felt more comfortable, just as a lot of the young guys have: Joe Bolden, Kaleb Ringer. Everyone is progressing through and understanding how things fit together."
So far, Morgan has liked what he has seen from the MIKE and WILL spots.
"We have really worked on our pass coverage this spring, playing with our eyes and seeing where to quarterback is looking to react off that," Morgan said. "I think we have improved there. We're playing more downhill, and that helps with run fits. We wanted to be a feared linebacking corps. We have set that as our goal, and we have improved in that area.
"And depth is something that will be crucial this season. The way that college football is played now, a lot of teams are playing fast-paced, hurry-up styles. You need guys rotating to stay fresh during the game. That is one of the things they have always told you: we're going to play multiple guys, so everyone needs to know their role. It helps as the game goes on."