It's already been a competitive spring for Michigan on defense only six practices in, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison shared Tuesday, with battles between heavily recruited players at several positions. All eyes are on the linebackers following All-America candidate Jake Ryan's likely season-ending injury …
Sophomore Brennen Beyer has moved from rush end to SAM linebacker, where he'll battle veteran Cam Gordon and walk-on Mrak Lawson for playing time. He's already shown signs of progress.
"That's the nature of football," Mattison said of Ryan. "Everybody knows how much we love Jake, but you have to be ready for that at every position. You can't go through a season [without injury]. That's why it's football.
"The good news is Cam Gordon has been right there with Jake all the way, getting reps, improving not because of what happened to Jake, but as we watched cutups from last year, I made the comment to some of the coaches that maybe I got him out too fast sometimes. As we watch the film when you're sitting in your chair, you keep saying, 'he did pretty good job on that play. He continuously gets better."
Gordon is getting more comfortable at the SAM position after starting off as a wide receiver and safety and is really looking the part, Mattison added.
At the other linebacker positions, junior Desmond Morgan has moved from weakside to middle linebacker to compete with Joe Bolden, with sophomores James Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone battling at the weakside spot.
"People say, 'you changed Morgan.' I don't every look at it as being a change," Mattison said. "Inside linebackers are inside linebackers. A team can trade a tight end or shift an end up getting you in that position anyhow, but I always look at the two guys as inside linebackers, especially now with the guys we have. They are all about the same kind of players. If you have a real big guy, sometimes he plays a Mike, sometimes he doesn't. Now we have guys that are almost all the same body type, have the ability to run, that kind of thing.
"Everything for us is speed. That's everywhere, but for us, especially. You want always to have guy that can move. There will always be somebody better than another and if that happens you can make one a will and one a mike, but your great defenses can always have them interchangeable. Now a team can't get you into something they want to get you in."
That they're getting closer to that end is indicatives of how far they've come.
Moving Beyer was almost a necessity given how well the rush ends have been playing.
"In a lot of ways, we had too many at rush," Mattison said. "I was looking at that - it wasn't not too many to say we don't like all those guys, but to get reps. In practice, the biggest thing is getting reps for your guys. We had four guys that are all pretty darn good football players there that you want to get them all reps, so that equals it out for you a little more."
Junior Frank Clark came in at 217 pounds, but now he's 274.
"He was a safety in high school, now he's a rush and has been since he got here," Mattison said. "He's done a good job. [Sophomore] Mario Ojemudia played a lot as a freshman last year and he continues to improve. Taco Charlton is a young man who should be at his prom. Sometimes I look at him and say, 'you're too big to play.' He's 6-6, 270 and getting valuable reps. The good thing for Taco is he gets two veterans who kind of know how to play it and gets to see what's right or wrong so he can learn a little quicker."
Beyer, too, has adjusted well to his position.
"He's done some really good things for only being back a couple of days," Mattison said. "We'll always find a way to make sure we have guys where we have to have them. Brennen seems like kind of a big boned kid, pretty big, pretty fast with lifting. Also, the SAM plays rush in our nickel. You'd love to be able to play that equal with all that spreads teams give us. That gives us more pass rushes on the ends, which you want. You want more team speed."
The defensive line also sports a wealth of talent. Sophomore Ondre Pipkins is currently behind Quinton Washington at nose guard.
"The inside guys, every day we see some really bright spots, then some things we've got to improve on," Mattison said. "We've got great leadership in Quinton, Ondre is playing well, Graham Glasgow and Willie Henry. We have other guys who are good players.
"The whole thing up front, we always wanted to do this and other places, I have. I love the ability to rotate. The first scrimmage you could see guys were getting tired. In film I'd say, 'this will be really good - you'll be standing next to me if you run to the football like that in games. The other guy will be in there.'
"Then I made a serious comment - 'guys, you've got to understand, all I'm asking you to do is go as hard as you can go and it's never wrong for you to raise your hand. If you can't go, raise your hand. We're going to develop a guy behind you, and that guy goes hard. When you get that up front, you're going to have a front you'll really like watching because they are going to go hard every snap."
Ross has received rave reviews from teammates.
"He got a lot of experience as a freshman, has worked extremely hard," Mattison said. "He's a very instinctive, smart football player that can run and is not afraid to hit. You've hit three pretty good components for a linebacker and he gets better and better every day, too. Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, too. What we need now is for them to keeping coming on to add depth."
The battle at strongside defensive end includes Matt Godin, Tom Strobel and Chris Wormley.
"A young man we've looked at who has gotten a lot of reps is Matt Godin," Mattison said. "Tom Strobel didn't play last year, been waiting in the wings. All of them have done good things.
"A young guy we're really excited about who is getting closer and closer is Chris Wormley. You can see talent, all the things - now it's being comfortable being out there."
Wormley has been cleared for full contact following a knee injury suffered last year.
"We've got a very good mixture," Mattison said of the entire group on defense. "All of them together are working to be as good as they can be … the attitude, I've been very happy with it so far. They come out every day and want to get better. We have a long way to go, but that's why you have spring practice."
Freshman Dymonte Thomas continues to work at both cornerback and nickel. He, Charlton and Ross Douglas have all shown great signs of adapting well to college life after enrolling early, Mattison said.
Mattison recently inked a three-year contract extension and said he feels like he could coach for several more years.
"I woke up one morning and said I've felt as young as ever felt in my life," he said. "So I ought to keep doing it. I feel great, love it here, love the direction the football program is going. My wife kind of put it really clearly to me - come on now, how long are you gong to really play golf before you go kill somebody? Let's be honest.
"I love coaching here. I love every day coming into the office. When I don't feel good coming in or in front of the defense, I'll know it's time. I feel great and really good about this team."
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