Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Preview: Linebackers

Tag: Desmond Morgan

23Dec 2013
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Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Preview: Linebackers

Blake Slaughter (#53) helped seal a win against TCU with an interception and 39-yard return

Starters: Sophomore weakside linebacker James Ross III (6’1″, 220 lbs.) leads the unit in tackles and is tied for the team lead despite missing the last 1.5 games with an injury; he has 81 stops, 5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Quick and decisive, Ross makes plays by beating blockers to the point of attack, but he’s listed as “questionable” for the bowl game. Junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan (6’1″, 227 lbs.) is a thumper despite not being particularly big, and he has 73 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 1 highlight-reel interception this season. Morgan isn’t the fastest linebacker around, but he can hold his ground in the run game. The “star” of the group is actually redshirt junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan (6’3″, 240 lbs.), who has just 26 tackles and 4 tackles for loss; he tore his ACL in the spring and returned halfway through the season, so he has flashed his old athleticism but hasn’t performed up to the standard he set in 2012.
Backups: Sophomore Joe Bolden (6’3″, 225 lbs.) is fourth on the team with 50 tackles, along with 3 tackles for loss and 1 sack. He will likely be Ross’s replacement if the starter can’t go. Bolden has been the top sub at both inside linebacker positions all year in what was mostly a three-man rotation, thus the high tackle total. Freshman Ben Gedeon (6’3″, 236 lbs.) took over Bolden’s substitute role with Ross out, so he might see a significant amount of playing time; he made 14 tackles and 1 sack in limited duty. The other notable player is fifth year senior Cam Gordon (6’3″, 237 lbs.), a fast and strong athlete who’s been pushed to the side by Ryan’s return despite having 38 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks on the season.

Starters: Fifth year senior Blake Slaughter (5’10”, 227 lbs.) is the team leader in tackles with 103 and was honorable mention all-conference; he also had 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 1 interception. Despite being a little stouter than fellow inside linebacker Jonathan Truman (5’11”, 219 lbs.), Slaughter’s the one who bounces outside the box against trips formations and slot receivers. Slaughter was a little used linebacker in 2009-2011 and then redshirted in 2012 in order to help the team in 2013, which was part of the reason he was voted team captain this year. Truman has 85 tackles and 4 tackles for loss to his credit. He’s a redshirt sophomore former walk-on.
Backups: Senior Tre Walker (6’3″, 225 lbs.) is the outside linebacker when Kansas State is in a 4-3 look, and he has 26 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss this season. Redshirt freshman Will Davis (6’0″, 223 lbs.) has 16 tackles this season but doesn’t see a lot of playing time.

Michigan has had solid play from its linebackers for most of the year, and they generally tend to be technically sound. The Wolverines basically have five guys capable of starting (Ross, Morgan, Ryan, Bolden, and Gordon) with Gedeon as a pretty good fourth inside linebacker. The inside guys won’t blitz often, but Ryan and Gordon can threaten the quarterback off the edge. In an admittedly limited study of Kansas State, I think Slaughter, Truman, and Walker are exploitable. Kansas State runs a lot of a 4-2-5 look, meaning their opponents are running at a six-man core that includes two linebackers who are the same weight as Michigan’s linebackers but don’t play quite as stout, in my opinion. They try to run around blocks and they have trouble disengaging. They are fairly quick, which might suit them well against some of the wide-open offenses in the Big 12 (Oregon State, Oklahoma, Baylor, etc.), but they might struggle against a straight-ahead running team that has power running backs in 240 lb. Derrick Green and 224 lb. De’Veon Smith.


