2009 Michigan Preview - Defense
Michigan P Zoltan Mesko
Michigan P Zoltan Mesko
Posted Jun 15, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Michigan Wolverine Defense

Michigan Wolverines

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Michigan Preview | 2009 Michigan Offense
- 2009 Michigan Defense | 2009 Michigan Depth Chart
- 2008 Michigan Preview | 2007 Michigan Preview | 2006 Michigan Preview

What you need to know: The defense was a major disaster considering it had the talent and the experience to be among the best in the Big Ten. In comes Greg Robinson, the former Syracuse head man and defensive coordinator at Texas, and he has one job and one job alone going into the season: get his team to tackle. This wasn’t necessarily a soft defense, but it missed too many stops and didn’t do nearly enough to come up with the big play. The two big problems are on the defensive line, with so few live bodies that the defense will have to switch at times to a 3-4. The bigger problem is at corner where there’s no depth behind Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko. Brandon Graham is a pass rushing terror for the line to work around, and Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are fantastic linebackers leading a rising corps. The real strength will be at safety where some superstar prospects will combine with some established playmakers. That means veteran safety Steve Brown can be part linebacker and part safety in the new system.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Obi Ezah, 98
Sacks: Brandon Graham, 10
Interceptions: Steve Brown, 2

Star of the defense: Senior DE Brandon Graham
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DT Mike Martin
Unsung star on the rise: Freshman S Vladimir Emilien
Best pro prospect: Graham
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Graham, 2) LB Obi Ezah, 3) LB Jonas Mouton
Strength of the defense: Safety, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Defensive Line, Cornerback Depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: On a very thin and a very questionable defensive front, 6-2, 268-pound senior Brandon Graham needs to play like the NFL prospect he’s supposed to be. A freak of nature with all the measurables, he ran a 10.9 100-meter dash in high school, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after making 46 tackles, ten sacks, and 20 tackles for loss. His sacks came in bunches, destroying Wisconsin with three and playing well against Michigan State with three sacks. Now he’ll be a marked man as the lone star on the defensive front, so he’ll have to get used to more double and triple teams and will have to be patient. The consistent stats won’t be there, but his presence should make everyone around him better.

The biggest issue on the defense, and possibly the team, is at tackle, where sophomore Mike Martin will get the first look on the nose. He had a good first year in the rotation making 20 tackles with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, but he has to prove he’s strong enough to hold on in the middle. He doesn’t have the huge bulk and will have to be part of a rotation, but he’s quick and should get into the backfield. He’d be better in a 4-3 alignment, but he’ll be used in a variety of ways. The 2007 Gatorade Michigan Player of the Year has the talent and strength to be excellent with a little bit of time.

Working at the other end spot will be Ryan Van Bergen, a 6-6, 261-pound sophomore who made 13 tackles in his limited role. He’s always working and always hustling, and now he’s going to have to show he can be a decent pass rusher with all the attention paid to Brandon Graham on the other side. With his size he should hold up well against the run in the 3-4. He looked the part this off-season and could emerge as a key new star for the defense.

Projected Top Reserves: The defense is waiting and buying time before William Campbell is ready. The 6-5, 330-pound true freshman is stunningly fast for his size, NFL strong, and one of the biggest stars of the recruiting class. A dream of a nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment, he might be considered for part of the rotation this year. Most likely, he’ll be given a year to develop and will redshirt, but the coaching staff won’t have that luxury if injuries strike.

At 6-4 and 305 pounds, Renaldo Sagesse has the bulk to be a regular on the nose. The junior saw a little bit of work making three tackles hasn’t been able to break through over the last few years with so many good tackles ahead of him. With his size and experience, at least practice experience, he’ll be a starter if there’s a 4-3 alignment.

Junior Greg Banks has 6-4, 275-pound size, after bulking up over the last year, and has the look of a 3-4 end. He only played in eight games and made six tackles, but he’s going to have to prove he can be more of a playmaker to see any time in a rotation with Brandon Graham. He doesn’t have the pass rushing skills to get the start on the other side.

