Overall: Let's start with the coaching responsibilities. Robinson, U-M's first-year coordinator, will handle a hybrid linebacker role called the 'spinner' though head coach Rich Rodriguez still refers to it as the SAM. The role of this position, currently occupied by senior Steve Brown, is to cover slot receivers and tight ends, maybe the occasional running back, while at the same time providing stout run support. It will look and feel very similar to the 'Wolfman' employed during Bo Schembechler's tenure.
Hopson will handle the traditional MIKE and WILL linebacker posts. For now, that means working with Ezeh and redshirt junior Jonas Mouton, though Mouton will face a stiff challenge for playing time from sophomore J.B. Fitzgerald. The likely starting duo gives U-M an experienced tandem capable of anchoring the middle of the defense. Combined with Brown, the three possess the potential to learn Robinson's schemes quickly enough to become consistent playmakers.
Michigan needs Ezeh, Mouton and Brown to step up because the Wolverines are otherwise young and inexperienced at linebacker. A pair of true freshmen – Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones – along with arriving rookie Isaiah Bell are competing to back up Brown while Fitzgerald and sophomore Kenny Demens are pegged as second to Mouton and Ezeh, respectively, and neither saw the field defensively often last year.
The Playmaker: Obi Ezeh
Ezeh opened up the 2008 campaign with a 15-tackle effort that many felt previewed a dominant season to come for the Grand Rapids' native. But he followed that performance up with back-to-back so-so showings, making just 11 combined stops against Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame.
Ezeh did the up-and-down thing all year, going for 15 tackles against Illinois and a pair of 10-tackle afternoons against Michigan State and Northwestern. But he also had a few more clunkers, tallying just four stops against Purdue and two tackles against Ohio State as he fought through the inconsistency that plagues young athletes.
This fall, Ezeh is slimmer and faster, having lost about 10 pounds, even more cerebral than before, more confident and more experienced. He's determined to have a terrific season in the middle of the defense, eager to make plays from sideline to sideline and especially in the offensive backfield. Mouton's stock may be rising more quickly, but Ezeh is still capable of taking the torch from David Harris and putting forth an All-Big Ten first-team campaign.
The Breakout Performer: Steve Brown
It's truly now or never for the fourth-year senior. Brown had an opportunity to make amends for his 2007 gaffes against Appalachian State with a full 12-game slate of starts last fall. By most accounts, he didn't quite dispel his reputation as a big-play liability. But the past is the past and Brown is in a new role that should play to his strengths as a playmaker near the line of scrimmage.
As a coverman, in man coverage especially, Brown can succeed, which is what makes his move to the spinner position fascinating. The Columbus, Ind., native will no longer be responsible for centerfield and can utilize his speed and aggressiveness against slot receivers, tight ends and running backs.
If he doesn't get it done, if he struggles again, Brown will likely find himself usurped by one of the three freshmen jockeying for playing time behind him. This is his last hurrah and the senior is intent on making the most of it.
The Understudy: Kenny Demens
The Superman aficionado spent most of the spring shelved with two injuries – a pulled thigh muscle and a slight shoulder separation. When healthy, he has shown a knack for wreaking havoc all over the field and a natural ability to sniff out a play before it turns into a positive gain.
He is spending this summer trying to regain the speed that makes him a deadly force and the strength to take on blockers at the point of contact. If he can achieve both goals, he can play a role as Ezeh's backup this fall and set himself up for an impact future.
The Impact Freshman: Brandin Hawthorne
One look at Hawthorne and it'd be easy to conclude he's a safety. The Pahokee, Fla., native weighed only 195 pounds in the spring, standing tall at 6-0. But he played and excelled at linebacker in high school. This fall, and perhaps throughout his career, Hawthorne will use his ability to play both a linebacker and safety role as he competes for playing time at the spinner position.
In the spring, Hawthorne proved a quick-study and looked comfortable close to the line of scrimmage, making plays against the run. He didn't look as natural in coverage, especially matched up against slot receivers, but he is eager to improve and possesses the incredible athleticism necessary to play the position.
Mouton was a breakout star in 2008, improving dramatically throughout the season's second half as he finally became comfortable (and mentally made the transition from safety) at linebacker. He seemed to make big play after big play down the stretch, finishing with a team-high 29 tackles in U-M's four-game final month.
Had he spent the spring learning Robinson's defense and perfecting his techniques alongside Ezeh, Mouton would be the slam-dunk choice to start at the WILL this fall. However, that's not how Mouton spent the spring. Instead, he underwent shoulder surgery, missing every practice and the game.
With Mouton on the DL, Fitzgerald stepped into the void and practiced well. He survived plenty of growing pains to emerge a linebacker the coaches can trust heading into the fall. However, he lacks some of the athletic ability his teammate possesses and must have an outstanding camp to jump Mouton on the depth chart.