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Final Look: Penn State

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014


Jourdan Lewis INT vs Penn State(MGoBlue.com)

It seems like it was a lot longer than a week and a half ago that Michigan beat Penn State, but the bye week certainly came at the right time, allowing the team to heal up a little bit and gain an extra week of preparation for Michigan State. We took it pretty lightly last week as well and used that time to get started on some basketball previews, so today it’s time to take one final look back at Michigan’s 18-13 win over Penn State.

Advanced Statistics
Michigan Stat (National Average) Penn State
57 Total Plays 68
 38.3 Avg. Starting Field Position (29.8) 27.8
12 Possessions 12
4 Scoring Opportunities 4
 4.5 Points per Opportunity (4.69) 3.3
 58.2% Leverage Rate (68.3%) 58.8%
 32.1% Success Rate (42.0%) 35.3%
 26.1% Success Rate Passing Downs (30.5%) 25.0%
 37.5% Success Rate Standard Downs (47.3%) 42.5%
 26.1% Success Rate Passing (40.4%) 35.9%
36.4% Success Rate Rushing (43.5%) 34.5%
1 Turnovers  1
13.9 Equivalent Points 12.1
0.25 Equivalent Points Per Play 0.18

As I mentioned last week, I’m working to expand this section in the future, and hoping to put in some work to go back and calculate the previous games this season as well as last season so I can draw comparisons between this year’s offense and last year’s. The stats and formulas used are from Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

Like the Rutgers game, Michigan had considerably fewer plays, this time 11 fewer plays than Penn State. But Michigan had a 10.5-yard advantage in average field position thanks to the second half when neither offense could move the ball. Both teams had equal possessions and scoring opportunities. The leverage rates* were basically equal, but both were well below the national average of 68.3 percent. Penn State had a slightly better total success rate**, Michigan was slightly better on passing downs*** and success rushing, Penn State much better on standard downs and success passing. However, both teams were well below the national averages on all five of those success rate categories.

As far as how the offense’s performance against Penn State compares to the previous six games this season, Michigan’s average starting field position was its best so far, its 12 possessions were tied for the most (which they have done in three of the previous six games), and the one turnover matched the fewest in a game this season, along with the Appalachian State and Rutgers games. Michigan’s 12 first downs tied the Minnesota game for the fewest in a game this season. Michigan’s total success rate, success rate on standard downs, success rate passing, and success rate rushing were the second-lowest outputs of the season. Basically, this was Michigan’s second-worst offensive performance of the season behind the Minnesota game (yes, even worse than the Notre Dame game despite, you know, actually scoring points).

*Leverage Rate: Standard downs/(Standard downs + passing downs)
**Success Rate: 50% of necessary yards on first down, 70% on second down, 100% on third or fourth down
***Passing Down is considered 2nd & 7 or more, 3rd & 5 or more, 4th & 5 or more

Let’s take a look at the Five Factors.

Five Factors
Michigan Stat Penn State
4.6 Yards Per Play 3.1
 32.1% Success Rate 35.3%
38.3 Avg Starting Field Position 27.8
4.5 Points Per Opportunity 3.3
Even Turnover Margin Even

Michigan won three of the five factors, split the turnover margin, and Penn State won just one. Per Football Study Hall, here are the chances of winning based on each of these five factors:

Yards Per Play (weighted 35%)
- Michigan +1.5 = 86.2 percent chance of winning

Success Rate (25%)
- Penn State +3.2% = 59.2 percent chance of winning

Average Starting Field Position (15%)
- Michigan +10.5 = 86.7 percent chance of winning

Points Per Opportunity (15%)
- Michigan +1.2 = 74.7 percent chance of winning

Turnover Margin (10%)
- Even = 50.0 percent chance of winning

Michigan won Yards per Play (35 percent), Field Position (15 percent), and PPO (15 percent). Added together, that equates to a 65 percent overall chance of winning, which they did.

Drive Chart
PSU
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*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics, Dash indicates direction of drive, Green dash = scoring play, Grey = punt, Red = turnover, Pink = missed field goal, Black = end of half or turnover on downs, Shaded line = special teams or defensive touchdown

The numbers game

113,085: The game attendance, the largest this season and the eighth largest in Michigan Stadium history

5,543: Devin Gardner’s career passing yards, passing Tom Brady (5,351) and Jim Harbaugh (5,449) to move into sixth place in Michigan history

7: Devin Gardner’s spot in career pass attempts (648) and completions (392), passing Steve Smith and Jim Harbaugh, respectively

6,350: Devin Gardner’s career total yards, passing Elvis Grbac (6,221) for sixth in Michigan history

20: The number of consecutive games in which Devin Funchess has caught a pass, tying Anthony Carter for 10th in Michigan history

52: Dennis Norfleet’s 52 kickoff return yards set the school record in career kickoff return yards (2,029). That total also ranks seventh in Big Ten history

6: Michigan’s six sacks were the most in a game since the first game of the 2008 season against Utah

39.5: Jake Ryan’s career tackles for loss, moving into 10th place in Michigan history

Good Night: Michigan 18 – Penn State 13

Saturday, October 11th, 2014


UM win vs PSU(MGoBlue.com)

With their backs up against the wall, facing a fourth straight loss and a likely losing season, Michigan put together a spirited effort in front of 113,000 strong and knocked off Penn State 18-13. Despite the glam of the lights, the game was far from pretty — for either team — but Michigan gutted out a much needed win.

Penn State’s offense came out buzzing in the first quarter, but not on the big arm of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Instead, it was with the legs of running back Bill Belton, who rushed for 51 yards in the first quarter after coming into the game with just 189 yards through the first five games. But Penn State managed just two Sam Ficken field goals on its first two possessions, from 35 yards and 32 yards out.

UM-PennState-small-final-FINAL
Final Stats
Michigan Penn State
Score 18 13
Record 3-4, 1-2 4-2, 1-2
Total Yards 256 214
Net Rushing Yards 64 54
Net Passing Yards 192 160
First Downs 12 16
Turnovers 1 1
Penalties-Yards 3-30 5-23
Punts-Yards 5-219 5-167
Time of Possession 29:00 31:00
Third Down Conversions 6-of-15 6-of-17
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-1 0-of-3
Sacks By-Yards 6-40 3-14
Field Goals 3-for-3 2-for-2
PATs 1-for-1 1-for-1
Red Zone Scores-Chances 1-of-2 3-of-3
Full Box Score

Michigan wasted no time putting points on the board, taking its first possession of the game 75 yards in six plays for a touchdown. On the drive, Michigan converted a 3rd-and-3 with a 14-yard pass to Amara Darboh, and three plays later, Gardner lofted up a deep ball for Devin Funchess. While it was in the air, it appeared to be an easy interception for the Penn State defensive back, but Funchess raced in front of him at the last minute, grabbed the ball and scored.

Michigan’s second possession, however, wasn’t as fortunate. After Penn State kicked its second field goal to pull within 7-6, Michigan started on its own 29. On 3rd-and-13, Gardner found Darboh again, this time for 21 yards. A Kyle Kalis holding penalty on the next play pushed Michigan back 10 yards, and two plays later, on 2nd-and-20, Gardner tried to lob a screen pass over the defender’s head. Instead, Penn State’s Anthony Zettel picked it off and returned it five yards to the Michigan 28. Penn State punched it in on 3rd-and-goal from the 10 when Hackenberg fired a laser to DaeSean Hamilton across the middle to take a 13-7 lead.

Michigan then put together an 11-play drive that included yet another Gardner-to-Darboh third down conversion, this time a 20-yarder on 3rd-and-11. But the drive stalled at the Penn State 28 and Michigan was forced to kick a field goal, which Matt Wile made from 45 yards out. Neither team was able to do anything the rest of the half, and Penn State took a 13-10 lead into the locker room.

