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2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part one)

July 24th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This is the eighth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two

10. Nick VanHoose, Northwestern | RS Junior – 6’0”, 190 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 21 61 5.0 0 8 0
2012 26 7 33 0.5 0 7 3
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 66 28 94 5.5 0 15 3
(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

Despite having fewer tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups than Indiana’s Tim Bennett, Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose cracks this top-10 list while Bennett is left out in the cold. In fact, Bennett—even with 73 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, and a nation-best 21 passes defended last season—was never really in consideration. There were two or three other Big Ten cornerbacks, including Michigan State sophomore Darian Hicks, who participated primarily on special teams last year, that had better odds to knock VanHoose out of the top 10 than Bennett. How so? There is more to an evaluation of a cornerback than just individual statistics.

Although Bennett led the country in both pass breakups (20) and passes defended (21) last season, he was a member of one of the worst secondaries in the nation. You may want to look away. The following numbers are quite horrifying. Indiana finished 118th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (290.2), 112th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (7.7), 103rd in passing efficiency defense (147.15), and allowed more 25-plus-yard completions than any other team in the Big Ten. While all of this cannot be blamed on Bennett, it was his responsibility to cover and contain the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. And Bennett was quite irresponsible. He allowed top wideouts like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (14 catches, Big Ten-record 369 yards, two touchdowns), Penn State’s Allen Robinson (12 catches, 173 yards, two touchdowns), and Illinois’ Steve Hull (9 catches, 224 yards, two touchdowns) to have their best performance of the season against the Hoosiers. Therefore, do not let individual statistics like passes defended fool you. There is always a bigger picture. And, here, the picture is clear: Bennett is not near one of the best 10 cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

One who will be this upcoming season is VanHoose. He has experience—he started 22 games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and sophomore the past two seasons—and has produced in various ways. As a redshirt freshman, VanHoose notched 33 tackles and seven pass breakups but made his biggest impact generating turnovers. He intercepted three passes—his average of 0.30 picks per game was fourth-best in the Big Ten—and recovered three fumbles. The following year, the turnovers vanished, as VanHoose forced only one fumble and intercepted no passes. Nonetheless, he found other ways to contribute. Mainly, he improved his run support, accumulating 61 tackles and five tackles-for-loss, which are the most among returning Big Ten defensive backs. And, despite failing to record an interception last season, VanHoose still was in the vicinity of the receiver, breaking up eight passes. Entering his third year as a starter, VanHoose should be able to demonstrate all of these abilities as a pass and run defender in one season and put together the most all-around campaign of his career.

Similar to Bennett and Indiana, questions will be asked about VanHoose and Northwestern’s pass defense overall. The Wildcats’ national rank in passing yards allowed per game was dreadful (99th), but the advanced metrics indicate their pass defense was better than that suggests. The Wildcats were 52nd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (6.1) and 73rd in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Northwestern’s pass defense was not nearly as poor as Indiana’s last year, but it still was below average.

9. William Likely, Maryland | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
Career Totals 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

At 5’7”, Maryland’s William Likely will be the shortest cornerback on this list. However, Likely has never allowed his limited stature to prevent him from excelling as a cornerback on the football field. In high school, Likely was considered a high three-star recruit in 247’s composite national rankings, but two recruiting services—Rivals and ESPN—rated him as a four-star. And Likely certainly had the offers of a four-star prospect, too. Reportedly, he received scholarship offers from LSU, Stanford, and Miami (FL) but chose to enroll at Maryland.

As a true freshman last season, Likely did not expect much playing time in the secondary with experienced starters Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson on the roster. However, McDougle broke his shoulder blade and Johnson fractured his toe early in the year, thrusting Likely into the lineup just a few weeks into his collegiate career. For a true freshman cornerback, Likely performed well in his 11 starts. He led the Terrapins with seven passes defended, one of which was an interception against Syracuse. Likely has a significant height disadvantage when marking outside wide receivers but compensates with his superb speed and agility to maintain tight coverage on his man. In case you are wondering just how superb, he was also Maryland’s kick and punt returner last season. What was even more impressive for a player of his size, though, was his willingness to provide solid run support. Likely had had the fifth-most tackles on the team with 70 and 4.5 tackles-for-loss, which is a high number for any cornerback, let alone one listed at 5’7”. Likely still had his freshman flaws throughout the year, but it was an impressive debut considering the circumstances.

Accordingly, big things are expected from Likely as a sophomore this fall. The question is whether Likely will sufficiently improve to shape up an experienced secondary that was only average against the pass last season. The Terrapins finished 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. However, these probably would have been worse if not for Maryland’s pass rush. The Terps averaged 2.85 sacks per game, which was 18th-best in the country. Consequently, with sacks included, Maryland allowed only 5.7 passing yards per attempt, good enough for 26th-best in the nation. Some of these sacks were the result of excellent coverage where the quarterback had nowhere to throw, but the prevailing thought is that Maryland’s front-seven saved an average secondary’s behind. The bad news for Maryland is that it lost one of its top pass-rushers in linebacker Marcus Whitfield (15.5 tackles-for-loss, nine sacks). The good news is that it returns all of its other key defensive contributors, including the rest of the pass-rushing front-seven. If Likely makes the sophomore leap that many expect, Maryland’s pass defense should see a boost in its performance.

8. Raymon Taylor, Michigan | Senior – 5’10”, 182 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 61 25 86 1.5 0.5 9 4
2012 33 12 45 0 0 1 2
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 95 38 133 1.5 0.5 10 6
(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

For much of last season, Raymon Taylor was the subject of frequent discussion among Michigan fans about whether he had developed into an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. When Taylor became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup early in the 2012 season as a true sophomore, his impact was limited. Although he intercepted two passes, including a key one he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to ignite a rout of Purdue, he broke up only one other pass all season long. Three passes defended in 11 starts and 13 games? This is the sign of a cornerback who either had such tight coverage that quarterbacks did not throw in his general direction or struggled to stay close with his man. Given that Michigan was ranked No. 54 nationally in Passing Defense S&P+ and eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt, the latter option is the answer here. Plus, Taylor provided little in run support, registering only 45 tackles and zero tackles-for-loss. Accordingly, fans began to look at the depth chart and incoming recruits to see if there was a suitable replacement for Taylor for 2013 season.

Yet Taylor demonstrated that there was no suitable replacement for him, even after Michigan brought in a blossoming crop of freshmen defensive backs in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Dymonte Thomas. He showed improvement in all facets of the game. Against the pass, Taylor transformed from a cornerback that rarely made plays on the ball into one that got his hands on multiple throws. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the Big Ten, and his four interceptions were tied for the third-most. What was most impressive about his interceptions was that they were created by his coverage, not by lucky bounces or ricochets. He played much tighter coverage on his man and, accordingly, saw favorable results. Against the run, Taylor still had issues, but he was much better in 2013 than in 2012. He actually led Michigan with 86 tackles, 61 of which were solo, almost doubling the number of tackles he had the prior season. Although many of Taylor’s stops can be attributed to tackles he made after he allowed his receiver catch the ball underneath against soft coverage, the large increase in tackles indicated he was more willing to assist his teammates in run support.

So, to answer many Michigan fans’ question, yes, Taylor is an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. He still has room to improve in defending and containing the run on the perimeter, but his coverage is much tighter and more technically sound. Plus, this season, Michigan plans to play more press coverage, which suits Taylor’s abilities more than dropping him into a soft zone where he has a tendency to let free the receiver he is supposed to mark. Of course, even in press coverage, there still are concerns that he will be beat over the top like Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and everyone from Indiana did time and time again. However, Lockett was one of the best wideouts in the nation last season, and Indiana’s no-huddle tempo was the reason for the slipups in coverage. Entering his senior season and third year as a starter, Taylor will put together his best campaign yet. He should have fewer tackles because he will not allow as many catches underneath in press coverage, but his passes defended should increase. Teams will try to test Taylor to avoid Michigan’s other cornerback, who is a bit higher on this list, only to discover that Taylor, too, is one of the better corners in the Big Ten.

7. Doran Grant, Ohio State | Senior – 5’11″, 193 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 43 15 58 2.0 0 13 3
2012 15 4 19 1.0 1.0 2 1
2011 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 61 22 83 3.0 1.0 15 4
(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

Ohio State’s Doran Grant is considered by NFL scouts and personnel to be one of the best senior cornerback prospects in the nation. In fact, some scouts foresee Grant being the fourth cornerback selected in the next NFL Draft, meaning he would be taken in the one of the first two rounds. NFL personnel drool over Grant because he oozes with physical talent that can translate to the next level. As a former high four-star prospect in high school, he drips with the type of athleticism that gives him the ability to frequently make game-changing plays. Just look at the impact he had as Ohio State’s second corner in his first full season as a starter last year. Grant posted 58 tackles, 43 of which were solo, two tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, three interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the conference, and he proved he could be an asset in run support. Ultimately, with his athleticism, Grant is a player that has unbelievable potential as a cornerback.

However, there is a “but,” and, in this case, it is significant. For all of the positive momentum-shifting plays Grant makes with his dynamic athleticism, he makes just as many negative ones. Grant has too many mental mishaps that allow opponents to break what should be no or small gains into huge plays. Whether it was misplaying his coverage or taking a poor angle on a tackle attempt, Grant simply made too many mistakes. And he was not the only Buckeye defensive back with this problem either. For example, no Big Ten team allowed more completions of 15 yards or more than Ohio State with 77 of them last season. Further, Grant was a member of an Ohio State secondary enriched with NFL talent that was only eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0). The Buckeyes had one of the best pass rushes nationally, so their sack-adjusted numbers are much better. Nonetheless, this indicates that Ohio State, including Grant, pass defense struggled if the pass rush from the front-seven did not get home. This was a very poor reflection on Ohio State’s secondary.

And it is difficult to see Ohio State’s secondary improving this upcoming season. The Buckeyes lost both of their starting safeties and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL this past spring. Grant is the only returning starter of the defensive back-four, and Ohio State’s returning safeties have very little experience. It will be upon Grant to replace the impact lost with Roby’s departure as the top cornerback on the depth chart and shore up the holes in this secondary. Grant continues to receive praise from NFL personnel and Ohio State coaches that claim Grant just needs to continue to “make strides in man coverage” to rise up the draft boards. But how much improvement mentally can be expected from a cornerback that fell asleep too often last season? If Grant realizes his full potential, he easily would be one of the top five cornerbacks in the conference. But the best guess is that Grant will continue to make too many dumb errors next season, which is why he is No. 7 on this list.

6. Eric Murray, Minnesota | Junior - 6’0”, 195 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 8 52 1.0 0 10 0
2012 4 1 5 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 48 9 57 1.0 0 10 0
(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

Minnesota’s Eric Murray probably was the best Big Ten cornerback that no one talked about last season. After contributing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012, Murray stepped into the starting cornerback role as a sophomore last year. Although Minnesota’s defense was somewhat below average, finishing 81st nationally in yards allowed per play and 65th in Defensive S&P+, much of those woes fell on Minnesota’s front-seven, not Murray and the rest of the secondary. Minnesota’s passing defense was slight above average, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per play and 47th nationally in Passing Defense S&P+. And Murray played a big role in this, leading the Gophers with 10 pass breakups, which already ties for the 11th-most all-time in school history. Additionally, Murray registered 52 tackles, 44 of which were solo, one tackle-for-loss, and a fumble recovery. By the end of the season, the Big Ten coaches and media began to recognize his performance, giving him an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. But, during the season, he received no attention.

The key reason why Murray received little press was because, unlike many of the other corners on this list, he did not accumulate any interceptions. Interceptions are flashy and easy indicators that a cornerback is performing well. But there is always a bigger picture. A look at Murray’s game film reveals why he has yet to nab his first interception. Murray thrives in press coverage when Minnesota lines up in man-to-man. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, he is able to jam the opposing receivers on the line, preventing them from releasing into their route. Accordingly, Murray did not have many passes to defend because the quarterback only occasionally had the opportunity to target Murray’s man. On the other hand, many of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers had their worst days against Minnesota. Penn State’s Allen Robinson, who averaged 119.3 receiving yards per game, gained only 18 yards in the nine times he was defended by Murray. Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, who averaged 105.6 receiving yards per game, had only 30 yards in the 11 plays he was guarded by Murray. Indiana’s Cody Latimer, who averaged 91.3 yards per game? Only 25 yards in the 13 plays Murray locked him up. The trend is pretty clear: despite the lack of interceptions, Murray’s press coverage is a difficult challenge for even the Big Ten’s best wideouts.

Expect much of the same from Murray in 2014. With a one year of starting experience under his belt, he will be able to fine-tune his press technique and improve upon it even further. Wideouts will continue to have a hard time releasing off the line of scrimmage against him. There will be times when those wideouts are successful and beat Murray over the top, but this is the consequence of banking on your ability to press and press some more. Also, it certainly would not hurt if Murray decided to record a few interceptions either this year. Because, if he does, he may be better than one—or some—of the next five cornerbacks on this list. And then he would receive all of the attention he would ever need.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with the first five names on this list? Did we leave someone out of the top 10 that deserves to be here? What about Michigan’s Raymon Taylor? Should he be higher or lower than No. 8 on this list? Who do you think will round out the top five tomorrow? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

The five greatest eras of Michigan football

July 23rd, 2014 by Drew Hallett


The following story was written for our annual Michigan football season preview magazine, In the Huddle: Michigan by Lindy’s Sports. However, due to the abrupt closing of their primary Midwest distributor in June, they were unable to publish the Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame magazines this year. 

