Out of all the question marks for Michigan's 2012 squad, perhaps the biggest are for the defensive line. After losing three starters, Michigan is looking for players to fill the roles formerly played by Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Will Heininger. They have returning players at every position on the defensive line with game experience, but only one of the four spots has gotten a serious amount of confidence from fans. As a result, Michigan's defensive line progress could very likely determine the direction of the defense overall and the team's performance down the stretch.
This is largely because Michigan has All-Big Ten prospects at just about every positional group on the offensive side and is returning just about everybody that started at linebacker or in the secondary last year as well. Add in the fact that both of the specialists return and Michigan looks like a pretty good squad for 2012, assuming the defensive line can progress. In my opinion, this is the position group that will determine the type of season Michigan will have in 2012. Not only because it has the most question marks, but also because of the way it produced in 2011 in route to the Sugar Bowl victory. Key red zone stops, key stops on 3rd and short, and a plethora of turnovers during the course of the season. Making up for that is going to be a challenge, so let's start breaking down who has a chance at doing it in 2012.
Will Campbell (Senior)
Rivals. Needless to say, expectations were and have been pretty high for Campbell during his tenure at Michigan. However, to say he has been a let-down would be the understatement of the year. Granted, he still has a year to go at Michigan, but just about all of his career highs came last season, including his career high tackle game against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl where he made 3 tackles.
If Michigan's defensive line is going to be productive in 2012, it has to start upfront with Campbell. Should fans expect him to replicate Mike Martin's production? No. He will be a step down, but I think he did show last season that he can get on the field and be productive. Obviously, when your career high is 3 tackles in one game, we're not talking about incredible production, but he definitely can get on the field and at least warrant some awareness from the offensive side.
The key things to look for are improved consistency, taking on double teams, and bringing up those tackle for loss numbers. The role that Campbell will primarily be playing is to stop the run and eat up blockers on the inside. If he can do this effectively, the rest of the defensive line should be able to get some pressure on the quarterback and in the backfield. Even if you don't see those tackle, sacks, and TFL numbers increase, as long as you see him eating up blockers, he will be helping Michigan's defense, especially if he can get around them once in awhile.
Campbell has been getting in good shape and despite an off-field issue during the summer, appears to be set-up well for improvement. I rate his chances at success as pretty good, but like I said, don't look in the stats to rate Campbell's performance, just look at how many players are blocking him. Regardless, if there's one player that may impact the team for next season other than Denard Robinson, it's Campbell. Let's just hope he lives up to his earlier hype.
Jibreel Black (Junior)
He did transition in the spring, which should help his progress at the position, but if there weren't such question marks for the guys behind him, I'm unsure of whether he would be starting at the position at all. He mainly played as a reserve last year, but did have a few solid games, including a good game against Eastern Michigan (Yes, I know it's Eastern). If he can get some help from Campbell, he should be able to do some damage in the backfield. I think he should be alright, but I think this will likely be the weakest position on the defensive line. Along with this, I think there will be some heavy rotation at this position.
Craig Roh (Senior)
The most solidified position on the defensive line, strongside defensive end, will belong to Craig Roh for 2012. He is also moving from the weakside defensive end spot, but the transition between the two positions is smaller and he has already proven himself to be quite capable last season. He tied for second on the team with 4 sacks and got 21 tackles last season. He probably won't be rushing the quarterback quite as much at his new position, but some of his stats may go up simply because he could be used more at his new position.
He will probably be taking over the Ryan Van Bergen role on the defensive line. If he can come anywhere near his production, it should be a good season for Roh. I'm not sure if he can be quite as good as Van Bergen was last year, especially because he's moving to a new position, but he's got pretty good size at 281 lbs, according to the media guide, and is well experienced.
Look for this position to be the most solid, especially at the beginning of the season, and for Roh to rack up the tackles this year. If he can stop the run and pressure the quarterback now and then, it should free up other members of the defensive line to do things like rush the backfield, which should have a domino effect on the line's production. I anticipate Roh will have his best season yet and will transition quite well to his new position, even if the production is down a bit from Ryan Van Bergen.
Brennen Beyer (Sophomore)
This could perhaps be the most interesting spot on Michigan's defensive line. Not because it is lined up for a mega season, but because of the off-field issues surrounding the spot. Frank Clark recently got in some legal trouble and is currently suspended form the team. If he was still on the team, he would probably be lined up to be the starter. However, with him gone, for who knows how long, the starting role should fall into the hands of Brennen Beyer.