The third quarter was a display of poor offense from both teams as Michigan mustered just 53 total yards and Penn State just 41 in the quarter. But Michigan created the break it needed when, on 3rd-and-4 from the Penn State 32, Jourdan Lewis intercepted Hackenberg. Michigan’s offense was unable to pick up a first down with Russell Bellomy taking the snaps after Gardner left the game with an injured foot on the previous series. Wile converted a 42-yard field goal to tie the game at 13.

Michigan started the fourth quarter with possession at the Penn State 49 after forcing a 26-yard punt. On the second play, Gardner, who returned to the game with a considerable limp, connected with Dennis Norfleet along the left sideline for 24 yards. Yet again, the drive stalled, but Wile booted a 37-yard field goal to give Michigan a 16-13 lead.

The Michigan defense held strong after Penn State crossed midfield. Penn State punted it back to Michigan with 7:04 remaining. The Wolverines took to the ground to eat up the clock. Justice Hayes rushed for five yards and then four. On 3rd-and-1, De’Veon Smith moved the chains with a seven-yard run. After two more runs by Hayes and an incomplete pass on third down, Michigan was forced to punt, but it had eaten up half of the remaining time.

Penn State was called for an illegal block on the punt return, which gave the Nittany Lions possession on their own 8-yard line, needing to drive 92 yards with 3:44 remaining. Hackenberg completed a 17-yard pass on the first play, but was sacked by Jake Ryan two plays later and was called for intentional grounding. On 3rd-and-19 from the 16, Frank Clark sacked Hackenberg at the three, forcing 4th-and-32 with less than two minutes to play. Penn State head coach James Franklin elected to snap the punt out of the end zone for a safety rather than kick it back to Michigan or try to make an impossible conversion. That made the score 18-13 Michigan.

Penn State lined up for an onside kick and converted it, but Jesse Della Valle was flagged for offside on the kick and the Nittany Lions had to retry. This time, Blake Countess covered it up and Michigan was able to run out the clock.

Michigan’s defense held Penn State to a season-low 214 total yards and Hackenberg to a season-low 160 passing yards. Hackenberg completed 21-of-32 passes for one touchdown and one interception. Michigan’s defense also recorded six sacks, the most since the first game of 2008. With sack yardage included, Penn State managed just 54 yards rushing.

Offensively, Michigan totaled just 256 yards and only 64 on the ground, but Gardner was an efficient 16-of-24 for 192 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Bellomy threw just two passes and neither was completed. Funchess caught a team-high seven passes for 69 yards and a score, while Darboh caught four for 66. Smith led the way on the ground with 24 yards on 12 carries. Jake Ryan led the defense with 10 total tackles, three for loss, and one sack. Brennen Beyer recorded two sacks, while Clark and Ben Gedeon each had one, and Mario Ojemudia and Chris Wormley had a half a sack each.

Michigan is now 3-0 in night games at Michigan Stadium. Tonight’s win was the first home night game against a Big Ten foe. At 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, Michigan has a much-needed week off before traveling to East Lansing to face rival Michigan State (5-1, 2-0).

Washed out: Utah 26 – Michigan 10

Saturday, September 20th, 2014


Michigan vs Utah(MGoBlue.com)

It took more than two hours longer than expected, but the result was what no one rooting for the maize and blue wanted. No, that’s not a riddle; it describes Michigan’s 26-10 loss to Utah on Saturday, although Michigan’s offense remains a riddle no one except opposing defenses can solve.

For the second time in three weeks, Michigan’s offense failed to run a play in the opponent’s red zone and failed to score a touchdown, this time resulting in a 16-point loss despite out-gaining the Utes 308-286. The game was delayed two-and-a-half hours midway through the fourth quarter, but the outcome remained the same and Michigan fell to 2-2.

The game didn’t start poorly, however, as Michigan took an early 3-0 lead on a 42-yard Matt Wile field goal on the first possession on the game. Michigan’s defense then forced a three-and-out and the offense marched into Utah territory once again. This time, after back-to-back completions to Devin Funchess of 19 yards and 24 yards, the drive was stalled by a holding penalty on Erik Magnuson. Instead of 1st-and-10 from the Utah 43, Michigan faced 1st-and-20 from the 43 and was unable to get the first down. Outside of field goal range, and facing 4th-and-13, Michigan punted and downed the ball at the Ute 3-yard line.

UM-Utah-small-final-FINAL
Final Stats
Michigan Utah
Score 10 26
Record 2-2 3-0
Total Yards 308 286
Net Rushing Yards 118 81
Net Passing Yards 190 205
First Downs 13 19
Turnovers 4 1
Penalties-Yards 3-20 6-50
Punts-Yards 5-194 5-213
Time of Possession 33:32 26:28
Third Down Conversions 9-of-19 6-of-17
Fourth Down Conversions 2-of-4 0-of-0
Sacks By-Yards 3-30 4-22
Field Goals 1-for-1 4-for-5
PATs 1-for-1 2-for-2
Red Zone Scores-Chances 0-of-0 2-of-3
Full Box Score

Utah got a big play on 3rd-and-5 from its own eight when quarterback Travis Wilson found running back Bubba Poole wide open for a screen pass and Poole raced 67 yards before he was brought down by Jourdan Lewis. Michigan’s defense held strong, forcing a field goal to tie the game at three.

Michigan’s offense went three-and-out, but Ute receiver Kaelyn Clay returned Will Hagerup’s punt 66 yards for a touchdown — his third return touchdown of the season. Suddenly, Michigan was down 10-3.

At the beginning of the second quarter, Wilson scrambled to his right and tried to hurdle a Michigan defender. Instead, he was hid mid-air by Joe Bolden, flipping over and landing awkwardly on his head. He was taken to the locker room and Michigan took advantage of his replacement, Kendal Thompson. On Utah’s next possession, Willie Henry sacked Thompson on 3rd-and-4, forcing a punt. Gardner was picked up on Michigan’s ensuing possession, but on 3rd-and-12, Henry made Michigan’s play of the game, picking off Thompson and carrying it into the end zone to tie the game at 10.

Utah responded with a 16-play, 54-yard field goal drive to take a 13-10 lead into the half, then went 67 yards in just five plays on its first possession of the second half. The drive was capped by a 28-yard touchdown pass from Wilson, who returned after getting stitches in his nose, to Dres Anderson.

After the two teams traded punts, Michigan moved the ball into Utah territory. On 3rd-and-8 from the Utah 45, Gardner completed a five-yard pass to Amara Darboh, setting up a 4th-and-3. Instead of punting to pin the Utes deep once again, Hoke elected to go for it, but Gardner’s roll-out came up a yard short. Utah took advantage of the short field position and kicked a 48-yard field goal to take a 23-10 lead.

Gardner was intercepted for the second time on the second play of Michigan’s next possession and Utah kicked another field goal, this time from 50 yards out to go ahead 26-10.

Shane Morris replaced Gardner, but threw an interception of his own that was returned 59 yards to the Michigan 17. A sideline penalty on Utah moved it back 15 yards, but then the skies opened up. The game was suspended for a total time of 2:24, and when it resumed with only a few hundred fans remaining — most wearing red — Utah missed a 41-yard field goal.

Morris lead what looked to be a promising drive, converting two long third downs, but fumbled at the Utah 47 and any hopes Michigan had of a comeback were dashed.

For the game, Gardner completed 14-of-26 for 148 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. Morris went 4-of-13 for 42 yards, one touchdown, and one fumble. Funchess led all receivers with four catches for 82 yards, while Derrick Green led the way on the ground with 59 yards on 14 carries (4.2 yards per carry). Green was also Michigan’s second-leading receiver with two catches for 26 yards.