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, Michigan football was born. On May 30, 1879, the first official University of Michigan football team participated in its first game against Racine College. The game was played in Chicago, Illinois, and was attended by 500 spectators. Michigan’s Irving Kane Pond scored the contest’s only touchdown, leading Michigan to a 1-0 victory. Yes, touchdowns were worth just a single point in 1879.

Things have changed a bit for Michigan football since that historic day in May 1879. On August 30, 2014, the Wolverines will kick off their 135th season against Appalachian State. The game will be played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended by more than 110,000 spectators. It is highly probable more than one touchdown will be scored, and, when they are, they will be worth six points, not a measly one.

Despite these variations, there has been one relative constant the past 135 years: Michigan’s stature in college football. Since competing against Racine College in 1879, Michigan has established itself as one of the most storied college football programs. No school has more all-time wins than Michigan. Only one school has a higher all-time winning percentage than Michigan, and it is only by six one-hundredths of a percentage point, too. The Wolverines also have 11 national championships, 23 undefeated seasons, 42 conference titles, 43 bowl appearances, three Heisman Trophy winners, and 129 first-team All-Americans. These are the numbers of a program that has been the cream of the crop for multiple stretches of time. Therefore, let’s reflect on the five eras of Michigan football that made it one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.

1901-05: The “Point-a-Minute” Era

1901 Michigan team

After the 1900 season, Michigan head coach Langdon Lea resigned. Needing a new coach for the following season, Michigan’s athletic director, Charles A. Baird, extended an offer to Fielding H. Yost, which Yost accepted. When Yost first arrived in Ann Arbor, he famously ran up State Street and proclaimed to a reporter, “Michigan isn’t going to lose a game.” Yost delivered on his guarantee.

In Yost’s first season, Michigan achieved a perfect 11-0 record, won the inaugural Rose Bowl, and claimed the program’s first national championship. Yet this is not even Michigan’s most impressive feat. En route to a perfect record, Michigan outscored all of its opponents by a 550-to-0 margin. In fact, one week, the Wolverines scored 22 touchdowns in 38 minutes of play against Buffalo. The game was so out of hand that Buffalo quit with 15 minutes still left to play. And Buffalo was not the only Michigan opponent to surrender early. Michigan’s 1901 campaign remains of the most dominant seasons, if not the most, in college football history. It also ushered in the “Point-a-Minute” era.

From 1901 to 1905, Yost’s squads were known as the “Point-a-Minute” teams. Why? Michigan’s offense was so proficient that it scored 2,821 points those five seasons, averaging nearly one point scored for every minute of play. Accordingly, the Wolverines did not suffer a single loss in their first 56 games under Yost, compiling a 55-0-1 record. They won national championships in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1904. They also were in line to capture their fifth consecutive national title in 1905, defeating their first 12 opponents by a 495-to-0 margin. But the University of Chicago upset Michigan, 2-0, in the season finale and handed Yost his first loss at Michigan. The loss marked the end of Yost’s “Point-a-Minute” teams and arguably the most dominant dynasty in college football.

1922-26: The End of Yost’s Reign

1925 Michigan team

Two decades later, Yost still was the coach at Michigan. After the “Point-a-Minute” era, Michigan continued to be successful under Yost, but conference championships were few and far between. However, the Wolverines returned to their championship-winning ways as the sun began to set on Yost’s tenure as Michigan’s coach.

In 1922 and 1923, Michigan did not lose a single game. In 1922, Michigan went 6-0-1, winning a share of its second Big Ten championship since 1906. The following season, the Wolverines were a perfect 8-0-0 and locked up their sixth national championship under Yost. Yost then retired as coach to focus on his duties as Michigan’s athletic director. However, his replacement, George Little, left Michigan after one season. Yost decided to return to his old post on the sideline for one last stint. Why? He saw an opportunity to revolutionize the game.

In 1925 and 1926, Michigan had quarterback Benny Friedman and receiver Bennie Oosterbaan. During those times, teams did not throw the football unless they were desperate for a big play. Instead, teams committed their entire offense to running the football. But this changed with Friedman and Oosterbaan. Friedman displayed passing skills that no previous quarterback ever had, while Oosterbaan became the prototype for an athletic, finesse receiver who could be a downfield threat. Together, they excited audiences weekly as Friedman connected with Oosterbaan for passing touchdown after passing touchdown. Accordingly, the duo became known as “The Benny-to-Bennie Show.”

Not only was their “show” exciting, it was quite productive, too. Friedman and Oosterbaan led Michigan to back-to-back conference championships in 1925 and 1926. In fact, Yost called his 1925 squad “the greatest football team I ever coached” and “the greatest football team I ever saw in action.” He even thought that the 1925 team was better than his “Point-a-Minute” teams. However, the 1925 squad failed to win a national title because it lost to Northwestern, 3-2, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. They were the only three points Michigan allowed all year. After the 1926 season, Yost retired as Michigan’s coach for the second time. This time, it would stick. Yost’s reign over college football ended. 

1930-33: Kipke’s Kingdom

Michigan 1933

But Michigan’s reign over college football did not end with Yost’s second retirement. In 1929, acting as Michigan’s athletic director, Yost hired Harry Kipke as Michigan’s new coach. Kipke used his first season to mold Michigan into the program he wanted to take into battle. By his second season in 1930, Michigan once again was ready to fight as a college football powerhouse.

In 1930 and 1931, Michigan was a serious championship contender, but a few slipups here and there cost Kipke and the Wolverines their chances. In 1930, the Wolverines posted an 8-0-1 record and their first undefeated season since 1923. Michigan shared a piece of the Big Ten championship with Northwestern, but a scoreless draw against Michigan State prevented Michigan from earning the national crown. Next season, Michigan’s defense was a force with which to be reckoned. The Wolverines shut out eight of their 10 foes and allowed only 27 points all year. But 20 of those points were allowed in one game. The result was a 20-7 loss to Ohio State. Although Michigan’s 8-1-1 record was sufficient to capture its second straight Big Ten title, the Wolverines were one mistake away from a national championship yet again.

But Michigan rectified its errors in 1932 and 1933. In 1932, there were no losses or ties to foil Michigan’s national championship dreams. The Wolverines finished with a perfect 8-0-0 record. Michigan rode its defense to the program’s seventh national title and Kipke’s first. The Wolverines shut out six of their eight opponents and allowed only 13 points all year. In 1933, Michigan went 7-0-1. The Wolverines’ only blemish was a scoreless stalemate against Minnesota. Nonetheless, unlike the 1930 campaign, Michigan had done enough to be crowned the national champion for the second straight season. Overall, from 1930 to 1933, Kipke was king, leading Michigan to a 31-1-3 record, four straight Big Ten championships and back-to-back national titles.

1947-50: The Mad Magicians

Michigan 1947

Fritz Crisler became Kipke’s successor in 1938. Crisler made his mark on the Michigan program early in his tenure. When he first arrived in Ann Arbor, Crisler presented Michigan with the famous winged football helmet. Supposedly, he wanted his players to wear the winged helmet, so his quarterback could locate his receivers downfield. Nonetheless, the winged helmet has become one of the iconic symbols of Michigan football. But it was not until the end of his tenure when Crisler made his biggest contribution not only to Michigan, but to all of college football.

Prior to 1947, teams played their best players on both offense and defense. However, in 1941, the NCAA implemented a new rule that allowed players to enter or leave at any point during the game. Crisler took advantage of this rule in 1947 when he divided his team into “offensive” and “defensive” specialists. This became known as “two-platoon football” and would forever change how the game of football would be played.

With specialized units on both offense and defense, Michigan mastered both sides of the line of scrimmage. This was especially the case on offense. Michigan deployed seven different formations and an array of trick plays. There were double reverses, buck-reverse laterals, crisscrosses, quick-hits, and spins. These plays, along with the Wolverines’ endless substitutions, created a level of deception and chaos that no one had ever seen on the gridiron. Accordingly, the media nicknamed the 1947 team the “Mad Magicians.”  The Mad Magicians won both the Big Ten and national championship. Crisler retired after the season, but two-platoon football propelled the Wolverines to three more Big Ten titles and another national title the following three years.

1969-78: The Ten-Year War

OSU-Michigan banner

Michigan versus Ohio State. Maize and Blue versus Scarlet and Gray. It is arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports. And this was never more the case than when it was Bo Schembechler versus Woody Hayes. When Michigan hired Schembechler prior to the 1969 season, the Wolverines were a shell of their former selves. They had endured multiple losing seasons the previous two decades and had wandered into mediocrity. On the other hand, Hayes had transformed the Buckeyes into a juggernaut and one of the best college football programs in the nation.

In Schembechler’s first meeting against Hayes in 1969, no one outside the Michigan locker room expected the Wolverines to win. Ohio State rode a 22-game winning streak into the matchup, which included a 50-14 rout over Michigan the previous season. Some even considered the Buckeyes to be the best team of all-time. The Wolverines did not care. Michigan jumped out to a 24-12 halftime lead and held on to upset Ohio State by the same score with the help of seven OSU turnovers. Not only was Michigan’s victory considered one of the most historic upsets in college football, it ignited the heated “Ten-Year War.”

Under Schembechler and Hayes, respectively, Michigan and Ohio State were by far the two best Big Ten teams from 1969 to 1978. Michigan’s record against non-Ohio State teams those seasons was 91-11-2. Ohio State’s record against non-Michigan teams those seasons was 84-15-2. Consequently, both schools always were looking ahead to their rivalry showdown in the regular-season finale because they knew that outcome would determine the Big Ten champion, the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl, and, in some cases, the national champion. Despite winning only two of the first seven matchups, Michigan beat Ohio State three straight times from 1976 to 1978 to win the Ten-Year War with a 5-4-1 record. During this run, the Wolverines clinched at least a share of eight Big Ten championships and appeared in five Rose Bowls. The Ten-Year War brought Michigan football back from the dead and raised its rivalry with Ohio State to an unprecedented level.

Since the Ten-Year War, Michigan has had some very successful stretches of success. From 1988 to 1992, the Wolverines won five straight Big Ten titles. Then, from 1997 to 2000, Michigan claimed its 11th national championship in 1997, three Big Ten titles, and four straight bowl victories. But those teams did not exude the superiority and dominance that Michigan did in those earlier eras. Those earlier eras made Michigan football what it is today. And, on August 30, 2014, Michigan hopes to begin a new one that tops all of them.

Predicting Michigan: The secondary

July 22nd, 2014 by Derick Hutchinson


Predicting-Michigan-Secondary

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

Greg Mattison owns all of the tools to turn what was a shaky secondary in 2013 into a strength of the defense during his fourth season under Brady Hoke at Michigan.

Last season Michigan’s tendency to surrender the big play allowed teams to hang around before eventually costing the Wolverines in a late comeback by Penn State in Happy Valley. This unit has all the tools to shut down Big Ten receivers, but a few key players need to make major spring adjustments.

The Starters

Blake Countess was the clear-cut top defensive back for Michigan during the 2013 season, snatching a team-high six interceptions and taking on opponents’ best receivers every week. But this is an important offseason for the redshirt junior, as his ability to turn when the ball is in flight stands between him being a good defender and perhaps becoming one of the best in the conference. Countess often got beat despite tight coverage because he was looking at the receiver rather than finding the ball. If he can make an adjustment to look for the pass while staying in front of his man, offensive coordinators might stop throwing his way.

Countess was joined in 2013 by Raymon Taylor, who made 12 starts and grabbed four interceptions of his own as a junior. Big Ten quarterbacks were much more willing to throw at Taylor last season, and he was largely outmatched by most of the tougher receivers. Taylor is likely to start at cornerback, so his improvement through the offseason is one of the most important factors in improving the defense as a whole.

If Countess ends up playing the majority of his minutes at nickelback it will make room for talented sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who caught two interceptions during the spring game and sparked a buzz among the defensive coaches during the early spring. Much like Taylor and Countess, Lewis is around 5’10″ and 175 pounds. He played a limited role as a freshman, but did appear in eight games and batted down two passes.

Jarrod Wilson is ready to become the full-time starter at safety after picking up two interceptions and 50 tackles as a sophomore. Wilson gives the Michigan secondary an aggressive ball hawk that loves to support the running game. Mattison takes advantage of the junior’s versatility to send him into the backfield when he’s not dropping back in coverage.

The other safety position appears to be wide open for a cast of younger players trying to earn a starting job. Dymonte Thomas spent some time in the secondary as a freshman, but Delano Hill took most of the first-team snaps during the spring game. One of these sophomores will separate themselves during the offseason, but they are both in the running heading into fall camp.

