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Posted on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Michigan focusing on uncertain future of defensive line as bowl practices kick off

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan's Will Heininger (39) and Mike Martin celebrate a sack by Martin earlier this season. Heininger, Martin and Ryan Van Bergen are three senior starters on the Wolverines' defensive line that must be replaced next season.

Joe Tobianski |

The Michigan football team's defensive resurgence this year was rooted in the play of its front four.

When they provided pressure, the Wolverines were at their best. When they didn't, they weren't.

Linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were the beating hearts of this year's team, leading off the field as well as on it, and both could play at the next level. Will Heininger added a steady, veteran presence.

Each started every game this year. Each is gone next year.

The only returning starter next season will be end Craig Roh, making defensive line the position of greatest uncertainty for next year's team. In a lot of ways, the coaching staff will be back to where it started almost a year ago.


The defensive line is the one unit on the Michigan football team that will see considerable shake-up next season. A closer look:

Will Heininger (6-6, 295, Sr.)*
Mike Martin (6-2, 304, Sr.)*
Ryan Van Bergen (6-6, 288, Sr.)*

Richard Ash (6-3, 301, Fr.)
Jibreel Black (6-2, 260, So.)
Nathan Brink (6-5, 263, So.)
William Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.)
Frank Clark (6-2, 228, Fr.
) Chris Eddins (6-5, 265, Fr.)
Keith Heitzman (6-3, 251, Fr.)
Chris Rock (6-5, 267, Fr.)
Craig Roh* (6-5, 269, Jr.)
Alex Schwab (6-0, 241, Jr.)
Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, So.)
Kenny Wilkins (6-3, 280, Fr.)

Matt Godin (6-6, 270)
Mario Ojemudia (6-3, 215)
Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 325)
Tom Strobel (6-6, 245)
Chris Wormley (6-4, 255)

*-Starter. ‘Who’s new’ are players that have made non-binding verbal commitments to play at Michigan.
"I feel the same way as when we first got in here," first-year defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said of losing three senior stalwarts. "We knew (last winter) Mike had played a lot of ball, and Ryan played a lot of ball, but when we got the guys, they weren’t doing the things we needed them to do.

"To me, I think we’re no different going into this spring ball. We just got to develop the guys we had. When we got here, we felt like we had to develop guys like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger."

Michigan's defensive line dominated for much of the stretch run, a major factor in the Wolverines' 10-2 record and berth in the Sugar Bowl. They will play No. 11 Virginia Tech on Jan. 3 in New Orleans.

But it wasn't always so proficient. In fact, it struggled badly to open the season.

Montgomery said he expects to incur similar growing pains next year as he breaks in three new starters. That could be especially true at tackle, where the leading candidates for starting roles appear to be little-used Quinton Washington, inconsistent Will Campbell and a true freshman.

That's a significant drop-off from a player such as Martin, who was a second-team all-Big Ten selection this year and developed into an early-round NFL draft prospect.

But Montgomery likes those options, and he discussed them at length during a recent telephone interview with while on the road recruiting.

He said this week is paramount for next year's defensive line because the early bowl practices are spent working on fundamentals and cultivating younger players. The bowl game plan won't be installed in earnest until next week.

Coaching might be the biggest thing the young defensive linemen have going for them at Michigan, where head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also have expertise coaching the position.

And then there's Montgomery, a former Iowa star who is familiar with the Big Ten and, at a youthful 31 years old, has become regarded as one of the fastest-rising assistants in the league.

"There are always three sets of eyes on those guys, and there is a big emphasis on how they play," Montgomery said. "When they do something right, it's, ‘Hey, great job,’ pat on the back. And if they do something wrong, nobody misses it."

The threesome's investment in replenishing the defensive line talent begins this week. They already have a few options in mind of what that group could look like when they open next season with a marquee matchup against Alabama.

Quinton Washington

One name that continues to surface among reserves who could jump into a starting role is Quinton Washington, a sophomore from St. Stephen, S.C.


Quinton Washington

The 6-foot-4, 302-pound tackle has played sparingly in eight games this year, recording one tackle, but Montgomery said he already is one of the strongest players on the Wolverines' roster and has good raw talent.

The biggest thing holding back Washington from a spot in the rotation is consistency.

"There are days where it looks like he should be starting, and there are days when you can tell he’s inexperienced," Montgomery said. "His footwork needs to become more consistent on a daily basis."

Part of that inconsistency is a function of Washington's late addition to the defensive line, after beginning his career on the offensive side of the ball.

