Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mailbag: How 'bout them linebacker recruits?

Joe Bolden (#27) helps tackle Wes Brown in Thursday's Under Armour All-America Game
(image via Cincinnati.com)
 Magnus - 
This week there has been a lot of buzz about how well Joe Bolden is playing. Of the four incoming linebackers (all of which you list on your site as inside linebackers) I'm wondering how you see them fitting into the scheme and depth chart. More specifically: Demens is a solid multi-year starter who will anchor the middle next year and be replaced by someone the following year - who do you think is the best fit? Morgan is limited athletically but as a freshman proved to be a quality contributor and should only get better - do you see any of the freshmen threatening his starting spot next year or beyond that? Do you see any of these recruits changing positions to DE or OLB? Has Bolden's performance this week changed your rating of him? 
Also, could you maybe talk about the differences in physical traits that you'd want between the Will and Mike positions? My understanding is that the 4-3 under is pretty similar to a 3-4 defense and that both the MIKE and WILL are essentially classic middle linebackers. Is that true? 
Adam Gurnee, IL
Thanks for the question, Adam.  I list all four incoming linebackers as "inside linebackers" because in the 4-3 Under, there are two inside linebackers and one outside linebacker.  Against a base offense, both the WILL and MIKE playing between the tackles and are mostly interchangeable.  They essentially have the same responsibility against the run, although obviously offensive formations and plays change things a little bit.  If Michigan ran a 4-3 Over or a Tampa Two defense, then I would consider the WILL an outside linebacker and the MIKE an inside 'backer.  For further schematic explation, check out this post from last spring.

Both Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone have been recruited to play MIKE.  James Ross and Kaleb Ringer have been recruited to play WILL.

I believe the best fit to replace Demens in a couple years is Desmond Morgan.  Morgan is already 220-225 lbs. and a good height (in other words, not too tall) to take on lead blocks from fullbacks.  Brady Hoke clearly values experience (why else would Troy Woolfolk start for the entire season?), and I think that will give Morgan the upper hand in the fight for the middle linebacker job, even if a guy like Joe Bolden is hot on his heels.  I also think Morgan lacks the necessary athleticism to start at WILL for the next three years, because he's too slow to cover running backs and slot receivers in space.  He's a short-term plug at WILL, not a long-term answer, in my opinion.

I do not think Morgan's starting spot at WILL is etched in stone for next season.  He had a solid year but not a great one, and as I said above, his skill set isn't perfect for the position.  If incoming freshman James Ross can add just a little bit of weight, I think he has a decent shot at unseating Desmond Morgan or at least getting some snaps as a backup.  Ross diagnoses plays as quickly as I have ever seen a high schooler, and that's a key component of playing WILL in this defense.  The weakside 'backer is often unblocked or targeted on play action passes, so it's very important that he's an intelligent player.  I think that's why Morgan found time there as a freshman, and I think that's why Ross has a shot there, too.

I do not foresee any of these linebackers playing defensive end, but there is a possibility that Jenkins-Stone could turn into a SAM.  He's a tall, lean guy and if he can get in the weight room and pack on some pounds, then he could be an attacker in the mold of Jake Ryan.  However, depth is needed at middle linebacker, so my guess is that he stays there, at least for a couple seasons.  Bolden is a talented kid but has less position flexibility, so if Jenkins-Stone presses for playing time, then I could see him playing SAM to get all the talent spread out among the three linebacker positions.


  1. Magnus-

    Along these lines I am wondering about Cam Gordon next year and where you think he might fit?

    I was pretty impressed with him once he moved to LB two seasons ago but the injury obviously hindered him last season. I am wondering if there is an opportunity for him to slide in at Desmond Morgans position?

    He has good size and is obviously more athletic than Desmond is and I think he could flourish under the new coaching. I am just wondering if there is something that precludes him from being a good fit for that position.

    I thought I read somewhere that he wasn't big enough, but he isn't small. Brandin Hawthorne played the position early in the season and Cam is bigger than him I think.

    Anyway, I was just wondering what someone with more knowledge of the nuances of the various positions could fill me in on this possibility.


  2. Great post. I think there's a rush by many to pencil recruits into each starting position into some sort of dream-team lineup for each class. It's likely that some guys won't pan out and others will just provide depth. Plus some could red-shirt, splitting up the class to some degree. Will it be Ringer or Ross starting at WLB? will it be Bolden or RJS at MLB? Answer - either, neither, or both.

  3. We also shouldn't overlook a guy like Antonio Poole, who redshirted to bulk up.

    The big mystery to me is Cam Gordon not getting even scrub time at the SAM. They made him sound like a potential star after spring ball.

  4. I could see RJS getting some looks at SAM. I suspect that the other guys may be ahead of him in diagnosing plays from an ILB spot, but not sure. Also depends on how he bulks up and how well the other guys are doing at ILB. Size at SAM/WDE does not appear to be a big issue for PT under Mattison. He put Clark and Ryan in edge rushing roles right off the start, and neither guy is particularly large.

  5. @ Anonymous 12:28 p.m.

    I think Gordon is too tall and lanky to play weakside linebacker. Weakside 'backers are essentially middle linebackers but smaller. They have to take on fullbacks and be stout against the run, and that doesn't really fit Gordon. I think too many people are confusing our 4-3 Under with a 4-3 Over or a 4-3 Tampa Two. The weakside linebacker is not the same type of player in all of those defenses.

  6. Judging by the limited film I’ve seen I would have guessed Kaleb Ringer would be a Mike/Mac LB. Bolden seems to have the skill set to play any of the three positions, although his height might hinder his effectiveness at Mac. I would say the same about RJS. Ross is very quick and smart, which makes him ideal for the Will position.

    Not sure what happened after the injury, but I have high hopes for Cam. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jake Ryan move to DE as he seems to have a knack for being disruptive. This may allow Cam to get in at Sam… Who knows.

    I am excited to see that UM is getting more athletic in these positions. And I’m glad we choices.

    One more thing, Desmond Morgan is going to be a lot like Jordan Kovaks, lacking athletic but does all the little things well. That type of player is hard to move out of the line up.

  7. One more thing, LOL. sorry for the long post.