Career Stats – Countess
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 30 14 44 0 1.5 1 6 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 26 20 46 0 2.0 0 4 6
Totals 56 34 90 0 3.5 1 10 6
Career Stats – Taylor
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
2012 33 12 45 0 0 0 1 2
2013 61 25 86 0.5 1.5 0 9 4
Totals 95 38 133 0.5 1.5 0 10 6
Career Stats – Lewis
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Totals 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Career Stats – Wilson
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0 0
2013 28 22 50 0 2.0 0 2 2
Totals 32 26 58 0 2.0 0 2 2
Career Stats – Thomas
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Hill
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0

Veteran Depth

Michigan developed an abundance of depth at the cornerback position during 2013 as Mattison used a packed rotation while trying to find players that could hang with Big Ten receivers. Though many of his combinations faltered, Michigan now boasts plenty of corners to make the spring competition more productive.

Senior Delonte Hollowell hopes to play the most important role of his career in 2014 as he tries to crack the lineup behind a host of younger players. Hollowell has played sparingly at cornerback throughout his Michigan career, including four times as a backup last season. The Detroit native contributes predominantly on special teams and will need a strong offseason to stay in the mix for a secondary position.

The perfect scenario for Michigan’s defense would include sophomore Channing Stribling stepping up during camp and earning a major role in the secondary. Stribling offers the Wolverines a weapon that many of the other cornerbacks lack: Size. At 6’2″, the sophomore is equipped with the tools to defend some of the biggest and most dominant receivers in the Big Ten if he can earn a spot in the rotation before August 30.

Career Stats – Hollowell
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 5 1 6 0 0 0 0 0
2012 1 3 4 0 0 0 0 0
2013 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 7 5 12 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Stribling
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0
Totals 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0

Newcomers

Michigan fans are eagerly awaiting Hoke’s most prized recruit as a head coach: Jabrill Peppers. The five-star defensive back owns the talent to step on campus and start at cornerback right away, and Mattison will likely give him every opportunity to do so. Though the early comparisons to Charles Woodson are premature, Peppers arrives at Michigan with as much talent as any recruit in recent memory and could greatly improve the defense single-handedly. In Drew’s latest mailbag last week, he projected Peppers to start the season as a reserve nickelback, but eventually snag the starting strong safety spot. The ideal situation would be if Hill or Thomas can win the spot and Peppers gets his feet wet at nickelback, but if Peppers does beat out the other two, he’ll be well on his way to living up to the hype.

2014 opponent preview: Utah

July 21st, 2014 by Justin Potts


2014-Opponent-Preview-Utah

Last week we previewed the team that we feel will be the third-easiest on Michigan’s schedule this fall, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It followed our previews of Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). Today, we’re taking a look at the fourth-easiest opponent, the Utah Utes.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 Idaho State
Sept. 6 Fresno State
Sept. 20 at Michigan
Sept. 27 Washington State
Oct. 4 at UCLA
Oct. 16 at Oregon State
Oct. 25 USC
Nov. 1 at Arizona State
Nov. 8 Oregon
Nov. 15 at Stanford
Nov. 22 Arizona
Nov. 29 at Colorado

In our Minnesota preview, we touched upon the upward trajectory in which Jerry Kill has the program headed. Utah, on the other hand, is going the other way. After taking over from Urban Meyer following a 12-0 2004 campaign, Kyle Whittingham rebuilt the program and went from 7-5 to 8-4 to 9-3 to 13-0 in four consecutive seasons. The latter included a 25-23 win in the Big House and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. And while there was nowhere else to climb, the Utes continued their success with back-to-back 10-3 seasons in 2009 and 2010. But Whittingham’s squad went 8-5 in 2011 and 5-7 in each of the past two years, leaving one to wonder whether Whittingham’s early success was more due to Meyer’s recruits than his own coaching acumen.

A closer look into last season shows that Utah wasn’t quite as bad as the record indicates. The Utes took care of business against an FCS foe, Weber State, 70-7, and Pac-12 bottom-feeder Colorado; won rivalry games against 9-5 Utah State and on the road against 8-5 BYU; and upset Stanford, 27-21. But it was the losses that show how close the team was to a much better season. Utah lost to Oregon State by three, 51-48; knocked on the UCLA redzone with a chance to tie in the final minute; and gave up a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to Arizona State. Coming close doesn’t count for anything, but it does show that a couple of bounces going the right way could have turned a 5-7 season into an 8-4 one with a bowl game. Of course, there was still a 23-point loss to Oregon, 11-point loss to Arizona, 16-point loss to USC, and 12-point loss to Washington State, so before we read too much into the close losses, let’s take a look at what this year’s team presents.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Travis Wilson 6’7″, 240 133-237 for 1,827 yds, 16 TD, 16 INT; 81 rush, 386 yds, 5 TD
RB Bubba Poole 6’1″, 197 607 yds (4.1 avg), 2 TD
WR Dres Anderson 6’2″, 190 53 rec. for 1,002 yds, 7 TD
WR Kenneth Scott 6’3″, 208
WR Delshawn McClellon 5’9″, 169 9 rec. for 195 yds, 0 TD
TE Westlee Tonga 6’4″, 252 2 rec. for 28 yds, 0 TD (injured for season, Week 4)
LT Jeremiah Poutasi 6’4″, 320 12 starts (22 career starts)
LG Junior Salt 6’2″, 315 12 starts (12 career starts)
C Siaosi Aiono 6’2″, 305 8 starts (8 career starts)
RG Salesi Uhatafe 6’4″, 315
RT Isaac Asiata 6’4″, 310 4 starts (4 career starts)

After ranking 66th nationally in scoring offense (29.2 points per game), 76th in total offense (397 yards per game), 72nd in rushing offense (160.8 yards per game), and 62nd in passing offense (236.3 yards per game), Whittingham demoted offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson to running backs coach and hired former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen to run the offense. Christensen served as offensive coordinator at Missouri from 1997-2008, where he built one of the most dynamic offenses in the country. He had some success at Wyoming in his first head coaching gig, being named Mountain West Coach of the Year in 2011, but was fired after a 5-7 season in 2013. Back at offensive coordinator, he’ll have the task of replacing five starters and turning a middling offense into a potent one.

Dual-threat quarterback Travis Wilson had highs and lows last season and will look for consistency under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (Tom Smart, Utah Sports Information)

Dual-threat quarterback Travis Wilson had highs and lows last season and will look for consistency under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (Tom Smart, Utah Sports Information)

It all starts with junior quarterback Travis Wilson, who had his share of struggles last season — six interceptions in the loss to UCLA and 16 on the season — but put together a fantastic performance against Stanford’s stingy defense, completing over 67 percent of his passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he completed just 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,827 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. He also added 386 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry. At 6’7″, 240, he’s a big guy, which aids his running ability. But it doesn’t make him any less susceptible to injuries. He missed parts of games last season with a shoulder injury and missed the final three games after suffering a concussion against Arizona State. If he is fully healthy this fall, Wilson will benefit from the tutelage of Christensen, who guided the likes of Brad Smith and Chase Daniel at Missouri.

Wilson has one playmaker to throw to in Dres Anderson, but the other three of Utah’s top four pass catchers from 2013 are gone. Anderson caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 100-yard receiving games in four of the first five and caught touchdowns in five of the first six. He ranked 12th nationally with 18.9 yards per catch, but only two (Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr.) of the 11 in front of him had more yards.

Kenneth Scott missed last season after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter of the season opener, and his return will be a welcome sight. The former four-star recruit caught 32 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. Sophomore Delshawn McClellon is a safe bet to be the third receiver. He played in six games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, but saw action at receiver against Oregon, and is said to be the fastest player on the team. Junior college transfer Kaelin Clay could also factor in at the position. Fifth-year senior tight end Westlee Tonga missed most of 2013 with an injury, but has been around for a while and will likely replace Jake Murphy, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five scores a year ago.

Last year’s leading rusher, Bubba Poole, returns after rushing for 607 yards and two touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry. Kelvin York, who led the Utes with six touchdowns, but rushed for just 463 yards, is gone, as is the next-best running back, Lucky Radley. That leaves Poole as the only returning running back with more than 100 yards rushing or 15 carries. But he’s not guaranteed to start. That’s because Utah got a junior college transfer, Devontae Booker, who could win the job. He rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012 at American River College before sitting out 2013 to become academically eligible to transfer to Utah. Even with a year off, Booker was the star of spring practice.

The offensive line has to replace center Vyncent Jones and left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono, but does have some experience returning, notably Jeremiah Poutasi. The 6’6″, 320-pound junior started all 12 games at left tackle last season and started 10 games at right tackle in 2012. He’ll likely remain on the left this fall. Junior Salt has the next-most career starts returning, having started all 12 games at right guard a year ago. He will move over to the left side to pair with Poutasi. Siaosi Aiono started eight games at right tackle last season but will slide to center this fall to replace Jones. Replacing him at right tackle will be sophomore Isaac Asiata, who started the final three games a year ago. Finally, redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe will get the nod at right guard after winning the job in the spring.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Nate Orchard 6’4″, 255 50 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks
DT Viliseni Fauonuku 5’10″, 285 14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
DT Sese Ianu 6’2″, 290 8 tackles
DE Hunter Dimick 6’3″, 270 30 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF
OLB Uaea Masina 6’0″, 222 7 tackles
MLB Jason Whittingham 6’2″, 240 81 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PD, 1 FF
OLB Jared Norris 6’2″, 237 64 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PD, 2 FF
CB Davion Orphey 6’0″, 185 33 tackles, 5 PD
CB Reginald Porter 5’11″, 181 10 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PD
FS Eric Rowe 6’1″, 201 69 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 7 PD
SS Brian Blechen 6’2″, 215 (injured)

Just like the offense, Utah’s defense hovered around the middle of FBS. It ranked 73rd in scoring defense (28 points per game), 61st in total defense (397.7  yards per game), 20th in rush defense (130.3 yards per game), and 111th in pass defense (267.3 yards per game). The rush defense was the obvious strength and the pass defense the weakness, and with only five starters returning, Whittingham has his work cut out for him.

The best player of the defense is defensive end Nate Orchard. The senior was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2012 and fueled Utah’s upset of Stanford last fall with two sacks and two forced fumbles. While Utah has to replace both interior linemen, Orchard is a very good player to build a line around. The other end is redshirt sophomore Hunter Dimick, who started four games a year ago and recorded 30 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and two sacks. Utah State transfer Jason Fanaika could also make some noise and push Dimick for the spot.

Three-year starting safety Eric Rowe has great size and speed and could play either free safety or corner this fall (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Three-year starting safety Eric Rowe has great size and speed and could play either free safety or corner this fall (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

On the inside, Tenny Palepoi, who led the line with 53 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks last season, is gone, as is LT Tuipulotu, who tallied 42, three, and 1.5. Redshirt junior Viliseni Fauonuku played in seven games and started one, recording 14 tackles and two sacks. He earned one of the starting tackle spots in spring practice. Senior Sese Ianu should start at the other tackle spot after missing spring ball with an injury. He played in 10 games last season and made eight tackles.

While Utah does return three of the top four linebackers from last season, it’s a unit that is in trouble. Last year’s top linebacker, Trevor Reilly, is gone. He led the Utah defense with 100 tackles, 16 for loss, and 8.5 sacks and was drafted by the New York Jets in the seventh round. To make matters worse, Jacoby Hale, who started four games in 2013 and was in line to start this fall, tore his ACL in spring practice, and Miami transfer, Gionni Paul, who was also slated to start, broke his foot in the spring. Paul is likely to return at some point this season, but probably not by the Michigan game.

The good news for Whittingham is that he has his nephew, Jason Whittingham, to build around. The redshirt junior middle linebacker started the first 10 games a year ago before an injury kept him out of the last two, but he still finished second on the team with 81 tackles and added five for loss and one sack. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Jared Norris started seven games last fall and should get the nod at the rover position. He finished fifth on the team with 64 tackles in addition to two sacks. The third starting linebacker will likely be Uaea Masina, who contributed seven tackles on special teams as a true freshman last year. After that, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will have to find some depth.

The secondary has solid experience at safety in the form of free safety Eric Rowe and hybrid linebacker Brian Blechen. The former started all 12 games last season and finished third on the team with 69 tackles and second with seven passes defended. He was a first-team freshman All-American in 2011, and with 35 games of starting experience, he’s the leader of the secondary. The latter missed 2013 with a medical redshirt, but started nine games in 2012 (eight at strong safety and one at rover) and led the team in tackles per game. Like Rowe, Blechen was a freshman All-American in 2010, and he was also named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2011 and 2012.

While Rowe and Blechen form an experienced safety unit, Utah has to replace both cornerbacks. There’s a chance Rowe could play corner this fall, which would certainly help on the edge. He split time between the two positions in the spring. Senior Davion Orphey enters fall camp looking to prove himself for one starting job. He tallied 33 tackles and five passes defended a year ago while starting eight games. His performance in fall camp could determine whether Rowe stays at safety or switches to corner. Reginald Porter is the other starting corner and is the second-fastest defensive back (4.43) behind Rowe (4.39). He started two games last season and recorded 10 tackles. The nickel back is redshirt sophomore Justin Thomas, who notched 25 tackles, three for loss, and two passes defended while starting four games in 2013.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Andy Phillips 5’10″, 207 17-of-20, Long 51
P Tom Hackett 5’11″, 187 43.4 avg, 27 in-20
KR Dres Anderson 6’2″, 190 11 ret, 21.1 avg.
PR Geoff Norwood 5’8″, 175 27 ret, 8.6 avg.

