Ryan Van Bergen plays in a constant state of limbo. The fifth-year senior’s position on the Michigan football team’s defensive line doesn’t just fluctuate — it’s a heads-or-tails matter.
“We actually have a little coin that we flip to figure out if I’m playing inside (or outside),” Van Bergen joked.
After Van Bergen spent three seasons at defensive end, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison decided to shift him a spot over to play tackle alongside senior defensive tackle Mike Martin.
But Van Bergen has continued to transition between both spots on the defensive line.
He just likes to be in the spot with the fiercest action. If the opposing team is running inside, he wants to play tackle. If there’s a pass rush, he wants to come off the edge.
But the coaches have a different plan for the seasoned lineman.
“They like me against double teams, so wherever the double team’s going, that’s where I’ll probably be,” Van Bergen said.
For Van Bergen, double teams are just double the challenge. He welcomes them.
“It’s probably not the most glorious spot,” Van Bergen said. “No one’s going to say, ‘Wow, he took on some great double teams.’ That’s not really something that’s going to happen. But I take it as a point of pride.”
Van Bergen has collected nine tackles in three games, but his presence on the line is consistently felt by both his unit and the opposing offense.
Teammates like redshirt junior linebacker Kenny Demens and junior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne can attest to the Van Bergen effect.
“They tell me, ‘I like having you in front of me,’ ” Van Bergen said. “They know I’ll take on two blocks and they’ll be free to run and make a play or two. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’m going to take on two guys and I’m not going backward.”
On the backs of the seniors, Van Bergen thinks the entire mindset of the front seven has changed — and changed for good.
“The standard for defensive line at Michigan is going to be the highest in the country, at some point,” Van Bergen said. “I think it is right now, as far as in (Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s) mind, but we’re definitely not playing up to that standard up front, myself included.”
The defensive line got its first sack of the season last Saturday when junior defensive end Craig Roh caught Eastern Michigan quarterback Alex Gillett in the backfield.
“Michigan traditionally has had a dominant defensive line and dominant linebacker corps,” Van Bergen said. “We have to set ourselves to the standard that they have and we have to play better — bottom line.
“It’s coming up on crunch time. If you’re not where you need to be, the season’s here and it’s time to start arriving as a defensive unit.”
The Wolverines will face a formidable test this weekend in the form of San Diego State and running back Ronnie Hillman, the nation’s second-leading rusher. Hillman has rushed for 497 yards and eight touchdowns in just three games this season.
Michigan has struggled defensively against the run, especially early in games.
“There’s no way to hide it,” Van Bergen said.
In first quarters, opposing backs have rushed for an average of 5.31 yards per carry. In comparison, fourth-quarter numbers less than half of that, at 2.65 yards per carry.
When asked what area needed to improve substantially before Big Ten play, Hoke instinctively pointed to the front seven — the defensive line and linebackers.
The defensive front has fallen on plenty of hard times. But other times — with its backs to the goal line — it has been nearly impenetrable. Thanks to Mattison’s well-disguised schemes, the defense has allowed just four red-zone touchdowns in 10 opportunities.
There’s nothing heads or tails about it, Michigan’s defense is stout at the goal line.
In the defense’s meeting room, there’s a sign affixed to the wall, reading, “Give me a place to stand.”
“That really means that until that ball crosses that goal line, as long as I have a place to stand, they aren’t in yet,” Mattison said. “Our guys believe in that.”
Even if it’s by just a few blades of grass, they haven’t run out of space yet.