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Friday, July 5, 2013
Fresh Ideas: Linebackers

By Chantel Jennings

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Can a true freshman really contribute at the college level? Is it easier at one position than another? Over the summer WolverineNation has been breaking down the probabilities of playing time and projections of the Wolverines’ freshmen, position by position.

Greg Mattison
Michigan DC Greg Mattison will experiment with different combinations at linebacker, which means some freshmen will be in the mix.
What it takes for a true freshman linebacker to play: The linebacker position seems to be a spot in which a true freshman can come in and contribute immediately. With the right combination of physicality, smarts and intensity, a freshman can rely on instinct and his foundation to make an impact on the field. That’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do, especially with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wanting his linebackers to be more and more physical, but with more advanced strength and conditioning programs in high schools across the country (as well as several prospects working with individual trainers), the physical hurdle -- which used to be one of the highest -- now seems much more manageable.

True freshmen who’ve made an impact at the position: This season'’s squad has plenty of talent who saw the field as true freshmen. Joe Bolden and James Ross both made the ESPN.com Big Ten All-Freshmen Team after making significant contributions. Ross played in 13 games with two starts, and Bolden appeared in 12 games. Junior Desmond Morgan, who’ll see the field with those two this season, also contributed as a freshman, playing in 12 games with seven starts.

However, historically, it’s a bit more difficult to find top linebackers who did the same. Erick Anderson, the only Michigan player to win the Butkus Award (1991), redshirted his first season. As a redshirt freshman, he led Michigan in tackles (77 in 11 games). Two years later, Jarrett Irons -- who would eventually be a two-time captain for the Wolverines -- appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman, tallying 95 tackles.

In 1976, Ron Simpkins, who would end up being one of Michigan’s best tacklers, tallied 24 tackles as a true freshman. After that season he exploded, never registering fewer than 150 tackles per season the rest of his Michigan career. And in 1998, Larry Foote played in 12 games during his freshman season, accounting for 17 tackles and one sack.

Commit projections: When Jake Ryan went down with an ACL injury, it shook up Wolverines’ rotation quite a bit. Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray will build depth, and they could see the field a bit as Mattison experiments with different combinations. Ryan could be back in October (an optimistic timeline), which could move people around even more.

In the 2014 class, Michigan has picked up a verbal from linebacker Chase Winovich (Jefferson Hills, Pa./Thomas Jefferson). Winovich already is about the same size as the redshirt junior Ryan. And with not a ton of depth at the SAM position, Winovich could see the field very early as a backup to Ryan. Fellow 2014 commit Michael Ferns (St. Clairsville, Ohio/St. Clairsville) is another linebacker who’s physically ahead of the game (6-foot-3, 228 pounds) and could compete immediately, especially considering that he’s enrolling early. Four-star linebacker Noah Furbush (Kenton, Ohio/Kenton), the latest commit, says the coaches have told him they like him at MIKE.