Michigan Wolverines: Kenny Demens

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- James Ross III didn’t expect to play much the first game last season. Special teams, sure, but on the actual defense against Alabama, the linebacker’s head was stuck in high school.

So imagine his surprise when his coaches turned to him during Michigan’s season-opener last season and told him he was going in.

This was his introduction to college football, complete with moments that still stick out almost a year later as he moves from a situational role player to a full-time starter on Michigan’s defense.

James Ross
Lon Horwedell/Icon SMIJames Ross III was able to rely on physical tools as a freshman in 2012. Now he is focusing on a better understanding of Michigan's schemes.
“I’m on the sideline and the coaches tell me to get in,” Ross III said. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I just look around the stadium and it’s packed. Has the big old jumbo screen going on. Ahh, it was, I don’t know.

“That offensive line was a pretty big deal, too. It’s real.”

Ross III, an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11, already had this experience down. A month earlier at the start of fall camp, he looked at Michigan’s offense and saw offensive linemen all standing 6-foot-3 or bigger and realized he wasn’t playing in Michigan’s Catholic League anymore.

Plus, his knowledge of what defenses Greg Mattison wanted to run was minimal and it ended up being somewhat surprising Ross III played much at all. He was able to mask his lack of understanding by his instincts. He didn’t know all the plays, but he listened to what former Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens recited in the huddle, repeated it as if he knew what he was doing and then would go and try to make a play.

By the end of the season, Ross III said he knew about 75 percent of what Michigan was doing.

He had 36 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. He also started two games when Desmond Morgan was injured and made enough of an impact that the coaches moved Morgan to middle linebacker this spring to make sure Ross III played more this fall. Beyond that, Michigan’s coaching staff is pressuring him to be more active than last season and make sure he understands things better.

“He has, I think, pretty good instincts,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “… I thought, we thought, that there’s more we could get out of him so we’re putting a lot of that pressure, a lot of the challenge to him to do a little better job getting off blocks and there’s times when you don’t need to take on the block.

“So just making the football itself the issue.”

Last season it wasn’t. There were playbook and communication issues and there was the adjustment to college football in general. Thus far this fall, the adjustments have been more subtle.

Instead of understanding the concept of the plays, he has focused on making sure his alignment is correct. Instead of relying on his teammates to announce and break down the play, he is starting to grasp everything on his own.

He’s even learning to use his size -- strong but short -- to his advantage.

“Being able to read a little better,” Ross III said. “Just like it’s difficult looking at a smaller running back, you can’t really see him so you can get lost a little bit in the shuffle. But those guys, we are shuffling downhill and trying to maintain our gaps so we aren’t shuffling around them.

“We have to go through them.”

Doing that isn’t an issue for Ross. He has always been a big hitter and strong for his size. His body, which didn’t look like a typical freshman when he entered camp a year ago, has continued to improve.

Now everything else is catching up.
Fitzgerald ToussaintLon Horwedell/Icon SMIFitzgerald Toussaint has been Michigan's starting tailback the last two seasons. But a broken leg suffered last year, along with talented youngsters behind him, has him in a fight for his job.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Denard Robinson adjusts to his new role as an offensive weapon playing a little bit of everywhere in Jacksonville, Michigan officially will begin its A.D. era as camp opens this weekend.

While Robinson’s replacement at quarterback, Devin Gardner, is set, much around him will be new or contested. Michigan will unveil a more fine-tuned version of the pro-style offense it ran last season with new linemen, new wide receivers and possibly a new running back to go with it.

The defense will be playing for the first time in the Brady Hoke era without Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Jordan Kovacs at safety as the defensive anchors.

So here’s at some things to pay attention to over the next three weeks as Michigan prepares for its opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.

Top position battles

Running back: One of four positions on the Wolverines with no clear hierarchy entering camp, as any one of five players could potentially win the job. Redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent, but is coming off a broken leg which ended his junior season. Freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith could both see playing time and will likely compete with Toussaint for the majority of the carries. Junior Thomas Rawls, who has yet to show a true burst in two seasons, is another possibility if he has improved. The wild card here might be redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who has track speed -- he was an elite high school hurdler -- and a good frame. He likely won’t win the job but could end up stealing carries.

Strong side defensive end: Keith Heitzman is likely entering camp as the leader here, but that’s a very tenuous lead at best. He has the most experience of the players competing at end, but the youth behind him will likely at least win a share of playing time. Chris Wormley, who, like senior Jibreel Black, could play both inside and outside, is a candidate here. Wormley was a player who many thought could have played as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL. Two other redshirt freshmen, Matt Godin and Tom Strobel, are also candidates here. Much like what could happen at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, you could end up seeing a three-man rotation here unless someone stands out heavily.

Defensive tackle: Quinton Washington is set at one position. The other, like the strong side end, is wide open. Like at end, Wormley and Black could make big moves here -- and Black might be the presumptive starter entering camp. Watch for Willie Henry to make a move. The redshirt freshman impressed last season’s seniors and he has the size to be a large complement to Washington. When Michigan goes jumbo, sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who will likely be in a rotation with Washington, could see time next to him.