Watch Out For ... Van Bergen. He’s always had the fire and the motor, and now he’ll get the chance to work on a regular basis on the end. He’ll make plays in the backfield on sheer want-to.
Strength: Graham. He’s an elite talent who’ll be making a lot of money very soon. Everything works around him, and while he’ll be beaten like a drum by double teams, everyone else will be able to shine because of him.
Proven production. The line was a mega-disappointment last season with so much returning talent. Now there’s Graham and … there’s Graham. That’s not to say the line will be bad, but there isn’t much in the way of proven pass rush and there need to be more live bodies across the board. 
Outlook: The defensive front was supposed to be the star of the show last year and the one positive area the new coaching staff could count on. It was mediocre at very best. Now all the top players are gone with the exception of Brandon Graham, and the team is very, very thin when it comes to experience. Help is on the way with a talented recruiting class to help out down the line, but the lack of bodies necessitated the move to a 3-4. The production, considering the class of talent that comes to Michigan, won’t be too much worse than last year, but this is a big question mark with Graham the only known commodity and Ryan Van Bergen needing to go from being a decent backup to a steady starter.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: 6-2, 240-pound junior Obi Ezeh did everything he could to make every play possible. Not only did he lead the team with 98 tackles, he led the team by a lot making 22 more stops than the team’s No. 2 tackler. However, he didn’t have his best year missing too many tackles and often being out of position. Versatile enough to play either in the middle or on the weakside, Ezeh will need to be an all-around playmaker on the outside and be used more as a pass rusher after making a sack and seven tackles for loss. If he’s healthy, he’ll be the team’s leading tackler and a sure-thing all-star if he can build on the potential shown as a freshman.

Junior Jonas Mouton didn’t get the start against Utah, but he started every game after and finished second on the team with 76 tackles with a sack and 6.5 tackles for loss on the weak side. He got better and better as the season went on and he’s expected to be a major producer again once he gets healthy. Durability is a problem, having problems with a high ankle sprain two years ago and missing spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he’s a tough, athletic 6-2, 218-pounder who moves well.

Sophomore Brandon Herron was one of the team’s top recruits a few years ago and now it’s his time to show why. Mostly a special teamer so far, he made seven tackles seeing time in every game. The 6-2, 222-pounder moves like a defensive back but will be a key part of the outside linebacker rotation getting the first look at the strongside. A solid tackler, he should be an instant producer in the backfield being sent early and often.

6-0, 215-pound senior Steve Brown is a safety who’ll be used in a hybrid role. Part linebacker, part strong safety, he’ll move from his free safety spot to take on the job after finishing fourth on the team with 64 tackles and two interceptions. One of the team’s fastest players and a huge hitter, he’ll be all over the field.

Projected Top Reserves: Until Jonas Mouton is ready, sophomore J.B. Fitzgerald will play a big part of the defense in the middle. The 6-3, 232-pound hitting machine looked throughout spring ball like a player on the verge of big things, and while he might end up moving to the outside, he’ll make a ton of tackles no matter where he is.

Junior Marell Evans appears to be on the verge of big things after a strong spring. The 6-3, 237-pounder is neck-and-neck with Brandon Herron for an outside job after showing the ability to get into the backfield on a regular basis. A good special teamer so far, he made four tackles last season in his limited role but will now see the field on defense.

Watch Out For ... the battle between Herron and Evans. Someone will have to move around when Mouton comes back. If might be Fitzgerald, or it might be Herron or Evans. They’ll all be involved in some way and it’ll be a fight for the starting jobs.
Strength: Speed. This will be an active, mobile group that’ll be even more athletic when it uses Brown as a fourth linebacker. Getting to the ball shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Tackling. The linebacking corps put up numbers but it came up with them way too far down the field. There were too many missed stops and too many missed plays. There will be more gang tackling and an emphasis on form this summer.
Outlook: The linebackers will be asked to do even more with so many concerns on the defensive front. If it’s a three-man linebacking corps, there will be plenty of options and several good players to rotate around. In a four-man alignment, things will get stretched a bit thin is Brown plays safety instead of linebacker. Ezeh should be a good one to work around, and Mouton will be strong once he returns from a shoulder problem. This will be a good corps, but nothing special. However, it’ll make more big plays under defensive coordinator Greg Robinson; there will be more blitzing into the backfield.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Sophomore Boubacar Cissoko came up with a promising first season as a reserve corner making 15 tackles with three broke up passes. Now he’s expected to become a major playmaker with 4.4 speed, linebacker strength, and good toughness. He’s only 5-9 and 182 pounds, but he makes up for it with his athleticism and make-up speed. While he’s hardly a finished product and will make a slew of mistakes, he’ll grow into a lock-down defender.