Martin is a good evaluator of Washington's makeup because the senior went up against him while he still played offense.

"He was a load to deal with over there, working hard with the scout team," Martin said.

Martin said the toughest part about Washington's transition from offense to defense is handwork and footwork, but added he's made "day and night improvement."

"The improvement that Quinton has made is obviously something not everyone gets to see, because he doesn't get a lot of playing time, but he's made huge strides," Martin said. "(Because of) the amount of time that Coach Hoke has been working with us, really one-on-one a lot, and getting us better, and Coach Montgomery, Quinton's done a great job."

Will Campbell

Big Will Campbell is as enigmatic as any player on Michigan's roster.


Will Campbell

The 6-foot-5, 322-pound junior tackle from Detroit came to Ann Arbor as a five-star recruit, but has yet to develop into the force many projected him to be. He's had a hard time becoming even a role player.

He had only one tackle all last year, and five in his career heading into this season.

Campbell, though, did improve under Hoke, Mattison and Montgomery. He cracked the rotation as a reserve and saw snaps in every game. He recorded 11 tackles and two sacks.

"When he plays with pad level, and uses his hands, and he goes -- when he gets off that ball with the mind-set that no one’s going to stop him -- he is as good as anybody," Montgomery said.

Campbell isn't limited by his physical tools. He's as big and strong as anybody on the team. But, he has struggled with his demeanor and consistency.

Montgomery said it is his job — one of his top priorities — to get Campbell on track.

"There’s been weeks of practices where he’s done that consistently, and there’s been other times when he’s been given consistent opportunities, and he doesn’t," Montgomery said. "So, that’s what I got to get out of him as a coach."

How can Montgomery do that with a guy who has underperformed so badly going into his senior season?

"You got to push, and you got to push, and you got to push -- and you got to push his buttons," Montgomery said, "and he needs to understand I’m not there to hurt him, I’m there to help him, and I think he understands that.

"Eventually, it’s going to become a reality for him and he’s going to say, ‘OK.’ He’s going to find that second gear, and he’s going to be like, ‘I should have been doing this the whole time.’"

Options at end

While Michigan is being gutted on the line's interior, there are a few options to consider on the outside.


Jibreel Black


Frank Clark

One question that likely will fester into fall camp: Will either Roh, who will be a senior fourth-year starter next year, or sophomore Jibreel Black be moved from weak-side to strong-side end to replace Van Bergen?

They both played well this season on the weak side, so splitting them could be a way of getting the best 11 on the field.

Montgomery's answer: "It could happen, but I’m telling you, Nathan Brink is going to be a good football player. To say anyone is going to pass him at five-technique (is premature)."

Brink was heralded throughout fall camp this year for his superior technique and coachability, and Hoke projected him to be a contributor this year. The sophomore has been quiet, though.

His biggest weakness is his weight, which hovered around 262 pounds this season. That's slight, as far as Big Ten ends are concerned, and the coaching staff would like him to bulk up to about 275 pounds.

"You better put your big boy pants on if you want to play five-technique in the Big Ten," Montgomery said. "That’s why putting the weight on for Nathan Brink is going to be big."

Frank Clark also will factor into the rotation at end. The freshman came on strong after the off week, becoming a contributor behind Roh and Black on the weak side in the season's final five games. He recorded five tackles.

If he continues to develop, that could enable a smooth transition if Roh or Black is indeed moved to the strong side.

"He made some mistakes early on, but the only way you’re going to get better is to be put in those situations, and be able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes," Montgomery said. "He did a tremendous job."

Van Bergen said earlier this year Clark is one of the fastest players on the defense, and was ahead of other freshmen in picking up Mattison's 4-3 scheme.

Incoming freshmen will have shot

NCAA rules preclude coaches from speaking specifically about freshmen until they sign letters of intent in February, but Montgomery was very clear:

They'll compete for playing time next year.

"Who knows? We could have a true freshman lining up against Alabama," he said. "It’s a huge possibility, because of our depth."

Michigan has secured verbal commitments from five defensive linemen. Among them, four-star Kansas City prospect Ondre Pipkins is considered the closest to "college-ready," and could be a contender for immediate playing time.

The 6-foot-3, 325-pounder is Scout's No. 12 tackle in the country. And, considering Washington's lack of experience and Campbell's lack of consistency, he's expected to be given a long look for a rotation spot.

