Linebacker is an invaluable position on the football field. Just as a great linebacker core can elevate a defense, a weak one can sink it.
Faced with the challenge of balancing run and pass threats, the linebackers not only have to plug gaps in the run, but they also have to be able to read a play and decipher if it’s a pass in a split second. If they’re too slow to react to either threat, chances are an opponent will be open and ready to capitalize. It’s a delicate balance — two opposing forces and instincts in constant battle.
So far this season, the No. 4 Michigan football team’s linebackers have struggled to find that balance.
And after getting carved up last weekend by Iowa’s quarterback Spencer Petras a notoriously inefficient quarterback, the position group is forced to do some soul searching.
“There are a couple of things we can do better in the passing game, definitely a big emphasis for us,” Michigan linebackers coach George Helow said Wednesday afternoon. “We are working on it. The things that were broke, we are gonna fix, and expect better stuff in the passing game.”
At Kinnick, the Wolverines’ linebacker core was often caught in no man’s land. The pass catchers that aren’t wide receivers — tight ends, running backs and the occasional full back — are typically the responsibility of the linebackers. Michigan’s unit gave up over 130 yards to that group.
They consistently found swaths of open space behind the Wolverines’ defense.
There is just so much space that a linebacker must keep under their watchful eye, and so much can happen in that space. They have to be ready for of it all.
“Space is the enemy of defense,” Helow said. “The faster that you close and the (better) angles that you take to the ball, the better you’ll be able to be in coverage.”
This isn’t a problem unique to Iowa — Maryland exposed it a week earlier — and it’s certainly not one that’s going away. As Michigan moves further into its schedule it will face offenses that will test its linebackers more and more. If the group doesn’t improve, those teams will be able to make the Wolverines pay for their shortcomings more than the Hawkeyes did.
Helow pointed to a few reasons why Michigan’s linebackers may have been subpar when defending the pass, mainly revolving around the fact that they sold out hard to stop the run.
“When you play the run hard and teams give you play action and boot plays, you play the run, play the run, play the run, and then boom, it’s a pass play,” Helow said emphatically. “… (Iowa) got us on a couple and we’ll get it corrected.”
It’s important to note that the Wolverines were effective in stopping the run on Saturday, giving up just 67 yards, and the linebackers played a key role in that. But the pass defense still lagged behind.
Michigan might not have the personnel to excel in this position with presumed starter junior linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green has been out all season thus far with no timetable for return. But it does have the talent — especially in linebackers like sophomore Junior Colson and graduate student Michael Barrett — to be at least adequate in pass coverage.
So even after sustaining some damage against the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines’ linebackers have plenty of time to right themselves. But if significant improvement isn’t made before matchups against some of the Big Ten’s more formidable offenses, then Michigan’s defense as a whole faces the risk of sinking.