Both kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett return. Phillips hit 17-of-20 field goals as a redshirt freshman last season, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 and third-team freshman All-American honors. He was a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 2007-11 and had never played football before walking onto the team in 2012. Hackett led the Pac-12 with a punt average of 43.4 yards and set a school record for punt yards in a season (3,300). In his first two seasons, he has downed 42 percent of his punts inside the 20, 18 percent inside the 10, and just seven percent have resulted in touchbacks.

Dres Anderson averaged 21.1 yards per kick return last season, which would have ranked seventh in the conference if he had enough returns to qualify. Fellow receiver Geoff Norwood ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in punt returns, averaging 8.6 yards per return.

Outlook

As long as injuries don’t strike again, the defense should carry the team at least until Christensen’s offense takes hold. The starting 11 should be experienced and talented enough to form an impressive unit, but the concerns are depth. The defense should be able to keep the Utes in most games, especially early on. Wilson is a fun player to watch and should provide some fireworks under Christensen’s guidance. The key will be eliminating the mistakes that plagued him in 2013. If he can cut down on the mistakes and continue his relationship with Anderson, and if either Poole or Booker can break out, the offense could be pretty dangerous. But that’s a lot of ifs.

A tough schedule that sees the Utes face 10 teams that went bowling last season and travel to Michigan, UCLA, Arizona State, and Stanford will keep Whittingham’s squad from making a run in the conference. But this is certainly a team that should break a two-year bowl drought. Six or seven wins should be expected and anything above that will be seen as an impressive season.

What it means for Michigan

Utah opens with Idaho State and Fresno State, both at home, before traveling to Ann Arbor. The former went just 3-9 last season, but the latter went 11-2 and is projected to challenge for the Mountain West title. However, the Bulldogs do have to replace two players who were taken in the first 53 picks of the NFL Draft, quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams. Fresno State will be a test for Utah, but the Utes should be 2-0 heading into Ann Arbor, and they get a bye week between the Fresno State game and the Michigan game.

Michigan, meanwhile, will be coming off what should be a drubbing of Miami (Ohio) and should be either 3-0 or 2-1, depending on the outcome of the Week 2 trip to South Bend. The Utes will provide a good test for Michigan with their stout defense and good quarterback-receiver combo, but Michigan’s defense will have had three games to work out any early-season kinks and should be strong enough to shut down Utah’s offense. Don’t expect a blowout, but don’t expect a nail-biter either.

Predicting Michigan: The linebackers

July 20th, 2014 by Derick Hutchinson


Predicting-Michigan-LB

Ryan-Morgan(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

PreviouslyQuarterbacksRunning BacksWide ReceiversTight EndsOffensive Line

Despite the overall struggles of the defense for the majority of the 2013 season, the linebacking corps laid a solid foundation for Greg Mattison and carried the bulk of the load between a mediocre defensive line and frustrating secondary.

The unit took a huge blow during the 2013 offseason when its leader, Jake Ryan, tore his ACL and figured to miss the majority of the year. Ryan astonished the trainers by returning against Penn State on October 12, one week short of seven months after suffering the injury. The captain made an immediate impact by recording his first tackle for loss of the season.

Mattison will surely look to his linebackers to lead the defensive turnaround this season. Three of the most talented players on the Michigan roster will start for this unit and set the tone for an otherwise unproven defense.

The Starters

Ryan is a lock to start the season at middle linebacker for Michigan, coming off a year in which he won his second straight Roger Katcher Award for best Michigan linebacker despite missing the first five games of the season. He made the move from strong-side linebacker in the spring as a way to put the best player in the middle of the defense. Brady Hoke said that teams were able to run plays away from him and take him out of the play last season. The move to the middle will keep that from happening.

During his last full season, 2012, Ryan was clearly the most talented defensive player on the team, leading the team with 88  tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The fifth-year senior has five forced fumbles and over 150 tackles in his Michigan career.

Alongside Ryan will be senior Desmond Morgan, perhaps the most consistent linebacker from a year ago. Morgan started all 13 games for Mattison and held the unit together during Ryan’s absence. Morgan snagged a critical interception at Connecticut to help Michigan escape a major upset bid and recorded 79 tackles to bring his career total up to 223.

The final piece to the starting linebacking corps will be James Ross III, who emerged as one of the best young players on the team in 2013. Ross played in 12 games as a sophomore, missing only the Ohio State game in which the defense allowed 393 yards on the ground. Ross recorded 85 tackles last season and will be crucial in the run-stopping game at strong-side linebacker.

Career Stats – Ryan
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
34 99 56 155 7.5 31.5 5 3 0
Career Stats – Morgan
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
36 107 116 223 2.5 14.0 1 2 1
Career Stats – Ross III
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
25 67 54 121 2.0 8.0 2 1 0

Veteran Depth

A pair of juniors emerged from camp as potential contributors to the linebacker rotation after strong springs. Joe Bolden was one of the names that coaches talked about having an incredible off-season in early April, and he took first-team snaps at weak-side linebacker during the spring game. Morgan will almost certainly retain his starting position after a third fantastic season in a row, but Bolden has a chance to make a major impact after racking up over 50 tackles in 2013.

Bolden is joined by classmate Royce Jenkins-Stone in his battle to crack the starting lineup. Jenkins-Stone took most of the snaps at strong-side linebacker during the spring game, but he will almost certainly play behind Ross when the season begins. The junior has played just one game at linebacker in each of the last two seasons and hopes to play a more important role in 2014.

Sophomore Ben Gedeon played in six games at linebacker as a true freshman last season, but saw extended action against Ohio State, recording six tackles and a sack, flashing the potential he showed as a consensus four-star recruit. He’ll see increased action this fall rotating in for Morgan.

Career Stats – Bolden
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
26 44 41 85 3.0 8.0 0 1 0
Career Stats – Jenkins-Stone
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
25 5 6 11 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Gedeon
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
13 9 10 19 1.0 1.0 0 0 0

The Newcomers

Linebacker was a major focus for Brady Hoke during the 2014 recruiting process as he brought in three freshman to provide some added depth. Four-star Michael Ferns enrolled early and has been working with the coaches throughout the offseason. Ferns totaled over 130 tackles in each of his final three years in high school and gives Hoke an option behind Ryan on the inside.

Three-stars Jared Wangler and Noah Furbush will also join the defense in 2014 after committing to Michigan last summer. Wangler has a strong chance to see the field as a freshman as he offers help in the pass coverage game and spent much of his high school career in the secondary. Furbush could also earn some playing time with a strong summer, though the outside linebacking core is crowded.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Linebackers (part two)

July 18th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go blue are ranking who will be the best linebackers in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our linebacker rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 linebackers. If you have not had the opportunity to read it yet, I encourage that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Excellent! Let’s reveal who will be the five best linebackers in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two.
Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two.
Linebackers: Part One.

5. Quinton Alston, Iowa | Senior – 6’1”, 232 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 5 7 12 0 0 0
2012 2 3 5 0 0 0
2011 4 3 7 0.5 0 0
Career Totals 11 13 24 0.5 0 0
(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

“Quinton who?” This likely is how many of you responded when you saw Iowa middle linebacker Quinton Alston’s name at No. 5 on this list. To those not following the Big Ten program residing in Iowa City, Alston is a complete unknown. In his first three seasons at Iowa, he was a reserve in 28 of the 29 games in which he participated and made only 24 total tackles. So why is a linebacker like Alston with such a bare resume in this top five? Because Alston is one of my biggest Big Ten sleepers for this fall.

Last season, Iowa trotted out one of the best all-around defenses in the nation. Both basic and advanced statistics agreed with this assessment. According to basic statistics, the Hawkeyes were sixth in national defense, ninth in scoring defense, 19th in rushing defense, and 17th in passing efficiency defense. According to advanced formulas, they were eighth in Defensive S&P+, seventh in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+. These high rankings can be attributed in large part to Iowa’s trio of senior linebackers—James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey. They were forces to be reckoned with in terms of their production. Last year alone, they combined for 322 tackles, 35.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and six interceptions. They were the heart and soul of Iowa’s defense and propelled it to an elite level.

However, Iowa fans may not miss them as much as they anticipate. One significant reason why Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey produced the statistics they did was due to the strength of Iowa’s defensive line. Nothing makes a linebacker look better than having a clean route to the gap he must fill. Last season, defensive tackles Carl Davis—a projected first-rounder—and Louis Trinca-Pasat held their ground against double teams every game. This allowed Iowa’s linebackers to plug holes at the line of scrimmage before offensive linemen could release to the next level. It also allowed Iowa’s linebackers to rack up the number of tackles they did. So, in a way, Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey earned much of the credit for Davis, Trinca-Pasat, and the rest of the defensive line’s work.

This season, Davis and Trinca-Pasat return, as well as a third full-time starter along the defensive line, so there is little reason to think that Iowa’s new crop of linebackers will not be able to replace Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey’s production for the most part. Enter: Alston. Just like those before him, Alston should be able to remain clean as Iowa’s defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. Plus, despite being a backup for his first three seasons, Alston has received heavy praise from his coaches for his ability and leadership. According to them, the only reason why Alston did not start the past two seasons was Morris and Hitchens. However, with both gone, Alston will be the one that finally will be in the spotlight. You may not have heard Alston’s name before you read this piece, but you will hear it plenty once the season begins.

4. Steve Longa, Rutgers | RS Sophomore – 6’1″, 220 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

Yes, I know what you are thinking: “Drew, are you telling me that there are two—TWO—Rutgers linebackers in this top 10?” Yes, this is what I am telling you. Yesterday, I claimed that Rutgers linebacker Kevin Snyder will be the eighth-best Big Ten linebacker next season. Today, I slot Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa at No. 4. Longa surprised folks with a splendid redshirt freshman campaign last year. Initially, Longa was not even supposed to be a linebacker. He was recruited by Rutgers as a safety and had practiced at linebacker for only a few months before the Scarlet Knights’ season opener. And, yet, it did not take very long for Longa to burst onto the scene. Longa recorded 123 tackles, which were the most on his team, the third-most in the AAC, and are the most among returning Big Ten players. He was consistent week in and week out, making at least seven tackles in 11 of 13 games and a minimum of 10 tackles in eight games. In addition, he registered 7.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and four pass breakups. Longa was simply a playmaker in his first season on the field.

As I detailed in yesterday’s breakdown of Snyder, Longa was a member of a linebacker unit that was surprisingly exceptional against the run. Rutgers ranked fourth nationally in rushing defense (100.77 yards allowed per game) and fifth in yards allowed per carry (3.10). Even after removing sacks from those numbers, the Scarlet Knights rush defense still ranked up there with Michigan State and Wisconsin. To be fair, very few teams tried to run against Rutgers because they wanted to exploit one of the worst passing defenses. Offenses averaged only 32.45 carries per game against Rutgers, which was tied for the ninth-fewest against any defense in the country. Nonetheless, the yards-allowed-per-carry numbers speak for themselves: Rutgers—led by Longa, Snyder, and defensive lineman Darius Hamilton—could stop the run very well.

Next season, Longa will be featured as Rutgers’ weak-side linebacker rather than at middle linebacker. Given Longa’s size, listed at 6’1” and 220 pounds, this will suit him much better as Rutgers enters the Big Ten. His smaller stature could have given him serious problems if he was forced to take on larger Big Ten offensive linemen in the middle of the play—heck, it still might. However, on the outside, he will be shifted away from lead blockers and allowed to use his speed and agility to dart his way into the play to make tackles. It remains to be seen if Longa can post another 100-tackle season against a bigger and more competitive Big Ten. It also remains to be seen if Longa can improve his coverage skills, given just how abysmal Rutgers was in the back. Nonetheless, Longa still will only be a redshirt sophomore this fall. It will be a treat to see how much he improves in just his second year ever playing the linebacking position. He has the potential to really blossom next season. Yes, even at Rutgers. This is why you should not be surprised to hear that he is on Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team.

3. Taiwan Jones, Michigan State | Senior – 6’3”, 252 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 38 29 67 7.0 0 1
2012 19 19 38 5.5 1.0 1
2011 3 15 18 0.5 0.5 0
Career Totals 60 63 123 13.0 1.5 2
(Danny Moloshok, AP)

(Danny Moloshok, AP)

If there is one thing college football fans have learned the past few seasons, it is that they should never doubt the caliber of Michigan State’s defense with head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi in East Lansing. Yes, it was only last week when I declared that Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is overrated, but this does not mean I believe he is untalented or negatively impacting his team. In the past three seasons, Michigan State has been second, fifth, and sixth nationally in Defensive S&P+. And the Spartans have achieved this each year despite needing to replace key defensive players every season. So, when I see that their top two linebackers from 2013, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, have graduated, I do not expect their defense to fall into a tailspin. Rather, I just expect the next linebacker in the queue to step up and become an All-Big Ten player.

Taiwan Jones will be that player in 2014. In the past two seasons, Jones has flashed his talent in stretches while spending his time at the Star linebacker position—essentially a hybrid on the outside. If there is one skill he has demonstrated in that time, it is that he is a dominant run-stopper that fills gaps effectively and is extremely difficult to block. In 2012, in 13 games, mostly as a reserve, he made 38 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss, sacked the quarterback once, and broke up three passes. Jones then followed that up with 67 tackles and seven tackles-for-loss as a full-time starter last season. It may seem odd that a full-time starting linebacker with fewer than 67 tackles is in the top three of this list. But low tackle numbers are to be expected when you are lined up alongside Bullough and Allen, who combined for 174 stops last season. So do not let Jones’ tackle totals fool you: Jones is a great talent at linebacker.