Wilson completed 14-of-20 for 172 yards and one touchdown, while Utah’s two star receivers, Anderson and Kenneth Scott, combined for 10 catches for 78 yards and a score.

Michigan’s defense held Utah to 81 yards rushing (2.2 yards per carry) and just 286 total yards — 271 yards below its season average — and just one touchdown and four field goals. Jake Ryan led the way with 13 tackles, three for loss, and one sack. Frank Clark added 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, while Mario Ojemudia recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and Henry had the sack, interception, and score.

Michigan enters Big Ten play at 2-2, having out-gained every team it has played, but tormented by turnovers. The offense has yet to reach the red zone or score a touchdown against power-five teams, Notre Dame and Utah. The defense, however, has yet to allow an opponent to reach 300 yards of offense.

Minnesota (3-1) comes to town next Saturday looking to take back the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have beaten Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State, and lost to TCU. The game will be televised by ABC at 3:30 p.m. EST.

Final Look: Notre Dame

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014


Gardner vs ND(MGoBlue.com)

Last season, Michigan pulled off a big win over Notre Dame in the Big House, a performance that garnered some (premature) national championship talk. A week later, lowly Akron came to town and nearly pulled off a monumental upset. In fact, Michigan needed a last second goal line stop to stave off defeat.

This time around, Michigan heads into a matchup with lowly Miami (Ohio) with its tail between it legs, fresh off of a humiliating 31-0 defeat in South Bend. Before we fully turn our attention to Miami, let’s take one last look back at the big plays, numbers, stats, and observations from Michigan’s loss last Saturday.

Three key moments

Typically, this will feature three big moments that helped Michigan win the game, but that doesn’t mean they will always be positive. In the case of Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame, there isn’t much positive to glean, so here are three key moments that shaped the game.

1. Matt Wile’s missed field goals

Notre Dame won the coin toss and elected to receive, thinking that they could set the tone of the game by marching down the field and scoring. But Michigan’s defense held firm and forced a punt. The Michigan offense took the field full of confidence and wasted no time moving the chains. On the second play, Devin Gardner hit Devin Funchess for 12 yards. On the next play, Dennis Norfleet rambled 13 yards and Michigan was already to midfield. Michigan converted a fourth down and then Funchess caught a seven-yard pass at the ND 30. But the drive stalled there as a pass to Norfleet lost two, and on 3rd-and-5, Derrick Green picked up three. Matt Wile trotted onto the field to attempt a 46-yard field goal to give Michigan an early three-point lead. But it missed wide right. Notre Dame answered with an eight-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to take an early 7-0 lead.

Matt Wile's missed field goals on Michigan's first two drives were demoralizing in a tough road environment (MGoBlue.com)

Matt Wile’s missed field goals on Michigan’s first two drives were demoralizing in a tough road environment (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan got the ball back, and on the third play, Gardner found Funchess for 27 yards to get into Irish territory again. On first down from the ND 34, center Jack Miller false started, moving Michigan back five yards. Three plays later, Michigan faced 4th-and-6 instead of 4th-and-1, so Wile came in to attempt another field goal, this time from 48 yards out. His plant foot slipped and the kick never had a chance. Six points left on the field.

Notre Dame didn’t score on its next possession, instead punting it back to Michigan, but this time the offense was unable to string together a drive. We will never know how the game would have changed had Wile made those two field goals, but Michigan would have at the very least led 3-0, trailed 7-3, then pulled within 7-6 early in the second quarter. In reality, it snowballed from there and Michigan’s offense that moved the ball fairly well on its first two possessions went into desperation mode. Even after the Irish scored again, heading into the half down 14-6 would have been much more manageable, until…

2. Notre Dame’s third touchdown

After Notre Dame went up 14-0, Michigan got a seven-yard run by Norfleet on the first play of its ensuing possession. But then the Devin Gardner tuck rule that wasn’t the tuck rule fumble occurred and Michigan lost 12 yards. Facing 3rd-and-20, Nussmeier elected to go the safe route with a Justice Hayes draw that gained 10. Michigan punted back to Notre Dame.

A 12-yard punt return gave the Irish possession on their own 44 with 1:24 remaining in the half. A few plays later, on 3rd-and-1 at the Michigan 24, Golson lofted a perfect pass into the end zone and William Fuller leapt over Blake Countess for the touchdown. That play was essentially the death blow. At halftime, trailing 21-0, the game felt completely insurmountable. Had that pass gone incomplete and Michigan held ND to a field goal, 17-0 would have somehow felt better. And had Michigan made its two field goals, 17-7 would have felt even better, especially since Michigan was getting the ball to start the second half. But that’s a lot of ifs.

3. Gardner’s first interception

While the 21-0 halftime lead felt more like 49-0 because Michigan’s offense hadn’t put up any points and the defense was allowing Golson to pick it apart, there was still a sliver of hope for most Michigan fans because of the comebacks the Wolverines have pulled off against the Irish in recent years. But that was all dashed when Gardner was picked off on the fifth play of the third quarter.

Michigan had picked up a first down on a nine-yard Gardner run and a two-yard Derrick Green run. Gardner then ran for six yards, but on second down, Green was tackled for a three-yard loss, setting up 3rd-and-7 at the Michigan 39. Gardner dropped back to pass and fired across the middle for tight end Khalid Hill, but safety Max Redfield stepped in front and picked it off. He returned it 17 yards to the Michigan 38, and although the Michigan defense forced ND to punt, the Irish downed the punt at the 2-yard line. The interception flipped field position and it paid off for the Irish on their next drive as they punched it in for a 28-0 lead.

Given the ifs above, and if Gardner hadn’t thrown that interception and instead Michigan scored, it could have been 17-13 and we would have had a ball game. But again, if there are that many ifs in a game, you’re not going to win, especially on the road against a good opponent.

The numbers game

365: Michigan’s consecutive games without being shutout, dating back to Oct. 20, 1984, prior to last Saturday’s 31-0 loss at Notre Dame

24-17-1: Michigan’s all-time record against Notre Dame

172: The number of passes Devin Gardner had thrown since his last interception on Nov. 3, 2013 against Michigan State

9: Devin Gardner’s rank on Michigan’s career completions list, passing Steve Smith

Drive Chart
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*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics, Dash indicates direction of drive, Green dash = scoring play, Grey = punt, Red = turnover, Pink = missed field goal, Black = end of half

Vote for the performance of the game

Obviously it was a putrid performance all around, but hey, let’s vote for Michigan’s top performance of the game!
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M&GB season preview roundtable

Friday, August 22nd, 2014


Roundtable-banner

It has become our tradition at the beginning of each season to preview the upcoming season via a staff roundtable. We answer several questions with our predictions and expectations for what the season will bring. Drew has moved on, but we still have Justin, Sam, Derick, and Josh. We also invited our partner at MmmGoBluBBQ, Joe, to join us for the roundtable. We also invite you to give your answers in the comments below. Tell us what you agree with or disagree with. Next week we will begin our game week coverage.

What are you most excited about this season?

Justin: I’m most excited about what should be a very good defense. With so much talent and experience returning, it should be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten and may have to carry the team, at least in the early going. The best Michigan teams in recent history have featured stifling defenses — most notably 1997 and 2006 — and I think I can speak for most Michigan fans when I say I miss the days of Michigan having a dominating defense. It’s a major stretch to say this year’s unit could be as good as the 1997 one, but anywhere close would make for a very good season.

Michigan's defense won't be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

Michigan’s defense won’t be as good as the 1997 version, but it is one to be excited about

With most of the big questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to need to be very good, and if it is we have two recent examples that could foreshadow the upcoming season: Notre Dame in 2012 and Michigan State in 2013. Notre Dame’s offense ranked 80th nationally in scoring, 38th in rushing, and 72nd in passing that year but still made it to the national title game thanks to its defense. Last season, Michigan State’s offense ranked 63rd in scoring, 59th in rushing, and 84th in passing but still won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl thanks to its defense. I’m excited for the possibility that Michigan’s defense, which should be more aggressive this fall, could carry the Wolverines to a special season.

