Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2015 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2016. In this edition: linebackers.
Of the players Jim Harbaugh inherited for his first season as Michigan football coach, no group was more seasoned than the linebackers.
The Wolverines returned two experienced players, seniors Joe Bolden and James Ross, from a unit that was already one of the team’s strengths in 2014. Despite losing their third starter, Jake Ryan, to graduation, they found a worthy replacement in fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan, who had been a starter before missing the 2014 season with an injury.
Few questions remained unanswered. Bolden, Ross and Morgan carried the load for the entire season, proving their consistency. As a strong force in the middle of one of the best defenses in the country, the linebacker corps allowed the defense to flourish.
The one change for the linebackers in 2015 was their coach. D.J. Durkin came in for one year as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and the group didn’t miss a beat.
In the season opener, Utah rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan — not disastrous numbers by any means. But they proved to be out of the ordinary for the Wolverines’ defense. Over the next six weeks, Michigan gave up just 54.3 yards per game on the ground and didn’t allow a rushing touchdown again until Week 7.
The linebackers’ consistency showed in their numbers: Bolden finished with 83 tackles, Morgan with 71 and Ross with 35. Each of them recorded a stop in every game, and they combined for 14 tackles for loss.
They leave Michigan the same way they started the season — as the most experienced group on the team. With 86 career starts between them, they used their experience to their advantage, ending with a Citrus Bowl victory against Florida.
HIGH POINT: The linebackers don’t garner as many individual statistics as the defensive linemen and defensive backs do with sacks and interceptions, respectively. Their success generally coincided with the overall defense’s success, which reached its peak in the first half of the season during a stretch in which the Wolverines allowed 14 points in five games, three of them shutouts.
In that span, there were individual highlights as well. Morgan intercepted a pass at Maryland on Oct. 3, and Bolden recovered a fumble forced by junior defensive end Taco Charlton and returned it 18 yards against Oregon State on Sept. 12. Outside of those, the linebackers’ success showed through their consistency, rather than any highlight-reel plays.
LOW POINT: In the second half of the season, as Michigan’s run defense faded, the Wolverines’ flaws were exposed. They gave up 307 rushing yards against Indiana’s up-tempo spread offense and 369 more in a blowout defeat against Ohio State to end the regular season. A defense that appeared deep, powerful and disciplined earlier in the season looked worn down when November came. Nine days after losing to the Buckeyes in his last regular-season game, Bolden said he still wasn’t over the loss, though the unit went out on a high note with the Citrus Bowl victory.
THE FUTURE: The linebacker corps will go into next season as unproven as it went into this season experienced. Bolden, Morgan and Ross will all depart, leaving holes in the defense — perhaps some of the only ones on the field for the Wolverines. The three seniors ate up most of the reps for Michigan this season, meaning the rest of the depth chart is uncertain. Just four other linebackers played snaps this season: junior Ben Gedeon (34 tackles in 12 games), redshirt freshman Noah Furbush (four tackles in nine games) and redshirt freshman Chase Winovich and redshirt junior Allen Gant (two tackles in six games each). Gedeon could lead the unit, and junior Mike McCray will return from injury, but the Wolverines still have major ground to make up.
What’s more, they’ll have to do it with another new coordinator. Don Brown will arrive from Boston College to run the defense and coach the linebackers. His pedigree is impressive, but he will bring another adjustment process to the unit.
Michigan has more options in terms of personnel coming in. Four-star recruit Devin Bush, an early enrollee from Hollywood, Fla., could help immediately. The Wolverines have also given redshirt defensive end Reuben Jones reps at linebacker and could do the same with one of their many other linemen. And it’s also possible that another young player such as redshirt freshman Jared Wangler could step up. Michigan has plenty of time to find answers, but it will need a few of them.