With Bullough and Allen gone, and the wizardry of Narduzzi still present, Jones will have a senior sendoff that a player of his caliber deserves. Jones will be leaving the Star spot to succeed Bullough at middle linebacker. As the middle linebacker, Jones will be the centerpiece of Michigan State’s defense, the one who organizes the defense, and the one who calls out the offense’s play. Further, in the middle, Jones will be involved in more plays and will have more opportunities to display his run-stuffing ability. Accordingly, the number of tackles he records this fall should skyrocket. The number may not surpass the 100-stop threshold, but it would be a surprise if he had less than 85 tackles and five tackles-for-loss in 2014. With this type of production on a defense that likely will remain one of the best in the conference—and possibly the nation—yet again, Jones should be recognized as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten next year.

2. Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior - 6’3″, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 62 44 106 6.0 2.0 3
2012 56 35 91 10.5 3.0 2
2011 14 18 32 1.5 0 1
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 132 97 229 17.0 5.0 6
(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

The Big Ten linebackers listed in these rankings thus far have been one-dimensional. Most have demonstrated that they are at their best when plugging holes the line of scrimmage, while some thrive when dropping back into coverage. But, because of the large exodus of Big Ten linebackers in the offseason, very few returning linebackers in this conference have proven they excel at all aspects of linebacking: finding the ball-carrier, pressuring the passer, and playing proper pass defense. One of these linebackers, though, is Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo.

Since Ariguzo became a fixture in the starting lineup in 2012, he has been one of the most versatile linebackers in the Big Ten. He has quite the knack for placing his helmet on the opponent’s ball-carrier. He made 91 tackles and 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012, which was the third-most and most on the Northwestern roster, respectively. Then, in 2013, Ariguzo achieved a 100-tackle season with 106 stops, including six for a loss. His average of 8.83 tackles per game that season were the fifth-most in the Big Ten. Ariguzo achieved these numbers because he can diagnose the offense’s play quickly and attack accordingly.

However, Ariguzo is not the type of linebacker that impacts the game only with tackles and tackles-for-loss. He also has been a turnover machine. In his past two seasons as a starter, Ariguzo has intercepted six passes, recovered five fumbles, and forced a fumble as well. The number that stands out the most is his six interceptions—and seven pass breakups. They indicate three things about Ariguzo’s splendid pass defense: (1) he gets the proper depth on his drops into coverage; (2) he knows how to bait the quarterback into throws that he can undercut; and (3) he has the hands to complete the play by making the interception. While his five fumble recoveries are nothing to scoff at, they are more the result of good luck or being in the right place at the right time rather than a reflection of his skill. Nonetheless, over the course of his two years as a starter, at both outside linebacker spots no less, Ariguzo averaged 98.5 tackles, 8.25 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 fumble recoveries, three interceptions, and 3.5 pass breakups per season. Most linebackers would kill for one season with these numbers. Ariguzo has averaged them in a two-year span. It speaks to the versatility and production Ariguzo brings to this Northwestern program.

What is even more impressive about Ariguzo is that he has been able to do this with little assistance from his teammates. In his two years as a starter, Northwestern’s defense has been average at best. In 2012, the Wildcats finished 50th nationally in Defensive S&P+, 63rd in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 53rd in Passing Defense S&P+. In 2013, they finished 56th, 57th, and 73rd in the country, respectively. A review of Ariguzo’s game film reveals that he frequently needed to evade or fight through unblocked offensive linemen to make the plays he did. Unlike others on this, Ariguzo’s defensive line did not give him a clean path to ball-carriers.

And this should be the case once again in 2014. Nonetheless, he still will produce at an elite level because he has demonstrated an ability to play well in tight spaces and make plays when in coverage. At this point, Ariguzo is one of the few known commodities the Big Ten has at linebacker. We know what to expect from him. And what we expect is for Ariguzo to be the best all-around linebacker in the conference that stuffs all columns of the stat sheet. However, he does not quite have the potential for a monster season like the next linebacker on this list, which is why Ariguzo is ranked at No. 2.

1. Jake Ryan, Michigan | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 23 7 30 4.5 0 2
2012 56 32 88 16.0 4.5 2
2011 20 17 37 11.0 3.0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 99 56 155 31.5 7.5 4
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo likely is the safest bet to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. However, if you asked any follower of the Big Ten who will be the best at that position next season, the answer would be a near-consensus: Michigan’s Jake Ryan. Ryan was only a generic three-star recruit in high school, but rumors leaked during his redshirt season in 2010 that he had crazy athleticism and the potential to be a star. Michigan fans saw glimpses of this during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2011. Ryan had only 37 tackles in 13 games, but what intrigued fans of the Wolverines were his 11 tackles-for-loss. As Michigan’s strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under scheme, Ryan was lined up as a quasi-defensive end and had a knack for knifing into the offensive backfield for big plays. This was never more evident than in Michigan’s Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech when Ryan had four tackles-for-loss. It was a breakout performance for Ryan and left Michigan fans to wonder what they would see from him as a redshirt sophomore.

What Michigan fans saw was one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. In 2012, Ryan blossomed into a star. He led the Wolverines in tackles (88), tackles-for-loss (16), sacks (4.5), and forced fumbles (four). His 16 tackles-for-loss were the third-most in the Big Ten. His four forced fumbles were tied for the most in the conference and tied a Michigan single-season record. Ryan’s unorthodox style left opposing offenses spinning in circles trying to find ways to prevent him from pitching his tent in the backfield. He had the speed to beat tight ends and offensive tackles off the edge. He had the lateral agility to disengage from blocks and then sneak past the blocker for tackles. And, for lack of a better term, Ryan looked like a maniac on the gridiron. But it was not as if he was undisciplined and failing to execute assignments. It was a controlled insanity. And it turned him into one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers.

With 27 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks through just his first two seasons, even bigger things were expected from Ryan last season as a redshirt junior. However, any opportunity for Ryan to build upon his first two years ended in the spring when he tore his ACL. Like the athletic freak of nature that he is, Ryan was able to have surgery and fully rehab his knee in six months. This allowed Ryan to make his debut in Michigan’s sixth game of the season in mid-October against Penn State. To no one’s surprise, Ryan was a lesser version of his pre-injury self. He did not quite have the same explosiveness or burst, which limited his effectiveness on the field. In eight games, Ryan recorded only 30 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and no sacks. It was not the year anyone expected from Ryan, but no one expected him to suffer such a serious knee injury in the spring.

Consequently, this is one of the two reasons why Ryan is not the safest pick to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. Although it would be unfair to say that there is an alarming concern that Ryan will never fully regain the athleticism and agility he possessed prior to tearing his ACL in the spring of 2013, there still is a doubt that Michigan fans will never again see the same player they saw terrorize Big Ten offenses in 2012. The second reason is the uncertainty of Ryan’s move from strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under—where he has spent the past three seasons—to middle linebacker in a 4-3 over. It is unknown just how quickly Ryan will be able to adjust to this new role.

However, I believe that Ryan will be better than ever in this new role. As the middle linebacker in a 4-3 over, he will be the most protected of all three linebackers in this scheme. It will be James Ross III and Desmond Morgan that more likely will have to deal with offensive linemen releasing into the second level. This will allow Ryan to go into seek-and-destroy mode—in which he flourishes—to plug holes and shoot through the gaps. And Ryan will benefit from having a larger defensive line in front of him this season than Michigan’s linebackers last year. He should be involved in more plays this season, and it would not be a surprise in the least he exceeded 100 tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss this season. He likely will be a monster for Michigan this season, which is why I would wager that he will be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014.

What do you think? Do you agree with our list? Do you think that Jake Ryan will be the best linebacker in the Big Ten in 2014? Or do you think it will be someone else? And were there any glaring omissions from this list? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will begin previewing the Big Ten’s best in the secondary.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Linebackers (part one)

July 17th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

This is the seventh installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and the defensive line have been covered. This week, it is time to preview the linebackers. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two.
Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two.

10. Michael Rose, Nebraska | RS Sophomore – 5’11”, 240 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 39 27 66 6.0 0 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 39 27 66 6.0 0 2
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Last week, Tom Dienhart of BTN.com—a notable media outlet—published his Big Ten linebacker unit rankings for 2014. Which school had the best set of linebackers according to Dienhart? Nebraska. If a person took only a quick peek at the most basic defensive stats, an argument could somewhat be substantiated that the Huskers do indeed have the best linebacker crew in the conference. Nebraska returns all three linebackers who were starters by the end of last season, and those three combined for 205 tackles, 18 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks. They also contributed to a rushing defense that allowed only 3.78 yards per carry, which was fifth in the Big Ten. And, finally, all three have been praised for their athletic ability and speed. If these were the only metrics and attributes that determined the skill of a linebacker, then Dienhart decision to select Nebraska as the Big Ten school with the best set of linebackers would be understandable.

The problem, though, is that those are not the only metrics and attributes. I was shocked—yes, shocked—when Dienhart put Nebraska at the top of that list. Why? A deeper dig into the numbers reveals that Nebraska’s rushing defense was actually quite poor last season. Its yards-allowed-per-carry figure is very misleading. In college football, sacks and sack yardage are tallied as carries and rushing yardage. It is silly. Because of this, basic statistics suggest that college teams with a superb pass-rush have a better run defense than they actually do. Nebraska is the perfect example. The Huskers were tied for seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten in sacks per game. However, when these sacks are excluded, Nebraska’s yards-allowed-per-carry figure rises from 3.78 to 4.60 and is sixth in the conference. Further, the Huskers’ Rushing Defense S&P+ ranking, which takes an advanced look at a team’s rushing defense, was 84th in the nation and the worst in the Big Ten. Yes, even worse than Illinois and Purdue. While some of this must be attributed to Nebraska’s defensive linemen, including pass-rushing extraordinaire Randy Gregory, much falls on the shoulders of Nebraska’s linebackers. So Dienhart can continue to be fascinated with Nebraska’s linebackers’ tackle totals and athleticism, but, until they can prove they are not members of the worst rush defense in the conference, they are not part of the best linebacker crew in the Big Ten. Sorry, Dienhart.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that there is no talent there. Middle linebacker Michael Rose has the potential to be a budding star for Nebraska. As a redshirt freshman last season, Rose started only seven games. In those starts, he tallied 62 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, and one pass breakup. Accordingly, Rose averaged 8.86 tackles per game in his seven starts, which would have been the fifth-best in the conference if he had started the entire season. Further, Nebraska’s rushing defense actually improved in the final five weeks of the year—all of which Rose started. In those last five contests, the Huskers allowed only 4.09 yards per carry once sacks were excluded. This is not an elite number, but it would have been just shy of the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Rose’s presence helped solidified Nebraska’s linebacker corps. And his impact should be even greater in 2014 as the starter for an entire season with another offseason of development under his belt. Rose may not be able to rectify all of Nebraska’s rush-defense woes, but he could be a breakout star next season.

9. James Ross III, Michigan | Junior – 6’1″, 225 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 46 39 85 5.5 1.5 1
2012 21 15 36 2.5 0.5 0
Career Totals 67 54 121 8.0 2.0 1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

James Ross III is listed at No. 9 by himself, but the space here will be dedicated to both Ross III and fellow Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan. Ross III and Morgan were members of a Michigan defense that eroded as the season progressed. Early in the season, the Wolverines’ defense was stout. Through the first five games, Michigan had allowed only seven offensive touchdowns, which was one of the best marks nationally. However, Michigan’s offense self-destructed midway through the year, resulting in an endless supply of tackles-for-loss allowed and three-and-outs, and it forced Michigan’s defense to spend more minutes on the field than desired. The defense could save the offense’s behind only so many times each game before it wore down. By season’s end, the defense was a shell of its former self.

Despite this, Ross III and Morgan turned in respectable seasons. As a sophomore in his first season as a full-time starter, Ross III was Michigan’s second-leading tackler, notching 85 stops, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks. He was the only Wolverine to average over seven tackles per game, and his 7.08 stops per game are tied for the fourth-most among returning Big Ten linebackers. He also added two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two pass breakups. On the other hand, Morgan’s junior season eerily resembled his sophomore campaign. After recording 81 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, and two pass breakups in 2012, Morgan had 79 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and three pass breakups in 2013. Morgan also generated a few turnovers last year, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble, and intercepting a pass one-handed to jumpstart a second-half rally against Connecticut.

Together, Ross III and Morgan spearheaded a solid rushing defense. The Wolverines allowed the fifth-fewest yards per carry in the Big Ten once sacks were excluded and ranked 33rd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. This may not seem applause-worthy until one realizes how undersized and injured Michigan’s defensive line was. During the season, nose tackle Ondre Pipkins tore his ACL, and nose tackle Quinton Washington was sidelined for reasons unknown. This forced Jibreel Black to be inserted at nose tackle despite weighing only 285 pounds. Also, Brennen Beyer, who weighs only 250 pounds, started at strong-side defensive end in a 4-3 under scheme, which essentially made him a defensive tackle. Accordingly, Michigan’s defensive linemen were tossed around like rag dolls, and it forced Michigan’s linebackers to eat blocker after blocker. So, given these circumstances, it is quite remarkable that Ross III and Morgan did what they did.