Others who could factor into the rotation are ends Chris Wormley and Tom Strobel. (Michigan's 2012 recruiting class.)

They're all highly touted recruits, but that doesn't always translate to immediate playing time. A lot will depend on how they perform once they are on campus.

But it's clear they'll be given shots to play.

"As Coach Hoke says, the best players are going to play, and if that’s a freshman, that’s a freshman," Montgomery said.

Lots of options. Just as much uncertainty.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 7:02 p.m.

2 more shot and killed and Tech today, holy crap. Still underway.


Fri, Dec 9, 2011 : 6:43 p.m.

Apparently a police office was shot during a traffic stop by someone otherwise uninvolved and the police officer returned fire killing the shooter before he died. Sad but at least the shooter will not harm anyone else.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 10:44 p.m.

Horrible. When will it end?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:25 p.m.

Defense adds nothing to the strength of a football team. If you don't have the ball, then that means that you are on defense. And that's dumb. My people are telling me that there is a preliminary AP top 25 for 2012. I can't say much, but word is that the No. 1 team is, not surprisingly, Oregon. And what does Oregon care about more, offense or dumfense?

Blu n Tpa

Fri, Dec 9, 2011 : 11:14 a.m.

Ghost is right. He only posts during the off season (as T-212, anyways) and he/she is NOT interested in a intelligent exchange of ideas. He/she will NOT answer a poster question and ignores any data presented to support an opposing view. Example T-212, what bowl game did you say Michigan football teams would be playing in every year after DB fired the WCiMFH? (Hint it's in Orlando)


Fri, Dec 9, 2011 : 2:48 a.m.

Theo.. Aren't you worried about Oregon beating up on your Arizona team?


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 8:47 p.m.

To be fair, Oregon lost to LSU and USC. We lost to Iowa and MSU.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 8:28 p.m.

Even Oregon plays defense. BTW, please remind me how many games Oregon lost? 2? Just like Michigan, huh...


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 6:24 p.m.

The previous U-M coach got fired for ignoring the defensive side of the ball and I bet he will get fired again at his new gig if he didn't learn his lesson. from it.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 6:14 p.m.

Yes, everyone. Please ignore Theo. Just like ERM's Ghost did.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 6:10 p.m.

"And what does Oregon care about more, offense or dumfense?" The answer is, of course ... both. Chip Kelley is no dummy.

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:50 p.m.

He does it to get a rise. Ignore him. GN&GL

Matt Patercsak

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:38 p.m.

tell that to Alabama.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:51 p.m.

I'm not too worried about our D for next year. If Coach Hoke and Coach Mattison and staff can get our D to improve from # 108 to # 7 in their first year, I'm sure they will be able to handle the challenges for next year. Go Blue !


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:50 p.m.

The following players should all be considered HEUISMAN favorites for 2012 and 2013!!! DE- Craig Roh and Frank Clark DT- Will Campbell and Richard Ash DT- Quinton Washington and Ondre Pipkins DE- Nathan Brink and Jibreel Black LB- Jake Ryan MLB- Kenny Demons LB- Desmond Morgan CB- J. T. Floyd CB- Blake Countess SS- Jordan Kovacs FS- Thomas Gordon MEEEEEEEEANchigan football is on the way to the crystal prize!! As the HEISMAN candidates continue to suprise!!


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:40 p.m.

In regards to the Dline I think you have to expect a upper classman to have a break out off season in progessing. I think Roh and Campbell have that opportunity. The other nice thing is that the continuous rotation of players on the Dline this season will help the younger guys get better. Look for Pipkins to have an immediate role in the Dline. In other positions the LB's will be solid. If Morgan and Ryan make a jump in their skills they both could be all-big ten players with Ryan being a all-american possibility. On the back end Countess, Floyd and Kovacs are going to be the best part of this D. The FS position is in question and will probably be contested by younger players. There is no question that this D is going to be one of the best in 2-3 years and could be better next year than this year! Look for Countess, Floyd, and Ryan to make huge jumps and be All-American candidate possiblities (especially Countess)! In terms of next year early against Bama things will be interesting. Bama loses a lot of players on Defense as Seniors and possibly more as the draft rolls around. In total they lose 5 seniors and probably 3 underclassmen to the draft. On offense they lose 4 as seniors and probably 1-2 to the draft including Richardson. I think they get hit way harder than Michigan especially on Defense because most of the players stepping in are going to be Sophmores and Juniors. The thing to also remember is that these Dlineman are not the prototypical Michigan Dlineman. They had one of the lowest sack totals in Michigan history over a season and none will be drafted within the first 3 rounds (on defense, Molk will me a 2nd round or early 3rd round pick). So as they looked much better this year from last they pale in comparison to a Woodley, Branch, Steele, Messner, Graham, Watson, or Renes. Martin could have been one of those but he laid an egg the first 5 games of the season! Van Bergen actually had a better year than Martin statistically.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 7:09 p.m.

