Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 Spring Game Review - Defense

Senior WILL Brandin Hawthorne was Saturday's defensive MVP
I thought Craig Roh looked pretty darn good at strongside end.  The starter at weakside end was Brennen Beyer, who looks significantly bigger this spring than he did in the fall.  He looked like a bona fide weakside end instead of a lanky outside linebacker.  Beyer got a good pass rush a couple times.  Meanwhile, backup weakside end Frank Clark performed solidly and made a nice hit on fullback Joey Kerridge, whom Clark chased down out of the backfield.  I also thought backup strongside end Keith Heitzman looked pretty solid.  Based on how Nathan Brink looked last year, I'm going to posit that Heitzman passes up Brink this fall.  (Brink sat out the spring game, still recovering from his broken leg.)

William Campbell looked alternately solid and inconsequential.  He had one or two good  plays but he just didn't seem to be going hard all the time.  He should have destroyed walk-on guard Joey Burzynski (or so I would think) but instead got stalemated too often.  Maybe the coaches are teaching him differently than I would expect, but it all seemed to start with his stance, which needs work from my perspective.  Jibreel Black looks like a matchup nightmare for a lot of offensive guards, because he's too quick to handle with any consistency.  He looks bigger than last year (although the neck roll might have had something to do with that).  It also seems that Richard Ash has taken a step forward, and I was surprised by how big backup 3-tech Chris Rock has become.  I saw glimmers of hope there for some competent rotation players.  Quinton Washington and Ken Wilkins still didn't impress me.

I didn't pay much attention to Jake Ryan because we already know he's a good player.  Kenny Demens looked solid but unspectacular at MIKE.  Desmond Morgan left the scrimmage early after getting chopped down on a blitz; he limped to the sideline and was later carted into the tunnel.  Hopefully it was nothing serious.  Cam Gordon was Ryan's backup at SAM, and he's definitely put on some weight since last year.  Now he looks like a linebacker rather than a strong safety.  I don't think he'll surpass Ryan, but he's a very good backup.  It will be interesting to see what the coaches do with him in 2013 as a senior, because by that time, I don't think they'll be able to afford to keep him off the field.  Mike Jones and Joe Bolden played as backup middle linebackers, but neither one was particularly visible.  I saw a couple loafs out of Antonio Poole, which does not bode well for his immediate future.  Kaleb Ringer looked like he was in great shape and he made a nice tackle on Justice Hayes, but both of those guys seem to be a ways down on the depth chart.  The linebacker who impressed me most on the day was Brandin Hawthorne, who made a couple nice tackles for loss and grabbed a one-handed pick, albeit off walk-on Jack Kennedy, who floated the ball across the middle.  Hawthorne looked good at times last year, too, but he's another guy who loafs once in a while, and that seemed to get him in the dighouse.  The linebackers now have depth, which we haven't been able to say for several years.  I truly believe that Michigan has five starter-level linebackers: Ryan, Gordon, Demens, Morgan, and Hawthorne.

J.T. Floyd started over Terrence Talbott, despite reports that Talbott had overtaken Floyd.  That was somewhat expected.  Floyd looked solid but was never tested deep.  Blake Countess made a nice pick on a late Devin Gardner throw and also made a couple nice tackles.  The backup cornerbacks did not impress me, although I don't remember seeing much out of Talbott.  Maybe he's the third guy and we'll be fine, but I don't think Raymon Taylor and Delonte Hollowell are ready.  We know Courtney Avery is pretty solid at the nickel corner, and although he pulled up on a tackle, it seemed like he was trying not to submarine the leaping receiver; if it were a game, I would be disappointed by that play, but I think he was just trying not to hurt his teammate.

The starting safeties weren't really tested in the running or the passing game.  Jordan Kovacs should be good and practice reports suggest that Thomas Gordon has improved once again, but I guess we'll have to wait and see on him.  Backup free safety Jarrod Wilson needs to get stronger.  He did miss a tackle on Thomas Rawls that turned into a touchdown, but Wilson should be struggling through senioritis and ordering his prom tux right now.  Tackling 220 lb. running backs is a tough task for a safety so young.  Marvin Robinson looked solid as the backup strong safety and made a nice tackle for little or no gain in the run game.  As long as Robinson's legal troubles are behind him, I expect him to improve and be a good in-the-box safety.  He should be a good replacement for Kovacs after the latter graduates.


  1. Inherent to this type of event, you have to wonder how much credit the backup OL deserves for the play of the backup DLs. If there was a way for us to bet, I'd be willing to do so about Heitzman and Brink.

    I'm glad that Beyer looks bigger. He's received nothing but praise and every rumbling I've heard seems to point to the WDE position being solid this year. It's also good to continue to hear good things about Black. I don't think anyone is surprised. Sounds like things might be solidifying on the DL. You still have to wonder about the unit's production and consistency, especially against tougher opponents, but disaster isn't imminent despite losing 3 starters - good for the coaches, and us.

    The depth at LB is going to be extremely good, but that's what you get when you recruit more guys every year than there are positions on the field.

    There should always be young guys like Taylor and Hollowell who we hear good things about, but don't need to play a critical role till later in their careers. It's nice that the secondary has some depth, some veterans, and some young talent waiting in the wings.

