Michigan Wolverines: Jake Ryan

If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
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Happy hump day.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
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.

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.
Michigan’s spring game is less than a month away, so we’re going to try our best to look into the future and make five predictions for the next few weeks and what we might or might not see in the scrimmage.

Prediction No. 3: The linebackers will be the strongest position group by far -- offense and defense -- in the spring game.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan linebacker Jake Ryan is moving to the middle for his senior season.
It was the deepest position group in the 2013 season and everyone returns, so this prediction isn’t far-fetched. But with position shifts happening, each player is going to need to learn the nuances and how they fit into the group.

With any position group, it would be hard to say that you could shake up the positions and still have them come out, guns blazing, ready to lead a team. However, behind two-year captain Jake Ryan, this will be the group making the most ridiculous plays (again, offensively and defensively) for the Wolverines this spring game, and likely next fall.

By putting Ryan in the middle of the field, the coaches are allowing him better access to whatever play is unfolding on the other side of the field. And with the relationship between Ryan and Greg Mattison, the rising senior likely will be given a lot of freedom to make whatever kind of calls he believes are best for the defense, the linebackers and himself.

Looking forward to the fall, it wouldn't be shocking if at least half of the top plays at the end of the season come from the linebackers. Desmond Morgan and James Ross III have enough experience that they should be able to adapt just as quickly with Ryan.

Plus, all these guys are going to be with Mattison day in and day out. They’ll be in his meeting room and watching film with him. Mattison switched which position group he coaches so that he can direct the defense from the middle of the field. It would be shocking if these players don’t back up that decision with highlight-reel plays, starting with this spring game.

Other predictions:
After four weeks of scouring the nation -- and, in Brian's case, the world -- for top games, our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached the start of league play, at least for most teams. We'll likely be spending more time in our cars the next few months, but we don't mind.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here are the Week 5 offerings around the league, as all 14 teams are in action:

Sept. 27

Maryland at Indiana
Minnesota at Michigan
Wyoming at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Northwestern at Penn State
Tulane at Rutgers
Illinois at Nebraska
Iowa at Purdue
South Florida at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota at Michigan

For a week where every team is in action, Week 5 is a bit underwhelming. Of the five league games, I'm choosing between Minnesota-Michigan and Northwestern-Penn State, but the Jug game gets my vote. Sure, this series hasn't been very competitive, as Michigan has won six straight against Minnesota and 22 of the past 23 meetings. Michigan has been particularly dominant at the Big House. After Minnesota pulled off an upset in 2005, Michigan has claimed the past three meetings in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 134-23.

So why head to Michigan? Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill that made significant strides after last season's loss at Michigan, winning four of its final six league contests. The next step for the Gophers is to perform better in rivalry games like this one. I'm interested to see if Mitch Leidner is a different quarterback, if he's getting more help from his receivers and if incoming freshman Jeff Jones is contributing at running back alongside David Cobb. Speaking of young running backs, will this be a breakout year for Michigan's Derrick Green? The sophomore will need help from a besieged offensive line that must develop during the spring and summer.

Both defenses are going through a bit of a makeover. Michigan has much of the same personnel but shuffled its linebacker responsibilities, as senior Jake Ryan moves to the middle. Minnesota has been a very solid defense under Tracy Claeys but must replace its biggest piece up front (Ra'Shede Hageman) and in the secondary (Brock Vereen). Perhaps this turns into another easy win for Michigan, which needs a good start to Big Ten play, but I'm interested to see if Minnesota will keep moving in the right direction under Kill. Plus, I haven't seen the Gophers in person since the 2009 season.

Brian Bennett's pick: Cincinnati at Ohio State

It seems odd in a week with several Big Ten games to pick a nonconference matchup. But after logging a whole lot of mileage in the first four weeks, I'm happy to stay a bit closer to home. And this is also a good time to get a look at the Buckeyes, whom I've passed over so far despite a couple of interesting early tilts (Navy in Baltimore in Week 1, Virginia Tech in Week 2).

Also, I'm a sucker for these kinds of in-state games. Cincinnati has always lived in Ohio State's shadow, and Urban Meyer's alma mater would love nothing more than to pull off its first win over the Buckeyes since 1897. The Bearcats' program has been very solid for several years now, and it returns most of the production from a nine-win season in 2013. The offseason focus will be at quarterback, where Notre Dame transfer and one-time Indiana commit Gunner Kiel could start. (And choosing this game gives me an excuse to mention Munchie Legaux, who is battling back from a gruesome leg injury.)

