Preview 2009 - Defense
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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.
Tackles: Obi Ezah, 98
Sacks: Brandon Graham, 10
Interceptions: Steve Brown, 2
Star of the defense:
Senior DE Brandon Graham
Defensive Line, Cornerback
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DT
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return.
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.
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.