Sam: I’m most excited about…football! After last year’s dreadful, seemingly never-ending season, I never thought I’d be so excited to see the Maize and Blue on the field just a season later, but I suppose hope reigns eternal right now. As far specific excitement about this team goes, I am really looking forward to seeing the whole defense working to live up to its enormous expectations. Every single position has an extremely strong two-deep, and every unit has at least one potential game-changer. With names like Frank Clark, Jake Ryan, James Ross III, and Jabrill Peppers, there’s no telling how good this defense could be. A consistent pass rush could mean a top-10 or even top-five defense nationally.

Derick: The most exciting storyline has to be the beginning of Jabrill Peppers‘ career in Ann Arbor. The No. 2 overall recruit has a chance to be a difference maker on defense and revive a kick return game that has been dormant since Steve Breaston left Michigan.

Josh: The defense and its personnel and scheme changes. I’d much rather see an aggressive, menacing defense with an average offense than an average defense with a high octane/high scoring offense. Luckily for Michigan it appears as though we just might get that menacing defense in 2014. That is something to be very excited about after we had to watch last year’s ‘bend but don’t break’ defense sit back and give up big gain after big gain.

Joe: I have a feeling that Coach Nussmeier will focus on building a strong run game with Green and Smith and help control the ball a little more than in recent years. Michigan has the horses to build an above avg. run game with these 2 and it will be fun to see if we can get back to a little smash mouth football at the big house. I’m also looking forward to some great BBQ on “Tailgate Tuesdays”.

What worries you most entering the season?

Justin: Okay, so this question is pretty rhetorical this year. The offensive line has to be the answer after last year’s meltdown and the loss of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. If it’s as bad as last season, even a high-caliber defense won’t save the team. But I really don’t think it will be. Do I expect it to be a mauling, classic Michigan offensive line? Absolutely not. But I do think it will be more cohesive than last season and more sound with a simplified playbook. Even so, until we see it in action, the worry is there.

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

The huge question obviously lies with Erik Magnuson and the rest of the line (Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Sam: If anyone’s biggest concern at this point is not the offensive line, he or she may want a quick crash course in foot-ball (American style). I can say with a straight face that Michigan has some sort of chance of having a First Team All-Conference player at every single position on the field (yes, this is still optimistic, but it’s at least feasible in some universe) besides the offensive line, where Michigan may not have a single Third Team-caliber performer, feasibly. The line is replacing two senior tackles who will most likely start one day in the NFL; even with those stars, Michigan’s big uglies up front last year were atrocious. Most people have been taking the glass-half-full approach in saying that there’s no way it can get any worse; it’s hard for me to look at the names on paper and wonder how in the world it could get any better.

Derick: After watching the spring game and the ‘Under the Lights’ scrimmage, how can the offensive line not be the No. 1 concern? Michigan’s defensive line was average for much of 2013, but looked like an elite unit against their offensive teammates. If Doug Nussmeier can’t improve this group, it won’t matter how much Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith have progressed.

Josh: The entire offense. They say that on defense 10 guys can fail as long as one guy makes the play. But on offense 10 guys can be doing their job and if one fails, then the play is lost. While the o-line clearly needs to be a cohesive unit that plays well, it’s not all on them and there are too many variables to work out before they can be a solid unit. Devin Gardner needs to be consistent and the running backs (whomever they may be) need to run with vision and be decisive. I see Michigan in a similar situation as Michigan State was coming into 2013; a potentially great defense that would be enough to carry them but no identity on offense. Last year the defense played well but faded late in the season as it was completely worn down after carrying the offense all year and it really showed in losses to Ohio State and Kansas State I fear we’ll see more of the same this year.

Joe: The offensive line is a HUGE concern due to the loss of both Schofield and Lewan. It wasn’t exactly a strong point last year and now it looks even more troubling. This group needs to gel quickly and improve on the “tackles for loss” that plagued them last year. 114 is way too many!

Who will be the breakout player on offense?

Justin: I would absolutely love to look into the crystal ball and pick a lineman that breaks out and puts together an all-conference season, and while it’s certainly possible, it’s impossible to predict. I also think Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will split the workload, keeping either from truly breaking out. Therefore, it has to be a pass-catcher, and I’m going to go with Jake Butt. He’s out for the first couple of games at least, but is progressing very well in his return form a torn ACL. We got a taste of what he’s capable of last season — 20 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns — and once he returns, he could put up some solid numbers.

We all know Devin Funchess will be the go-to receiver for Devin Gardner, but he’s going to have to find others to distribute the ball to so opposing defenses can’t simply game plan Funchess out. It’s very likely that either Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh breaks onto the scene, but as a tight end, I see Butt becoming a crutch for Gardner. Butt fits right into Nussmeier’s offensive system and could be primed for a big season as long as he fully recovers from his injury.

Sam: This one is pretty easy for me. I don’t think the offensive line is going to be good enough for Michigan to have a star running back, so I immediately look to the outside. There I find Amara Darboh, a gentlemanly sized 6’2″, 211-pound redshirt sophomore wide receiver who was held out all of last season with a foot injury. Devin Funchess is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a sure thing this year, so Darboh should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of cheating defenses, and his nice hands, solid size, and football IQ should make him a favorite of Devin Gardner.

Derick: Freddy Canteen will probably have one of the greatest impacts on the offense, but I think Devin Gardner will be the breakout player. Gardner struggled for much of the 2013 season, but pressure from the defense and a non-existent rushing attack made his job much harder. A healthy Gardner should take advantage of a deeper receiving core and become the quarterback fans saw for a few games at the end of 2012.

Josh: I’m really down on the offense heading into this season. True, I’m not in Schembechler Hall, but nothing I’ve seen or read since last season has given me any indication that this offense will be any better than last year’s. A simplified system and zone blocking schemes will help but they haven’t had much time with Nussmeier and development takes time and many reps. Plus the mere fact that a TRUE freshman is in line to start at left tackle tells me that this line is still in shambles and that could derail the entire offense, again. That said, I think Jake Butt (once he returns) is prime for a breakout season. I foresee Gardner looking for a safety valve as he runs for his life behind an inept line and Butt should be that safety valve. We saw glimpses of what Butt could do late in 2013 and I expect him to pick up where he left off.

Joe: I am hoping that an in shape and focused Derrick Green turns into the five-star tailback we recruited two years ago. If he can pound the ball and help control the clock, this offense can put up some big numbers. An effective Green would free up some young receivers and an elite Funchess down field.

Who will be the breakout player on defense?

Justin: Yeah, it’s a pretty generic answer that I’m sure others will give, but I’m going with Jourdan Lewis. The hype coming out of the spring and fall camp is too much to ignore. The coaching staff has talked about being more aggressive defensively, and Lewis fits that mold at corner. If he truly has beaten out either experienced corners like Raymon Taylor or Blake Countess, he’s earned it and it will only make the secondary better.

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Can Jourdan Lewis live up to the hype he has garnered throughout the offseason?

Sam: Defensive breakout players are a little bit harder for me to predict, and I admittedly don’t even know who would rightfully qualify as a “breakout” player this year. Would a senior Frank Clark, who has been solid but never great, qualify? How about a junior linebacker who has been playing plenty of snaps for two full seasons? I’ll assume I’d get picked on for taking either of those guys, so let me go with Jourdan Lewis, a 5’10″, 175-pound sophomore cornerback from Cass Tech. If preseason reports and practices are to be believed, it seems that Lewis has managed to wrestle away a starting spot from either senior Raymon Taylor or redshirt junior Blake Countess, both of whom were pretty solid contributors a season ago. The coaches have been emphasizing increased physicality and aggressiveness on defense, particularly from the cornerbacks, which fits right into Lewis’s strengths. If he indeed plays the first snap on defense against Appalachian State next week, Jourdan Lewis must have something going for him.

