Monday, August 27, 2012

What to expect: Defensive Line 2012

Previously: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers, Offensive Line and Tight Ends

Defensive Tackle Projected Starters: Quinton Washington, Will Campbell
Perhaps the biggest question this offseason--certainly the question most frequently asked--was about the progress of former 5-star recruit Will Campbell. As the highlight of the 2009 recruiting class, Campbell drew effusive praise from just about everywhere. MGoBlog said thusly:
General Excitement Level: Very high. Ratings + offers = very high likelihood to be a multi-year starter and NFL draft pick.
Projection: Immediately into the defensive tackle rotation, probably behind Sagesse to start. Potentially works his way into a starting job by the end of the year; sophomore through senior year he should be somewhere between Watson and what Watson could have been if he was mean.
Unfortunately, things haven't exactly followed the script. Working under a bunch of incompetent defensive staffs for his first two years on campus, Campbell struggled with his technique, weight, and work ethic and rarely if ever saw the field. In his first three years, he has accounted for only 8 tackles, 11 assists, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 4 pass break ups (appearing in 17 games). For comparison's sake, in just his senior season, Mike Martin accounted for 20 tackles, 44 assists, 6 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks.

After jettisoning three starters from the 2011 defensive line including standout nose tackle Martin, Campbell enters his senior season as the guy on the defensive line. The good news is that Michigan doesn't need Campbell to be Mike Martin to have a great defensive line. The bad news is we don't really know what we can expect from Campbell on a down-to-down basis.

What this team needs from Campbell is an every-down nose tackle/3-tech DT that can hold up against the run and generate nominal pressure against the pass. Having a penetrating DT the likes of Martin is a luxury, not a necessity for great defenses. The pass rush from the defensive line should be generated primarily by the defensive ends (about which more later), not the inside. If Campbell can stay gap sound and hold his ground against double teams on the run, Michigan's experienced linebackers should be able to make the proper reads and tackle.

Of course, Campbell won't be alone up front. Flanking him, presumably at the nose tackle position if recent camp reports are to be believed, will be Quinton Washington, the 2009 offensive guard recruit who has seen effectively zero time in his career. Washington is a redshirt junior who has spent more time blocking on extra points than tackling people smaller than him. Defensively, he's amassed a whopping 1 tackle and 2 assists.

Because he's going to be a starter, the coaches have been pumping him up throughout camp, praising his abilities. At 6'4", 300 lbs, he won't be much of a slasher, but he may be able to hold his ground much like Campbell. As a position switch, leverage and technique remain a concern, but if he can stay sound in the middle, Michigan should remain stout against the run and rely on blitzes and the defensive ends for pass rush.

The Backups: Ondre Pipkins, Richard Ash, Matt Godin, Willie Henry, Chris Rock
Backing up the defensive tackle starters are a bunch of true freshmen and unproven recruits. The first two off the bench will likely be true freshman dwarf planets Ondre Pipkins and Richard Ash. Pipkins has the recruiting profile of an early contributor but at 6'3", 340 lbs, conditioning and weight are a huge concern. Pipkins likely won't see much time early in the year, but as the season rolls on and he spends more time in the strength and conditioning program, we may see him slim down and start to get snaps.

The other likely backup is Richard Ash, a former Florida commit whose offer was rescinded after he showed at a UF camp wildly overweight. Rich Rodriguez snapped him up shortly after that, and Ash has spent his Michigan career--wait for it--sitting on the bench and out of shape. Coming in as a redshirt sophomore, Ash has lost a considerable amount of weight and should probably see plenty of time on the field this year subbing in for Campbell or Washington, whoever is more in need of a breather.

Behind those, it gets even more tenuous with true freshmen Matt Godin and Willie Henry, both middling recruits lacking the size needed to be competitive. Barring injuries, at least one of these two will redshirt--likely the rail-thin Godin. Michigan also returns redshirt freshman Chris Rock who comes in way underweight at 6'5", 267 lbs. The point is, pray for health and competency from the starting defensive tackles because behind them is basically a straw house.

