Kenny Demens had already won. He wasn’t Obi Ezeh.
That’s all that mattered in the fans’ eyes.
Ezeh, one of the most puzzling players in the storied Michigan football program’s recent history, started his Wolverine career before he was vilified for his drop-off in play once Rich Rodriguez changed defensive schemes. Ezeh would have thrived in the downhill, knock-your-teeth-out approach Greg Mattison will surely expect out of his middle linebacker.
Demens is lucky in more ways than one.
The redshirt junior backflipped into relevance during every Mock Rock skit that the football team has done since he arrived on campus. He’s fast, athletic, mobile and can still knock your teeth out. Last season, it seemed no one could get a handle of what Greg Robinson wanted to do on defense. We may soon find out if it was the coach or his personnel to blame for a historically embarrassing defense.
As the team’s third-leading tackler in 2010, Demens is the most experienced starter of a linebacker corps that could be the key to the Michigan defense’s ultimate comeback.
The secondary is finally healthy and has young talent across the board. The defensive line will be a strength of the entire team, with both talent and depth at the position. Surely the defensive backs will have the most to prove with how poorly the group played under Rodriguez, but injuries were to blame. The linebackers are just supposed to be seen, not heard. If any problems start, they’ll be heard.
It will be on Demens to carry the group. He has the skill, and now has the experience to take the next step. He shouldn’t have to rely on just his physical tools anymore.
If anything, Mattison’s linebackers will be athletic.
Flanking Demens is former wide receiver/safety and physical specimen, Cam Gordon. The 6-foot-3 Gordon looked bigger near the end of spring practice and undoubtedly spent his summer preparing for his newest position. Mattison raved of his potential in the spring.
As a former skill-position guy, Gordon has the mobility to drop into coverage and could give Mattison the versatility that he is rarely afforded at the linebacker spot. Even Rodriguez noticed that Gordon was more effective when he was closer to the line of scrimmage, opting to move him from safety to the hybrid “spur” position midway through last season.
The only questions are how big did Gordon get over the summer, which we’ll discover soon enough, and how physical can he be?
Demens may have enough physicality in himself for the other two linebackers, but Gordon may have to mix it up with huge Big Ten linemen and may get pushed around a bit. That’s a hard lesson Rodriguez learned when he ran the 3-3-5, and that’s why the alumni are so supportive of Brady Hoke and his emphasis on physical play.
Can Cam Gordon make his third position change in three years? Can he do it mentally? We’ll find out.
The third and final starter is the prodigal Marell Evans. Once a linebacker under Lloyd Carr, Evans transferred after his sophomore year in 2008, Carr’s final season, only to return once Rodriguez had left. Now a fifth-year senior, Evans was the penciled in starter during the Spring Game.
He may have some young, athletic linebackers nipping at his heels, though. Jake Ryan really impressed the coaches with his relentless motor and athleticism getting to the quarterback and dropping into coverage. Senior tight end Kevin Koger said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago that Ryan had added weight to his listed 6-foot-3, 224-pound frame.
After he starred in the Spring Game, picking off a pass for a touchdown, that was one of the only knocks on Ryan: he needed to add weight and, of course, the redshirt freshman wasn’t experienced. If the stories are true, he’ll run through a brick wall to get that experience.
Senior J.B. Fitzgerald, who has primarily been a special teams player throughout his career, and redshirt sophomore Mike Jones, as well as fifth-year senior Brandon Herron were also in the mix. Jones is smaller than the other two, as he was converted from safety to linebacker under Hoke.
But none of the two projected starters at outside linebacker have enough of a vice grip on their positions to ward off highly ranked incoming freshmen, Antonio Poole or Frank Clark. These spots will be fought for in camp.
The constant will be Demens roaming the middle.
I know what you’re thinking: at least Ezeh is gone.
Preseason grade: C+
Projected starters: Cam Gordon, Kenny Demens and Marell Evans
Key losses: Jonas Mouton
Surprise player: Jake Ryan