Derick: It has to be Jabrill Peppers. If he can’t contribute in the secondary then Michigan will be vulnerable to the pass all season, since Blake Countess is the only proven cornerback that can cover Big Ten recievers.

Josh: Jourdan Lewis, and it’s not even close. Yes, I do think Jabrill Peppers will show us why he was one of the best incoming recruits in recent memory but my money is on Lewis to really make massive strides from last season. He got his feet wet last year while relying on great athletic ability but now he has the technique and mental aspect to add to it. I fully expect him to be an All-Big Ten performer, and one of the best defenders in the conference, by season’s end.

Joe: Can I say Jake Ryan as my breakout player? I know he is a team captain and a stud at linebacker, but after missing five games last year due to a torn ACL, he will shine all season if healthy. He is a must for this team to keep pace defensively.

Michigan will win the Big Ten if…

Justin: The offensive line improves to simply average and the defense is as good as advertised. The defense will have to carry the team early on while the offense finds its feet, but I truly believe this is a team that has a lot of potential. It will all rely on improvement from the offensive line, but like I said above, if the defense lives up to the hype, a 2012 Notre Dame or 2013 Michigan State season is not out of question.

Sam: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the defense doesn’t allow a single point. In all seriousness, the defense has to be elite (probably allowing 15 or fewer points a game in Big Ten play) and the offensive line has to be above-average for Michigan to compete for their first conference championship since 2004. I think the defense can be elite, but I still think the offensive line is going to struggle a little bit too much for the team to reach Pasadena or beyond.

Derick: Michigan will win the Big Ten if the quarterback pressure we saw throughout camp was actually because of the elite defensive line Greg Mattison has assembled. If the offensive line can actually protect Gardner and create holes for the running game then the rest will fall in place.

Josh: Michigan State and Ohio State completely implode and each have multiple conference losses, a miracle happens with the offensive line’s development early on, Devin Gardner finally becomes the consistently good QB we know he can be all while Jabrill Peppers exceeds the hype, plays both sides of the ball and becomes the first true freshman to win the Heisman (read: I don’t think it’s even remotely possible for Michigan to win the B1G Ten this year). I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, Michigan won’t be ready to legitimately compete for the B1G Ten until 2015.

Joe: We can get strong and smart play up front, as well as from our quarterback position. We must eliminate the untimely sack or tackle for loss that killed us on important drives last season. C’mon O-line, make it happen!

What’s your prediction for the season? Record, who will Michigan lose to, what bowl game will Michigan play in?

Justin: Regardless of how much improvement the offensive line shows, I don’t see Michigan winning less than eight games this season. But I think they’ll win more than that and finish the regular season 10-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. I don’t think Notre Dame will be that great this year, but early on Michigan will still be trying to get its offense up to speed, and despite a valiant effort from the defense, bad things just happen in South Bend. The latter because Michigan State is still the team to beat in the Big Ten this season and, while Michigan will play closer than they have the past two years, it will be extremely tough to pull one out in East Lansing.

I do think Michigan will go into Columbus at season’s end and pull off a big win, leaving a three-way tie atop the East Division, but Michigan State will get the nod into the Big Ten Championship game. Michigan will go to the Capital One Bowl. I never predict the outcome of bowl games before the season because so many variables come into play about who the opponent will be.

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

Our predictions range from 8-4 to 10-2 with the Capital One Bowl being the most likely destination

I’m optimistic about this season and think this team will be very close to having a really special season that will surprise some people, but in the end it will come up just short, setting up big expectations for 2015.

Sam: My final prediction for the 2014 Michigan football season is as follows:

Record: 10-2, losses at Michigan State and at Ohio State
Bowl game: Wherever generic 10-2 Big Ten teams end up this season (too many to keep track of).

I think it will be a successful season overall that falls just short of the ultimate goals of conference and national championships. Michigan State’s defense should be able to wreak havoc on the offensive line yet again, and though Ohio State will be without Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller all season, their backup will have enough time to gel by the end of the season that the Buckeyes will edge the Wolverines once again at home.

Derick: I think Michigan’s season should be pretty straightforward. The Maize and Blue are great in Ann Arbor, so an easy home schedule should translate into seven wins. But tough road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State make me shudder, and Brady Hoke’s resume on the road should turn all three games into losses. Michigan should take care of Northwestern and Rutgers on the road, giving it a 9-3 record for the season. Two Big Ten losses isn’t going to cut it for a trip to Indy, so Michigan will end up in the Capital One Bowl. Could Michigan win every single game on its schedule? Absolutely. But until fans see this team play solid football, there’s little reason to believe that more than nine wins are on tap.

Josh: My heart wants to be optimistic but my gut says this team’s lack of sufficient development spells doom in 2014. The offense has too many question marks for me to feel comfortable about having anything but very low expectations for them, which in turn puts more pressure on the defense to carry the team, again. The schedule does not set up in Michigan’s favor, with both MSU and OSU on the road (both of which are all but guaranteed losses in my mind). And as we’ve seen in the past Hoke’s teams consistently lose games they shouldn’t, mostly on the road (at Iowa in ’11, at ND and Nebraska in ’12 and atPSU, Nebraska and Iowa last year). They’ve gotten incredibly lucky against Northwestern the past two seasons and something tells me that luck may run out in 2014. Notre Dame, while losing several key players, is still on the road and that tilts the odds slightly in favor of the Irish. Utah could be a very dangerous trap game, sandwiched Miami (Ohio) and perennial bottom feeder Minnesota. Throw in the perennial inexplicable loss we’ve come to expect from Hoke’s Michigan teams and we’re sitting at 4 or 5 losses.

Right now I don’t see this team being better than 8-4, and not in the hunt for the East division. I see losses to MSU, OSU and then two more out of Notre Dame, Utah, Penn St. and Northwestern. They’ll still end up in a decent bowl because they’re Michigan, so something along the lines of the BWW Bowl like last year. Of course, I hope I’m completely wrong and the offense can come together and prove me horribly wrong but I won’t hold my breath.

Joe: I am predicting a 9-3 record for the Maize and Blue with losses at MSU, Northwestern and Ohio. Don’t ask me to explain the Northwestern loss, I just have a bad feeling. This will put them in the Outback bowl on Jan 1. 

Big Ten Media Day Quotes: Gardner, Clark, Ryan, Hoke

Monday, July 28th, 2014


Earlier this afternoon, we posted the full transcript from Brady Hoke’s 15-minute podium session. Shortly after that, Hoke and Michigan’s three player representatives — Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, and FrankClark — met with the media at individual podiums, allowing an opportunity for further questions in a smaller group setting. Here are some select quotes from each of them.

Devin Gardner

Gardner(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Have you reflected on last season?
“Definitely. I feel like I know what I accomplished last year. As my first time starting I feel like I accomplished a lot. I had a lot of success, a lot of adversity, but I feel like I battled through it. I continued to fight. I was there when my team needed me. Coach Nuss always says, ‘the quarterback’s always there, no matter what’ and I feel like I was always there for my team when I could and I did what I could. “

 Even though you lost to Ohio State, everybody appreciates the performance. Did anyone reach out to you after that game?
“Charles Davis was a big one and Eddie George reached out to me. A lot of different people – Archie Manning. It was great. Even though it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, being able to fight through something like that is big when it’s for your team and the fan base, but it doesn’t really matter if the fans appreciate it. My teammates appreciate it and they know what I went through and I’m excited to be able to fight with my teammates.”