Countess will have a hard time being an all american candidate if anybody looks at tape of the OSU game. He looked almost comical at times against Posey. I am not sure he has enough speed to be an elite corner. He did a pretty good job for a freshman.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:32 p.m.

ah, the joys and heartbreak of college football. The constant turnover, need to replace talent with young players, and mistakes to be made. That is why we love it and hate it at the same time. Next year, we will learn even more about Hoke, Montgomery, and Mattison.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:15 p.m.

yup that is the only weakness. i would rather say untested. that is why good coaching will be a factor. you have three good ones doing defense. i am sure they will get the best out of what they have to work with. michigan fans need to take a deep breath and hold back. kids need to replace kids every year. some times they do it sooner than later. i can not ask for anything but trying 100%. as hoke says. "it will tell on the field" and he will always play the best 11 men. go blue.

Gabe Callender

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:13 p.m.

Hasn't Jake Ryan been lining up at end frequently this season? I think he moves there full time next year


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:12 p.m.

2012 is gonna be an interesting season; with a tougher schedule and a new defensive line. Maybe the offense will come on strong- as they did in the OSU game- and bail out the defense. With only Molk being replaced by an untested player- they could light up the scoreboard. Al Borges gets to be the assistant coach of the year in 2012!


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:02 p.m.

It's bittersweet to be in the situation U-M finds itself. It's unfortunate that they will be losing so many key seniors who were instrumental in the defensive line improvement this year, but at the same time it's promising to note that there are talented players on the horizon from among the underclassmen and incoming recruiting class. One thing is for sure -- these new guys will start out being taught the right way to do things and won't have to wait to be seniors until they are taught proper techniques. Therefore, they should achieve their full potential earlier in their careers and have a chance to be special players. The best teachers usually produce the best results, and the current U-M defensive staff is among the best in the country at teaching the defensive line postion.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 11:57 a.m.

Next years defense DE- Craig Roh and Frank Clark DT- Will Campbell and Richard Ash DT- Quinton Washington and Ondre Pipkins DE- Nathan Brink and Jibreel Black LB- Jake Ryan MLB- Kenny Demons LB- Desmond Morgan CB- J. T. Floyd CB- Blake Countess SS- Jordan Kovacs FS- Thomas Gordon Defensive line is a concern but should be OK, Frank Clark will be a star someday as a speed rusher I think, the linebackers and defensive backs should improve significantly, Ryan, Morgan and Countess will be excellent,overall a better defense


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 8:41 p.m.

"Let's hope Stone, Bolden, Ringer, and Ross are eating 10,000 calories a day." Uh, no. Unless you have an olypmic-athlete-level workout regimen every single day, 10k calories is going to make you fat. Fat bulk is no good.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 8:39 p.m.

Wait just a minute... Michigan linebackers not playing well against a QB who can run? Never heard of that happening before. *eyeroll*

Matt Patercsak

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

illinois' running back* not Iowa

Matt Patercsak

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 2:57 p.m.

there is no way morgan is going to get benched. he played pretty for TRUE FRESHMAN LINEBACKER. his only downfall was youth. but when it came to raw physical talent, he has all the gifts. experience will come, and i see morgan becoming a big time playmaker. he blew up iowa's fullback, and Zach boren of OSU against the power. not to mention he had the biggest hit of the year on Iowa's running back. his tackling skills were shaky, but improved as the season went on. he'll put on mass and strength and will continue to grow as a linebacker. i agree that bolen will get playing time, but i also bet he comes in as a backup to demmens. not morgan.


Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:20 p.m.

I agree with Gabe- the linebackers looked out manned against OSU. With the incredible freshman LB class coming in, I bet we see a true freshman start at LB. Let's hope Stone, Bolden, Ringer, and Ross are eating 10,000 calories a day.

Gabe Callender

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:10 p.m.

I think Morgan gets benched or his playing time goes significantly for an incoming freshman. He played pretty bad at time especially against Ohio. however, I think all the linebackers will be splitting time with the freshman entering next fall