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August 22, 2013After Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spoke with members of the Media inside Al Glick Fieldhouse Wednesday afternoon, redshirt junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan popped out of the locker room and strolled the length of the football field toward the exit.
There were not crutches. There was no limp. To an unkeen observer, there was no way of telling that Ryan, in his maize-and-blue sweats, had suffered an ACL injury last spring.
Ryan's fast recovery - which has even surprised Mattison and Michigan coach Brady Hoke - has been remarkable. But if (or, more accurately, when) Ryan gets back on the field in 2013, the Wolverines will already be deep into the season.
To make up for Ryan's absence at SAM, Michigan has relied on fifth-year senior Cam Gordon, who tallied an impressive 77 tackles as a safety and hybrid linebacker in 2010 but has accounted for just 21 stops since Hoke took over in 2011, and junior Brennen Beyer, who has bounced from linebacker to defensive end and back again since joining the team in 2011.
"There is a little chip on our shoulders, as far as the whole SAM backers' room," Gordon said. "We don't want there to be any drop because Jake is out. There is a standard for the position, and we plan on living up to that standard."
Mattison has never been short on his praise for Ryan, who led the team in tackles (88), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (four) last season.
He knows that Gordon and Beyer have big shoes to fill, but he has been very pleased with what he has seen from the two of them so far.
"Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer are doing very well," Mattison said. "They are both competing like crazy. I don't think if you asked them, they would say, 'Who is first string today?' They both know that they are both equal, and they are both going to be a really big part of what we're going to do on defense. I have been really pleased with that position, and I would expect that from them, because they have both been around here and played a lot of football."
Mattison has seen the two develop nicely. And a big part of that is their familiarity with the SAM position.
"Cam is the 235-pound version of a guy who has played the same position since we got here," Mattison said. "He's not an ex-safety or an ex-wide receiver. He understands what he has to do, and the physicality it takes at that position."
Gordon arrived in Ann Arbor as a wide receiver, moved to safety and then to a hybrid safety-linebacker position in Rich Rodriguez's 3-4 scheme in 2010 and then settled into his new home at strongside outside linebacker in 2011.
"It was a little [frustrating]," Gordon admitted. "At the same time, I was always doing it for the team. If the coaches needed me to play some type of position, I would do it for the team."
After two seasons in the system, Gordon has a level of expertise at the SAM that he was previously incapable of achieving, because of the constant position switches.
"When I think about it, there were a lot of times last year when I would have to go back into the playbook," he said. "This year, I already knew what we were installing. I knew the plays. It was good.
"It's funny. Every position I have played, I can take things from that and apply it to this position. Even as a wide receiver, things like getting off the ball fast. With the Sam position, there are a lot of opportunities to make plays. You're in on the tight end, then split out on the second receiver. There is a lot of room to play free."
Beyer is in a similar position, beginning his career at strongside outside linebacker, where he played in nine games in 2011. Last year, he started nine games at defensive end, and appeared in all 13 games.
He made the switch back to SAM in the spring, after Ryan's injury left the Wolverines thin at the position.
"He has progressed a lot," Gordon said. "Coming from having your hand in the dirt to having to stand up, it's a little bit of a challenge, but I think he has adjusted well."
At this point, Gordon and Beyer are both set to see the field this season.
Whereas Ryan took the vast majority of the snaps at SAM in 2012, the duo will most likely tag-team the position until Ryan can work himself back into the fold.
"I could easily see those guys rotating equally throughout the game," Mattison said. "Again, when Jake was here, Cam was one year removed from being a safety or a wide receiver or whatever position he played. And he was 218 pounds, compared to 235. And you had Brennen, who was a rush. It's a real plus for us to have two hard-nosed kids competing there and trying to get better every day."