Projected Starters (SAM, MIKE, WILL): Jake Ryan, Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan
Last year, Michigan's linebacking corps hovered somewhere around Pretty Good, but that's to be expected when you're starting freshmen (one a redshirt) at both the strong- and weakside positions. In 2012, Michigan returns its entire starting linebacking group headlined by senior anchor Kenny Demens.
By this point, you probably know Demens' game: a downhill, hard-hitting middle linebacker. MGoBlog is high on his coverage skills, but I'm not quite as certain he's a great coverage linebacker. While Demens is able to run with linebackers heading down the field, he struggles mightily in zone coverage. His ability to cover seam routes is a bonus, but his underneath coverage stuggles because of his lack of route recognition. A number of times over the last two years, Demens has been frozen by play action and has struggled to defend underneath passing routes. He completely blew his assignment once against ND last year and showed his hesitancy against an EMU jet sweep. The good news is that during both his sophomore and junior seasons, he's quickly corrected his mistakes.
The point is, the strongest aspect of Demens' game is coming downhill on blitzes and stuffing the run. I don't think he'll ever be an elite coverage linebacker, which limits Mattison's blitzing schemes a bit, but not enough to be a hindrance. This year, expect the same from Demens: stout against the run, good at wrapping up tackles, and a suspect cover guy. It wouldn't surprise me to see Demens pulled off the field occasionally on nickel packages to get a more fleet-of-foot linebacker on the field. Otherwise, Demens is the defensive anchor in the front seven.
Flanking Demens will be sophomore Desmond Morgan (weakside/WILL) and redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan (strongside/SAM). Ryan was the talk of the town following the 2011 spring game and delivered on that promise during his rookie campaign. Ryan finished 2011 with 20 tackles, 17 assists, 11 TFLs, and 3 sacks. His season wasn't without hiccups though. Against MSU, he got confused on a zone vs man coverage scheme negating a great blitz by Michigan, and he showed frequent issues early in the season maintaining the edge against the run. As the year progressed, those freshman issues worked themselves out and Ryan proved to be one of the most consistent impact performers on the defense. Expect Ryan to maintain or slightly improve his numbers from last year while almost eliminating those mental mistakes. If he experiences the kind of freshman-to-sophomore year spike that you generally see, Ryan should garner All-Conference consideration by the season's end.
At the weakside linebacker spot will be Desmond Morgan once again. Morgan, like Ryan, exhibited a lot of rookie mistakes in run support, letting people get outside of the defense for big gains, but overall, he had an impressive season for being a true freshman probably playing out of position (he's more suited for the downhill middle linebacker slot than the rangy, lanky WILL). Even with some early struggles, Morgan charted 26 tackles, 37 assists, 4 TFLs, and 1 sack last year. Like Ryan, expect those numbers to rise slightly while cutting out many of the freshman mistakes. Morgan will never be the prototypical weakside linebacker, so expecting much more out of him is probably out of the question, but he'll be a player that will be in the right position and make tackles when they head his way.
The Backups (SAM; MIKE; WILL): Cam Gordon; Joe Bolden, Mike Jones; James Ross, Brandin Hawthorne
For the first time in three seasons, Cam Gordon is not coming into the season being hyped to the moon at a new position. This is a good thing for both the team (his previous appearances did not go as planned) and Gordon himself (he's finally playing the position he's supposed to). If not for the breakout season by Ryan last year, Gordon would be a serviceable starter at the SAM position. As it is, he will likely moonlight on nickel packages when Ryan bounces down to a defensive end position and Michigan needs more coverage skills in the field. Gordon will likely appear in every game and make a few plays that make you think, "Wow why doesn't that guy play more?" By the end of the season, you'll just be glad that Michigan finally has a quality backup at some defensive position.
Coming off the bench behind Demens will be true freshman Joe Bolden and journeyman Mike Jones. Bolden comes in with a load of recruiting hype and has impressed during spring and fall camp. Bolden is known for laying the lumber on ball carriers and proved to be an adequate coverage guy in high school. He'll get plenty of snaps this year and the hope is that he can approximate Demens' production without too many rookie mistakes. Playing time against Alabama will probably be scarce, but the next few games should see Bolden engrain himself in the rotation. Mike Jones will continue to be Mikes Jones: getting essentially zero snaps barring injury.
On the weakside of the field, true freshman James Ross and Brandin Hawthorne will give Morgan rest when he needs it. Ross, like Bolden, is a touted recruit who came onto campus and quickly became the #2 at his position, surpassing an upperclassman. The man that now sits third on the depth chart is Brandin Hawthorne who made a few game-changing plays against Notre Dame last year but remains a tiny, inconsistent linebacker. You'll probably see Hawthorne on occasional nickel concepts, but otherwise, he's deep in the reserves. Unless Morgan gets injured and Ross proves to be untenable at the WILL position, Hawthorne will spend most of his season on special teams.
(I probably should've done a conclusion section for each of these previous but I didn't. The more I wrote here, the more it seemed appropriate.)
Like most positions, Michigan's starting linebackers should all be somewhere from good-to-great this year, but injuries could send the unit into a tailspin. The backups are recruits with solid pedigrees, but they're still just freshmen for the most part. Unlike other positions, the 2nd and 3rd stringers probably have more of a purpose in the structure of the defense than at other positions. You can easily see Gordon and Hawthorne coming into games on situational downs that better utilize their skillsets. With Mattison's schemes intended to get blitzing linebackers into the backfield, this unit will probably show up frequently in the box score and could be the most disruptive force the team has defensively. With a suspect pass rush from the defensive line, the linebackers are going to need to find openings and land Mattison's blitzes.