As far as defense is concerned, the Linebacker position was arguably the least hit at the end of the 2011 season. The only two players lost to graduation were backups Brandon Herron and J.B. Fitzgerald. All starters return, and there is a lot of depth to back them up the already great talent going out there.
What really makes these players special is the scheme they play within. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison loves mixing up the look he gives an opposing offense and does a tremendous job of disguising the pressure from Linebackers. It's one of the biggest reasons the Wolverines were able to make that huge jump in defense from 2010 to 2011. They did an incredible job of keeping the offense on its toes and mixing things up.
Kenny Demens is evolving to be the head of the Linebacker core this season. Over the past couple of seasons, Demens has proven that he is among the most talented Linebackers in all of the Big Ten, racking up 47 solo tackles in 2010 and 49 in 2011. He has only missed one game since his redshirt season as a Freshman, and he continues to be a key part of what Greg Mattison is installing in this Michigan defense.
Demens brings great size and speed to one of the more underrated positions on a football field, and it's always great to see a guy who wants to continue his improvement for the team. He will be the heart of the Linebackers this season. One thing I especially love about Demens, and really any other veteran on the team, is that they've experienced, battled through, and defeated all kinds of diversity all ready in their football careers.
Jake Ryan seems to be a fan favorite among all of Wolverine Nation. That's because there is plenty to love about the kid. He plays hard, looks like the stereotypical football player, and he simply gets the job done. Ryan could easily be the scariest player for opposing teams to go up against because of the physicality he's starting to make famous throughout the Big Ten.
As a Freshman, Ryan redshirted and saw no game action. Last season, though, he stepped out onto the field in all 13 games and made his presence felt. Ryan brought down opposing players in the backfield 11 times for a total of 53 lost yards. He also had 3 sacks for a loss of 8 yards. The best part is that there still more room to improve in the little things; technique, timing, etc. Size, strength, and heart is already there. That's pretty obvious.
Desmond Morgan is returning as a Sophomore this year, and he has had a very solid off-season to set himself up for improvement in 2012. Last season, as a Freshman, Morgan played in 12 of 13 games, while recording 26 solo tackles and accounting for 4 tackles for loss. Many were surprised with the high level of play he brought to the Wolverines defense in his first year of action.
Of the three starters, Morgan is the most questionable for a couple of reasons. First of all, he is the least experienced, and, while he already proved he is a consistent player throughout the course of a season, he obviously hasn't had the chance to prove he can do the same from one season to the next. The good news is he has shown that he can keep growing as a player. Michigan won't be relying on Morgan to step up into the number one spot this year with the Linebackers, but there is still a lot of pressure on the returning Sophomore to not let off the pedal after a very convincing 2011 season.
Brandin Hawthorne is a player who could possibly find himself in a starting role at some points throughout the season. He did a couple times and last year and proved to be productive. The Michigan coaching staff loves what he brings to the table as a Linebacker, and he is a great Michigan man. In 2011, Hawthorne recorded 25 tackles in 12 games, including 3 tackles for loss.
Hawthorne has a lot of football skill. He is quick and has a great nose for the ball. Something I really picked up on last year was his ability to evade blockers and explode into the backfield full force. It's one thing to stumble into the backfield, but Hawthorne was able to bust back there and break up the play. He will be looking to display that skill in 2012, whether he sneaks into a starting role every now and then, or strictly backs up.
Mike Jones has the potential to become a very special player for the Wolverines. He started his career off by sticking mostly to special teams, where he excelled above most everyone else and earned himself a shot at his true bread and butter: Linebacker. As redshirt Sophomore in 2011, Jones became one of the backup Linebackers for the transitioning Wolverines defense.
Jones has been competing for playing time all off-season, and, while he will still be seeing substantial time on special teams, he should also be seeing a couple more opportunities at Linebacker. He has improved and has shown that he can definitely compete.
A few other backups that are worthy of mention come from Michigan's 2012 recruiting class. Joe Bolden and James Ross are both slated pretty high on the depth chart and look like they will be getting some serious time this year, especially if anything bad happens to any guy listed above. Both are 4* recruits and bring in a lot of hype. Right now, Bolden brings in more hype because he did great in spring practice and the Spring Game, but Ross could be better down the line. Regardless, Michigan has a deep and talented linebacker corp for the 2012 season.