Michigan Wolverines: Greg Mattison

Nearly all of the Big Ten’s top freshmen have reported to their respective schools, but ESPN.com caught up with a few players days before to pick their brains on an array of topics.

You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.

Here’s what the freshmen had to say:

Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?

Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.

[+] EnlargeChris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin said his goal is not only to start this year but to be the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to seeing Freddy Canteen. I know him pretty well and, with his footwork, I think he’ll have a really good year at Michigan.

Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.

Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.

Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?

Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.

Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.

Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.

Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.

Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.

What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?

Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.

Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?

Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.

Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.

Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For many months, there has been hand-wringing and consternation about the state of Michigan's offensive line. But what about the other side of the trenches?

The Wolverines' defensive line has produced at a mediocre rate, at best, since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011. That's a fact that has to eat at both Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who are both former defensive line coaches.

[+] EnlargeBrennen Beyer
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMISenior defensive end Brennen Beyer will be a key contributor for the Wolverines in 2014.
But unlike the offensive line, which exited spring with question marks remaining, there is hope that Michigan can turn this position into a strength again.

"I've been here for four years and I've seen three different defensive fronts come through here," senior defensive end Frank Clark said. "And I think it’s the best one we’ve had."

The group blends a mixture of veterans and youth, with many of the young players getting valuable exposure last season. Some of them were hyped recruits who display obvious size and athleticism, such as sophomores Taco Charlton (6-foot-6, 275 pounds), Chris Wormley (6-4, 292) and Willie Henry (6-2, 297). New position coach Mark Smith, who mentored the linebackers the previous three years, was understandably excited for a chance to mold those guys.

"I didn't inherit a bunch of plow horses, now," he said. "I inherited a bunch of thoroughbreds. We look good coming off the bus. We've just got to get the mental aspects of it and our philosophy and the mindset we want up front."

Clark epitomizes the D-line crew in many ways. Long heralded as a star in the making, he started to deliver on some of that promise last season with 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After briefly considering a jump to the NFL, he returned to campus determined to do even more in his last go-round.

"I’m the vet," he said. "I’m the big dog now."

Another senior, Brennen Beyer, will man the other defensive end spot. Beyer has moved around a lot in his career and sometimes is taken for granted. But Smith said Beyer is one of the best players and leaders on the defense.

Then there's Charlton, who has enough potential to make Michigan fans salivate. Given the nickname Taco from his grandmother when he was born prematurely and weighed less than three pounds, he's more like a fully loaded burrito now. Even playing last season as a true freshman, Charlton said he never felt overmatched physically.

"It wasn't really hard because of my body," he said. "But now I feel like a mature guy, and everything is coming more easily. I know what it takes to play, so I can really relax now and just play without much thinking."

"Taco has immeasurable potential," Smith said. "That kid can be as good as he wants."

How good the Wolverines' line will be this fall likely hinges on the inside spots, where the team replaces starters Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington. Henry and Wormley played a lot there in 2013 and should improve after getting a season under their belts.

"Chris Wormley is one of those guys who, when he walks in a room, you go, 'Ooh, that's what it's supposed to look like,'" Smith said. "He's come a long way, but in a lot of ways, he's still figuring out what it takes to be an every-down player here."

Redshirt freshman Maurice Hurst Jr. made a strong impression this spring at tackle, while sophomores Matthew Godin and Ryan Glasgow and early enrollee freshman Bryan Mone also saw a lot of reps. Ondre Pipkins will eventually be back from a knee injury. The coaching staff believes it has now developed depth that will allow it to comfortably rotate several bodies this fall.

The players just have to prove themselves on the field and show they can apply pressure on the quarterback without help, something that has been problematic the past couple of seasons.

"We have a multitude of pass rushers, and we've got physical guys in the middle," Clark said. "If four can rush the passer and let everybody else drop into coverage and do their jobs, that’s when you have a great defense."

Michigan hasn't reached that level in a while. The potential of the defensive line at least offers some hope of returning there.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.
The first Big Ten spring game of 2014 arrives on Saturday at the Big House. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from Michigan's spring fling.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.

One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.

Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.

On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.

Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan defense against the run

2013 review: The Wolverines struggled against the run last season. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were in charge of the defensive line, but Michigan never reached any level of consistency with a four-man rush, and pressuring the quarterback was no easy task last season.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game last season and 3.8 yards per rush, which put Michigan in the top 40 nationally in both of those categories. But it’s hard to compare the Wolverines’ total allowed rushing yards on a national scale, considering the difference in spread vs. pro-style teams and the effect that has on passing and rushing yardage.

However, comparing Michigan to other Big Ten teams provides a better look at where the Wolverines fell and where they could improve. Michigan finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, behind Michigan State (86.3), Wisconsin (102.5), Ohio State (109.4) and Iowa (128.3).

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan's run defense under Greg Mattison ranked in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in 2013.
Though the Wolverines did allow big rushing yards last season, they didn’t allow big rushing scores. Opponents only scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 478 rushes. That means that opposing teams only scored on 3.1 percent of its rush attempts, putting the Wolverines in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

While the Wolverines kept rushers out of the end zone, they didn’t stop them from picking up yardage, however. Michigan struggled stopping the run in critical situations. On third downs when opponents chose to rush the ball, they converted 47.8 percent of the time. The national average was 49.3, but the Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten in that statistic.

And it only got worse when it came to fourth-down rushing conversions, as opponents moved the chains on 71.4 percent of their attempts. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Ohio State (81.8 percent), and it put Michigan about 10 percent below the national average of 60.8 percent.

Opponents were able to convert on that percentage of third and fourth downs because the Wolverines allowed opposing offenses to pick up too many yards on first and second down. Michigan didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and get into the backfield nearly enough to wreak havoc. The Wolverines kept 109 rushes from getting past the line of scrimmage, but that was only 22.8 percent of the total rushes.

And once opponents did cross the line of scrimmage, they had relatively good success picking up solid gains. Of the 478 times opponents ran the ball against Michigan, they gained at least five yards on 171 attempts and at least 10 yards on 64 attempts. That means that, on average, at least one in three runs against Michigan got past the defensive line as well as some second-level defenders.

2014 preview: The defensive coaches have shuffled around and Hoke hopes that the combination of Mark Smith on the defensive line and Mattison coordinating the linebackers will allow Michigan to make strides next season.

But, what exactly would those strides be from a statistical standpoint? Here’s a look at the rushing stats allowed by teams that played in BCS bowl games last season and how they compare to Michigan in those same categories. Again, with some of these statistics you face the same issue of schedule and scheme, and that yielding 150 rushing yards to Auburn is a very different statistic than yielding 150 rushing yards to Purdue. But by looking at BCS bowl teams, it does give a general idea of numbers to aim for.

Yards per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.8
BCS bowl team average: 3.6

Touchdowns per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.1 percent
BCS bowl team average: 3.1

Third-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 47.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 45.1

Fourth-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 71.4 percent
BCS bowl team average: 51.5

Percentage of rushes stopped before the line of scrimmage:
Michigan defense: 22.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 27.7

Percentage of rushes going for five-plus yards:
Michigan defense: 35.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 34.4

What these numbers show is that if the Wolverines rushing defense can step up in certain areas, they’ll be pretty similar to that of rushing defenses that played in the biggest games of the 2013-14 season. Obviously there are other parts of the game that need more growth, and the run defense is only a part of the defense as a whole.

Another thing to note about those numbers: Those defensive stats were being put up by teams that typically had much stronger offenses. When an offense is putting up 100 more yards and 14 more points per game and giving up the same amount of yardage as the Wolverines, there’s going to still be a big difference, even if some of the numbers are similar.
Seven cornerbacks were voted first- or second-team All-Big Ten from the coaches and the media in 2013. Only one of them returns this season.

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Blake Countess, who had six interceptions in 2013, wants to be the Big Ten's best cornerback this fall.
That's Michigan junior Blake Countess who, by process of elimination, could inherit the title of league's best corner. Don't think that hasn't crossed his mind.

"If I'm not in that role next year, then I'll feel like I have taken a step backwards, which just cannot happen," he told ESPN.com. "So that's definitely a goal in the back of my mind. Last year is over and done with, but moving forward means taking the next step."