Next season, both Ross III and Morgan likely will be two of the top 10 linebackers in the Big Ten, or at least near it. The reasons why Ross III is slotted at No. 9, while Morgan remains unranked, are that Ross III has more potential and should benefit more from Michigan’s transition to a 4-3 over scheme. Entering last year, Ross III was tabbed as a potential breakout star. Notwithstanding his smaller size, Ross III possesses amazing football instincts and the athleticism to capitalize on them. However, he works better in space and struggles to get off blockers because of his smaller stature. With Michigan’s defensive line unable to keep gaps clean for him, Ross III did not have the impact many expected him to have. This fall, Ross III will shift to strong-side linebacker in Michigan’s 4-3 over. In this spot, he should have more of an opportunity to use his instincts to read the play and his speed to shoot into the backfield for more tackles-for-loss. Conversely, Morgan’s transition from the middle to the weak side should see him continue to eat blocks as offensive guards should be able to release to the second level without much trouble. While Morgan’s thick build will allow him to remain effective in these situations, it would not be surprising to see his production decline from the past two seasons. This is why Morgan just missed the cut, while Ross III made it.

8. Kevin Snyder, Rutgers | Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 46 50 96 7.5 2.0 3
2012 12 18 30 7.0 2.0 0
2011 13 27 40 2.5 1.0 1
Career Totals 71 95 166 17.0 5.0 4
(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

Rutgers had a very substandard defense last season, finishing 73rd nationally in total defense, 80th in scoring defense, and 91st in Defensive S&P+. But this was mostly the fault of a horrendous secondary that allowed Rutgers to be ranked 120th in passing yards allowed, 100th in passing efficiency defense, and 99th in Pass Defense S&P+, not the fault of a surprisingly solid linebacker unit. And one of those linebackers was Kevin Snyder. Snyder manned the middle of the field for the Scarlet Knights in his first season as a starter last year and made his presence known. He was the team’s second-leading tackler with 96 stops, which would have been the third-most among returning linebackers if he was in the Big Ten last season. Further, Snyder is not shy about introducing himself to the quarterback or the running back in the opponent’s backfield. He had 7.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks just one year after he recorded seven tackles-for-loss and two sacks as a reserve in 2012. Snyder has proven himself to be one of the few solid talents on a lackluster defense.

The one area where Snyder makes his impact felt the most is preventing the run. Notwithstanding Rutgers’ poor ranks in total defense, scoring defense, and pass defense, the Scarlet Knights actually were quite terrific at defending the run. They were fourth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 100.77 rushing yards per game. They were fifth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.10). Once sacks are removed, Rutgers allowed only 3.82 yards per carry, which would have been the third-best in the Big Ten, just behind excellent rush defenses in Michigan State and Wisconsin. And, lastly, Rutgers finished 22nd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. Although the advanced statistics suggest that Rutgers’ rushing defense was one of the five best in the nation as the basic statistics do, it was still quite stingy. While much of this credit belongs to Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who is No. 9 in my Big Ten Defensive Line Rankings, Snyder deserves a big chunk of it for his production and organization of the front seven as the middle linebacker.

However, there are two concerns about Snyder’s game that must be addressed as the 2014 season approaches. The first is how Snyder and Rutgers’ front seven handle the transition from the AAC to the Big Ten. As I wrote when breaking down Hamilton last week, the offensive lines in the AAC are much smaller in stature than the behemoths in the Big Ten. Also, there are more offenses in the Big Ten that prefer to line up in power formations and run the ball down a defense’s throat than in the AAC. It will be interesting to see how much this affects Snyder’s performance, especially if his defensive line cannot keep the gaps as clean as they did last season against weaker competition. The second concern is Snyder’s ability as a defender against the pass. While many of Rutgers’ struggles in pass defense are due to the secondary’s awfulness, Snyder and his fellow linebackers are not free from blame. They play a vital role in the back seven, and their lack of aid in that area is a giant red flag. If Rutgers wants to enjoy some success in its inaugural Big Ten season, Snyder must be better when dropping into coverage. This is why a man with 96 tackles that was a key cog of one of the better rushing defenses in the nation is not higher on this list.

7. Matt Robinson, Maryland | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 240 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 43 30 73 10.0 0.5 0
2012 21 5 26 1.0 0 0
2011 24 12 36 2.0 0 0
2010 18 11 29 0 0 0
Career Totals 106 58 164 13.0 0.5 0
(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

Whereas the first three Big Ten linebackers on this list have shown their worth as run defenders, Maryland’s outside linebacker Matt Robinson has shown his as a defender against the pass. Robinson’s skills as a coverage linebacker are no surprise because he started his collegiate career as a safety. In fact, as a true freshman in 2010, Robinson played all 13 games and even started his first career contest at safety. He made seven more starts at the position over the next two years, but missed large chunks of both seasons due to injuries. Nonetheless, when Robinson recovered, bulked up, and transitioned down from safety to outside linebacker in preparation for the 2013 season, his coverage skills were still intact.

The Terrapins’ pass defense was below average by any metric one uses—57th nationally in passing yards allowed, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. But one man cannot shut down an entire passing offense—unless he is Charles Woodson, of course. Alas, Robinson is no Woodson. However, this does not mean that Robinson did not provide excellent coverage in the middle of the field, especially against slant routes. This is evidenced by the four pass breakups he notched last season. Further evidence of Robinson’s prowess as a coverage linebacker can be seen by looking at how opposing tight ends and slot receivers performed when he missed two games with a shoulder injury. With Robinson absent, Virginia tight end Jake McGee had his best game of the season with eight receptions for 114 yards, while Wake Forest slot receiver hauled in 11 throws for 122 yards. Maryland may have issues in other spots critical to its passing defense, but Robinson is a strength in coverage in between the hash marks.

Although Robinson was one of only three Terrapins with double-digit tackles-for-loss last season, tallying a smooth 10 of them, his presence in the rushing defense leaves much to be desired. Some have praised Robinson for his run support, including those who have watched more Maryland football than I have, but I remain somewhat skeptical. Last season as a full-time starter at linebacker, Robinson made only 73 tackles. The total number may not seem like it should invoke uneasiness, but Robinson was involved in only 9.13 percent of Maryland’s tackles. For context, every other linebacker on this list that started for a full season was involved in between 11 and 17 percent of his team’s tackles. Then, it is even more troubling when one realizes that 17 of Robinson’s 73 tackles were in one contest against North Carolina State. Accordingly, Robinson had only 56 tackles in his other 10 starts. Hmm.

Why was Robinson not more involved in Maryland’s rush defense? Was it a consequence of Maryland’s 3-4 scheme? Or was Maryland’s strategy to send stud outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield, who recorded 15.5 tackles-for-loss, towards the line of scrimmage while dropping Robinson back into coverage? Either way, Robinson still needs to prove he can flow to the ball more consistently and make more plays at the line of scrimmage. With Whitfield gone after graduating last season, Robinson should slide into Whitfield’s role and do just that.

6. Mike Hull, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior - 6’0”, 232 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 44 34 78 4.5 0.5 0
2012 34 24 58 5.0 4.0 0
2011 6 12 18 1.5 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 84 70 154 10.5 4.5 0
(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

For decades, Penn State has been a football factory that has pumped out excellent linebacker after excellent linebacker. There was Dennis Onkotz, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, and Paul Posluszny, all of whom were two-time first-team All-Americans. Between the four of them, they won three Chuck Bednarik Awards and two Dick Butkus Awards, which are given to the nation’s best defensive player and best linebacker, respectively. There have been nine other Penn State linebackers that have been named a first-team All-American once. And then there are numerous others who were named second-team All-Americans or had successful NFL careers. Because of this, Penn State was bestowed with the moniker “Linebacker U.”

For the upcoming season, there does not appear to be a linebacker on the Penn State roster that will contend for All-American honors like those that played in State College before him. But the one that has the best chance to do it is Mike Hull. Last season was Hull’s first year as a full-time starter at middle linebacker. However, he started only eight games because he suffered a minor knee injury early in the season that sidelined him for two games and forced him to see only limited action in another two. Nonetheless, Hull was at his healthiest in the Nittany Lions’ eight conference games. In Big Ten play, Hull posted 73 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, a forced fumble, and two pass breakups. His 9.13 tackles per conference game were the highest on the team and are the best among returning Big Ten linebackers. Additionally, Hull compiled these stats for a defense that was considered one of the 25 best overall and one of the 10 best against the run according to advanced metrics. Hull did not earn any all-conference honors for his production, likely due to the injury, but was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-Big Ten first team and Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team for 2014.

Yet, Hull will face a new challenge this fall. Last year, Hull benefited enormously from defensive tackle DaQuan Jones’ presence on the defensive line. Jones was a monster. Not only did he penetrate into the backfield for 11.5 tackles-for-loss, he also had the ability to consume double-teams without losing ground. Accordingly, this allowed the Penn State linebackers, including Hull, to surge freely into the gaps without the obstruction of an offensive lineman for easy tackles at the line of scrimmage. This season, Hull will not have such a luxury as Jones now is in the NFL. Although Penn State returns its two starting defensive ends, both of whom are talented, there is lots of uncertainty regarding who will replace Jones inside. It seems likely that, no matter who the replacement is, he will be inferior to Jones. This will make life harder for Hull as the middle linebacker. It may be more difficult for Hull to have a clean path to ball-carrier to make stops. This could lead to a dip in his statistics. But, given that Hull is a senior product of Linebacker U, it may be best to give him the benefit of the doubt.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with our rank of the five players listed above? Who should have been ranked higher: James Ross III or Desmond Morgan? Should both Ross III and Morgan have been included in the top 10? Was there anyone missing from this list in your opinion? Who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best linebackers in the Big Ten in 2014.

2014 opponent preview: Minnesota

July 16th, 2014 by Justin Potts


2014 Opponent Preview - Minnesota

We have already previewed the two easiest teams on Michigan’s schedule, Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). On the docket today is the third-easiest, and the first Big Ten opponent on the schedule, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 6 Middle Tennessee State
Sept. 13 at TCU
Sept. 20 San Jose State
Sept. 27 at Michigan
Oct. 11 Northwestern
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Illinois
Nov. 8 Iowa
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Nebraska
Nov. 29 at Wisconsin

Minnesota is on an upward swing in Jerry Kill’s fourth season. The Gophers have gone from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 the past three seasons, and if they can improve their record again this fall — a tall order, to be sure — Kill will have done something that hasn’t been done since the 1940s — improve Minnesota’s record for three straight seasons. Minnesota’s legendary coach, Bernie Bierman, was the last to do it from 1945-48. Glen Mason had a chance to achieve the feat twice during his tenure, but each time fell back to earth. He did, however, reach 10 wins in 2003, and Kill will hope to parlay the momentum he has built into a similar outcome.

Kill did get a nice vote of confidence in the form of a new contract that will bump his salary up from $1 million per year to $2.3 million through 2018. Now that he has begun the process of raising expectations, the schedule doesn’t do him any favors.

Minnesota faces both Michigan and Ohio State from the Big Ten East and a killer November that has the Gophers closing the season with Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. The non-conference slate is manageable with home games against Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State, and a road trip to TCU.

Last season, the Gophers breezed through the non-conference portion of the schedule, topping UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State by an average of three touchdowns. But Iowa and Michigan outscored Minnesota 65-20 in back-to-back weeks. The Gophers then reeled off four straight over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State — their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years — before dropping their final three to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. Aside from the Iowa and Michigan games, Minnesota held its own even in its losses. They trailed Wisconsin just 13-7 at halftime before losing 20-7 and trailed Michigan State just 7-3 at the half before falling 14-3. A last-minute touchdown surrendered to Syracuse kept the Gophers from reaching nine wins.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Mitch Leidner 6’4″, 237 48-78 for 619 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT; 89 rush, 477 yds, 7 TD
RB David Cobb 5’11″, 229 1,202 yds (5.1 avg), 7 TD
WR Drew Wolitarsky 6’3″, 226 15 rec. for 259 yds, 1 TD
WR Donovahn Jones 6’3″, 200 10 rec. for 157 yds, 0 TD
WR Isaac Fruechte 6’3″, 202 13 rec. for 154 yds, 0 TD
TE Maxx Williams 6’4″, 250 25 rec. for 417 yds, 5 TD
LT Ben Lauer 6’7″, 315 4 starts (4 career starts)
LG Zac Epping 6’2″, 318 13 starts (34 career starts)
C Tommy Olson 6’4″, 306 4 starts (15 career starts)
RG Josh Campion 6’5″, 317 13 starts (26 career starts)
RT Jonah Pirsig 6’9″, 320

Minnesota’s offense ranked 85th nationally with an average of 25.7 points per game, 107th in total offense (343.3 yards per game), and 117th in passing (148.1 ypg). The bright spot was the running game which ranked 38th with an average of 195.2 rushing yards per game. With last year’s most-experienced quarterback, Phillip Nelson, gone, the running game will once again be Minnesota’s calling card on offense.