What did Eddie George tell you?
“He just told me that I had a great game. He was excited. We built those relationships at the Manning Academy two years ago and he’s really excited to see the way I fought, the way that I played in that game. That’s pretty much it. He also said his sons are big fans, so that’s pretty cool.”

Are you excited to be in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan State?
“Our mentality this year is just to take every game one at a time and don’t treat other games as bigger games than some other games, and don’t discount anyone either. Obviously, as our rivals, and now they’re in our division, it will be a little heightened intensity during those games, but until we get to those we can’t see. I’m sure they’ll be really excited and pumped up to play us too, but we’re going to bring everything we have and we’re going to play as hard as we can.

Can you talk about Coach Nussmeier and what he brings to the table that Michigan fans haven’t seen in the past?
“I don’t know if it’s something we haven’t seen, but he’s his own coach. He’s very intense and he’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a player’s coach for sure. We can talk off the field and he helps me with football and sometimes it always comes back to some type of football lesson, so that’s really cool. He brings a different perspective as a guy that’s played NFL, played in college and excelled, coached NFL and excelled. He just brings a winning attitude and a successful attitude to the entire Michigan brand.”

What’s the hardest road venue in the Big Ten?
“I think Iowa, just because the fans are so close. You always try to block out the fans, but when they’re close enough to touch you, it’s hard to ignore everything they say, so Iowa’s kind of tough. But I feel like our stadium is a tough place to play as well.”

Who are some new guys that have really stood out?
“Freddy Canteen has done a really nice job for us on offense. He came in (and) I didn’t know anything about him until the first day of spring practice. He came out and made a lot of good catches and throughout the spring he’s been really consistent in making big plays, and being accountable and being there when we need him.

“On defense, I like the way Jabrill Peppers is competing. I don’t know yet what he can do on the field, and as far as knowing the plays and knowing where you need to be, and we haven’t put on the pads. But from an athletic standpoint and a competitive standpoint, he’s one of the best competitors I’ve seen in the freshman class.”

Who has stepped up defensively?
“Joe Bolden. He’s always been a pretty vocal leader. He’s a very high energy, high intensity guy. I really enjoy seeing him play. Sometimes he treats us like we’re the other team, on offense, but it’s great to see. Coach Hoke always says – any coach will say this – you would rather have to say ‘whoa’ than ‘attack’. I feel like that’s great for him that he’s always in attack mode. I’m really looking forward to seeing him this year.”

Is Bolden too intense?
“No, no, no. We can’t say too intense. We don’t want to say that. He is very intense in practice. He hits us – I mean, he doesn’t hit me, quarterback’s off limits – but he hits really hard in practice and he gives it everything he has like it’s his last play, and that’s how it should be.”

Are you excited about Ty Isaac joining the team?
“I haven’t seen him yet. I met him when he was a recruit. I hosted him when he came for a visit, but I haven’t seen him this summer or anything like that. But if he’s going to be a part of our team we’ll welcome him just like any other teammate. He’s not going to be more special or less special than anyone on the team. Whether he’s a walk-on guy or a scholarship guy, we treat everybody as a teammate and as a brother, so he’s welcome into this brotherhood. When I get a chance to meet him he’s going to be treated as such.”

Does the uncertainty of the offensive line make it harder for you?
“My job is to encourage those guys, encourage every guy that’s out there, whether they’re going to start, or who’s going to play. My job is to encourage them and for me to work on myself as a consistent quarterback. It’s not my job to be like ‘who’s going to play’ or ‘what’s going to happen with those guys’. I’m just encouraging everybody, having dinner at my house, inviting them over, and continuing to work on being a great quarterback.”

Frank Clark

Frank Clark(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Who is the toughest player you’ve ever gone against?
“The toughest guy I ever went against, who was here last year, is Taylor Lewan. I mean, I don’t really see another offensive lineman that was really close.

Who is the toughest you’ve gone up against on this year’s team?
“It’s weird because I’m the old one. I’m used to being the younger one. I’m used to going against Taylor every day. This year it’s like I’m the old one. I guess if you flip that around you’ll have to ask the younger players who’s the toughest to go against on the defensive line.”

Who has stepped up on the defensive line?
“Man, we’ve got guys like Taco Charlton, guys like Henry Poggi, guys like Maurice Hurst, Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry. These are guys that are younger but have experience. When you have a young, experienced defensive line, the possibilities are limitless. We have a defensive line unit that has very good players, it’s almost like having a first team two times. So when your first team goes out, when Frank Clark needs a break, or Brennen Beyer needs a break, you can send the next man in. You can send a Mario Ojemudia in. You can send a Lawrence Marshall in, who’s a freshman. You can send a Taco Charlton in and it’s going to be like having your first team stay on the field.”

How tough was it to get over the Ohio State loss last year?
“It was tough. Every loss is tough. But at the same time it was a close loss. I believe it was 42-40. It was a tough loss and it was a loss that we didn’t really expect. Every game you go into playing against Ohio, that’s one game, without being confident or without being cocky, that’s one game that you expect to win, being at Michigan. You know it’s going to be a hard game, but it was hard. It just gave us that extra fire and that extra energy in every workout through the winter, through the spring, and through the summer.”

Jake Ryan

Jake Ryan(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Will playing Maryland and Rutgers feel like conference games?
“Now they’re a part of the Big Ten and I think it’s going to be great for us and great for the conference. It’ll be interesting.”

How important is it to be the better program in the state of Michigan?
“We’re both great programs, we both have great coaches. It’s just where we are on the map. It’s not who’s better, who’s worse.”

Why would you not be concerned about being the better program?
“I mean, it’s a rivalry game, it’s one of the biggest games, but we’re focused on Appalachian State. I’m not going to focus on Michigan State right now.”

Is one of the new Big Ten divisions better than the other?
“I think they’re both great divisions and I think they’re both going to do very well.”

Do you guys have a loop running of the 2007 Appalachian State game?
“No. They’re a whole different team and we’re a whole different team. We’re going to go into that game like we prepare for every other game, so it’s going to be a fun game to play in.”

How is the offense shaping up?
“I think Devin’s running really well. He’s running the offense really well. Coach Nussmeier has been doing a great job with the guys. Devin has gotten guys in the film room, coaching them up on things they’re doing wrong, so I think it’s going to good and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Will it look like a different offense?
“I think it’s the same offense, but it’s just a matter of the guys coming in and doing their thing. Like I said before, Devin’s been doing a great job running it.”

On Joe Bolden
“Joe Bolden is a great player. He knows what he’s doing, very smart player. Joe’s always there and if I need help, or anyone else needs help, Joe’s doing his job.”

Is there a freshman that has stood out?
“All of the freshmen have really stood out. Everyone has different character, everyone has been doing their job, going through the runs and workouts great.”

Brady Hoke said let’s not anoint Jabrill Peppers yet, but Devin said he’s pretty special…
“He’s a good player. I mean, he’s very athletic, brings energy. But I think there are a lot of freshmen that do that as well and it can’t just be one guy. It’s got to be all of them.”

How has Jabrill tempered the expectations?
“He’s keeping to himself and he’s going through the workouts, going through everything else like every other guy.”

Is there a part of you that, despite all the hype, says Jabrill needs to earn it?
“Every single guy has got to earn it on the field. Every single guy has got to do their job in order to play.”

What do you think of the pictures he posts of his abs?
“Hey, that’s not my…I try to stick to golfing pictures, stuff like that. He can do whatever he wants.”

What does it feel like to watch Ohio State go 24-2 and Michigan State win the league the past couple years?
“I’m not focused on those teams. I’m focused on what we need to do as a team our first game against Appalachian State. It will be a really fun game to play.”

What do you need to do to get ready for Appalachian State?
“Every single day, take that step forward that you need to take. Technique, fundamentals, the game of football. And do it every single day.”

