January 9, 2013
2013 Projected depth chart & analysis: Defense
Michigan's defense in 2013 could start eight juniors or seniors, including safety Thomas Gordon, who looks to lead an experienced secondary. Here is a look at a projected 2013 depth chart, with three potential positions changes, and analysis.
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Defensive End: A year ago, Michigan made some moves along the line to add depth and experience to the front four, and the Wolverines could make another move this offseason, sliding rising junior Brennen Beyer from weakside end to strongside end.
Beyer has the frame to bulk up to 275 pounds and, more importantly, the game to translate at that position. In 2012, he proved adept against the run but didn't display the explosion off the edge necessary to be a consistent pass rusher, finishing without a sack and a lone tackle for loss.
Both junior Frank Clark and sophomore Mario Ojemudia have the more natural body types for that, and showed the glimpses of quickness and speed to get to the quarterback - they totaled 11.5 TFL and three sacks. They both need to be more consistent, but they offer the best hope for a dynamic rush end in 2013, while true freshman Taco Charlton, who has enrolled early, could provide depth.
If Beyer moves to strongside end - the post vacated by Craig Roh - U-M would be loaded. He would have to fend off redshirt sophomore Keith Heitzman, who is ready for a breakout campaign after getting his feet wet in 2012, and a slew of redshirt freshmen in Tom Strobel, Chris Wormley and Matthew Godin. The three are versatile enough to move inside also.
Overall, the two defensive end positions will have eight bodies competing for playing time, and while that is encouraging, no one has truly proven himself yet - Clark's two career sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss are the most among the Wolverine ends.
Defensive Tackle: Though his final memory is one he'd like to forget - failing to wrap up South Carolina QB Connor Shaw - rising senior Jibreel Black came on strong late in the season, displaying the quick first step off the snap that was expected to create mismatches on the interior of the line throughout all of 2012. It took him awhile to figure it out, but now that he seems to be turning that corner, Black could be a tremendous asset inside as a playmaking tackle; he had three sacks and five tackles for loss in a reserve role this past fall.
Michigan, however, has options inside with the emergence of fifth-year senior Quinton Washington at one tackle spot, and the potential of sophomore Ondre Pipkins. They are ideally both nose guards, tasked with plugging up space, occupying blockers, and making plays at the line of scrimmage, but there is the possibility that U-M could play them side by side, creating even greater freedom for its linebackers and defensive ends.
The coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Willie Henry, believing he's only beginning to scratch the surface of what he's capable of after blooming late in his high-school career. Henry will give U-M a fourth interior lineman the coaches can count on for minutes, and he could develop into much more than that, as Washington did in 2012.
Redshirt juniors Richard Ash and Kenny Wilkins must have the best offseasons of their career, if they choose to remain at Michigan, if they're to see the field because the Maize and Blue could, and likely will, use Strobel, Wormley, Godin and Heitzman inside also.
Linebacker: Michigan fans probably felt pretty good about the linebacker situation coming into 2012. Next fall, they should feel even better.
Though the Maize and Blue said goodbye to Kenny Demens, they welcome back standout junior Jake Ryan, two-year starter Desmond Morgan and a pair of sophomores in Joe Bolden and James Ross that played extensively this past fall. Add to that fifth-year senior Cameron Gordon and a slew of others champing at the bit to see the first meaningful action of their careers, and you have a very strong contingent battling for playing time.
Playing the SAM, Ryan racked up 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks - his TFL numbers the most by a U-M 'backer since Shawn Crable had a Michigan single-season record 28.5 in 2007. His 4.5 QB takedowns were the most by a Michigan linebacker since Crable's 7.5.
By virtue of backing up Ryan, Gordon doesn't see the field much, but he did make a few big plays this year, and is a valuable reserve.
In the middle, the coaching staff could move Morgan from weakside to MIKE linebacker, a position he probably would have played the past two years if not for Demens' presence. Morgan is a natural run-stuffing defender, and he can drop into coverage too, patrolling the middle of the field. He's not a superb athlete, but he gets things done.
A move to the middle would create a greater opportunity for Ross at the WILL. Michigan wants to get more athletic and faster defensively, and Ross brings both attributes to the position, offering coordinator Greg Mattison another piece to play with. Ross could team up with Ryan to be two of the top playmaking linebackers in the Big Ten, and perhaps the conference's best pair.
Of course, Bolden gleaned plenty of experience as Demens' backup in 2012 and won't just step aside. The sophomore figures to play a prominent role next fall, but as a natural MIKE, his options are limited.
Expect this - Michigan has four tremendous options and the best three will play. Ryan is solid at SAM and Ross is really a WILL, but if Morgan and Bolden are two of the three best, Morgan will play weakside and Bolden in the middle, but if it's Ross and Morgan, Ross will be at WILL and Morgan at MIKE.
Cornerback: This past year, Michigan was able to withstand the loss of Blake Countess because of the emergence of his classmate Raymon Taylor (though it's fair to expect that Countess would have made a few more big plays), and next season, the Wolverines again feature great depth. However, the difference between the top two and the rest appears somewhat significant.
Countess will be a redshirt sophomore and should team with the junior Taylor to be the conference's top cornerback tandem. Countess possesses the natural instincts to be the playmaker at the position U-M has lacked since Leon Hall departed in 2006 while Taylor is an aggressive corner that wins the battle on the line of scrimmage, taking wide receivers out of their comfort zones. He has to be more aware of where his safeties are and when to take risks, but he will benefit from his year of starting experience.
Courtney Avery will be back for his senior year and will, ideally, remain a nickel back, a job he is suited for. Sophomores Terry Richardson and Dennis Norfleet will also compete for playing time, either at nickel or dime, but they lack the physical traits to beat out Countess and Taylor as starters, at least at this time.
Safety: It's a subtle move, but expect fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon to move to strong safety to fill Jordan Kovacs' void. Doing so allows Gordon to maximize his strengths in run support and blitzing while putting sophomore Jarrod Wilson in a more natural centerfielder role at free safety.
Wilson played in some of Michigan's nickel and dime packages this past year, and displayed the type of speed that excites his coaches. Now he has to take the next step. Whether he can become a safety that makes plays on the ball, intercepting passes and breaking up others remains to be seen. U-M hasn't had anyone like that in a long, long time, but he'll be given the chance.
The Maize and Blue have bodies behind those two with incredible physical gifts - senior Marvin Robinson, redshirt junior Josh Furman, redshirt freshmen Allen Gant and Jeremy Clark, and freshman Dymonte Thomas - but combined, those five have seen the field hardly or not at all, and their learning curve will be steep.
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