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Senior David Cobb is one of the best running backs in the conference. Our very own Drew Hallett ranked him seventh-best in his Big Ten position rankings. He came out of nowhere to rush for 1,202 yards on 5.1 yards per carry in 2013, becoming the first Gopher to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2006. He was held to just 22 yards on seven carries against Michigan, but had six 100-yard games, including against Michigan State.

Cobb isn’t alone in the backfield as senior Donnell Kirkwood and junior Rodrick Williams return. Williams averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago. In addition, a pair of freshman look to make noise. The nation’s seventh-ranked running back in the 2014 class, Jeff Jones, and redshirt freshman, Berkley Edwards (Braylon’s brother), join the crowded group, though Jones may not be academically eligible this fall. Edwards, at 5’9″, 190, provides a change of pace to Cobb and Williams.

With Nelson gone, the man who supplanted him by the end of 2013 looks to grab the reigns. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner threw just 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns last season, about a third of that came in the bowl game in which he completed 11-of-22 for 205 yards and two scores. He also saw extensive action against Michigan, completing 14-of-21 for 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He was much more of a running quarterback last season, rushing 102 times for 407 yards and seven scores.

The receiving corps is young, led by tight end Maxx Williams, Drew’s second-best tight end in the conference this fall, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Last year’s leading wide receiver, Derrick Engel, is gone, but sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones and senior Isaac Fruechte will need to step up. The three will need to improve on last season’s combined total of just 38 receptions for 570 yards and one touchdown. The Gophers do have 6’3″, 190-pound freshman Melvin Holland coming in who could see some early playing time.

Experience isn’t an issue with the offensive line. Of the nine linemen that started a game last season, seven return, and those seven started a combined 55 games in 2013 and 124 in their careers. Left guard Zac Epping is the most experienced of the bunch, having started 34 games over the last three years. While none of Minnesota’s linemen rank among the Big Ten’s best, and the line as a whole won’t be the best, it should be

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Theiren Cockran 6’6″, 255 30 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks
DT Cameron Botticelli 6’5″, 281 23 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks
DT Scott Ekpe 6’4″, 293 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
DE Michael Amaefula 6’2″, 249 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
OLB De’Vondre Campbell 6’5″, 238 41 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FF
MLB Damien Wilson 6’2″, 249 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack
OLB Jack Lynn 6’3″, 238 5 tackles, 1.0 TFL
CB Eric Murray 6’0″, 195 52 tackles, 1 TFL, 10 PBU, 1 FR
CB Derrick Wells 6’0″, 201 17 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU
FS Cedric Thompson 6’0″, 208 79 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR
SS Antonio Johnson 6’0″, 209 69 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT

Minnesota’s defense was a halfway decent unit last season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in scoring defense (22.2 points per game), sixth in the Big Ten and 43rd nationally in total defense (373.2 yards per game), and fifth in the Big Ten and 35th nationally in pass defense (215.1 yards per game). The Gophers also led the Big Ten and ranked 15th nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 74 percent of the time. With seven starters returning, that’s a good defense to build on.

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

However, the main loss is a big one in nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the NFL Draft. He led Minnesota with 13 tackles-for-loss in 2013 and also recorded two sacks. Defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who added 5.5 tackles-for-loss, has also departed, leaving a big hole in the middle of the defense. Senior Cameron Botticelli is a lock to start at one position after recording 5.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack a year ago, while junior Scott Ekpe should get the nod at nose tackle.

Both defensive ends return, most notably junior Theiren Cockran, who led the Gophers and ranked third in the conference with 7.5 sacks in 2013. The other is senior Michael Amaefula, who had 19 tackles and one for loss while starting all 13 games.

Two of the top three linebackers are gone, but middle linebacker, senior Damien Wilson, returns. He was Minnesota’s second-leading tackler last season with 78, and had the third-most tackles-for-loss with 5.5. Junior De’Vondre Campbell is in line to start at weakside after starting three games last season. The SAM linebacker will likely be redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn, who played in just three games and notched five tackles a year ago.

The strength of Minnesota’s defense this fall should be its secondary, despite the loss of cornerback Brock Vereen, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round. The other starting corner from last season, Eric Murray, led the team with 10 pass breakups, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten. Just a junior this fall, Murray could be poised for a breakout year. On the other side will be a battle between a pair of players who suffered injuries last season, junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore his ACL in Week 2, and senior Derrick Wells, who was hampered most of the season with a shoulder injury.

Both safeties are back, senior Cedric Thompson and junior Antonio Johnson. Thompson led the team with 79 tackles last season while picking off one pass and recovering two fumbles. Johnson was fourth with 69 tackles and notched half a sack and one pick. Junior Damarius Travis also has experience, having started two games last season and recording 28 tackles and four pass breakups.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Ryan Santoso 6’6″, 245
P Peter Mortell 6’2″, 192 43.3 avg, 21 in-20
KR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 25 ret, 24.9 avg., 1 TD
PR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 11 ret, 10.5 avg., 1 TD

Kill has to replace kicker Chris Hawthorne, who made 14-of-18 field goals. The leading candidate is redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, who was the seventh-best kicker in the 2013 class per ESPN. Punter Peter Mortell is a nice weapon to have back after ranking third in the Big Ten with a 43.3-yard average last season. The former walk-on earned a scholarship following that performance. Defensive back Marcus Jones and safety Antonio Johnson will handle the return duties. Jones ranked sixth in the Big Ten in kick returns last season, averaging 24.9 yards per return.

Outlook

Kill has built the team with the kind of strengths that work in the Big Ten — a good running game and stout defense — but he’ll be hard-pressed to improve on last year’s record. The move to the Big Ten West means battling with Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa for the division title, two of which they lost to last season. But just how good this team is will depend on how Leidner develops as a passer and whether he can get production out of his unproven receiving corps. The first two months of the season are where the Gophers will have to rack up wins because if not, once November hits, they might need to steal one or two to become bowl eligible.

What it means for Michigan

Not to overlook Utah, but Michigan should be either 4-0 or 3-1 heading into the start of conference play, depending on the outcome of the Notre Dame game, and Minnesota very well could be as well. That didn’t mean much for the Gophers last season, as they cruised through non-conference play before losing to Iowa 23-7 and then Michigan 42-13. In all fairness, they were playing with heavy hearts after Kill suffered a seizure and couldn’t travel with the team to Ann Arbor, leaving defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to fill in. Maybe that affected the team’s performance, or maybe not, but hopefully Kill will be able to make the trip this season. Michigan has owned the series, winning the last six and 22 of the last 23, and this shouldn’t be any different.

Drew’s mailbag: Peppers’ position, Hoke’s headset, and captains

July 14th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


It is time for another edition of Drew’s Mailbag, which will run frequently throughout the offseason as Maize and Go Blue prepares for and previews the 2014 Michigan football season. The topics will cover more than just football, though. I will address any questions regarding Michigan athletics, including basketball, recruiting, etc., you may have. So fire away on Twitter (@DrewCHallett) or via email (drew.maizeandgoblue@gmail.com).

Where do you see Jabrill Peppers in the cornerback mix this upcoming season? –Steve (@SteveCKays)

Well, to tell the truth, I do not think Jabrill Peppers will really be in the mix at cornerback this season. Remember in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan’s depth at cornerback was abysmal because it seemed like every player at the position either suffered a season-long injury, transferred, was kicked out of the program, or denied admission? Those days are long gone.

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Michigan finally is loaded with depth at cornerback. And talented depth, too. The Wolverines return their two starting cornerbacks in Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor—both of whom have two years’ worth of starting experience. Countess was one of the best corners in the Big Ten last season. Not only did he consistently execute his assignments, his six interceptions were tied for the most in the conference and matched the most by a Wolverine since Charles Woodson had eight during his Heisman-winning season. Accordingly, Countess was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. Lining up on the other side of the field will be Taylor, who has proven to be an above-average Big Ten cornerback as well. He was more prone to mistakes and mental mishaps than Countess, but he excelled in man coverage, nabbed four interceptions of his own, and led the team in tackles. Given the experience of and production from both Countess and Taylor, there is little chance that Peppers cracks the starting lineup at field or boundary cornerback.

The only chance Peppers has to be truly in the mix at corner will be at nickelback—the third corner who enters when the defense deploys a nickel package. Head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison prefer to insert their talented but inexperienced corners at nickelback before shifting them to the outside. At nickelback, these budding stars have an easier time acclimating to the speed of college football and more room for error. This would be the perfect position for Peppers to make his debut. Even Hoke agrees. However, this spot likely will be manned by Jourdan Lewis. Lewis flashed great potential in eight games as a true freshman last season and signs of improvement this past spring. There were even rumors that he was challenging Taylor to be the starting boundary corner. Although Peppers has arrived on campus with arguably more hype than any previous Michigan recruit, Countess, Taylor, and Lewis appear to have locked down the three starting corner spots. At these positions, Peppers likely would be nothing more than a reserve along with Channing Stribling and Delonte Hollowell.

However, just because Peppers may have a minimal impact at cornerback this season does not mean he will have minimal impact overall. Michigan is not in a position where it can keep a consensus five-star recruit and the highest-rated Michigan signee in the recruiting-services era on the bench. Peppers will play, and he will see the field a bunch. One of the strengths of Peppers’ game is his versatility. He has the size, body, and athleticism to play multiple positions. Consequently, even though Peppers will first play nickelback according to Hoke and is projected to be an NFL corner in a few years, Peppers will make his mark as Michigan’s strong safety this season.

Whereas Michigan is stacked with talented depth at cornerback, the Wolverines’ depth at safety is shakier. Free safety likely is set with Jarrod Wilson resuming his role as the starter, but, with Thomas Gordon graduating last season, there is an opening at strong safety. In the spring, players like Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas competed to become the starting strong safety. However, no one emerged, and the competition will continue into fall camp. A strong safety must be a pseudo-linebacker that can play closer to the line of scrimmage to provide run support, as well as drop back into coverage in the middle of the field. Essentially, strong safeties need to be physical, tackle well in space, and have the athleticism to cover lots of ground in a hurry. Peppers has all of these attributes and would fit into this role wonderfully. Because he is only a true freshman, Peppers may make his debut during the non-conference slate as a reserve nickelback to get his feet wet, but, by no later than Michigan’s Big Ten opener, I expect Peppers to be named Michigan’s starting strong safety for the remainder of the season.

Will Brady Hoke be wearing a headset on the sidelines this year? –Henry (@henry_bouldin)

Yes. Will Brady Hoke wear his headset on the sideline at all times this year? No. As he has the past three seasons, Hoke will only wear a headset when he feels he needs to wear one. In all likelihood, this will be on critical third and fourth downs, as well as key drives in the fourth quarter of competitive games. Otherwise, Hoke will keep the headset off, so he can spend more time coaching his players directly on the sidelines rather than worrying about the play-calls.

And I am totally okay with this. It is not as if Hoke is completely out of the loop with regards to Michigan’s play-calling or gameplan during the game. This could not be further from the truth. Hoke has a member of the staff that relays every play to him. He knows every play that has been called before it is executed on the field. If there is a play or scheme that Hoke does not like, he will throw on his headset and make his concerns known, whether it be to counsel with his coordinators or to overrule them. And, this year, if Hoke does have a problem, both of his coordinators—Doug Nussmeier and Greg Mattison—will be on the sidelines next to him.

Plus, why is it necessary for a head coach to don the headset at all times if he still has the play-calls relayed to him? A head coach hires an offensive and defensive coordinator to organize the schemes and call the plays with his input. But it does not mean that the head coach must micromanage every single detail about the gameplan during the game. A great head coach must be able to trust his staff to execute their assignments and responsibilities. Hoke demonstrates that he has that trust in his staff when he does not wear the headset. This has the potential to backfire by placing too much trust into a member of the staff (See: former offensive coordinator Al Borges). Nonetheless, I have no problem with a head coach trusting his staff to do what they are supposed to do, so he can be more effective coaching, inspiring, and motivating his players on the sideline.

And the funniest thing about this topic to me? In 2011, Michigan fans did not care one iota about Hoke not wearing a headset. Why? Because Michigan had an 11-2 record and won the Sugar Bowl. In fact, fans praised, calling him a throwback coach that had faith in his coaching staff. However, after the past two seasons, fans have begun to blame anything they think may be contributing to Michigan’s struggles, including Hoke’s headset. It is amazing how that works.

Who do you think will be this year’s football captains? –Tanya (@ilah17)
Jake Ryan is the obvious choice; could Frank Clark join him?

Jake Ryan is the obvious choice as captain; could Frank Clark join him?

Let’s start with the obvious: linebacker Jake Ryan will be elected as a Michigan football captain for the second straight season. It was a surprise to the public when it was announced that Ryan had been voted a captain last season. The surprise was not because Ryan was not talented or because he was not capable of being a leader. The surprise was because Ryan had suffered an ACL injury in the previous spring, and there was uncertainty about when he would return to the field and how effective he would be. Yet, despite all of this, Ryan’s teammates still viewed him as one of their best leaders and named him a captain as a redshirt junior. There is no doubt that Ryan will be asked to resume his duties as captain now that he is 100-percent healthy and ready to regain his All-Big Ten form from 2012.