While Countess had a solid 2013, finishing tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions, he knows he still has room to improve. And the Wolverines could be asking more of him as they try to tighten up their defense this fall.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made becoming a better blitzing team one of this spring's priorities. Michigan gave up far too many big plays in 2013, in part because it didn't do a great job bringing pressure and in part because the secondary struggled to contain wide receivers. Mattison hopes his front seven can do a better job getting to the quarterback this fall when he dials up a blitz. That means the corners have to be ready, too.

"That's where we're at now in our defense," he told reporters last month. "As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get more pressure, we've got to play more aggressive on receivers, tighten the coverage up."

Countess said he's spent a lot of time this offseason working on press and man-to-man coverage. It's a more aggressive approach than some of the zone coverages he's played in the past, and he relishes it.

"All DBs love to play press," he said. "I've never met a DB who says, 'Nah, I don't like to get up there and press.' It puts you close to the receiver, and if we give the receiver space, that's what [he wants]. So it puts you in a better position to make plays.

"A lot of guys played press all throughout high school, and then they get here and are forced to play a little bit more zone than they may have in high school. So it's kind of like getting back to what we've done in the past."

The Michigan cornerbacks have a new position coach this spring, as Roy Manning is now overseeing that group after coaching outside linebackers last season. Manning, a former Wolverines linebacker, has brought some new ideas on technique, Countess said. But his biggest contribution so far might be his attitude.

"He played here, so he knows what it means to play here," Countess said. "He's pushing us. He's done a great job of staying on top of us."

Countess is also trying to take charge of the secondary as he enters his fourth year in the program. He and senior cornerback Raymon Taylor are now the veterans of the group, and they'll need to lead guys like sophomores Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas. Heavily hyped recruit Jabrill Peppers arrives this summer and could play anywhere in the defensive backfield.

"I'm helping out a lot more with the younger guys this spring than I have in the past," Countess said. "I'm here to get the younger guys settled, because that's the future. The cornerback position has a lot of guys who have had significant snaps and game-time decisions so that's going to create a lot of competition."

Countess and others had strong moments last season, but the secondary as a whole didn't deliver as much as hoped for Michigan, which finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. There's no sugarcoating the performance in Ann Arbor.

"You have to look at it as a team, and as a team we were 7-6," Countess said. "That's not good enough at all. We definitely didn't play well enough as a team and looking at our position, we didn't play well enough. I don't think anybody on the team, as far as their positions, are happy with the outcome."

The improvement, they hope, begins this spring. And a great place to start is with arguably the top returning cornerback in the Big Ten.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
12:00
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
5:00
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The Big Ten postman always rings twice (a week, at least during the offseason) ...

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: Brian, you made a very good argument in this morning's Take Two -- much better, I feel, than Adam. But you asked a question at the end of your argument, that while rhetorical, I figure I'd provide an answer. "Why not?" Here is why NOT. While some programs like Rutgers and Maryland are used to playing mid-week games, a majority of their fan bases are within a two-hour commuting distance of the stadium (being from Jersey, I have a decent handle on this). It's easy for most fans to leave work and still make an 8 p.m. weekday kickoff. On the other hand, for schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, etc, the fan bases are much more scattered, a large portion of the season-ticket-holder base is not within an easy driving distance of the campus, so for a Thursday night game, essentially you are asking someone like me to take a four-day weekend to see a Thursday night football game. I don't think this is plausible AND considering you guys just ran articles talking about stadium attendance being down, I cannot see some of the larger programs accepting a Thursday night game on their schedule.

Brian Bennett: The arguments from both of us were similar, and you echo many of our points, Rob. The programs with super-sized stadiums really don't ever have to think about hosting a weeknight game. (I shudder at the prospect of trying to get to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever after a Thursday night game in State College, for example.) But for programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, a weeknight game can provide plenty of good exposure. Their fan bases aren't as spread out, and their stadiums aren't nearly as large. And for some of them, filling the stadium isn't easy on a Saturday, anyway, so why not grab the extra eyeballs and attention a Thursday night game could bring?


