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September 4, 2013It is not easy to replace a great player. Just ask Russ Rein and Chris Zurbrugg. But on Saturday, in their first action as Jake Ryan's replacements, fifth-year senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer combined for a career day at strongside linebacker.
"The SAMs played well," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "Both Cam and Brennen showed, just like they have in the spring, just like they have in summer camp, that they bring it every day."
Gordon recorded two sacks - the most by a U-M linebacker since Obi Ezeh had a pair in a 2007 week-10 victory over Michigan State - while Beyer had a sack, giving one position three QB takedowns. The two also combined for 4.5 tackles for loss, and seven total stops.
"We've been pushing each other a lot in practice, and working on our technique so it was fun to see it all come together on game day," said Beyer. "We've been working on pass rush and getting to the quarterback, and we were both able to do that. It was nice to see all the work we put in be rewarded in the game."
The nature of the SAM linebacker in Mattison's defense puts whoever plays that position in a spot to make plays. A year ago, Ryan had a team-high 16 tackles for loss, factoring into a TFL in 11 of 13 games, while Gordon added another three stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"[The SAM] plays multiple roles, plays on the line of scrimmage with their hand down, they play up over a tight end, but personally, I think a lot of it you've got to give credit to Cam and Brennen because of how hard they've worked and what they've done from a physical standpoint," head coach Brady Hoke said.
"I would also say that [outside linebackers coach] Roy Manning has done a really good job with those guys. Roy, being a former outside linebacker, speaks the same language and has been there before."
Saturday's performance was as dominant as one could expect when replacing a star performer. Few others over the past 25 years have been as productive, including Rein and Zurbrugg, who completed just 3 of 11 passes (27.3 percent) for 33 yards with three interceptions in relief of Jim Harbaugh during a 19-7 1984 loss to Michigan State.
To their credit, both played better the following week against Northwestern, going 9 for 12 (75.0 percent) for 87 yards and a score in a 31-0 blanking of the Wildcats, but they would struggle to replace Harbaugh (out with a broken arm) for the season, completing 68 of 121 (56.2 percent) for 713 yards with six touchdowns and seven picks over U-M's final six games, as the Maize and Blue went 2-4.
Perhaps the most similar situation to 2013 arose in 1991 when receiver Derrick Alexander suffered a season-ending injury one week into the season, severely handicapping the Wolverines' receiving corps. Amazingly, Desmond Howard would still go on to catch 19 touchdown passes (en route to the Heisman Trophy) while Yale Van Dyne stepped up in Alexander's stead, catching 39 balls for 500 yards and two scores.
The 2013 season is young, and it remains to be seen if Gordon and Beyer can replicate their week-one success or if they'll slip as they face better opposition, but for now, both players, and their teammates are relishing their triumph.
"It was great for me to see because Cam works so hard," said quarterback Devin Gardner, a high-school teammate of Gordon's. "On pass rush this offseason I saw him working so hard, and he's my roommate and he gets to talk to me about how it was hard for him to not play and he finally got a chance.
"Two sacks in a game is pretty good. I don't play defense but if I got sacked two times by the same guy that's a good day for him."
"I was so excited and happy," Beyer said about his QB takedown. "I got to the sideline and I was like, 'Hey that's my first sack.' I've put in a lot of work so I was happy to see it pay off."