As a redshirt freshman in 2007, Obi Ezeh started 10 games at the middle linebacker spot for the Michigan football team, recording 68 tackles. He looked to be a player with a bright future.
Fast forward two years to 2009 against Illinois as Ezeh watched the beginning of the game from the bench. The once-promising linebacker’s starting spot had been run by walk-on Kevin Leach.
It was a strange year for the linebackers last season, and Michigan is going to need more consistency from the group if they want to improve on what was unquestionably a sub-par year for the defense.
As has been widely publicized, Michigan’s defensive alignment is slightly unorthodox. A classic 4-3 defense allows for four down lineman, three linebackers, two corners and two safeties. Michigan now runs what is called a 3-3-5 defense, which calls multiple pure linebacker spots and two hybrids — one defensive line-linebacker position and one linebacker-safety position.
Last year, then-freshman Craig Roh performed very well at the defensive line-linebacker position, while departed senior Stevie Brown was one of the most efficient defensive players at the linebacker-safety spot.
This season, the state of the linebacker position is without a doubt in flux, but there are a few players we can count on seeing come the first game against Connecticut.
Ezeh, barring some strange shift in summer practices, should regain his starting spot at the middle linebacker position. Joining him as the outside linebacker should be senior Jonas Mouton, who started every game he played last year.
There are still questions about this pair, but the good and bad thing is that they are known commodities. At times, Ezeh and Mouton were both great, but there were also times when they struggled. For Ezeh the past two years, struggling has been more common than performing. Michigan needs them to be more consistent than they have been in the past if it has any chance on improving its bottom tier defense.
Also seeing time at linebacker will be a combination of redshirt sophomore Kenny Demens and junior J.B. Fitzgerald. Demens played on special teams last year and didn’t see much action at linebacker. Fitzgerald played on special teams last year but saw some significant playing time at linebacker. And word out of spring practices was that both were looking very good and ready to step up into more significant roles.
But the big question is: who will replace Stevie Brown at the linebacker-safety position? Losing him was a lesser-known loss almost comparable to the loss of Brandon Graham on the line. As the hybrid spot goes, whoever steps up needs to be quick enough to cover receivers and big enough to go at the defensive line when called upon — consequently, Brown was made for both of those things.
One name to remember is redshirt junior Mike Williams, who saw quite a bit of action at safety at the beginning of the year but was eventually benched near the end of the season. Williams may be a little small for the position, but will be competing for the spot. If he can overcome his massive inconsistencies in his time at safety last season, he could prove that his athleticism could make him a good hybrid byproduct of defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s system.
Another name to watch is redshirt sophomore Floyd Simmons. Simmons saw limited action last year on special teams and was injured at the end of the season, but showed some promise playing at linebacker during the start of the year, as Rodriguez mentioned him as a solid contender for the spot. He’s bigger than Williams but less experienced.
The last player to keep in mind would be incoming freshman Josh Furman. If nobody stands out before camp, Furman seems built for this position at 6-foot02 and 200 pounds. Having been a record-setting prep running back in Maryland, Furman also has blazing speed to contend with. If he pans out like many hope he might, he could very well be starting at Brown’s old spot sometime next season.
What Michigan needs from its linebackers is consistency and what it needs from its linebacker-safety position is that unique mix of speed and power. If it gets both, getting the ball across the middle is going to be awfully hard against the Wolverines.
Preseason Grade: B-
Projected Starters: Jonas Mouton, Obi Ezeh, Craig Roh, Floyd Simmons
Surprise Player: Josh Furman