Will Campbell says Michigan's revamped defensive line not mismatched against Alabama
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan is breaking in a new starter at all four defensive line positions. That new-look front will debut against what coach Brady Hoke has called the best offensive line he's seen in the college game.
Alabama returns four starters on its offensive line. Three have received various preseason All-American considerations, and one, Barrett Jones, won the Outland Trophy last year as the nation's best interior lineman.
This is widely perceived to be Michigan's biggest matchup disadvantage heading into Saturday's opener against the No. 2 Crimson Tide (8 p.m., ABC).
Does defensive tackle Will Campbell agree?
"No," he said Tuesday. "I honestly believe we'll do fine, as long as we play our techniques and play like we're coached. Here at Michigan, we're tough, nose-to-nose, palm-to-palm, just hit-em-in-the-mouth defense."
The confidence is flowing.
But the concerns are real.
Michigan has lost starting defensive linemen Mike Martin, Will Heininger and Ryan Van Bergen. The lone returning starter, weak-side defensive end Craig Roh, has moved to the strong side.
Junior Jibreel Black spent the offseason preparing to play tackle, but was moved back to end about 10 days before the opener. Campbell will start at Black's tackle spot, and junior Quinton Washington is set to start at nose tackle.
The odd man out is sophomore Brennen Beyer, who was projected to start at weak-side end.
"Throughout fall, we saw some things we needed to change and people we needed to switch around to fit a better Michigan defense, and we did as such," Campbell said. "(Washington) earned the spot. He really had a good camp this year."
Basically, Michigan went for heft. The newcomer, Washington, weighs 300 pounds. Beyer weighed 252.
"What we’re looking for is getting the best four guys to be available to play inside," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "Q’s had a really good camp. Will’s had a good camp. So you kind of interchange those two.
"They both have to play the same position when they slide over, so it gives you an opportunity to hopefully make yourself stronger rather than just having a true nose and that’s all he can play.”
That should make Michigan more competitive against an Alabama front that averages 314 pounds. But the Crimson Tide's experience perhaps is more concerning.
Jones, right tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack are all first-team preseason All-SEC picks, and Anthony Steen started nine games last season at right guard. Those four have logged 95 combined starts.
The fifth starter, sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, played in eight games as a freshman before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. He was a consensus top-five recruit last year.
"No doubt it's the best offensive line I'll see in college football," Campbell said.
The Wolverines are 12.5-point underdogs against Alabama. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens is confident they can pull off the upset.
When asked for his biggest concern, though, he didn't hesitate.
"I would hope our (defensive) front seven can match their front," he said. "That’s what I really want to happen in this game. They have great receivers, obviously, and a great quarterback, but they like the run game.
"If we can get penetration and some push against their O-line, that’ll be key for us."
Campbell is confident the defensive line can do that. He said Washington had an outstanding camp, and that he had the best camp of his career.
The senior from Detroit is down to 308 pounds, after weighing 356 as a freshmen. That has boosted his endurance and speed, as well as helped him play lower to the ground.
That could be the key for him, after receiving criticism in the past for playing too high. That cost him leverage.
Michigan needs him to play well to have a chance against Alabama. There is, after all, "zero" room for error if the Wolverines are to pull the upset, Demens said.
"They’re a great team, they’re disciplined, they play excellent football, they have excellent players," Demens added. "Any mistake can cost us the game."