July 12, 2013

Borton's Blog: No backing down

Michigan's linebacking corps took the oh-no, can't-happen hit in the spring, with redshirt junior Jake Ryan going down to a knee injury. But the linebackers' room at Schembechler Hall is hardly awash in hand-wringers.

So says veteran 'backers coach Mark Smith, who in no way tries to downplay the loss of Ryan. At the same time, he knows no football team can pin its hopes on a single performer, no matter how skilled.

"Losing Jake is something nobody ever wanted to happen," he said. "You don't want it to happen for Jake, because Jake is a great kid, and he's worked hard to get where he's at. But you also understand that's the nature of football and athletics in general, that things like that are going to happen."

Ryan could be back as early as mid-October, U-M head coach Brady Hoke announced after the spring game. Several indications have backed that claim since, observers marveling at the "freak" athletic and mental makeup of the veteran linebacker.

In the meantime, though, the Wolverines are focused on making things happen themselves. Michigan's linebackers in general need to provide a greater impact, according to Smith.

"We need to be better playmakers," Smith stressed. "Coach [Greg] Mattison will put us in situations where we blitz linebackers, or we have an opportunity to make a game-changing play. I don't see enough of those yet."

At the same time, Smith appreciates the effort his crew is putting in.

"I love the work ethic of these kids," he said. "They want to be good. It's not that the kids before didn't, but these guys now have known nothing but what we know. They've been with us the whole time. They haven't had to go through a coaching change, like the previous kids did.

"The kids before handled it very well, but these guys now know the expectations. They know what the responsibilities are. They've accepted it and they've embraced it. They're very fun to be around, because they understand what they're trying to get done."

Sophomore James Ross III seems set at the weakside linebacker spot, backed by sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone. Redshirt junior Desmond Morgan appears ready to go at middle linebacker. After seeing the field plenty as a true freshman, though, sophomore Joe Bolden will push for time in the middle.

Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Cameron Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer are battling it out at outside linebacker in Ryan's absence. Expect them all to play, since Smith concurs completely with Mattison's tendency to rotate players who have earned that right.

"We'd like to rotate at every position, if we could," Smith said. "Even a year ago, we did that in a lot of games - not every game, but in most games we tried to rotate every position on the field.

"First off, it keeps a kid hungry. Even if he's not the starter, it keeps him hungry, because he knows he's going to play and he's going to prepare well every week."

Smith isn't handling the outside (SAM) 'backers this season, ceding that job to newcomer Roy Manning. Smith does keep a close eye on them, though, and isn't fretting over the days leading up to Ryan's return.

"Roy coaches those guys individually, but from standing back and watching, I'm very excited about the Sam linebacker position," he said. "We'll move on and move through Jake's situation - when Jake gets back, he gets back. But you watch the development of Cam Gordon, you watch Brennen Beyer coming back over and playing…

"Are they Jake Ryan? No, but they're going to be very good football players for us. I'm excited about what those guys are doing and what they show they can do."

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