Defensive End Projected Starters: Jibreel Black, Craig Roh

After a breakout freshman year, starting strongside defensive end Gavin Rossdale Craig Roh has had a relatively disappointing career. With 7.5 TFLs and 2 sacks in his rookie campaign, Roh's numbers dipped in his sophomore year (5.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks; playing primarily as a linebacker [!!!]) and rebounded slightly in his third season (8 TFL, 4 sacks), albeit not living up to the hype created by his freshman year. When this year is over, looking at Roh's stat line will likely be a good indicator of how successful the Wolverine defense was.

With Martin and Ryan Van Bergen gone to the NFL, production from the defensive line is going to rest solely on Roh and weakside defensive end Jibreel Black. As a consensus four-star recruit and with three years of starting experience under his belt, Roh is the unequivocal leader of the defensive line, and the box score needs to show as much. Since Michigan runs a 4-3 under, the defensive line is naturally shaded toward the weakside of the line, forcing Roh into double teams against tackles and tight ends, but he has the strength and speed to still generate some pass rush. Against the run, he'll need to maintain the edge and not get pushed off the line against those double teams. At 6'5", 281 lbs, he probably has the size to do that.

On the weakside will likely be Jibreel Black, a poor man's Brandon Graham, right down to his jersey. Black has shown flashes of greatness in his first two years but has never really made much of an impact in the box score. Charting only 1.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks in his career, Black will need to start lighting up the backfield the way Graham used to. Fortunately, he'll have every opportunity to. While Roh will be busy sucking up double teams on the strongside of the field, Black will be getting one-on-one matchups against tackles. While not the best speed rusher, Black should be able to combine his speed and strength (6'2", 279 lbs) to get around or through opposing offensive tackles.

For Michigan's defense to maintain its level of play from last year, Roh and Black will need to combine for somewhere around 20-25 TFLs and 15 sacks. Fortunately, they'll have opportunities to do this. Both Greg Mattison's schemes (able to free up just about anyone on the defensive line) and Michigan's experienced secondary (which should increase the amount of coverage sacks we've seen from the defensive line in recent years) should enable the defensive ends to light up the score board.

The Backups: Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer, Mario Ojemudia, Nathan Brink, Keith Heitsman, Tom Strobel, Chris Wormley :(

Melanie Maxwell |
First off the bench to relieve Roh will be former walk-on Nathan Brink who saw some snaps last year. Brink has come in for a ton of praise from the coaching staff during camp but will be a noticeable downgrade from Roh. Brink won't bring the penetrating athleticism that Roh offers, but if he's able to hold up against the run (and the double teams that come along with them), Michigan's secondary should be able to survive without much pass rush. Behind Brink is redshirt freshman Keith Heitzman as well as true freshman Tom Strobel. Chris Wormley, a highly touted recruiting, suffered a knee injury that will keep me out for the entire season.

While the strongside defensive end depth is a little harrowing, weakside has come in for a fair amount of praise during camp and has the recruiting profile to match. Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark each saw time last season, with Clark producing one of the biggest plays of the Sugar Bowl, intercepting Logan Thomas on a pass rush to set up Michigan's second touchdown. But the first guy off the bench (at least according to most camp reports) will be true freshman Mario Ojemudia. At 6'3", 231 lbs, Ojemudia is probably too small to get serious playing time, but everyone has been raving about his motor and skills during practice. If he can bulk up during the season, chances are he becomes the primary WDE backup at the end of the season.

Don't expect too much from the defensive end backups. Getting to the quarterback will probably be tough with this personnel, so with the backups in, I'd expect more blitzes from Mattison in an effort to generate some pressure. If these guys can simply hold up against the run and maintain outside leverage, once again, we can expect the linebackers to clean up. Injuries to any position on the defensive line is spooky for this team's prospects, but at this point, there are at least highly touted recruits backing up the more experienced starters. 


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