But mostly, this game is about taking the temperature of the Buckeyes, who will be challenged much more in the nonconference schedule this fall than they were in the past two seasons combined. We should learn a lot from the Virginia Tech game, and I'm curious to see how the defense bounces back from a rough finish to '13 without stars Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. How will the revamped offensive line perform, and can anyone match Carlos Hyde's impact in the running game? Plus, if I get a chance to watch Braxton Miller play, I'm usually going to take it. Ohio State could be hovering in or near the top five if it is undefeated going into this game, and that demands an in-person visit.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Big Ten, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Jake Ryan, Jonathan Brown, Allen Gant, Joe Bolden, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Russell, Denicos Allen, Gelen Robinson, Max Bullough, Curtis Grant, James Ross III, Jon Reschke, Marcus Whitfield, Shane Jones, Chi Chi Ariguzo, David Santos, Trey Johnson, De'Vondre Campbell, Reggie Spearman, Raekwon McMillan, Zaire Anderson, Joshua Perry, Collin Ellis, Damien Wilson, Drew Smith, Derek Landisch, Eric Finney, Mike Svetina, Mason Monheim, Jimmy Hall, Leon Jacobs, Joe Gilliam, Josh Banderas, Joe Schobert, T.J. Simmons, Damien Proby, Mylan Hicks, Troy Reeder, Camren Williams, Taiwan Jones, Michael Rose, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Nyeem Wartman, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Ben Kline, Clyde Newton, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Danny Ezechukwu, Darron Lee, David Cooper, Davon Jacobs, De'Niro Laster, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, Jaylen Prater, Joseph Jones, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Marcus Newby, Marcus Oliver, Michael Trotter, Mike Hull, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Quinton Alston, Ralph Cooper, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Travis Perry, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some big changes that fans will see in the spring game next month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

The linebackers were the most productive and deep group on the Wolverines' roster this season. Generally when something works, the last thing any coach would want to do is change it. However, with the Michigan coaches moving players around in position groups, the make up of the linebackers will see some changes as well.

Desmond Morgan will play weakside linebacker and James Ross III will move to the strongside. But the most interesting move is shifting Jake Ryan from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichigan is hoping that moving Jake Ryan to middle linebacker will cause more celebratory reactions after big plays.
Ryan was the Wolverines’ best defensive player two seasons ago. Last year, after returning from an ACL injury, he showed flashes of being that same player, but he wasn’t able to display it consistently. Now, with another offseason of development coming up, much is expected of Ryan in his final season at Michigan.

The coaches believe that the move to inside linebacker will help Ryan play up to his potential and create more of the big plays that he was known for two seasons ago.

“From a playmaking standpoint, you’re putting him in the middle of the defense,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I think that’s an aspect that’s good.”

Ryan said he’s excited about the move and eager to do whatever the team needs in order to have a more successful season in 2014. One of the main differences is that Ryan will go from reading the tight end, as he did on the strongside, to reading the running back.

It’s a way to allow Ryan to become more involved throughout the course of a game. With defensive coordinator Greg Mattison becoming the linebackers coach, moving Ryan to middle linebacker presumably makes him the focal point of the defense.

Ryan should be able to disrupt to opposing running games while also being more involved in defending the passing game by dropping into coverage. Presumably, Mattison will try to use Ryan similarly to how he used Ray Lewis as a middle linebacker when he was with the Baltimore Ravens.

“My feeling on Jake is that he’s one of our best defensive players, and he has got to get to the football, and he’s a really good blitzer,” Mattison said. “The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now is that [strongside linebacker] was always out in the flanks. If they’re not running at him, your best player is not as involved in the game as he should be. We felt that would be a good move so he would be right in the middle of everything.”

It’s a big move for a Michigan defense that needs to make major strides next season. The Wolverines gave up 371.5 yards per game this past season (No. 41 nationally, No. 5 in the Big Ten). Michigan allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 36 nationally, No. 6 in the Big Ten) and 6.93 yards per pass attempt (No. 54 nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten).

By putting a team’s best playmaker in the middle of the defense, Ryan should be able to affect and help the Wolverines improve in all of those categories. His presence could also help the pass rush get to opposing quarterbacks with less difficulty. Last year Michigan recorded 25 sacks (tied for 65th nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten), so that number is going to need to jump next season if the Wolverines want to have a more effective defense.

Mattison said that every year he evaluates who his consistent playmakers are and then tries to find a way to get them as involved as possible. That seemed to work for Ryan at the strongside position two seasons ago, but it didn’t work quite as well in 2013. Now, with the change happening before the spring season, the Wolverines will have a chance to see how Ryan looks playing in the middle of the defense. So far, that picture appears to be bright.
The excitement of Hollywood’s biggest night isn’t completely over yet. There’s no reason not to carry over Oscar fun and relate it, somehow, to the Wolverines.

