ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Linebacker Jake Ryan was supposed to be the brightest spot of the Wolverines defense next year. A season removed from being Michigan’s leading tackler, the expectations were high -- Michigan’s MVP? Big Ten defensive player of the year? All-American?
But those hopes were dashed when he tore his ACL just a few games into spring practice.
Now, the Wolverines have to look to rotate in other players with less experience or playmaking abilities, and by the sounds of it, two names have jumped to the forefront of the conversation -- Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer.
“Any great team has the next guy stepping up,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. “Cam Gordon had been in a lot of games last year rotating with Jake, and now it's his turn to step up. Brennen Beyer has played a lot of football at a young age, and now it's his turn to step up. The two of them have got to play so hard and so improved that they make up for [Ryan's loss]."
Gordon has been a renaissance man of sorts for the Wolverines, though never fully fitting in to a position and excelling. Now, with Ryan’s absence and the need for maturity and leadership in the linebacking corps, Gordon could be looked to as that guy for the Wolverines.
"You're taking a guy who was a wide receiver, a free safety and then you're saying, 'Now you're a rush end or a SAM linebacker,’ ” Mattison told ESPN.com. “The thing we don't understand as coaches, even though we believe in him, does he believe in himself? Does he say, 'Yes, OK, I can do that.' A lot of times, there's a transition period in his mind where he says, 'OK, now I know I can do it.' "
Beyer, on the other hand, has played strongside linebacker. He saw time at the position as a true freshman but as Mattison explained, with the wealth of talent at strongside linebacker (referring to Ryan and Gordon), they chose to move him to the defensive line as a sophomore so he could get his hand on the ground.
Beyer and Gordon look to be the immediate fixes to Michigan's strongside linebacker problem, but going forward there will be more issues to face with depth even when Ryan returns.
What seems strangest in all of this is the lack of competition from the 2012 linebackers. The class featured three linebackers, none of whom is competing at the SAM position.
James Ross and Joe Bolden continue to impress at middle and weakside linebacker, and they will battle there with Desmond Morgan, as smaller, faster guys that can fly around the field. Royce Jenkins-Stone got some playing time on special teams last season, but his name hasn’t been mentioned much during spring ball.
What has proven clear is that Michigan has recruited weakside and middle linebackers well, but the strongside is where the depth issues are. To play in Mattison’s scheme, they need guys that are quick enough to move but big enough to match up with tight ends.
Regarding the 2013 class, it appears as though their linebackers -- Ben Gedeon (Hudson, Ohio/Hudson) and Mike McCray (Trotwood, Ohio/Trotwood-Madison) -- could compete at strongside linebacker, but won’t be enrolling until this summer.
And the lone linebacker commit in the 2014 class so far, Michael Ferns (St. Clairsville, Ohio/St. Clairsville), could bulk up enough to play strongside, but again, like the others, might be better suited as a middle linebacker.
Making matters worse, the two 2014 linebackers Michigan was pursuing hardest to play SAM, Kyle Berger (Cleveland/St. Ignatius) and Sam Hubbard (Cincinnati/Moeller), both recently committed to Ohio State.
The Wolverines have turned their focus of late to players such as Chase Winovich (Jefferson Hills, Pa./Thomas Jefferson), who will visit for Michigan’s spring game, Kyron Watson, (East St. Louis, Ill./East St. Louis), who was offered Tuesday, and Richard Yeargin (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South).
But none of those players will help the immediate depth issues. And on Saturday, fans will get the first look at what the strongside position -- one that should’ve been a highlight -- will truly look like.
“I’m fine with who we’re playing,” Mattison said. “You can’t do anything about it. Hopefully our program is getting to the point now where you just look and the next guy is waiting his turn.”