Brandin Hawthorne's 'heart of a champion' highlights competitive spring for Michigan linebackers
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Greg Mattison walked away from the Michigan football team's annual spring game Saturday with both optimism and question marks.
However, two things seemed very clear to the Wolverines' second-year defensive coordinator. He's got a ton of linebackers to choose from, and senior Brandin Hawthorne has no intention of quietly sitting on the bench next season.
"That linebacker thing," Mattison said Saturday, "it's going to be a heck of a competition before it's all done."
Michigan got extensive looks at several linebackers Saturday, and though one could make a case for a projected starting three entering next fall, the competition at each position is far from over.
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
Fighting through an elbow injury, Hawthorne made his presence known at both the weak-side spot and in the middle, despite being one of the smaller linebackers on the team.
Hawthorne grabbed an interception, spent plenty of time in the offensive backfield and closed things out in style by stonewalling Vincent Smith near the end zone to cap off a goal-line stand.
"He's doing a great job, he has a heart of a champion," Michigan senior inside linebacker Kenny Demens said of Hawthorne. "He may be a bit undersized, but I won't put it past him to go out and put the biggest guy on his butt."
Hawthorne -- who made 43 tackles in five starts last season -- firmly placed his name into the conversation at linebacker, but he's not the only one.
Demens fought through a thumb injury and a spring concussion, and not only returns as the team's leading tackler (94 tackles last season), but also hopes to become a louder voice in the huddle this season -- both on and off the field.
"I want to be the leader of the defense," Demens said. "I want to be the guy they can count on, not just to make plays, but to verbally speak up and get everybody going.
"As far as the front line and the back, (I want to lead), and that's what I want to accomplish."
From there, Michigan expects continued competition at the strong-side linebacker spot from Cam Gordon and Jake Ryan, two players Mattison talked highly of earlier this spring.
The likely leader on the weak side is sophomore Desmond Morgan, who was forced to leave the spring game early due to a leg injury.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke didn't get into specifics on Morgan's injury following the game. Healthy or not, Morgan will likely see more competition from freshmen Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden as fall approaches.
Both early enrollees got plenty of live action on film this spring, something Mattison says could be invaluable moving forward.
"Hopefully that will pay dividends and show (them) what (they) need to work on this summer," he said. "(That) makes this coming (to school) early be a benefit. Otherwise, it's just the fact that you're in school early."
Hoke still wants Michigan to be tougher up the middle, and Mattison says he wants more consistent physical play across the board.
"We've got a long way to go," Mattison said. "We've got to become a lot more physical and we've got to improve a great deal over the summer."
But no one ever mentioned anything about lack of depth at linebacker.
That seems to be anything but a question mark at this point.
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