Did you talk to former players about the Appalachian State game?
“I have not. Nope. Whole different team.”

How do you keep that mentality that it’s a big game?
“Every single game’s a big game. Every single game. We prepare for every single game.”

Did you seek out any advice from middle linebackers in the NFL about the position switch?
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot of tips, talked to a lot of guys. Jarrett Irons is a great guy to talk to, but everyone’s pushing me. Coach Mattison is the greatest coach you could have. He knows everything about the position, so just going to him and talking is great.”

Will the switch to middle linebacker allow you to play more instinctually?
“It’s a little different. But a lot of positions are instincts, but there are always those fundamentals or techniques that you need to play with every single play. I mean, some of it is instincts, but you also need those things.”

What was the offseason like?
“Very good offseason. I thought we did really well, prepared really well. Runs and lifts were great.”

Was it any different from previous years?
“A little different because I was older, leading the guys. There’s different leaders out there, but I think it’s great and I think it’s great for our team.”

When installing the new offense, how long did it take for them to figure it out?
“They were figuring it out the first day they got it. They were running on us, they were doing well.”

How have you seen Coach Hoke evolve over the past few years?
“Coach Hoke has been the same guy ever since I met him. Hard-nosed, tough, you can always talk to him, go into his office. If you have a problem, bring it to him. He’s going to be the same guy every single time and I love that about him.”

Brady Hoke

Brady Hoke(Justin Potts, M&GB)

How close is the Big Ten to winning a national title?
“I don’t know why they couldn’t this year. A team comes out of here as champion, why couldn’t they? Now, I don’t know these other teams. I mean, when we vote on this stuff, I don’t know them. I don’t know who they’re playing…Wofford – nothing against Wofford – but I mean there are nine conference games that we’re going to end up playing.”

Why do you think it has been so long since a Big Ten team won it all?
“I can’t believe it.”

Do you feel comfortable turning over the postseason selection process, versus before when the coaches at least had a vote?
“How many of those coaches really did it themselves? I’ve got a guy who I talk to about it, but I mean, this group, the integrity these people have as far as the committee itself, it’s what the fans want. I don’t know if you all wanted it. I worry about the bowl system. I think that was always a good system. I worry about the semifinals in the Rose Bowl, how are you going to approach the Rose Bowl? It’s the greatest experience there is in America for kids. How are you going to do it? They’re certainly not going to go out and stay for 10 days and go to Lawry’s two nights before, whatever it is. It’s not going to happen. It’s a game. And I’m sure the Sugar, when they’re a semifinal, all those things go away now.”

Do you address what’s appropriate with your freshmen?
“Yes, we educate them every day. We educate them to not embarrass themselves, what their grandma wouldn’t want to see out there. Why would you do it?”

Have you had any instances?
“Oh yeah. You’ve probably made some dumb decisions.”

You talk a lot about ‘this is Michigan’. Can you talk about the importance of this season for the program and for yourself?
“It’s not personal. Believe me. Nothing’s personal. It’s about Michigan and it’s about the program as you said, and it’s about the kids in the program.”

Big Ten Media Day Transcript: Brady Hoke (podium)

Monday, July 28th, 2014


Hoke at podium

Day one of Big Ten Media Days is in full swing and Brady Hoke was the fifth coach to take to the podium on Monday morning. He delivered an opening statement and then answered questions about Jabrill Peppers, the offensive line, the competition for positions, Ty Isaac, and more. Below is the full transcript, as provided by the Big Ten and ASAP Sports.

Opening statement

COACH HOKE: We’re all excited for another season to get started and looking forward to the start of fall camp on Sunday. Our football team has come together this summer and worked very hard. I think they’ve worked hard and I think a lot of that is the foundation that’s been laid over the last three years and the depth that we have on our football team, it’s as competitive as a team that I’ve been around at all positions.

And I think that is exactly what, as Michigan, the leaders and the best, we should have. And so the way they’ve come together, the things they’ve done, we’re excited about. You never know what kind of team you’re going to have until the season’s over.

But the one thing I can tell you, that we’re encouraged by the qualities we have seen from our football team and throughout the spring and throughout the summer. Again, I believe the foundation has been laid. And you’re going to talk with three of our great representatives in Jake Ryan, Frank Clark, and Devin Gardner who have represented Michigan in a positive way.

We’re excited for August. We need to have a good August camp. And I think every coach in here will tell you that. You need to stay healthy, but you better be competitive and you better be good. And you better have a great camp. And so excited about that coming up.

We’ve got a great schedule. Okay. It’s a good schedule. But the schedule starts on August 30th with Appalachian State, and that’s where our focus will be, because you can’t win all your games unless you win the first game.

And expectations at Michigan are what they are and what they should be. They’re high. And so we’re excited about getting that started.

Staff-wise, Doug Nussmeier, who has come in and done a tremendous job offensively, came in with a championship pedigree, came in with a pedigree of molding quarterbacks. And what I’ve seen, and his track record speaks for itself, but it’s not just something that speaks for it, he’s doing it on a daily basis.

The moves that we made in the secondary and on defense, allowing Coach Mattison to be more involved from the middle of the defense instead of up front only has been very positive.

The movement of Jake Ryan to the inside of our defense has been very positive. I think Roy Manning coaching our corners and Curt Mallory coaching the safeties, because of the variables with the offense you face, I think has been something very positive for our football team and positive for our players.

Last, and I’ll take questions, we’re very proud of who we are, and we will continue to be proud of what kind of young men, student-athletes we have at Michigan.

Q&A

I just want to know, back in June, you had done the interview I believe with Bonnie Bernstein talking about Jabrill and the fact that he would come in at nickel. You’ve had the summer; you’ve probably talked to some of your players about what they’ve seen out of him. Is the plan still to play him at nickel or safety or corner when you open fall camp?
“That hasn’t changed. The plan hasn’t changed. I think we’ve got to be careful about anointing any true freshmen starting their college career, but that’s where he will start.”

Your program has a very great storied tradition. Your stadium has a great storied tradition. On Saturday, I believe the big house is supposed to break the record for the highest attended soccer game in American history. That’s two of the biggest storied traditions of clubs. Are you going to take your team? Have you been involved with that at all or any –
“I’d like to be, but I won’t be, simply because our freshmen, that’s their first day coming in as far as some of the administrative details we need to take care of.

“But I think we’re going to break a record.”

You’re in the East Division. How daunting is that division? How do you think it kind of shakes out?
“I think it’s a great competitive division. How it shakes out, we’ll find out. But as far as the competitiveness of the division, and at the end of the day, you know, it’s whatweallwanttodo,andweallwanttodoiswe want to compete. We want to compete on every Saturday.

“So as far as we’re concerned, we’re looking forward to it.”

Coach, how far into fall camp do you anticipate going before determining an offensive line for the sake of consistency and seeing those guys play together as a unit?
“I think we’ll start camp with a lineup that we’ve come out of spring with, and that will be based some things on what has been done during the course of the summer and when you see the work ethic and all those things, but a lot of it will be based on coming out spring football obviously.

“So we’ll go through that lineup, but at the same time what will change it up every day a little bit to see where the pieces fit. But I wouldn’t say — take two weeks maybe at the most.”

Considering how last season ended, has the pressure become bigger heading into this year for you to perform?
“You know, why do you coach? I mean, why do you really coach? If we’re doing everything we can for 115 guys, sons on our roster, from the graduation, since we’ve been there, 69 of 69 seniors have graduated. That’s important.

“Because football’s only going to last so long. So the only pressure is every day preparing those guys for life after football. Competition, hard work and all that, that’s part of it. But socially and academically, that’s a big part of it.

