LB versatility key to spring, U-M season

March, 19, 2013
3/19/13
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison arrived at Michigan a little more than two years ago with a defensive plan in hand. They had both coached here before, knew each other well and had similar philosophies for how defenses should go.

Now, almost three years in, one of the many facets of the team they would like to put on the field is closer to being possible. Mattison and Hoke relish being able to rotate their defensive linemen and linebackers throughout games in an effort to get more players game reps and keep them fresher for both the fourth quarters of games and the back half of each season.

Yet for the first two seasons at Michigan, it didn’t always work as well. Lack of depth combined with a youth movement at both spots led to some rotation, but not as much as Hoke would prefer -- especially at Mike and Will linebacker.

[+] EnlargeMichigan/Notre Dame
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDesmond Morgan (right) will slide from Will linebacker to Sam, but the rest of the Wolverines' LB setup is still iffy this spring, at best.
“That position, if you could have four you could rotate through and they are all quality, that would be great,” Hoke said. “We rotated a ton at San Diego State. We rotated every four plays.

“We’re getting a little more to where we would be able to do that.”

Herein lies the snag, something Michigan is hoping to figure out this summer at what could be its deepest position: The talent level is there. The experience level is not.

Other than little-used Mike Jones, Michigan has no seniors at either Mike or Will. Junior Desmond Morgan, last year’s starter at Will who'll learn Mike this spring, is the only one with significant starting experience.

It leaves Michigan in a somewhat familiar spot when it comes to a position with potentially great depth. The Wolverines thought they had a lot of depth at cornerback last season, with five of their top six guys returning. By the end of the season, they had to convert a running back, Dennis Norfleet, to defensive back to help fill holes due to suspensions (J.T. Floyd) and injury (Blake Countess).

So while Michigan can feel good about what it has, it should be wary of feeling too confident about its young, talented core, because things happen. Michigan, though, seems to be preparing for this.

Morgan is learning Mike. Sophomore Joe Bolden, who could end up as the starter at Mike after backing up Kenny Demens last season, will spent part of the spring learning elements of playing the Will. Sophomore James Ross III will have his first offseason to pick up more details of learning Will, where he spelled Morgan last season.

Jones and sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone will also try to fight their way up the depth chart, as Hoke looks for the minimum number of quality linebackers he needs for a solid rotation. After all, they learned last year you can never have too many talented players at one position.

“The biggest difference here is we’re still at the point where you don’t know yet,” Hoke said. “There are so many young guys that are going to be a big part of it.”

The one spot where youth won’t be an issue is at Sam linebacker, where most of Michigan’s experience lies. Redshirt junior Jake Ryan had a breakout season last year and might be the most versatile of all the Wolverines’ linebackers. Michigan has moved him to a rush end in certain packages in the past and could do that again this season to offer varying looks.

Fifth-year senior Cam Gordon, meanwhile, played more and more as last season progressed and could see even more time, depending how Michigan plans to use Ryan.

“It will be exciting and fun to see the different things we might be able to do with both of them on the field,” Hoke said. “Jake is a guy who has had his hand on the ground to rush the passer at times.

“It gives us some things.”

How many “things” Michigan receives from its linebackers, though, could be the key to the Wolverines’ entire defense in the coming season. And that will start with how players adapt to learning multiple positions in the spring.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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