MD

Sports

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Advertise with us »

Spring Game breakdown: Defense and special teams

Marissa McClain/Daily
Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 12, 2012

With the Michigan football team taking the field for the annual Spring Game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the Daily takes a look at “Team 133” in a position-by-position preview.

Let’s talk defense and sprinkle in special teams.

Defensive Line: After losing three starters from last year’s team — seniors Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and Will Heininger — the front will be the defense’s biggest question mark on Saturday.

After a series of position changes that saw senior defensive end Craig Roh move from the weakside end position to the strongside and junior defensive end Jibreel Black move from end into the interior to play tackle, the starting four are essentially set.

At defensive end, Roh will start on the strongside, where coaches feel his skill set and speed are better suited. At the weakside defensive end position, sophomores Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark are battling for the starting position.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke hasn’t seen a clear winner between the two sophomores.

“You’re talking about two wonderful young kids who, I think, as they continue through the weight room and everything else, both of those guys are going to be good football players,” Hoke said Thursday. “They’re pretty good now, but they both have a very good future.

“I think it’s daily. Frank’s here one day and Beyer’s here one day. They compete and they’re really friends. It’s fun.”

On the interior, Black’s move has vaulted him into a starting position alongside former five-star defensive tackle Will Campbell. Campbell is expected to have a big presence in the center of the line during his senior season. Seeing how far he's progressed will be highly anticipated on Saturday.

Redshirt junior defensive lineman Nathan Brink has been injured throughout spring practices and will not participate in full-team reps on Saturday.

Linebackers: Fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens played a prank on fans on April Fool’s Day by tweeting out a photo of his hand in a cast and posting the following:

“Out for the season with a hand injury. Hope all uofm still support the maize & blue.”

He then revealed that it was a joke and he would only be in a cast for a week or two. Maybe fate struck back, because Hoke revealed Thursday that Demens later suffered a mild concussion that held him out of practice last Saturday and this Tuesday.

“(Demens) probably could have gone, but we’re trying to be, like we should, cautious with those kinds of things,” Hoke said.

The injury gave freshman linebacker Joe Bolden, an early-enrollee, some time with the first-teamers.

“Oh, it was really probably a great indoctrination for a young guy,” Hoke said with a chuckle.

Demens will likely be joined by a combination of redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan, sophomore Desmond Morgan and redshirt junior Cam Gordon to round out the starting linebackers.

Secondary: Michigan has the luxury of returning four of its top five defensive backs from 2011 — fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess at cornerback, and fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs and redshirt junior Thomas Gordon at safety.

Countess was a pleasant surprise last season, proving himself a reliable option at cornerback and starting the last six games of the season over Troy Woolfolk, who was shifted to safety. Countess was named to the ESPN.com and BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman Teams.

“Blake Countess is a guy working his tail off all the time,” Hoke said.

Hoke also mentioned the improvement of junior safety Marvin Robinson as one of the highlights of camp.

Michigan fared well in the passing game last season, allowing 190.5 passing yards per game to rank 16th in the nation in passing defense. Woolfolk is the only true loss from that unit.

Kick/Punt Returners: Hoke pointed to redshirt junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon as the clear leader of the punt-return team. Countess would be the backup option.

“I think (Gallon) has got great confidence in catching the ball,” Hoke said. “His vision’s pretty good. He’ll take it burst-wise when we look at the punting game.”

Hoke said that sophomore running backs Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes have both participated in kick-return drills during spring camp, joined by Gallon, Countess and senior running back Vincent Smith.

Kickers: Let’s keep this short.

“I think it’s Gibbons for sure,” Hoke said.

That’s redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons. You’ll remember him from his starring role in Michigan’s overtime victory against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl in January.

Sophomore Matt Wile, who has a stronger leg, has performed well as the backup, but Hoke said Gibbons has secured the spot.

Punters: Here’s some competition.

Junior punter Will Hagerup had the job locked down until about the midway point of the season in 2011. But his strong leg has been overshadowed by his inconsitency.

Wile will be looking to take that starting role, which Hoke said is wide open.

“I think they’re kind of neck and neck,” Hoke said. “One day one of them is really consistent and one day he’s not. The other guy’s consistent.

“We’re going to do some stuff on Saturday to really put some heat on them and see how they handle that part of it.”