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Thursday, January 17, 2013
Depth chart analysis: strong side linebacker

By Michael Rothstein

Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each position on the roster heading into the offseason.

Michigan finally returned to a more traditional defensive breakdown last season, where its linebackers weren’t being blown off the ball and making the majority of plays for the Wolverines. That starts with their redshirt junior star, Jake Ryan, who became one of the more recognizable players in the Big Ten by the end of his second season as a starter.

This unit is probably the Wolverines’ strongest unit and of the three spots, they might be most set at strong side linebacker.

The starters: Ryan. The best player on Michigan’s defense and one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten returns for his third season as a starter. Michigan’s coaches have long called Ryan’s style different, but the results are undeniable. The linebacker makes plays and has incredibly good instincts. Despite his sometimes interesting ways of getting to the ball, he always appears to be right there. With a potentially more experienced defensive line in front of him to help with potential blocks, he could be in position for a better season this year, especially as his coverage skills improve.

The depth: Redshirt senior Cam Gordon. Redshirt sophomore Antonio Poole. Freshman Mike McCray II. While there aren’t a ton of players here -- a couple of walk-ons could be pressed into playing if need be -- Michigan does have a lot of experience at the position. Gordon is a veteran at this point and has enough speed where he could be an asset on passing downs and when Ryan needs a rest. McCray is a young talent and theoretically, if Michigan were in a pinch, either Mark Lawson or Dan Liesman could slide into this spot. Poole could land here, too, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy.

The question mark: Not much. This is probably one of the most stable positions on the roster, barring injury. Ryan is a player who has All America potential if he continues to improve at the position and has been a reliable starter for two seasons. Gordon is a serviceable replacement who can spell Ryan when necessary and McCray has the potential to be quite good, but can learn for a year behind two experienced players.

The bottom line: The Michigan linebackers are expected to be a strength of the Michigan defense and Ryan is the best of a talented bunch. If he has another season like he did this year, he may have a decision to make whether or not he wants to return for his final season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines would likely be in trouble if Ryan were to get hurt, but they have enough options both in Gordon and moving players around that they could survive.