The offensive captain likely will be fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner. First, he is the only senior on scholarship that competes on the offensive side of the ball. Generally, the players named captains are seniors and, in some cases, juniors. It is difficult to see the most experienced player on the offense not named a captain. Second, Gardner is the quarterback, which implies that he must be a leader in the huddle and on the sideline. It would be somewhat concerning if it was announced that Michigan did not elect its redshirt-senior starting quarterback as a captain, even if Hoke continues to claim that there is quarterback competition for some reason. Third, Gardner, along with departed wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, carried the entire offensive load last season. Gardner had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Michigan quarterback while taking an endless pounding behind a sieve-like offensive line. I just cannot see a player with the experience and production of Gardner, especially at quarterback, not be named a captain.

After Ryan and Gardner, it becomes tricky. In the past three seasons under Hoke, Michigan has had two, three, and four captains in one of those years. In 2012, there was a clear leader on offense and on defense: Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs. The question is whether the Michigan roster feels similarly about Gardner and Ryan this season. I think they might, which is why I believe that Michigan will have only two captains this season. If Michigan was to elect one or two more captains, they would definitely come from the defensive side of the ball. The options would be senior defensive end Frank Clark, senior linebacker Desmond Morgan, senior cornerback Raymon Taylor, and redshirt junior cornerback Blake Countess. If I had to pick two of those options, I would pick Clark and Countess. But this is all moot because I expect Ryan and Gardner to be the only two Michigan captains this season.

M&GB Roundtable discusses Michigan Football Legends jerseys

July 11th, 2014 by Maize and Go Blue


Roundtable-Legends jerseys

Gardner legends jersey(USATSI)

Two weeks ago we debuted our M&GB Roundtable series that will run every couple weeks throughout the summer. Each of these roundtables will discuss a hot topic related to the upcoming season. Last time, we discussed the status of Brady Hoke’s hot seat and the consensus seemed to be that unless Michigan goes downhill once again this season, Hoke is safe heading into 2015. Today, we continue the series, this time giving our thoughts on the “Michigan Football Legends” jerseys. Here’s the question:

What’s your take on the “Michigan Football Legends” jerseys? Do you like or dislike them? Are they a good way to tie in tradition or are they too gimicky? Do you think they should be given out every year? If so, who should get numbers 11 and 21 this season? Finally, are there any other numbers you feel should be given legends status?

Justin banner

I really like the Legends jersey program because, even though it was started just a few years ago, it is unique to Michigan and it is a great way to tie in the glorious history of Michigan football. The majority of the numbers that have been given legends status thus far are great players from long ago that most Michigan fans today weren’t alive to see play. Sure, we have read about them and have maybe seen a few photos or video clips, but by and large, Tom Harmon, the Wistert brothers, and Gerald Ford were relics locked away in a time capsule. By bringing their numbers out of retirement, giving their families a pre-game ceremony, and designating the jerseys with their numbers on them with a patch, it’s a great way to both honor those legends and educate the younger generation of Michigan fans.

In addition to honoring the legends and their families and educating Michigan fans that weren’t around to see them play, the program is special and unique for current and future Michigan football players.

“It was an amazing feeling when I was awarded this number,” said Jeremy Gallon when he was given Desmond Howard’s No.21.

“I got it when I was a redshirt sophomore,” recalled Jake Ryan, who wears Bennie Oosterbaan’s No.47. “It was after the Alabama game and coach Hoke brought me in and it was a huge honor knowing that I was wearing the same jerseys as one of the legends who played for Michigan. I had to study up on him, to see what he did to represent this university. It was cool. I learned a lot.”

The current and future players that earn the numbers see it as an honor to get to wear a number that was made famous by a legend before them. Desmond Morgan got to meet Gerald Ford’s family and learn more about him when he was awarded No.48.

That said, I’m conflicted about when each number should be awarded. On one hand, it seems silly to switch a player’s number after he’s already made a name for himself in his current number. For example, Jordan Kovacs, who was No.32 for more than three seasons before switching to 11 for a handful of games. But then again, I like the way No.21 has been given to a top receiver each of the past three seasons, first Junior Hemingway, then Roy Roundtree, then Gallon. I feel like all three guys earned it and looked great in it. Unfortunately, the only receiver who fits that mold this season is Devin Funchess, but he already has Ron Kramer’s No.87. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I would switch Funchess to 21 and award 87 to Jake Butt. Funchess is a star receiver who could very well make the jump to the NFL following this season, which would open up 21 again next season for another star receiver should Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh or Freddy Canteen break out this fall.

No.11 is a tough one. Since the Wistert brothers were offensive tackles, but the number can’t be used for offensive linemen in modern college football, I like the idea of awarding it to a player on the defensive line. But so far it has been given to a safety (Kovacs) and a linebacker (Courtney Avery). I would bring it to the line this fall and give it to Frank Clark. Yes, he has an off-the-field issue from a couple years ago that could keep him from being awarded a legends number, but if Brady Hoke feels Clark has learned and grown from it, I’d be okay with him getting it. If he can’t get No.11 because of that, the only other player I’d give it to this fall would be linebacker James Ross.

Finally, I would give Charles Woodson’s No.2 legends status, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that happened this fall. The staff already gave Blake Countess the number, and Woodson is in likely his final season of an outstanding NFL career. He has always given back to Michigan and represented himself and the university well. As Michigan’s latest Heisman Trophy winner, he would be a great player to honor.

Drew banner

When it was announced prior to the 2011 season that Michigan planned to implement the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Most college football programs honor their legends by retiring their numbers in perpetuity. This is a grand gesture, but then fans are unable to see the numbers of their favorite players on the field. Over time, the stories and memories of these legends become lost. Heck, in some cases, even the names are forgotten. According to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, “99 percent of [Michigan] fans couldn’t name the jerseys that were retired—either the numbers of the people.”

With the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, you get the best of both worlds. The legends still are honored. Each Michigan legend is the subject of a pre-game ceremony that commemorates their time at Michigan and showcases the debut of their Legends patch, which will forever be stitched upon the jersey of the number they wore so long ago. And the numbers those legends wore are reinserted into circulation for current and future players to don. For many Michigan fans that have been alive for decades, they had never seen a Wolverine wear Tom Harmon’s No. 98 or President Gerald Ford’s No. 48. Now? They can see those legendary numbers each week in the fall  and recall what made No. 98 and No. 48 so special. It is a great tie to Michigan football’s tradition and to the players that made the program so prestigious.

However, rarely is anything—no matter how great—flawless. I still have a positive view towards the Michigan Football Legends Jersey program, but it has problems that must be addressed. The biggest problem I have is when Michigan’s best players switch to a Legends jersey when they are juniors or seniors. By then, those players have begun creating a legacy for the number they first wore as freshmen. But, by switching, their legacy instantly becomes overshadowed by the legend whose number they now wear. It prevents current players from establishing their own legacy. How can a player who wears a Legends jersey become a Michigan Football Legend on his own in the future? The answer: he cannot.

A great example is former safety Jordan Kovacs. In all likelihood, Kovacs will never be honored as a Michigan Football Legend. And that is okay. But I was frustrated when Kovacs switched from No. 32 to No. 11—one of the Legends jerseys—for the final three games of the 2012 season and his career. Before then, Kovacs had blazed his own trail as the unheralded walk-on everyone initially scoffed at that became one of Michigan’s most beloved players and its best safety in over a decade. And he did all of this as No. 32. This is the number with which he should have finished his career, not No. 11—no disrespect to the Wistert brothers. No. 32 was Kovacs’ legacy. He never should have worn another number.

Therefore, I propose that Legends jerseys only be offered to players prior to their freshman and sophomore seasons. Then those players can decide what number with which they want their legacy to be associated. It does not matter to me if the Legends jerseys are handed out every year. If they are, great. It would be a tribute to those Michigan Football Legends each season. If they are not, that works for me, too. It would make the offering of a Legends jersey more special in the eyes of the players and the fans. The only other number that deserves Legends status is No. 2. All three of Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winners then would be represented. I also would like No. 1 to receive Legends status, but, alas, that number essentially has gone into retirement thanks to Braylon Edwards. And it does not matter to me which players are offered available Legends jerseys this season. As long as they are freshmen or sophomores.

Josh banner

I really like the concept of the legends jerseys. It is not realistic to retire numbers in college and this allows the legends to still be honored without taking away all the numbers. However, I have not been a fan of how they’ve been given out. I’d like to see guys ‘earn’ these jerseys, the same way Hoke said Jabrill Peppers needs to ‘earn’ the coveted No.2 (even though it’s not a legends jersey). Jake Ryan earned his No.47 but other than that I haven’t seen much rhyme or reason with handing them out.

While I feel they deserve their legends jerseys now, Gardner and Funchess got them without making much noise in the previous season. If the Devin’s got their legends jerseys AFTER the 2013 season, rather than before, I’d have no problems with it. The fact that Courtney Avery got one upset me a bit, he was an average player at best and even that is being generous.

That said, I’m sure you can guess that I don’t think No.11 or No.21 should be given out this year. There are too many young and unproven guys on this roster to do so. This is not to say there isn’t anyone who could earn them, but no one has done anything to ‘earn’ the right yet. I’d like to see No.1 and No.2 be brought into legends status as well. No.1 for Anthony Carter and No.2 for Charles Woodson, as soon as he retires.

If we’re going to honor the legends of the past I’d prefer to see their numbers bestowed upon guys who have ‘earned’ it on and off the field, but mostly on it. If it has little to do with on-field performance, and middle of the road guys like Courtney Avery can get them, then I’d rather see the players vote on who gets them.

Derick banner
The legends jerseys have a chance to be a great tradition, but only if the players are forced to earn the honor of wearing them. If Michigan insists on giving out the numbers each year and the players wearing them aren’t stars, then the value of the legends jersey is lost. So far Michigan has given the jerseys to some players with lesser roles, and it has tainted the idea behind honoring these football legends.

With a young team taking the field in 2014, and a group of returning starters that largely underachieved in last year’s 7-6 effort, the Nos. 11 and 21 should be kept off the field until players earn them. If a wide receiver or cornerback steps up and leads the team to a great first half of the season, then a jersey should be awarded to that player.

If the program makes it clear that the numbers are earned, not given, then the legends jerseys will be a great tradition for Michigan football. If not, then it will represent just another gimmick put on by the athletic department.

Sam banner
While the NCAA is in turmoil right now and the future of college sports paints a somewhat murky picture, I think everyone can still rest assured that America loves watching our college athletes play far too much for these games to disappear completely. And in these beloved college sports, tradition reigns supreme. Every university tries to hold up their own traditions higher than any other institution’s. Alumni of the University of Michigan will be quick to defend the Maize and Blue in any battle, pointing out that we are the most winningest college football program in history, that Ann Arbor is the best college town God has ever created, that the Victors is the best fight song known to man, and that, quite simply, Michigan is unlike any other school out there.

One of the many ways Michigan has now decided to honor this glorious history is by assigning Legends numbers to a select few football players each year. I, for one, am a big fan. I don’t know of any other program in the country that reminisces over star players of the past in such a way, and though a small patch and a special plaque in the locker room might not seem like much, I really do think these legendary players and their families take great pride in seeing their legacies live on in the Big House. I also think it can’t hurt on the recruiting trail.

With that being said, there are a few “rules and regulations” that I would put into play if I oversaw the program. First, there needs to be some cap on the number of Legends numbers issued. There is no problem with designating a few players with the status every single year, but if the number of Legends jerseys continues to grow to 15, 20, 25 different players, it will lose its luster. I would cap the total number of jerseys in circulation at 10. In order to honor future Legends, however, there needs to be some room to make more though, right? Right. So every 50 years, every Legends number is officially put in the vault (or Schembechler Hall) and is available for re-circulation as a “regular” number. After those 50 years have passed, up to 10 more Legends, preferably representing as many different positions as possible, can be selected and issued with patches, plaques, and pictures and the cycle repeats. This way every Michigan football player will have the chance to earn this incredible honor; if it so happens that a player wearing a Legends jersey becomes a legend himself, that number will remain in issue but the patch will be replaced to honor the more recent standout.

I also think there needs to be some sort of regulation on when the jerseys are issued in relation to a player’s career. As it stands now, it seems that any player can earn the right to wear a Legends number at any point during his four years. Devin Gardner changed from No.12 to No.98 (Tom Harmon) early in his junior year. Jordan Kovacs mysteriously changed from No.32 to No.11 (Francis, Albert, and Alvin Wistert) well into his senior year. Going forward, I think the Legends jerseys should be designated to rising sophomores or redshirt freshmen. With this policy in place, the coaches have a full year to decide who is worthy of the honor based on their play on the field and their actions off it and the player will not have already established himself fully while wearing another number.

As far as the current available Legends jerseys go, I would like to see No.11 stay on the defensive side of the field and No.21 as a wide receiver for at least the near future. Sticking to my own rules, I will give No.11 to either Henry Poggi or Maurice Hurst, Jr., who apparently both impressed on the practice squad last year and will look to make an impact as redshirt freshmen this season, and No.21 to Jaron Dukes, an Ohioan just like Desmond Howard with great potential. When thinking of other potential Legends going forward, I can only think of one obvious one – No.2 for Charles Woodson.
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Now that we’ve all given our answers, we’d like to hear from you. Do you like the legends jerseys? Do you agree or disagree with us? Give us your answer to the question in the comments below.