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January 9, 2012

Offseason Questions: Should U-M move Ryan?

TheWolverine.com will tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing Michigan's offense, defense and special teams over the next few weeks, beginning today with the question: should U-M move redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ryan?

Ryan started 13 games at the SAM linebacker position for the Maize and Blue in 2011, finishing 10th on the team with 37 tackles while his 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage ranked second and his three sacks were fifth among U-M defenders.

With almost one-third of his tackles going for loss, Ryan could be a candidate to add some weight and begin playing at weakside defensive end in 2012, especially if Craig Roh is willing to move to strongside defensive end in his senior year. However, change is not always a good thing. Perhaps Ryan is best suited to play the position he's at.

When Michigan's coaching staff considers any and all potential position changes in the offseason, it must ask would this move be best for the player and will it be best for the team.

Ryan's long-term future could be as a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL, filling a role similar to the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews, who has 29.5 sacks among 289 tackles in his three-year career. If that is indeed his career projection, he would be best suited to remain at the SAM because of the way defensive coordinator Greg Mattison utilizes him as both a stand-up linebacker and as a defensive end in pass-rush situations.

Ryan needs to put on weight, but his frame might not support the 25-30 pounds necessary to excel as a full-time defensive end. Instead, he can increase his size methodically as he adds mass to eventually finish at U-M in the 245-pound range.

As he continues to develop, Ryan could model his game after former Wolverine Shawn Crable (2004-07), who was used in a similar fashion, coming off the edge as a blitzer and as a rush end to record 17.5 career sacks among 43.5 tackles for loss. Crable set a Michigan single-season record with 28.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2007.

In looking at the health and needs of the entire defense, it also makes sense for Ryan to stay put. While Brennen Beyer showed some promise as a freshman in 2011, the dropoff from Ryan to his reserve was significant. That could change with a year of development - certainly expecting a true freshman to compete at a consistently high level is usually asking too much - but Ryan might just turn out to be that rare playmaker, a natural for the position, that greatly impacts every game.

The No. 1 reason Ryan shouldn't move, though, is because Michigan is already stacked at weakside defensive end with Roh, rising junior Jibreel Black and rising sophomore Frank Clark. The goal of any defense is put the most talent on the field - the 11 best - and pitting Ryan against Clark, against Black, forces one of U-M's most skilled athletes off the field.

A lineup that includes Clark or Black at WDE and Ryan at the SAM (and Roh likely at SDE) gets the most out of three capable performers instead of just two.

Ryan had a breakout campaign and could contribute at two different positions but staying set as the strongside linebacker will greater benefit him and the team than a move to weakside end would.

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