With the 2011 season just weeks away, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s first order of business is to right the Wolverines’ defensive corps — a veritable sinking ship.

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That overhaul began the moment Mattison stepped on campus, announcing Michigan’s return to a standard 4-3 scheme. And with inexperience across the board on defense, Mattison will rely heavily on the defensive line.

At first glance, it’s a rather fearsome foursome on the front lines for Michigan. And it is — all four projected starters were once four- or five-star recruits.

But, still, they are an unproven cast.

The top four names on the depth chart — defensive ends Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh and defensive tackles Mike Martin and Will Campbell — are identical to what Michigan fans expected to see begin the 2010 season.

But with then-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s switch to the 3-3-5 formation, things were thrown into limbo. Roh spent a good deal of time as an oversized linebacker, seeing minimal success on the field. And Campbell, a junior who played on both sides of the ball as a standout at Cass Tech, was pulled across the line for stints at offensive guard.

Just like that, the front line of Michigan’s defense was just as shaky as the rest. The Wolverines tallied just 18 sacks all season — Van Bergen led the way with four.

In comparison, NCAA leaders Florida State and Boise State gathered 48 sacks. And Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers trailed just behind the entire Wolverine squad with 15.5 sacks of his own.


Add that the defense allowed an average of 450 yards per game — nearly 190 of those yards were earned on the ground — and Michigan’s startling 35.2 points allowed per game and it’s not hard to see why Robinson isn’t gearing up for another season as defensive coordinator.

But though Robinson was shown the door, most of the lineman — and all of the starters — have returned. And Michigan’s success in 2011 depends on whether Mattison can complete the defense’s turnaround.

Redshirt senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen is expected to play a big role in Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s first year at the helm. Van Bergen played on both the end and on the interior, but with a pair of capable defensive tackles, Van Bergen should give valuable experience coming off the edge.

A talented end from Scottsdale, Ariz., Roh will shore up the other end of the line. To put it simply, Roh is hoping to forget his lackluster sophomore season. After accumulating 35 tackles and a pair of sacks as a freshman, Roh’s shift to hybrid linebacker/defensive end curbed his growth as a pass rusher. He finished with just 43 tackles and a half sack in a full slate of starts in 2010.

Martin is the unquestioned leader of the pack on the defensive line. A 2010 All-Big Ten second team selection, Martin made the decision to return for his senior season in Ann Arbor rather than chase an NFL career.

Martin’s effectiveness was severely hindered — especially during Big Ten action — when a mid-season ankle injury hurt his explosiveness and affected the powerful leverage he uses to beat the double teams he routinely faces. Taking the pressure off Martin will be key, and Mattison already showed part of his plan during the Spring Game when he stunted Martin off the edge as a hybrid linebacker.

Don’t expect to see that often, but it’s an option to get Martin a clean look at the quarterback. The move had quite the positive effect.

“It’s another thing offenses have to watch film on,” Van Bergen said after the Spring Game. “You’ll see a nose guard at 300 pounds, coming off the edge in a two-point — good luck.”

“Man, he’s a great athlete,” junior quarterback Denard Robinson added, his eyes widening. “So whenever I see him, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta watch where he’s coming from.’ ”

But the ability to move Martin around hinges on Campbell’s conditioning and dependability.

Campbell — at 6-foot-5 and 333 pounds — entered last season as an enormous question mark, but somehow it’s only gotten bigger entering the 2011 campaign. Through two seasons, he’s collected just five tackles.

With the departure of seniors Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks this spring, the depth on the defensive line has worn thin — an adjective rarely used when describing 300-pound linemen. The duo saw good minutes last season to spell others on the line.

The line remained relatively healthy in 2010 — although Martin missed the Purdue matchup with an ankle injury — but Michigan could be in trouble if one of the projected starters goes down.

But look for redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Quinton Washington, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kenny Wilkins and sophomore defensive end Jibreel Black to get their shot at some significant playing time.

Black is the frontrunner slotted to take over for Van Bergen in 2012, with good explosion off the line despite his smaller size. And Washington was in a tight position battle this spring with Campbell, vying to be Martin’s hefty sidekick, charged with clogging the middle.

Preseason Grade: B+

Projected Starters: Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, Will Campbell, Craig Roh

Key Losses: Renaldo Sagesse, Greg Banks

Surprise Player: Jibreel Black

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