    Generally, things appear to be returning to 'normal'. The number of positions that are obviously deficient is pretty much limited to TE and the second string OL. While we may quibble with the overall talent level at one position or another (like WR), things are better than they have been in years (going back through to the end of the Carr era where there were significant depth and talent issues at certain positions already.)

  2. Defensive MVP Brandin Hawthorn for sure received something south of a ringing endorsement from Mattison at Mattison's presser.

    It looked a little like it was upsetting Mattison's stomach a bit just discussing the kid.

    1. I'd have to go back again and look at the film from yesterday, but like I said before, I think Hawthorne's been in the doghouse a little bit. I don't think the coaches see him as an MVP, but as far as who made big plays in the spring game, I don't think anyone else can claim more activity - two tackles for loss and an interception in limited time (split amongst Morgan, Poole, Ringer, and Hawthorne) is pretty good production.

    2. That's why you can't make such big deal out of big plays. They're infrequent occurrences, subject to randomness and variability. The guys who do it consistently can be called 'playmakers' (e.g., Jake Ryan, Junior Hemingway) but sometimes people just get a little lucky. Brandon Herron last year 'made plays' against WMU and was hardly seen again. Courtney Avery seemed to have the ball come his way several times, yet remains a non-entity in the battle for starting CB. Some guys 'make their own luck', others just get lucky.

    3. Herron injured his quad and missed half the season due to it.

      Big plays aren't the only thing to look at. But if Hawthorne fails to fill his lane 5% of the time but makes an interception or TFL or 5% of the time, I'll take that trade-off.

    4. Point taken, but big plays go both ways. A missed play can mean a TD for the other side. A TFL isn't going to make up for that.

      Herron was 3rd string at the end of the year. Outside of that WMU game, he did nothing significant his entire career. We argued about this after the game, and I maintain it now, with an entire career's worth of evidence available to us - he wasn't a good football player, he just had a lucky fluke game.

      I'd be excited about Hawthorne if he was a sophomore. As is, I think he can be a quality back-up and be utilized situationaly as sub in risk-appropriate situations.

  3. Burzynski is a short dude, so for a guy who stands up too much like Campbell, he's going to be tough to overpower.

    I know it was bad that Morgan got sent off earlier, but that wild block was thrown by Fitz, who wasn't doing that stuff last year. So, good thing, bad thing.

    I thought Demens looked as good as he ever has in coverage, which makes me feel a bit better.

    I get the feeling that Mattison's just irritated that Hawthorne's capable of playing at a high level, but doesn't always do so. As you say, "loafing."

    1. @David

      I get the same sense about Hawthorne. He's got great speed/athleticism but has rarely seen the field. We saw him make several plays against Notre Dame, and look great while doing it, but then he gets beaten out by a true freshman who wasn't yet a real good player. It would seem that, as a senior, the coaches patience with him has worn thin.

  4. Couple of comments:

    * I enjoy seeing back-of-the-class (in terms of ratings) recruits like Heitzman and Thomas Gordon become meaningful contributors.

    * Hawthorne is an odd player (physically and behaviorally) and someone I consider a true legacy of the RichRod years (for better and worse).

  5. With Campbell's play, how worried are you about this season? For me, a good championship team should have 8 solid DL players ready to rotate in. We have 3: Roh, I'm counting Black, and Clark/Beyer combine to 1, maybe 4 when Pipkins gets here. The only reason our back 7 play looked any good last year was because we could generate some decent pressure with an above average line. Not Exceptional, just above average. This year, I feel we're slipping below mediocrity. What are your thoughts, Magnus?

    1. Depends on what you mean by "solid." To me it seems your definition is "proven quality at other positions and/or highly rated freshmen" That doesn't seem like a cogent definition to me.

      FYI, neither MSU nor Wisconsin last year had 8 solid DL rotating in. Ohio State...maybe.

      Our back 7 will look pretty darn good this year even without a ton of pressure, I'd wager.

    2. How worried am I about the season? I'm not worried about the season yet. I'm not sure how the other teams on our schedule will look. Other teams have weaknesses, too.

      Am I worried about the defensive line? Absolutely. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and we won several games by dominating the line of scrimmage last season. Nebraska and Illinois come to mind there. With Denard and Toussaint in the backfield, we might be able to outscore people. But Mike Martin is gone, and I don't think Campbell is going to approximate him. The thing is, though, that Heininger wasn't anything special, and Black should be better. So we're losing some talent at nose tackle (the more important of the two DTs) but improving at 3-tech.

    3. Heininger 'wasn't anything special' but was still significantly better than Campbell and all the rest of the options. That's what concerns me. The hope is that those returning people get better by fall. A reasonable assumption to make in the case of Campbell, Black, and Roh. They won't be as good as the departing seniors, but hopefully they won't be awful either.

      I don't know how silly this is, but I think we might be in for an upgrade out of the WDE position. Roh's fine, but is not a playmaker. I expect more of that from Beyer and Clark.

      Still, the unit is much smaller as a whole. I worry about getting overpowered by the more talented teams we'll face. Depth will also be an issue, since Ash, Washington, Wilkins, Rock, etc. aren't getting much praise. Maybe some freshman will help.