Michigan football over-under: Will the defensive line's sack total drop?
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
But for as encouraging as those returners are, the massive turnover at defensive line is every bit as disconcerting.
The Wolverines are losing two four-year players in Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Combined with the loss of Will Heininger, Michigan must account for 87 lost starts on its defensive line.
That's double the 39 career starts that return, which is staggering. And, hey, 38 of the 39 returning starts are accounted for by one player, Craig Roh.
The defensive line started slow last year, but found its rhythm midway through the season and was terrific down the stretch. It saved Michigan in late-season games against Illinois and Virginia Tech, and was thoroughly dominating against Nebraska.
Can Michigan pick up where it left off, despite the turnover? We debate whether the Wolverines' front four can post 15 sacks, a season after recording 17.
Over-under: Michigan's defensive line will record 15 sacks
Kyle Meinke: Is this even a debate? Listen, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was marvelous last year in taking a group of linemen who were poorly coached for a different scheme, and making them fundamentally sound in a new scheme. Bravo.
But look at the guys with whom he was working. Martin was a monster in the middle who could be productive even while facing regular double-teams. Van Bergen is as tough as anyone. Those guys finished their careers with a combined 75 starts.
They posted 306 tackles in their careers, including 23.5 sacks. They had nine of of the line's 15 sacks last year -- despite Martin's double teams. And you're replacing that with, what, exactly?
Martin's replacement, senior Will Campbell, has never put it all together, and even if he does, he won't be the kind of force who can free up others. He has had a hard enough time taking care of himself in his Michigan career.
Junior Jibreel Black is the other tackle. He's smart and fast, but he also has never played tackle in college and weighed 260 pounds last year. He also won't have a guy such as Martin beside him to draw away attention.
Either sophomore Frank Clark or converted linebacker Brennen Beyer will start at weak-side end, while Roh slides into Van Bergen's strong-side role. Clark is supremely athletic and could have a breakout season, but he's still light on experience.
That means you're talking about possible regression at every spot along the line, with Roh the only exception. Coaches say strong-side end is a more natural fit for him, and his catalog of experience will serve him well.
Prediction: It's an athletic group, and having the watchful eyes of Mattison, coach Brady Hoke and position coach Jerry Montgomery upon them could make this a formidable group. The talent is there. But the seasoning is not, and seasoning means more along the defensive line than just about any other spot on the field. Take the under.
Nick Baumgardner: This is a tough one. Really tough, actually. Michigan loses so much production up front in Martin, Van Bergen and Heininger that it seems extremely unlikely that any type defensive line production will be the same.
But I don't think it's impossible.
Heininger and Martin came up with 4.5 sacks, combined, last season inside. In limited playing time, Campbell made two and Black had 1.5. Both of those guys will play more this season, as will Richard Ash and Quinton Washington -- between them, they should be able to duplicate Martin and Heininger's numbers, if not increase them.
Roh made four sacks last year, and seemingly played out of position. He's moved to the strong side now, Van Bergen's old spot, and if he can avoid the slow start he had in 2011, he should easily be able to duplicate Van Bergen's 5.5 sacks.
As for the weak-side rush end? Well I see nothing but positives. Clark didn't play a lot last year, but when he did, he made an impact. He's incredibly athletic and has a great burst off the ball. With one more year in Mattison's system, he could be poised for a breakout.
The same could be said for Beyer, who is changing positions but played a ton last season. And the coaches -- Mattison especially -- love him.
Prediction: Michigan loses a ton up front, but few people in America put as big an emphasis on the defensive line as Hoke. Between him, Mattison and Montgomery, the Wolverines' defensive line gets more expert tutelage than perhaps any other spot on the field.
Michigan has some holes up front, but it's not void of talent. There's size and speed, it's just not proven. Not yet, anyway. In 2012, I'll take the over.