Beyer and Clark are both sophomores and have some decent experience coming back. Beyer played primarily at linebacker last year, but in Mattison's defensive scheme, the linebacker position is just about the same as the weakside defensive end spot, so the transition should be extremely small. Both had some nice moments, but most agree that Clark has more potential at this point. The big question will just be about whether he will actually see the field with his legal trouble.
Beyer was a 4* and was actually rated higher than Clark according to Rivals and has some great potential for himself, even if there is a debate about who is better between the two. Michigan's defensive line had some solid production last year, but didn't get the sack numbers that many would have expected out of the defensive line. Often, players like Kovacs would get into the backfield, racking up 2 sacks in the Western Michigan game alone, but the defensive line alone didn't get the type of pressure on the quarterback that many would have liked to see.
As a result, there will be even more pressure on the weakside defensive end spot this year, especially since other positions on the line like nose tackle will likely be taking a step back. If people like Campbell and Roh can eat up some of the blockers, Beyer could have a very productive year. He's extremely fast and has the potential to get into the backfield at a moment's notice. The question mark will just be about whether he has the opportunity. If you start seeing Beyer and/or Clark starting to rack up sacks and TFLs, then you know that the players like Campbell will be eating up those extra blockers. Of course, Beyer will have to do his share as well, but he played relatively well last year and isn't going through as big of a transition as many assume, lining him up for a good 2012.
This is where many truly get worried for next season. Yes, Michigan has a good amount of returners on the line for 2012, but there's only 1 returning starter from 2011 and most of that returning experience will be in the new starting lineup, meaning that the backups should be pretty raw. Having experienced backups isn't a necessity, but for the way that Mattison rotates the defensive line, it's pretty useful. I think each position should have at least one of two guys that should be able to produce, but it's clearly going to be a question mark this year.
At the nose tackle spot, Richard Ash will be a redshirt sophomore, but has very little game experience. This is largely due to the previous depth at the position, but he will be a major question mark. However, I strongly suspect that 5* recruit Ondre Pipkins will be the one that snags the backup role. Yes, Ash has pretty good size and will have a two year advantage on Pipkins, but Pipkins possesses amazing raw talent and is already a good deal bigger than Ash. Expect Pipkins to see the field early and often and make some serious noise with his ability to shed blockers and run down plays. On a sidenote, Pipkins did sustain an injury in fall camp, which could put his potential at risk.
The 3-tech position will also have a pretty interesting depth chart. I strongly suspect Black will start to begin the season, but Quinton Washington could also make some noise. He's actually a year older than Black and is sitting about 30 lbs heavier. Of course, his technique has been a bit suspect, but with Black transitioning to a new position, I could see Washington getting some time. Along with this, if either of these guys underperform, true freshman Willie Henry might get some play off the bench, although I anticipate that the coaching staff will look to redshirt him in order to build his strength and technique.
The strongside defensive end position will have the most solidified starter in 2012 on the defensive line, but also might have some of the best depth as well. Behind Roh is Nathan Brink, who is a redshirt junior and got a decent amount of playing time in 2011. Keith Heitzman is only a redshirt freshman and is still on the smaller side, but has already put on a good amount of weight and may be able to push for that backup role spot. True freshmen Matt Godin and Tom Strobel could also potentially make some noise. Chris Wormley appeared the most likely to be the backup, but was injured in fall camp and is out for the season.
The final spot, weakside defensive end, should have a reliable backup in Frank Clark, but the big question mark will be about whether and when he will be allowed to play in 2012. If he can play, he has a great chance to not only be the 2nd string, but also be the starter. Expect some heavy rotation between Clark and Beyer, if Clark is allowed to play. Behind them is Mario Ojemudia, a true freshman, who will be redshirting in 2012. Look for the coaching staff to turn to a walk-on or another backup on the line before they go to Ojemudia because of his lack of size and strength.
The defensive line should take a step back from 2011, but has the potential to be solid once again, considering that there are 5 or 6 returners with decent experience and some great incoming recruits including 5* Ondre Pipkins. There will be question marks at just about every spot, but I think the line could develop into a consistent group over the season. If they do this, Michigan has the potential to be a very good team considering the returners at other positions.