Trevor K. from Wis., writes: Say Joel Stave or Bart Houston win Wisconsin's QB battle. Could you see the Badgers utilizing D.J. Gillins' athletic ability at wide receiver? There is a HUGE hole there, and it shouldn't be out of the question if he is really that athletic.

Brian Bennett: There is precedent here, as Tanner McEvoy bowed out of the quarterback competition early last year because of an injury and ended up starting at safety. The difference, though, is that McEvoy was a junior college transfer who had already used his redshirt year at South Carolina, so he wanted to get on the field. Gillins is a true freshman, and if he's not ready at quarterback, the coaching staff might want to redshirt him. On the flip side, though, maybe the coaches see him providing value at receiver, especially if the Badgers' young wideouts don't step up this offseason, and maybe Gillins expresses a desire to play early. There are a lot of factors at play here. I'd be really surprised if Gillins makes much of an impact at quarterback this season, simply because he's so young and Wisconsin has other experienced options.

TN Spartan from Jackson, Tenn., writes: I am excited about the new bowl lineup for this next football season. Not sure if you did this anywhere, as I have not seen it, but could you project what the last bowl season would have looked like if it had the new arrangement, and then compare it to how it actually went? Perhaps you could then comment if the W/L record would have improved, or if the matchups would have been better.

Brian Bennett: It's a little tricky to project, not knowing if you want to include the new playoff system as well. Let's just say for now that the playoff wasn't involved but that the 2014 lineup was somehow superimposed on the 2013 season.

In that case, the top of the order wouldn't look much different. Michigan State would still have gone to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State would still have made a BCS game. Then the next tier would involve the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls, with the Big Ten having greater input on matchups. I still think Wisconsin goes to the Cap One and Iowa makes the Outback, based on their records and how they finished the season. The debate would then have come down to whether Michigan or Nebraska should go to the Holiday, much as it did with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Whoever didn't get picked there would fall to either the Music City or Gator Bowls, and you wonder if the league would step in to avoid placing Nebraska in that rematch with Georgia and giving the Huskers another trip to Florida.

Minnesota could then have found itself in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which is in the third tier of picks along with the Pinstripe Bowl. The opponents wouldn't have been much different for the league at the top, but the Big Ten would have played Pac-12 teams in the Holiday and Hunger bowls. Going by 2013, that would have been Arizona State and Washington, respectively, in what would have been two tough matchups for the league.


James from Akron, Ohio, writes: With the latest position moves on defense (most notably Jake Ryan to MLB) and Greg Mattison's past experience, is there any chance that Michigan switches to a 3-4 defense this year? All of the pieces are in place to make the switch. Desmond Morgan would be the other ILB, James Ross would still be starting on the outside, while one of the current backups (Ben Gedeon/Joe Bolden/Mike McCray) would fill in the other OLB spot. Mix all of that with the fact and Michigan is thin at DT, am I crazy to think the 3-4 will make some sort of appearance this year?

Brian Bennett: It's not a crazy thought, especially because the linebacker group looks like the deepest and most talent-rich position on the Wolverines defense. Michigan hasn't really been dominant at defensive tackle since Mike Martin left town, and Mattison often ran the 3-4 while with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Michigan has run a 4-3 scheme so far under Brady Hoke, and Big Ten teams have been hesitant to go away from four down linemen very often, though Wisconsin used a 3-4 alignment often last season and had success with it. Defensive coordinators often talk about wanting to be multiple and offer different looks to the offense, so Mattison might want to at least explore the idea this spring and see how it goes. That might be the best way to get Michigan's best players on the field.


Kurt from Winter Wonderland, Ill., writes: Can we all finally acknowledge that the NU vs. "NU" rivalry has been one of the conference's best through the first three seasons of its incarnation? An underdog winning against a Top 10 Nebraska team in Lincoln, a comeback Nebraska win by one at a strong Northwestern in Ryan Field, and then a Nebraska victory on a Hail Mary last season! What will the next season bring?!

Brian Bennett: Maybe it's a budding rivalry. I also think Nebraska and Northwestern are the two most unpredictable teams on a week-to-week basis in the Big Ten, with both capable of wild swings of momentum at any time. So no wonder crazy things happen when the two get together.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
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Cold, cold, go away.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

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