Five reasons for concern

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WolverineNation Mailbag 

May, 21, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Fall is just around the corner, well, a season away but that means football is coming up soon.

In that spirit, we discuss a lot of redshirt freshmen, pure freshmen and linebackers in this week’s WolverineNation mailbag. Oh, and also the perfect summer treat of deliciousness.

Questions for next week’s mailbag can go to @chanteljennings on Twitter or jenningsespn@gmail.com through the email.

On to your questions.

andrewwink from The Den: Which redshirt freshman do you think will have the biggest impact on this year's team?

Michigan spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
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2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Desmond Morgan spent two years fully on the outside, playing out of the comfort of the position he has known his entire life, having to learn a lot of nuances for the first time.

Instead of controlling things from the middle, he would be on the outside, sometimes matched up against speedier, shiftier slot receivers and regular wide receivers. In high school, he often had been bracketed by other linebackers. Here, for his freshman and sophomore seasons, he was in space.

Then Kenny Demens graduated and Morgan moved to the middle.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Morgan
AP Photo/Tony DingLinebacker Desmond Morgan posted 81 tackles last season.
The move to middle linebacker suits Morgan, who had played there extensively in high school before coming to Michigan. But when he arrived in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines had Demens in the middle and while they liked the freshman, he wasn’t going to replace him in the middle.

Morgan’s move to the middle also coincides with the emergence of sophomore James Ross III on the weak side. Ross III had been pushing Morgan for playing time last season as a freshman and with a spot open, the shift made sense.

It has worked.

“Playing in space is something I definitely had to adjust to my first two years here because I wasn’t used to that in high school. I was more of an in the box kind of guy,” Morgan said. “Going back over to MIKE, I kind of feel a little bit more comfortable in a sense because of that.

“During the spring, it’s been an adjustment but it was something I kind of grew up playing.”

Morgan played exclusively in the middle this spring along with Joe Bolden. Ross III and Royce Jenkins-Stone played at the weak side. In many ways, the positions are similar and Michigan has stressed having guys who can learn both positions to aid in flexibility for different personnel groups and in case there are injuries.

There are differences, though.

Morgan will now have more pass coverage assignments against running backs and tight ends instead of receivers. He’ll have different responsibilities against the run after an 81-tackle, 5.5-tackle for loss season a year ago.

The biggest change will be in how much the 6-foot-1, 227-pound junior has to talk. He didn’t have to do much at all with Demens in the middle his first two seasons. Now, it is on him.

“Desmond showed what we’re looking for at the linebacker position in being more vocal, getting everybody set,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “His footwork has improved a great deal. His strength. He’s just starting to understand more and more what we expect from a linebacker.

“The next step for him has got to become a better blitzer. He has to beat somebody one-on-one when he’s blitzing.”

On the outside, especially with Jordan Kovacs coming down in run support as well the past two seasons, he didn’t need to do that as much. In the middle, he’ll be expected to add that to his abilities.

The key, though, is communication. If Morgan can’t get everyone set, the Michigan defense will be in trouble.

“You have to understand the game and understand the defense and what is trying to be accomplished and what the defensive coordinator is coaching,” Demens told WolverineNation earlier this year. “What we install, every time we install a defense, I’d ask coach Mattison what he was thinking with the defense, whether it was run or pass against this defense.

“He would tell me pass and I could lean on that and make the other guys on the defense aware it was going to be pass. Nine times out of 10, coach Mattison is right.”

That was the role Demens took over when Mattison and Brady Hoke arrived at Michigan. Now, for the Wolverines to have success in 2013, Morgan will have to understand those things just as well.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Roy Roundtree plans to treat tomorrow like he did so many fall weekends in Michigan. He’ll plan on going to bed early tonight.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesRoy Roundtree is looking forward to running the 40-yard dash at Michigan's Pro Day on Thursday.
Wake up early Thursday. Eat some breakfast and then head for one of the most critical days of his life.

Michigan’s pro day is Thursday and for most of the Wolverines participating, it is their first real chance to prove themselves in a Combine setting in front of scouts. Most of them plan on treating it just like they did when they played football games in Ann Arbor.

“I’m pretty focused on all of the drills because that’s what I’ve been working on since the Outback Bowl,” Roundtree said. “Also been working on my 40. Everybody wants to see if you run fast or run slow.

“The biggest thing is the 40.”

Most of Michigan’s prospects would agree. Only one, Denard Robinson, had the chance to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Others, such as Roundtree, defensive lineman Will Campbell and safety Jordan Kovacs, were able to show off for scouts in various all-star bowl games.

But for the majority of Michigan’s players, this is their first -- and potentially last -- chance to make any sort of impression on the men who will determine their professional futures.

(Read full post)

James RossLon Horwedell/Icon SMIJames Ross III has a chance to play a bigger role in 2013 for Michigan.
Over the next week, WolverineNation will give a brief look at five players to keep an eye on during spring practice for varying reasons.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Throughout last season, he showed flashes of potential and production whenever he was given the opportunity. It could have been spelling one of Michigan’s linebackers in a game or a full-on start when Desmond Morgan missed games due to injury.

