His helmet was so beaten it looked like he had fought off a ram.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ryan first noticed pieces of his winged crown coming off during the first week of spring practice. His helmet was the only one that had to be repaired this spring as an off-yellow paint covered most of the front left side, serving as a medal of the hits he’s levied this spring. Then that paint started taking blue scuff marks from even more hits.
“When Jake’s on the field, he adds a little something out there and you can just feel it,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “There’s an intensity.”
“He’s a tough sucker,” Hoke added on the Inside Michigan Football television show. “He’s fun to be around … He is truly a guy who loves to play the game, and that’s the fun part about it.”
During Michigan’s spring game last Saturday, Ryan stood out as a member of the second-team defense — behind first-teamers Cam Gordon and Marell Evans — and showed a diversified skill set: in Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s complex defense, he showed quickness during blitzes and the ability to shift his hips and drop into coverage.
And in a game with little scoring, the linebacker dropped back during a cover-4 zone call. Backup quarterback Devin Gardner looked right and stared down his receiver heading toward the middle of the field. Ryan stepped in front of the pass, intercepted it in stride and returned it for a 22-yard touchdown.
“My spring has been good,” Ryan said. “I feel like I’ve improved a lot, just getting the defense down. The defense is hard, but once you get it down, you know it and you work forward.”
Ryan redshirted last year under Rich Rodriguez and now Ryan is playing a different position — outside linebacker — in Mattison’s 4-3 defense.
There have been some growing pains for Ryan, but he makes up for it with his intangibles. Michigan linebackers coach Mark Smith told MGoBlue.com that his favorite part about Ryan is that even when the young guy is wrong in what he’s doing on the field, he goes hard.
Added Mattison: “He’s made a lot of mistakes, and then every time he comes back the next day doing it right. The one thing we’ve really been pleased with Jake, he shows tremendous energy and speed off the edge, which I think is something we definitely need in our package.”
Mattison dialed up all sorts of complicated blitz packages during the spring game that kept quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner on their heels. And if he’s not starting by the fall, Ryan could at least see time as a potential weapon to throw at opponents.
After the game, Hoke talked about how he was pleased with the pressure his defense was able to get, saying it was good to see some “active guys.” Ryan could certainly apply to that group.
Ryan’s approach, which compliments Mattison’s aggressive attitude, may be exactly what the coaches want out of a linebacker.
“I think we’ve worked more as a unit,” Ryan said. “We’re stripping the ball more, everyone is getting to the ball faster, there’s no loafing.
“They’re making us swarm to the ball. You have to tag the ball once it’s down. When they’re still running, you have to tag it because they’re just going to keep on running, and we’re going just swarm to the ball and get to it.”
Before he gets to the ball, Ryan will have to work his way through and around huge Big Ten linemen. That will come easier once Ryan adds some bulk to his 6-foot-3, 224-pound frame.
“I’ve been saying since last year that Jake’s going to be a player on this defense at some point,” fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said.
“He just has to develop more physically. He’s not very big. He’s not very heavy. He has to hit the weight room hard this summer and he could probably be a big-time contributor.”
Ryan could follow junior defensive end Craig Roh’s lead in the weight room. Roh didn’t have the luxury of an entire summer to get bigger when he was thrust into a starting role during his true freshman year. Now, Roh has climbed to 251 pounds and said he plans to add 10 more pounds of muscle this summer himself to deal with those big linemen.
“My freshmen year I was playing at 235 (pounds),” Roh said. “In the Big Ten, that’s tough to do. So you just put on some weight and it helps.
“And you just get mashed around a little bit. It’s nice to do the mashing sometimes.”