Spring preview: Michigan's defensive line to undergo facelift in camp
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
The Michigan football team jumped 93 spots in the overall defensive rankings last year, and nothing was more closely correlated to that ascent than the play of the front four.
The line struggled to apply pressure early in the season, and the overall defense played pretty well. But as the front four became more disruptive, the defense followed suit, eventually dominating in late-season games against Illinois and Nebraska.
Now, that process will begin all over again.
What they lose
Seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were two of the Wolverines' most important leaders last year. Van Bergen led the team in career games (50) and was second in starts (38). Martin was third (49) and fourth (37), respectively.
They developed an on-field chemistry through that extensive experience, eventually calling plays independent of coordinator Greg Mattison.
The Wolverines will miss the pair's savvy play, a problem that is compounded by the graduation of a third starter, Will Heininger. Michigan returns 15 starters overall, but nearly half its losses were sustained here. That hurts, as coordinator Greg Mattison's 4-3 scheme works best with assertive play up front.
What they have back
Craig Roh is the only returning starter, although he will move from weak- to strong-side end. There isn't a lot of difference between playing the two positions in the 4-3, but his assignments will change. That will take some getting used to, but Roh should be fine.
His primary backup at weak-side end, Jibreel Black, also is moving inside. Coach Brady Hoke told AnnArbor.com he made this switch not only get the best four players in the same lineup, but to increase the overall speed of the front four.
Black, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, will have to put on weight in the offseason to mix it up in the middle. His move will help bolster the depth at tackle, where the leaders to play are unproven senior Will Campbell and junior Quinton Washington. At Roh's vacated weak-side end spot, Frank Clark and converted linebacker Brennen Beyer will duke it out in the spring.
There also will be an infusion of six freshmen defensive linemen, the team's largest class in 32 years. However, none of them will be on campus for spring ball.
Develop familiarity, and get a feel for the tackles.
Part of what made last year's group so effective, especially late, was a familiarity with each other. Van Bergen and Martin played in a combined 99 games at Michigan, and were able to feed off each other. The Wolverines won't have that kind of consistency up front next year, with three new starters and three position changes.
The real concern is in the middle, where the team appears to really be counting on Campbell to make an impact. Only, he never has, despite being given ample opportunity to do so. Hoke is optimistic, but Black's move inside shows concern is high at tackle.
Roh will be fine at end, and Clark and Beyer will sort things out opposite him. Although Beyer didn't play end last year, there isn't a drastic difference between the position and his old strong-side linebacker spot. He often played with his hand down in practice, where he showed good handwork. He has to work on his consistency and become familiar with his new assignments to make a successful transition.
There is a new expectation, or position, for nearly every player on the defensive line. Their work is cut out for them in this 14-practice camp.