Back after starting most of last year is Donovan Warren, who went from being a superstar prospect to making 52 tackles with an interception and eight broken up passes as a true freshman in 2007. He stepped up last year with another good year making 52 stops with an interception, but he wasn’t as much of a ball-hawk. This year, the 6-0, 187-pound junior speedster will be one of the stars of the defense with his tackling ability and experience allowing him to be put on an island. However, he needs to get past a knee injury that limited him through the off-season.   

With Steve Brown serving a hybrid role as a safety and linebacker, junior Troy Woolfolk will likely get a long look at free safety after serving as a corner and special teams. The 6-0, 183-pound son of former Michigan great, Butch, made ten tackles, mostly on special teams, and now should shine with room to roam in the secondary. A track star with great range and the toughness to come up with the big pops needed, he’ll make a lot of tackles somewhere in the defensive backfield.

For the time being, 5-11, 191-pound sophomore Michael Williams will be the strong safety, but that’s in pencil on the depth chart. Mostly a special teamer so far, Williams got more work in the secondary making 18 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss, with his best game coming in the Toledo loss. If nothing else, he’ll be the first safety in the rotation able to play either strong or free.

Projected Top Reserves: It’s only a question of time and health before true freshman Vladimir Emilien takes over a starting safety spot. An ideal strong safety prospect, he’s 6-1, 213 pounds, and runs a 4.4. He needs at least a year to get back to his best after missing all of his senior year of high school with a torn ACL. While he might get time this year in the rotation, and he moved without a problem this spring, he might be at his best if he’s able to redshirt. That’s not going to happen.

6-3, 211-pound redshirt freshman Brandon Smith was the team’s top recruit last year as a do-it-all playmaker who saw time as a quarterback and a receiver to go along with his work on defense. A phenomenal athlete with big-time hitting ability, he’ll get tried out at strong safety but could end up seeing time as the part safety, part linebacker hybrid.

Watch Out For ... Emilien. He hasn’t been able to go full-tilt with the coaching staff still taking it easy on the true freshman’s knee, but he’ll be a starter sooner than later. He might make some rookie mistakes, but he has the talent to be a special safety with a little bit of work.
Strength: Safeties. With Emilien about to become a star, Smith on the verge of becoming special, and Williams and Woolfolk two decent prospects ready to do more, the safeties are solid. Throw in part-time linebacker Steve Brown into the equation and the Wolverines are fantastic up the middle.
Back up corners. You’ll have to forgive the coaching staff if it babies Cissoko and Warren because there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to count on behind them. If injuries hit the corners, there will be a full-blown panic.
Outlook: The secondary was in a battle with the defensive line for the team’s biggest bust area. The safeties will be terrific and the starting corners will be fine, but the backup cornerback situation is a mess and the defense will be relying on several very green, but very talented prospects. With Steve Brown working as a fourth linebacker, as well as another safety, there’s only one regular returning starter to the secondary, but the talent level has been raised.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: K.C. Lopata came up with a nice year hitting 10-of-15 field goals, but he’s hardly irreplaceable. Junior Bryan Wright has a big leg and has been a kickoff specialist. He’ll get the first look, but if he remains inconsistent, the job will be wide open when Brendan Gibbons arrives. The star recruit has a huge leg but only his 16-of-21 career field goals in high school.

Senior Zoltan Mesko pulled off a shocking season averaging 43 yards per punt with 24 put inside the 20 after struggling earlier in his career. He earned All-Big Ten honors and now should be in the running for the Ray Guy Award if he can be as consistent and as good as he was last season.

WR Martavious Houston became a top-shelf punt returner averaging 12.6 yards per try and averaged 23 yards per kickoff return. However, Greg Mathews will get a long look as the punt returner. CB Boubacar Cissoko averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return.

Watch Out For ... Gibbons. Wright can hit from deep, but Gibbons was recruited to be the starting placekicker from day one.
Strength: Mesko. He’s a special weapon who bailed out the woeful offense time and again and kept teams consistently pinned deep.
Punt returns. Odoms was terrific, but he only got ten attempts. As a team, the Wolverines only averaged 8.6 yards per try.
Outlook: The coaching staff put a bigger emphasis on the special teams early on and they had decent success. Zoltan Mesko and the punting game were spectacular, the return game was decent, and the coverage teams improved. If the placekicking situation can be settled, the Wolverines will have one of the best all-around special teams units in the Big Ten.
Rating: 7