Another year, another debilitating injury to a key player. Last year it was Blake Countess and, to a lesser extent, Denard Robinson. In 2010 it was Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd. This year it's redshirt junior Jake Ryan, who had 88 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks, along with 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and 3 pass breakups from the outside linebacker position last year. He tore his ACL at practice on Tuesday morning, and with the season less than six months away, chances are slim to none that he will be fully recovered for the beginning of the year, and perhaps not for the entire season.
The effects of Ryan's loss will be significant. He was the starting SAM linebacker the past two seasons and in 2012, he led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. On passing downs he often put his hand down as a defensive end and rushed the passer. He's a whirling dervish with a nose for the football and one of Michigan's lone pass rushing threats; on top of that, he was an emotional leader and one of the guys who could be counted on to make a play or two a game to spark the defense. Yours truly picked him as the most underrated recruit in the 2010 class, and that was certainly proving to be true prior to the injury.
The question is: What does Michigan do now?
Option #1: Fifth year senior Cameron Gordon would presumably move into the starting role. When healthy, he's been the backup to Ryan for the past couple seasons. The 6'3", 233-pounder made 17 tackles and 3 tackles for loss in 2012; as a safety and linebacker in 2010, he was a Second Team Freshman All-American with 77 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, and 2 fumble recoveries. He's a capable player but without the star quality of Ryan.
Option #2: Move junior Brennen Beyer from weakside end back to SAM. Beyer played outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2011, making 11 tackles as a backup. He has recorded just 1/2 a tackle for loss in two seasons and forced just 1 fumble, so he's not much of a playmaker. But if he could shed a few pounds from his bulked-up, 6'3", 254 lb. frame, he could be serviceable at his old position. Meanwhile, Michigan has junior Frank Clark and sophomore Mario Ojemudia at weakside end, both of whom played last year and have flashed big-play ability at times.
Option #3: Move sophomore Joe Bolden from middle linebacker to SAM. Bolden is a 6'3", 222 lb. kid with some playmaking ability who has the height and length to hold his own at SAM, but he would need to add some weight in order to hold the edge. He had 31 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 sack as a freshman in 2012. In the meantime, Michigan has a decent selection of players to man the inside linebacker spots, including my presumed starters there (Desmond Morgan and James Ross), fifth year senior Mike Jones, redshirt sophomore Antonio Poole, or redshirt freshman Kaleb Ringer; a couple freshmen will arrive in the summer (Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray).
Option #4: Install a freshman backup. Gedeon projects as an inside linebacker, but McCray is a bit of a middle linebacker/outside linebacker tweener. He's listed at 6'3", 225 lbs. on his recruiting profile, but he might be a little bit smaller than that. Still, Beyer played the position as a freshman, and he too was about 6'3", 225 lbs. at the time.
Option #5: Move sophomore Mario Ojemudia from weakside end to SAM. Ojemudia is 6'3", 244 lbs. and played a chunk of time in 2012, notching 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. This would likely be contingent on keeping Beyer at weakside end, since Michigan can't really afford to move two of their three experienced weakside ends to linebacker.
Option #6: Do something wild. Lightly regarded redshirt junior Jordan Paskorz was an outside linebacker before moving to tight end last spring, but he has played in just one game so far. Sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone is just 6'2" and 215 lbs., and he balked at the idea of playing SAM in the hopes of being a middle linebacker, but the coaches could force his hand. Incoming freshman Wyatt Shallman was recruited as a running back, but he played defensive end in high school and could see a chance for playing time at SAM once he arrives on campus.
Option #7: Just say "F*** it" and run a nickel the whole time. In Greg Robinson's inaugural defense in 2009, he put converted safety Steve Brown at SAM, and Brown had a decent season despite being around 210 lbs. Perhaps someone like Marvin Robinson could have success in a similar role.