Overall: Much has changed along the defensive line in the past few months. Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson and Tim Jamison vacated the starting lineup and are off to pursue NFL opportunities, leaving Graham the lone holdover starter from 2008. Their exits put the onus on a young crop of Wolverines to pick up the slack, each showing capable potential but each lacking experience.
If that wasn't enough to jostle U-M fans out of their uncomfortable bleacher seats, the line is also undergoing a dramatic transformation. The traditional four-line look is being replaced with a three-man front that adds in a hybrid position – the 'quick.'
The brainchild of first-year defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, the entire scheme up front is geared towards a single premise of utilizing U-M's athletes to the best of their ability, while adding a new wrinkle to a Michigan defense that has long endured struggles against the wide-open offenses now permeating the Big Ten.
The Playmaker: Brandon Graham
Playing for a bad defense seems to have poisoned the many accomplishments Graham achieved in 2008. The Detroit native racked up an astounding 20 tackles for loss – the second-best total ever produced by a U-M junior and the seventh-best tally overall. He also recorded 10 sacks, and with 8.5 in 2007, produced the highest total (18.5) over a two-year span in program history.
But the 6-2, 268-pound Graham has long been dogged for his inconsistent play. He is, at times, impossible to block for any offensive tackle yet there are good chunks of the game where he seems to disappear, the senior end has acknowledged. He has vowed greater consistency in 2009, believing it possible to double Michigan's single-season sack record of 12 (1996 & 2006).
In a year where he is the only known commodity up front that might not be achievable, but with 100 percent effort play after play, series after series – Graham has also promised he will remove himself from a game temporarily if he's not at full strength – the 2008 Team MVP could prove good on his word, setting records in dominating fashion.
The Breakout Performer: Ryan Van Bergen
If Graham does indeed draw double- and triple-teams on a regular basis, like he believes he will, the attention drawn his way will benefit the opposite bookend and that figures to be Van Bergen (though he will often operate inside like a tackle).
The redshirt sophomore is most often cited for his outstanding motor, passion for the game and football IQ, but don't sell him short on his athletic ability also. He may not look like a defensive lineman, standing tall at 6-6 and 261 pounds, but there is no fear among his coaches that he will fail to gain the leverage needed to push his opponent backwards. Van Bergen is simply one of the strongest Wolverines pound-for-pound on the team while also possessing speed, quickness and powerful hands that allow him to punch his opponent in the chest, disengage and attack the quarterback.
The Whitehall, Mich., native doesn't yet own a tackle for loss or a sack but he's sure to accumulate plenty for the Maize and Blue this fall.
The Understudy: Greg Banks
Even though he was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of Denver four years ago, Banks needed to improve his conditioning, strength, technique and understanding of the defensive end position before he could contribute significantly. He's been doing that behind the scenes, displaying a work ethic his coaches love.
However, he's yet to see the field for meaningful minutes because of a gluttony of talented performers ahead of him on the depth chart – LaMarr Woodley, Rondell Biggs, Jamison and Graham.
Injuries in the spring precluded him from competing 100 percent against Van Bergen but he will enter the fall determined to win a starting job. If he doesn't earn the gig, Banks still figures to play a prominent role in the line rotation as one of the top backups.
The Impact Freshman: William Campbell
There were plenty of reports from spring practice (and we saw with our own eyes) that Campbell wasn't quite as advanced as previously thought arriving at Michigan a five-star recruit. He still needs to drastically improve his conditioning while learning the nuances of the nose tackle position. However, when the lights were on – at U-M's spring game – Campbell shone brightly, giving his coaches proof that you don't always have to be great Monday thru Friday to be great on Saturday.
With sophomore nose tackle Mike Martin firmly entrenched in the starting role and junior Renaldo Sagesse an able No. 2, there is no need to rush Campbell, but he has shown enough talent for his coaches to trust the big fella on game day this fall.
We haven't talked much about the 'quick' position yet but its responsibilities are fundamental to what Michigan wants to achieve up front. For now, the U-M roster does not include the ideal 'quick' athlete – think Shawn Crable from 2007. Herron and Evans, though, are adequate competitors for the role presently.
Herron might actually be better-suited for the job because of his natural athleticism but he lacks the size at 6-2, 222 pounds to be a consistent edge rusher. Evans is bigger at 6-3, 237 pounds but needs to add strength and craft his pass-rushing skills.
There is no savior arriving this fall, though, to assume the post so expect a heated battle in August camp to determine which of these two starts for the Wolverines.