Technically speaking: Freshman defensive end Craig Roh is out to be Michigan's next great pass rusher
Deek Pollard didn’t know what to think the first time he met Craig Roh.
A hard-to-please former NFL defensive line coach, Pollard was hired last spring to work with the Michigan-bound Roh on the finer points of pass rush.
At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds and with a non-stop motor, Roh had undeniable talent, but Pollard wondered whether his new pupil’s laid-back nature would make him immune to hard work.
“I said I’m going to push the button early here and find out,” Pollard said. “I threw quite a bit of stuff at him initially and I did that intentionally. I wanted to be able to test him mentally, one, to see what he absorbed and what he didn’t, and two, so I could get on his ass and see how he would take that coaching.
“It was kind of a shock. One, he absorbed more than what I thought he would under normal circumstances, and two, there wasn’t any complaining, there wasn’t any (whining) or anything. The more I dished out, the more he wanted, and that’s the way it went.”
Three times a week for about a month, that’s the way it went.
Roh and Pollard together at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., watching tape, drawing up plays and drilling technique.
Pollard ran the two-hour-plus practices as if they were NFL offseason workouts.
“I treated him just like he was a player coming into one of my meetings at an OTA or a minicamp,” Pollard said.
Roh said they helped prepare him for college football.
In his Michigan debut last week, Roh started at the “quick” end position, made four tackles and combined with Ryan Van Bergen on his first career sack.
“He’s really given me an edge,” Roh said.
‘A handful’ to block Roh broke his own school record with 16 Â½ sacks last year at Chaparral, but like most high school players he was relatively raw when it came to technique. He watched more film more than most and knew some basic pass-rush moves, but nothing like what he learned this spring.
Pollard, who spent nine seasons in the NFL and coached collegiately at Boston College, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Florida State, introduced Roh to “six to eight” basic techniques - moves like chops and uppercuts, passovers and spins - with counters off each.
“If you’re going to be successful rushing the passer you got to have an outside move and an inside move, and you got to have a counter for each,” Pollard said. “Minimum. And you better have a third one for a change up. That’s pretty much what we did with him.”
Each day started with board work, where Pollard diagramed three blocks they’d work against that practice, the pass-rush moves to fend off each, and counters in case the move was defeated.
From there, they’d watch the blocks and moves on film, then walk through each in the classroom before heading out to the field for lineman drills. After a short warm-up, they’d practice each move at full speed with the help of some of Roh’s high school teammates, including current Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan.
Finally, they’d end with get-off drills and discuss ways for Roh to read his opponent.
“It could be an offensive lineman kind of flinching in his stance, it could be a guy moving his knee, it could be the guy rocking his (butt),” Pollard said. “If you’re going to rush the passer you got to get off, and if somebody farts you better be moving.”
Armed with that mountain of knowledge, Roh made a quick impression when he arrived on campus this summer.
He spent extra time in the film room learning Michigan’s defense, and on the field he held his own in one-on-one pass-rush drills against more veteran offensive linemen.
“He was a handful for those guys to block,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We thought, ‘Geez, he’s got that skill. Can he learn some of (the other) stuff?’
“But Craig’s very conscientious. He’s still a freshman so we know he’s going to make mistakes, but he’s whatever he is, 235, 240 pounds and in a year or so he’ll be about 250 and faster. Like I said, he’s a hard worker that wants to be great. He don’t want to be good, he wants to be great and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”
Anything but average Pollard saw the same drive in Roh in their month together.
When Roh was late for a training session and Pollard “chewed his (butt) to no end just like he was a player coming to one of my meetings,” Roh didn’t pout one bit.
And though some of the pass-rushing techniques were about as familiar than Latin, Roh learned them like a seasoned vet.
“To be good at anything - to be good as a writer, to be good as a carpenter, to be good as a plumber - you have to have a compassion for it,” Pollard said. “If you don’t have a compassion for it you’re just going to be pretty average. He has a compassion for football.”
To that end, Roh set his personal goals unmistakably high this year.
He wants to start every game as a freshman, and should be in the lineup when Michigan takes the field against No. 18 Notre Dame today. He wants to make the freshman All-America team, like defensive tackle Mike Martin did last year. And he wants to sack Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
That's not meant as a shot at Pryor or Ohio State, but rather a test of where Roh stands as a player.
“That’d be awesome,” Roh said. “He’s just really hard to catch and he’s kind of known for breaking tackles, so being able to sack him would just kind of prove that I can sack anyone.”
Dave Birkett covers the University of Michigan football team for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com