While the coaches praised the linebacking corps the most during Spring ball, most Michigan fans and followers were a little confused considering Michigan lost two main starters in Shawn (late hit) Crable and Chris (underachieving) Graham. Obi Ezeh comes back though and the coaches love him. It seems like the coaches love the speed of some of the outside guys too like Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton. There are five guys being talked about for the linebacker spots, and two freshman who may see some time as well. And while the coaches love this group, it still remains the biggest question mark since Ezeh will have to step up his play to be a leader, and two inexperienced guys will be starting at the other spots.
Middle (MIKE) Linebacker:
1. #45 Obi Ezeh 6’2”247 RSSo. Grand Rapids, MI (Catholic Central)
Obi started 10 games last year at inside linebacker as a redshirt freshman. He played especially well in the last three games of the regular season recording 13 tackles and 2 sacks against MSU, 10 tackles at Wisconsin, and 12 against O-State. He will be the starter at MIKE linebacker this year and will play a pivotal role in run stopping for Michigan. As the MIKE backer, he is responsible for calling out any audibles for the linebackers. Also, he will be the guy who will have to read the draw plays and plug the hole left open by the attacking defensive ends. Linebackers coach Jay Hopson absolutely loves Ezeh and thinks he could be all-conference this year. Ezeh will have to play like that for Michigan to consistently stop the run. If you’ve seen Ezeh lately, he looks like a beast. I think he has the potential to be like David Harris, maybe not quite this year, but he’ll start getting close as the year progresses.
2. #49 John Thompson 6’1” 239 5thSr. Detroit, MI (Crockett Tech)
Thompson has had a strange career in which he played very well his freshman year at times, saw his production actually decrease his sophomore year, and then played well the first half of the year last year as a backup, before getting injured for the middle part of the year and not doing much the rest of the season. The coaches also love Thompson, but say that it’s unfortunate that Ezeh is in front of him. Thompson is strictly a MIKE linebacker in this scheme so the coaches have experimented a little with moving Ezeh to the outside so Thompson can get on the field. We might see that a little bit this season, but Thompson will probably just rotate in for Ezeh when he needs a rest. Having Thompson as the backup though is a luxury because if he stays healthy, there should not be a huge drop off between the two. Thompson is a fifth year senior and has been waiting his turn for a healthy campaign. I expect him to be very productive when called upon.
3. #42 J.B. Fitzgerald 6’3” 230 Fr. Princeton Junction, NJ (West Windsor Plainsboro)
Coach Jay Hopson has said Fitzgerald, along with Kenny Demens are the freshmen likely to see some action at linebacker. If that indeed does happen, Fitzgerald will contribute mostly on special teams and will play at MIKE if there is an injury or he will play sparingly. Fitzgerald was the player of the year in New Jersey and has great size. He was rated a four-star by almost every recruiting service and has the talent to contribute right away. I don’t think we will see him too much, but in the future he will be fun to watch.
Three guys are fighting for two spots here. I have a hunch on who the two guys will be, based on experience, but the coaches maintain it’s a three man battle.
1a. #54 Austin Panter 6’3” 231 Sr. Athol, Kansas (Kensington HS, Butler C.C.)
Panter, the JUCO transfer, played in seven games last year and then did not see the field after the Illinois game. He did have one of the starting spots at outside linebacker in the spring, though, and received the Iron Wolverine Award for the best conditioned athlete in the “middle group.” I think he will grab one of the two spots at least at the start of the year, probably on the strong side. In this scheme, in addition to stopping the run and some coverage at times, he will blitz a lot and be asked to make plays in the backfield which is what he did his last year at Butler C.C. picking up 17 TFLs and 9 sacks. The three guys competing for these spots though will probably end up rotating in and out frequently. Panter has a chance to be good and I’m sure he will want to try and impress scouts as a senior to give himself a shot at signing as a free agent in the NFL. He’ll be tough.
1b. #8 Jonas Mouton 6’2” 230 RSSo. Los Angeles, CA (Venice)
Mouton played as a backup weakside linebacker last season. Recruited as a safety out of high school, he switched to linebacker and has a lot of speed for a guy at that spot. This is why the current coaching staff loves him so much, and why he should be a big hit in this scheme. More so even than Panter, if Mouton is on the weakside he will blitz all the time. With his speed, he should make a lot of plays and has the potential to have a breakout year. I expect him to get the nod, though the coaches maintain Marell Evans is still in the competition and he will rotate in as well.
2. #33 Marell Evans 6’3” 231 So. Richmond, VA (Varina)
Evans will play the weakside as well, and the coaches also like his speed. He only played in 6 games, all on special teams last season. Like I said, the coaches love his speed and he will blitz a lot when he gets into the game. I think he will not start right away since he has the least experience of the three and because Mouton might be a little faster than him anyway. He did not play much on kick or punt coverage last year, only on punt and kick return. He has not recorded a tackle, and that kind of scares me as well, that he might not have been on kick or punt coverage or at linebacker because of his inability to tackle. I’m sure the coaches have addressed that and he will be ready, but the fact that we don’t know makes me think he will not start.
3. #25 Kenny Demens 6’1” 226 Fr. Oak Park, MI (Detroit Country Day)
Kenny Demens is a strong athlete at this spot which the coaches love. In high school he could already bench 375 and, in addition to recording 163 tackles his senior year, he threw for three touchdowns and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. I have a feeling he will be a great outside linebacker for Michigan in the future and will probably play a little more than Fitzgerald this season. He also will be fun to watch for as the season progresses.
Coach Hopson mentioned two other guys as potential contributors at the linebacker spots, but they are unlikely to play much.
#58 Brandon Herron 6’2” 218 RSFr. Stafford, TX (Dulles)
Herron is probably and outside linebacker and was pretty highly recruited out of high school receiving four stars from scout.com. I don’t remember watching him in the Spring game, but he is young and will likely contribute later in his career while contributing on special teams this year.
#52 Kevin Leach 6’1” 202 RSFr. Kentwood, MI (Grand Rapids Catholic Central)
Leach walked onto the team prior to last year and coach Hopson seems to be pleasantly surprised by him. He probably will get a chance to play some special teams.
Obi Ezeh has to play great this season in order for Michigan’s run defense to be great. If Ezeh gets off to a good start, I think the rest of the linebackers will follow his lead and also play great. While I have been skeptical of why the coaches like this unit so much, after looking at what is there, I see why the coaches like them. The middle linebackers have great knowledge, experience, and physical tools. And while there is not a whole lot of depth at the outside spot, the outside guys have speed to get into the backfield and disrupt the opposition’s offense.
Current Grade: B- This could go up, but I feel this is just right for a group with a lot of talent, but hardly any experience on the outside. The scheme will help those outside guys, but only time will tell if they do come along. This could end up being one of the better groups in the Big Ten by season’s end, surprising a lot of people. But for right now, Ezeh is the only sure thing to be good. But the talent is there to be great.
We’ll preview the secondary next.