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May 15, 2014

Maize 'N View: MIKE linebacker play holds the key

Behind every great defense there is great linebacker play. And great linebacker play begins and ends in the middle. Michigan has not boasted a great MIKE since David Harris earned second-team All-American honors in 2006, but that arid stretch may come to an end this season.

Look through the annals of Michigan football history, and linebacker play is a source of pride. From 1969-2006, U-M 'backers earned All-Big Ten first-team honors 28 times in 38 seasons and the average would easily surpass one honoree per year if second-team recipients were folded in.

However, in the seven seasons since Harris was a first-team All-Big Ten performer, the Wolverines have not garnered another first-team distinction and have just one second-team (Shawn Crable in 2007) to show for their efforts. Obi Ezeh (2008), Kenny Demens (2011) and Jake Ryan (2012) were named honorable mention.

In those seven seasons, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State each produced five first-team honorees at linebacker while Wisconsin had three, and Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska one apiece. OSU also had five second-team recipients while PSU and MSU had three each and the Hawkeyes had five.

The top linebacker the Maize and Blue have featured during that stretch was Ryan, in both 2011 and 2012, and he represents their best hope to end the drought and, more importantly, provide the dominating play in the middle to anchor the defense that U-M has sorely lacked.

Ryan wants that responsibility. He's eager for it, enthusiastically accepting when defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Greg Mattison approached him in the winter to ask if he would embrace a move from the strongside to the middle.

The way Mattison sold it, Ryan would have a better chance to be a sideline-to-sideline player involved in every single snap instead of a player that largely impacted once ever three plays as a primary pass rusher/blitzer.

With high goals and expectations of himself, confidently (but not arrogantly) Ryan views himself as the team's strongest defensive player and understands he needs to impact on first down, second, third and fourth, and he couldn't do that lining up outside the tackle box.

Mattison may have been mulling over this decision as far back as the spring of 2013, but when Ryan blew out his ACL, he didn't want to ask the player to transition to another position as he worked his way back from injury in a little more than six months.

But when he watched film of U-M's games in October and November last year, he kept seeing the same thing over and over again - opponents now fully aware of Ryan's prominence scheming to avoid him. That had almost as much to do with Ryan's decrease in production as did his health; Ryan recorded a tackle for loss once every two games or 6.7 tackles in 2013 compared to 1.2 tackles for every one game and one TFL for every 4.6 tackles in 2011-12.

Ryan's ability to get to the quarterback and make plays in the offensive backfield was alluring too in this decision. Consider that Harris racked up 14 tackles for loss and three sacks in leading the Wolverines to an 11-2 mark in 2006 but in the seven seasons since, U-M's starting MIKEs have averaged 6.5 TFL and 1.5 QB takedowns per year.

At strongside linebacker from 2011-13, Ryan showcased an ability to do just that, registering 7.5 sacks among 31.5 tackles for loss, and at his new position in the middle, he needs to translate his playmaking potential. Both he and Mattison are confident he can and will.

Ryan's play is key because he has the size, strength and power to bring the pain to the opposing ball carriers as opposed to what was on display last year when Ohio State's Carlos Hyde (226 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, averaging 8.4 yards per rush) and other bigger backs steamrolled U-M's middle linebackers.

A middle linebacker sets the tone for a defense. Is he a brick wall like Jarrett Irons and Sam Sword that could intimidate foes even before kickoff or is he a pushover that will retreat three or four yards deep when a bruiser is charging full steam ahead?

The Michigan annals are full of aggressive, physical, run-stuffing, QB-chasing defenses and team after team featured a linebacker synonymous with greatness.

It's been awhile since a MIKE was worthy of sharing company with Harris, Sword, Irons and on and on. Ryan believes he can be that guy. His coaches believe he will be that guy. The fans want to believe.

Soon enough, we'll know which category to include him in - the unforgettable or the forgotten.


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