Cam McGrone briefly shuffled his feet as he approached the line of scrimmage, sizing up the play before launching. He kept his eyes forward, identifying the roll-out, play-action Illinois was attempting to execute. The redshirt freshman linebacker then bolted, darting toward Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson, grasping his right arm and holding tight.
Moments later, he jarred the ball loose, as the convulsion of Robinson’s body met the force of McGrone’s strength. The ball came free. Fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow fell on it. In doing so, the defense put to rest any hints of an upset bid on Saturday — and McGrone added another chapter to his rapidly-evolving breakout campaign.
“They didn’t really want to play with us anymore,” McGrone said confidently after the game. “I had an opportunity, and I had to take it.
“I saw the opportunity to make a big play. So, I had to for my team.”
It was the kind of play Michigan fans have come to expect from their MIKE linebacker in recent years. Devin Bush, now flirting with NFL stardom himself, made those plays at Michigan on a near-weekly basis, when his whirring sideline-to-sideline speed and uncanny instincts landed him among Michigan’s best ever. When Bush left, charting off to millions of dollars as a top-10 NFL draft pick, it was reasonable to expect a degree of drop-off at the position.
Cerebral linebackers with running back-speed don’t just grow on trees. Or so the coaching staff thought.
“(Bush) was able to cover up for some mistakes of the linebackers, but we’ve grown as a linebacker room as individuals,” Glasgow said before the season. “I feel that we’ll be able to cover each other. We might not have a top-10 pick in the linebacker room now, but that doesn't mean that we can’t be as effective as linebackers, like, in total.
“As everyone improves, I feel that we’ll be just as good as we were last year.”
Even that confidence, though, did not promise a like-for-like replica of Bush. No one assumes that mantle four games into a career, no matter how impressive, but McGrone has shown glimpses of a similar skillset.
And with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, there’s reason to believe he’s learning how to translate that talent into on-field production.
“You can have a good idea of when guys are seeing it, because like I said, your eyes control the function of your body,” said linebackers coach Anthony Campanile. “They tell your feet what to do. When guys’ feet start playing fast, you got a pretty good idea as a coach that this guy is taking a step and he’s kinda entering another level.
“I think the reps he got, even in the Wisconsin game, were invaluable to him. Any work you get as a young guy, in terms of developing confidence, it’s huge. He’s done a great job with it, he’s taken a step each week. From camp on, I think he’s just gotten progressively better and better, incrementally.”
What Campanile describes — a kind of measured, incremental rise — might well be true. But what’s been on display on the field for McGrone has been meteoric.
Mere weeks ago, he was comfortably second on the depth chart at MIKE linebacker, with Josh Ross the heir apparent to Bush’s throne. Ross, in fairness, had filled in admirably before he was sidelined with an undisclosed injury less than a month ago. Now there’s a real question as to whether Ross will reassume that starting spot.
“That’s a good problem to have,” Campanile said. “I think we’re back to the issue — it’s not an issue, it’s a great situation — in the summer. We had had that situation in the summer. ‘Hey, this guy we can with on Saturday. We can win with that guy on Saturday. We can win with that guy on Saturday.’
“Never a bad thing to have a bunch of guys that can help you win on Saturday.”