So, here are our best guesses for the 2015 Michigan football Oscars, a look ahead to what could be the best performances and must-sees of the 2014-15 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDevin Gardner passed for eight TDs and zero interceptions in his final four games last season.
Best picture: This was about as obvious a pick as "Titanic" in 1998. Leo stole our hearts and there just might be a game next year that could do the same. The best picture of the Michigan football season will be the Michigan-Ohio State game. If Nov. 29 isn’t already circled, do so now. It’ll be the must-see of the year. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller returns, but he has lost his running counterpart Carlos Hyde. However, the good thing about this game happening at the end of every season is so each team has enough time to come into its own and develop the talent. Both the Wolverine and Buckeye rosters have a lot of talent that could grow into its own and when these teams take the field expect plenty of nominee-worthy performances.

Best actor in a leading role (offense): Devin Gardner. The QB job is his to lose and as long as nothing goes wrong this spring and he takes his spot, there’s little to no reason why he shouldn’t be the offensive MVP next year. Yes, he was inconsistent last season, but it was a trend of the team, not just him. If he can bottle his performances from the last four games and turn that into a full season, he could have a really fantastic year ahead of him and the Wolverines could, too.

Best actor in a supporting role (offense): The offensive line. It’s kind of a cheat to give this to a group, but with an offensive line at its best, it moves as one. So we’ll go with that. This past season proved that it’s much harder (or nearly impossible) for any quarterback, running back, wide receiver or tight end to be productive, if the offensive line isn’t effective first. If Gardner has a big season, part of it will be because of what he did in the offseason, but a big part of it will be because the offensive line gave him time and kept him protected. Plus, the offensive line has quite a few interesting and creative guys, so if someone were to craft a speech to rival Jared Leto’s, it’d be someone on the O-line.

Best actor in a leading role (defense): Jake Ryan. He never really seemed to hit his stride last season after returning from his ACL tear. But now in his final year for the Wolverines, expect him to have his best season yet. He has moved inside to the middle linebacker spot so he’ll be reading the opposing running backs instead of tight ends, and Greg Mattison said this will give him a chance to get into more plays. With how instinctual Ryan is and how he has displayed that in the past, putting him a position to get to the ball more seems like a fantastic idea and one that could make him one the Wolverines’ leading men.

Best actor in a supporting role (defense): Frank Clark. Don’t get me wrong, Clark also could have a huge season but in order for Ryan to really play up to his potential, the defensive line will need to get some consistent pressure. Like the offensive line it’ll need to work as a unit, but looking at the Wolverine defensive line, Clark is a name that jumps out as one that could wreak havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The more he can do that, the more double teams he’ll draw and the more space he’ll be able to free up for Ryan to make big plays.

Best costume design: It’s quite doubtful Michigan will ever have a period piece-inspired uniform, though the nice thing about those period pieces is that the color “highlighter yellow” didn’t seem to exist. So, I can’t say I’d totally be opposed to that. However, uniform changes probably will be pretty subtle next season but don’t be too surprised if Michigan pulls something out for the MSU or OSU game. The best bet would be Notre Dame, however, as it is the final matchup. Michigan can’t do fireworks and Queen Bey at an away game, but it can do something big with its uniform.

Best original score: A score is essentially the same thing as a game plan, right? So, let’s go with Michigan’s offensive attack against Michigan State. Last season the Wolverines allowed seven sacks to the Spartans and finished the day with minus-48 rushing yards. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is back so fans can expect that even though the Spartans lost plenty of talent, that MSU will be more than prepared for the Wolverines. But new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should have some tricks up his sleeve. The Wolverines will have seven games before they face the Spartans so Nussmeier should have a good idea of what Michigan does well and what it doesn’t do as well, so expect his game plans to bring you tears just like the way "Up" did.

Best original screenplay: We can’t leave the marching band out on this one. The Michigan Marching Band will somehow need to find a way to best last season’s Beyonce performance. However, the best guess for when this show-stopping performance happens would be the Appalachian State game. For starters, it’s the App State game and with so many terrible memories for Michigan fans from the last version, an impressive halftime show could add even more to a dominant win. Also, with games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State away from Ann Arbor, the options for blowout shows are kind of limited. Expect the Michigan Marching Band to run the world and make App State fans realize the marching band is the best thing they never had.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
PM ET
Cold, cold, go away.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
PM ET
A gold medal-winning version of the links.

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