Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where are they now?: The 2010 defense

Previously: The 2010 offense
Though Michigan's offense has been nigh unstoppable save for their own self-inflicted wounds, Michigan's defense is just as bad as everyone expected it to be before the season. When most of your lineup is made up of true/redshirt freshmen and walk-ons, you're bound not to be very good. But at times this season, it looks like the defense has regressed from the already unthinkably bad performance they turned in last year. Let's just get this over with:

Defensive line. The best unit on Michigan's defense has unquestionably been the defensive line, thanks in no small part to Hulk machine Mike Martin. Martin is proving himself to be one of the best nose tackles in the country and is living up to every bit of hype he received heading into the season. Without him, Michigan's defense crumbles, something we've seen with his recent time on the sidelines nursing an injury. Flanking Martin are a pair of league average defensive ends in Ryan Van Bergen and and Greg Banks. Van Bergen has been the more effective of the two, but he hasn't been particularly noteworthy. This unit is good solely because of Martin. In fact, the defense is only really functional because of Martin.

The defensive line backups have proven themselves worth little more than to give the starters a breather. A serious lack of production means the continued health of the starters is critical. If Martin or Van Bergen go down for any length of time, the defense will struggle even worse than they have already. The only real bright spot is true freshman Jibreel Black, who has been deployed primarily as a pass rusher (and occasionally in a stand up linebacker role). Black won't be a real impact player this year, but he could very likely turn into one next year. 

Linebackers. MGoBlog has led a fairly extensive crusade against the linebackers for the last three years and for good reason: they're not very good. Obi Ezeh has officially been supplanted by Kenny Demens as the starting middle linebacker. Ezeh has been flamboyantly bad to anyone who watches the games, and Demens provided a much-needed lift from that position--although I still feel he was a bit shakier in pass coverage than MGoBlog.

Jonas Mouton has been the most productive linebacker this year, recording a number of interceptions on nice zone drops. However, he's shown flaws in run defense and is best described as inconsistent. On the other side of Ezeh is converted linebacker/defensive end Craig Roh. Roh's skillset is not quite as suited for linebacker as the coaches want to believe. His coverage skills are sub-optimal and attacking the line of scrimmage from the linebacker position has been underwhelming. Fortunately, he has the build to also drop down into a defensive end position, which he has been deployed as more frequently in the last two weeks. With his success as a pass rusher in his freshman year, the move to linebacker (especially as we see how he struggles in pass coverage) was a peculiar one.

The other two hybrid linebacker roles (a linebacker/safety position) have been played by Jordan Kovacs on one side, and a mix of Thomas Gordon and true freshman Carvin Johnson on the other. Kovacs, who this blog was firmly against last year, has established himself as a non-liability--the biggest compliment I'm comfortable giving him. Kovacs has been primarily assigned to linebackers in pass coverage on underneath routes, which he has done a good job defending. On the rare occasion that a team sends a linebacker deep on him, however, he's been thoroughly beaten. But Kovacs makes smart plays and is good in run support. He is not a liability anymore.

On the other side is the Carvin Johnson/Thomas Gordon platoon. Johnson was the started at the beginning of the season before an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Gordon. But Johnson has returned and reclaimed the starting role. Neither of these players have excelled. They've both been responsible for some blown coverage, and both have been pancaked on various running plays. That said, they've also shown flashes of being able to cover receivers in man coverage, increasing the flexibility of the defense. Since neither have separated themselves as the clear starter, I expect we'll see Johnson as the starter for the rest of the season, barring injury.

Secondary. I mean, what do you want me to say that you don't already know? The transfers of Vlad Emilien and Justin Turner, and the unfortunate loss of Troy Woolfolk in a non-contact injury have left this position group wholly devoid of talent. JT Floyd is your starting cornerback alongside James Rogers. While Floyd has shown flashes of functionality, the fact that Rogers is still on the field is a referendum against the freshman cornerbacks that Michigan recruited this year, primarily the highly rated Cullen Christian.

Speaking of the freshmen corners, Courtney Avery has seen the most time off the bench, coming in on the nickel package and to relieve Rogers. Avery has shown a tendency to vacate his zone in pass coverage, but I think he's taken a little too much heat for his play. I'm encouraged by his performances and think he'll shape out to be a quality contributor next year when Michigan gets Troy Woolfolk back and Floyd continues to progress as a starter. The other corners are the aforementioned Christian and fellow true freshman Terrence Talbott. Christian has shown a lot of technique issues in pass coverage, and Talbott has been almost completely non-existent in his playing time, which is just about the best thing you can say about a defensive back, especially on Michigan's roster.

Michigan's safety position has been the same barren wasteland that it was last year. The starter and seemingly only viable open has been wide receiver position switch Cam Gordon who has shown an inability to read passing plays, tackle, or cover receivers/tight ends. Gordon is the biggest liability in the defense, much like Kovacs last year. Michigan hasn't given up quite as many huge passing touchdowns as they did last year, but that's because the coaches are terrified of them and willing to give up 10-yard hitch routes to anyone who can complete a pass. Our only hope is that true freshman Ray Vinopal or Marvin Robinson find a way to supplant Gordon and prove to be remarkably better at all the things Gordon isn't any good at.

What does it mean for the future?
For the rest of 2010, it means Michigan's defense is not going to get any better. This is a bad defense with bad defensive players. But in the next few years, there may be hope. Michigan starts countless freshman and has only freshmen to back them up. If some of these players can live up to or out grow their modest recruiting hype, Michigan's defense could turn into something resembling functional. But you know all of that. For now, when Michigan's defense is on the field, your best bet is to pray for glaring offensive mistakes.


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