Now, James Ross III has a chance to spend the offseason proving his role should be expanded in his second season with Michigan. More than any other linebacker in the two-position shuffle opened due to the graduation of middle linebacker Kenny Demens, Ross has the potential to be the biggest difference maker as to where everyone else plays in the fall.


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

The one spot where Michigan will be breaking in a new linebacker next season is in the middle, where Kenny Demens graduates after two-plus seasons as a starter. By the time his career ended, Demens ended up being a fairly reliable backer for the Wolverines and someone who could be depended on in pass coverage.

His loss will be underrated because of the talent behind him at the position, but whomever fills that slot will have some adjustment early on. There are a lot of candidates for that, though.

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WolverineNation Mailbag 

December, 26, 2012
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Joe BoldenLon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan (47) and Joe Bolden (35) are part of an LB unit that will be among the B1G's best in 2013.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan’s football season will have concluded a week from today, the first full day of Michigan A.D.

And yes, life After Denard [Robinson] will look markedly different for the Wolverines, one of the topics hit on in this week’s WolverineNation Mailbag.

Have questions for the Mailbag? Send them to @chanteljennings on Twitter or jenningsespn@gmail.com. Now, on to what you want to know:

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Season analysis: Linebackers 

December, 4, 2012
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Jake RyanAP Photo/Tony DingSophomore Jake Ryan emerged as one of the Big Ten's best linebackers this season.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- If there is an underrated assistant coach on Michigan’s staff, it might very well be linebackers coach Mark Smith.

After seeing how much Michigan’s linebackers improved this season and how every one of them maximized his abilities, he might be the best overall position coach on a staff that includes a future coaching star in Jerry Montgomery.

While defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has often worked with the Wolverines’ emerging star, Jake Ryan, a look at the growth of the entire unit should earn Smith a lot of praise once the season ends.

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Michigan 10: End of regular season 

November, 26, 2012
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The regular season has concluded for Michigan and one thing is very clear after 12 games for the Wolverines.

Michigan’s defense was very good this season and has the potential to be even better in 2013. The Wolverines’ linebackers, led by Jake Ryan, will have a chance to be the best unit in the Big Ten next season, and with it, defense once again carries the edge in the final regular season edition of the Michigan 10.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan was the leader of Michigan's defense in 2012.
1.LB Jake Ryan (3): The redshirt sophomore completed his regular season with another standout performance with nine tackles, two forced fumbles and two tackles for loss (including a sack). Ryan led Michigan in tackles (84), tackles for loss (15), sacks (4.5), quarterback hurries (two) and forced fumbles (five) this season. If he doesn’t win Michigan’s Most Valuable Player award, it would be a surprise.

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Michigan 10: Week 12 

November, 19, 2012
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan had another week and another offensive shift against Iowa, this time bringing back an offense the Wolverines tested briefly last season but employed to a much larger capability Saturday in a 42-17 win over the Hawkeyes.

It showed the true devastation having Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson on the field at the same time could do, and Michigan hasn’t even unleashed all of it yet, as Robinson did not attempt a pass on Saturday.

His new role, which could approximate his NFL future, sent him darting back up the Michigan 10, the Wolverines’ weekly power rankings.

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WolverineNation roundtable 

November, 15, 2012
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Kenny DemensJesse Johnson/US PresswireKenny Demens has been a steadying force in the middle of the Michigan defense.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is senior day at Michigan on Saturday and for many of the Wolverines out of eligibility, that signifies the beginning of the end of their football careers.

With that in mind, the WolverineNation staff looks back at Denard Robinson, ahead to which seniors will be missed the most and also to Ohio State in this week’s roundtable.

1) It is senior day for Michigan on Saturday. Which of the Wolverines' seniors does Michigan end up missing the most next season?

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Michigan 10: Week 11 power rankings 

November, 12, 2012
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Devin Gardner continued to show he’ll be just fine as the quarterback of the future for Michigan. And as long as Denard Robinson is hurt, Gardner will be the Wolverines’ man in the present, too.

The pro-style attack Gardner and Michigan ran was once again a smart game plan with a lot of options, and one that has ignited a Wolverines offense that had appeared stagnant through the second half of October.

On a day when Michigan’s defense struggled to contain Northwestern’s Kain Colter and Venric Mark, it needed a big day out of its offense, and it got it with Gardner. His play moves him into the top spot in this week’s Michigan 10 (last week's rankings in parentheses).

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Michigan 10: Week 10 power rankings 

November, 5, 2012
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A week ago, Michigan saw one version of what life could be like without Denard Robinson as its quarterback. On Saturday, the Wolverines saw a much different version.

It’ll likely take the Devin Gardner-led offense every time. Gardner’s performance Saturday showed flashes of what Michigan’s offense will look like when it transitions next season to the pro-style O the Wolverines coaches favor and what it could look like with Gardner at quarterback.

It also told Michigan it has a viable option behind Robinson at quarterback -- which was questionable after last week with Gardner at receiver and Russell Bellomy struggling through his first extended action on the road.

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