“So when you talk about that, that’s the only pressure as a coach that I’ve ever felt – making sure we’re doing it for the student-athletes.”

We’re going into a new era with college football with the playoff in the ’14 playoff, last year the Big Ten kind of struggled in the marquee non-conference games. This year the list of them is top to bottom you play Notre Dame and Michigan State’s playing Oregon. How important for the Big Ten and its champion, whoever gets out of this conference, will it be for the conference as a whole to do better in those non-conference games?
“First and foremost, we’re very proud of the Big Ten Conference. Very proud of the schools and the competition and the way our teams play and how our schools from an academic standpoint graduate student-athletes.

“Do we want to win every game? There’s no question every guy who is going to be at this podium, they want to win every game. And when you talk about the non-conference schedule, we welcome those challenges. I know our conference does and I think our conference is going to play very well in those games.”

You mentioned about having as much competition at every position that you’ve ever been a part of or that you’ve seen in the foundation that you’ve laid there. So usually the first step toward narrowing the gap between where you are and where you want to be?
“You know what, ask that one more time because I missed some part of it.”

The competition, the amount of competition that you have at every — is that really the first step toward narrowing the gap from where you are and where you want to be in any place you’ve been in the past?
“Yeah, I think so. I think that’s always been part of it. We had a very good year in 2011, ’11-12. We played in the Sugar Bowl. But because of depth, Mike Martin played 82 plays as a nose tackle. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, because that’s playing a lot of snaps and that’s taking a lot of hits.

“But if it was today, Mike Martin would play 50 plays. So that’s what we have now.”

Michigan has a history of playing the MAC early on. What sort of relationship does that program have with the Mid-American where you can have those non-conference games scheduled so easily?
“Well, I think it’s always been a nice — I was head coach of Ball State and we played Indiana twice. We played Purdue twice. Played Michigan once. I think it’s great for the Mid-American Conference, which I have a ton of respect for, and I think it’s great for regionally for families. I think it’s both for both schools, and obviously you’ve seen the Mid-American Conference teams come in and play awfully well and beat some of the Big Ten teams.

“So I think it’s a great partnership because of the competitive base.”

You mentioned Doug and what he’s done so far. But where have you seen the difference that he’s made, tangible changes he’s made? And also as far as Peppers, when can we anoint him?
“Let’s anoint him when he does something, right? I mean, let’s see what he can do.

“What Doug has done, is I think when you watch the practice in the spring, you watch the tempo of the offense, you watch the physicalness every day that guys are playing with, I think that’s where it starts.”

Is there any update right now on Drake Harris’s health, and are there any players you expect –
“Drake Harris, he’s fine.”

Any players you expect will be limited going into camp?
“No, not yet, not that I can think of or that I want to share at this time.”

Curious if you know anything about Ty Isaac and his potential eligibility.
“As far as the hardship and everything, we don’t know of anything. We expect Ty to report on August 3rd, and we’re still going through the hardship with compliance and all those things.”

Could you talk about the last — in the foreseeable future, your match-up with Notre Dame this year, and is that a little more emphasized with your players this year?
“It definitely will be an emphasis, simply because it’s a national rivalry. It’s a shame that that series is over with, because of the national rivalry that it carried with it.”

They changed the divisions obviously in the Big Ten this year, Ohio State and Michigan now in the same division. Obviously that game means so much, but now as a division game with what you thought, were you happy to see that change made?
“Yeah, I mean as long as those two great programs, you know, with their storied history, are still playing.”page3image27128page3image27288page3image28056

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

Big Ten Media Days are upon us, which means two days of speeches, interviews, roundtables, predictions, and more, and Maize and Go Blue will be there to cover it first hand. For those watching at home — or tuning in from work — we’ve got you covered with a full rundown of what to expect.

Overview

This year marks the 43rd year of Big Ten Media Days. The event will be held at the Hilton Chicago on Monday and Tuesday. In attendance will be 42 players — three from each team — and all 14 coaches, in addition to Big Ten personnel and other special guests. The two-day event will conclude with the annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, which will feature an autograph session for all fans in attendance as well as more interviews and speeches. ESPN’s Rece Davis will emcee the Luncheon and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah will deliver the keynote speech.

Big Ten Network and ESPNU will air coverage of the event. Beginning at 9:30 a.m. CT, BTN will air the opening media sessions with coaches (schedule below), as well as BTN president Mark Silverman, College Football Playoff COO Michael Kelly, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. Gerry DiNardo and Rick Pizzo will anchor the network’s coverage, which will also re-air at 6 p.m. CT. BTN will also air a Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon special at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

ESPNU will air the 14 head coaches’ press conferences between noon and 3 p.m. on both Monday and Tuesday, as well as those by Kelly and Delany. Some Big Ten coaches will also appear on other ESPN shows, such as SportsCenter and College Football Live, throughout the day.

The schedule - Monday, July 28

Opening media session with coaches
Time Name School
9:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern
9:45 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Darrell Hazell Purdue
10:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Gary Andersen Wisconsin
10:15 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Tim Beckman Illinois
10:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Brady Hoke Michigan
11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Kyle Flood Rutgers
11:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Jerry Kill Minnesota
11:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. Mark Dantonio Michigan State
12:00 p.m. – 12:15 p.m. Bo Pelini Nebraska
12:15 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Randy Edsall Maryland
12:30 p.m. – 12:45 p.m. Urban Meyer Ohio State
1:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. James Franklin Penn State
1:15 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Kevin Wilson Indiana
1:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. Kirk Ferentz Iowa
Media session for BTN, College Football Playoff, and Big Ten
Time Name Affiliation
1:45 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Mark Silverman BTN President
2:00 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Michael Kelly College Football Playoff
2:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Jim Delany Big Ten Commissioner
One-on-one podium interviews
Time Name School
10:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald, Ibraheim Campbell, Collin Ellis, Trevor Siemian Northwestern
10:15 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Darrell Hazell, Raheem Mostert, Sean Robinson, Ryan Russell Purdue
10:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Gary Andersen, Melvin Gordon, Rob Havenstein, Warren Herring Wisconsin
10:45 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Tim Beckman, Simon Cvijanovic, Jon Davis, Austin Teitsma Illinois
11:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Brady Hoke, Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, Frank Clark Michigan
11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Kyle Flood, Michael Burton, Darius Hamilton, Lorenzo Waters Rutgers
11:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Jerry Kill, David Cobb, Mitch Leidner, Cedric Thompson Minnesota
12:00 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Mark Dantonio, Shilique Calhoun, Connor Cook, Kurtis Drummond Michigan State
12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Bo Pelini, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper Nebraska
12:45 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. Randy Edsall, C.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, Jeremiah Johnson Maryland
1:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller, Michael Bennett, Jeff Heuermann Ohio State
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. James Franklin, Bill Belton, Sam Ficken, Mike Hull Penn State
1:45 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Kevin Wilson, David Cooper, Nate Sudfeld, Shane Wynn Indiana
2:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Kirk Ferentz, Carl Davis, Brandon Scherff, Mark Weisman Iowa

As you can see, the Michigan coach and player interviews will happen between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and we will have news and reactions from this sessions afterward. You can watch Hoke’s session live at 10:30 on BTN.

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

One-on-One Round Table Interviews
8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. All coaches and players available
Autograph session
10:00 a.m. – 10:50 a.m. Coaches and former players sign autographs with fans attending the Luncheon
43rd Annual Kickoff Luncheon
11:30 a.m. Interviews and keynote speech, emceed by ESPN’s Rece Davis

Follow @maizeandgoblue on Twitter for live Michigan-related updates throughout the day and check back here for more coverage. You can also follow @B1GFootball for updates about every team in the conference and other happenings.

Predicting Michigan: The linebackers

Sunday, July 20th, 2014


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)

Friday, July 18th, 2014


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.