24Nov 2013
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Iowa 24, Michigan 21

Brennen Beyer returns an interception 7 yards for a touchdown (image via Times Union)

This happened because of three guys. In my opinion, this game came down to the absence – literally and figuratively – of three players. First of all, Michigan middle linebacker Desmond Morgan (0 tackles) left the game in the first quarter due to what was rumored to be a concussion, which would be at least his second in college. Then weakside linebacker James Ross (6 tackles) left the game in the second half, although it’s unclear what that injury was. And Devin Funchess (1 catch, 2 yards; 1 carry, 10 yards) might as well have been out due to injury, because he was completely useless. He dropped four passes by my count, and he can’t block. So the Wolverines were without their two leading tacklers, which suggests it wasn’t a coincidence that the Hawkeyes were able to turn on their running game in the second half. Michigan’s defensive line is solid but unspectacular, and what helped them rank #13 against the run going into this game was their technically sound linebackers. When you’re left with sophomore Joe Bolden (4 tackles) and freshman Ben Gedeon (3 tackles) as your two inside linebackers, that’s a recipe for struggles. Iowa running backs Damon Bullock (1 for 8), Jordan Canzeri (9 for 40), and Mark Weisman (10 for 45) had a total of 20 carries for 93 yards after halftime, helping Iowa to hold the ball for 18:23 of the second half.

Games are won in the trenches. I know this is an old adage, but it’s true. And it’s frustrating to watch Michigan get beaten so badly up front in every single game. I’ve said it over and over again, but Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield aren’t dominating like they should, and the interior linemen can’t get any kind of push ever. They say that even the best linemen in the NFL win just over half their battles, and that’s what separates them from the other guys; well, Michigan’s guards and center aren’t close to winning half their battles in the run game. It’s an abomination. Michigan’s running backs combined for 17 carries and 35 yards in this one, with a long run of 9 yards. The offensive line allowed 11 tackles for loss. That sounds really bad, but that’s been the norm – the Wolverines are averaging 10.5 tackles for loss allowed this year. For comparison’s sake, Michigan has a pretty good defense and averages 5.7 TFL’s a game.

Devin Gardner might retire. Gardner had one of his least effective performances this year, going 13/28 for 98 yards, 2 touchdowns, and giving away the game-clinching fumble; he also ran 10 times for 12 yards, despite only getting sacked once. He’s lost a step, he’s running tentatively, and he just looks downright scared of taking more of a beating at times. After the game, he was reportedly favoring his right arm. Obviously, Michigan needs him if they have any hope of beating Ohio State next week, but with his diminishing health and the sorry state of the offensive line, I would not be surprised at all if Gardner doesn’t finish next week’s contest.

Graham Glasgow snapping mistake? Check. I swear I don’t think I’ve ever seen a college center with as many snapping issues as Glasgow. With the exception of the Northwestern game last week, Glasgow has had a snapping error every week. This week’s blunder was a snap infraction on a 1st-and-Goal from the 4-yard line in the fourth quarter that pushed the Wolverines back to the 9. After an incomplete pass and a nothing run, Gardner bailed him out with a touchdown pass to Gallon.

Good grief, Jeremy Jackson is terrible. Usually I try to stay objective, so this is an angry rant I’m allowing myself near the completion of a frustrating season. Senior Jeremy Jackson’s one late wide-open catch for a first down does not erase the fact that he should not be on the field. Like, at all. Ever. The final straw for this rant came yesterday when I saw him standing around not blocking anyone while Devin Gardner was getting tackled. He can’t run, he can’t jump, and he can’t block. The guy is a preferred walk-on at best, or maybe a Division II athlete. I never understood* why he was offered by Rich Rodriguez in the 2010 class, and his performance over the last four years has only solidified those feelings. Da’Mario Jones, Dennis Norfleet, and Joe Reynolds are all better athletes, and you could probably get a better blocking effort out of walk-ons Bo Dever or Blaise Stearns, just to name a couple. I actually have some respect and empathy for Rodriguez, but one look at that 2010 class makes me want to vomit. The guy took 27 players in that class, and after you list the top three (Jake Ryan, Devin Gardner, Jibreel Black), you start to get in the murky territory of trying to rank Jackson, your holder/fifth receiver (Drew Dileo), your journeyman defensive back (Courtney Avery), your journeyman tight end/defensive end/linebacker (Jordan Paskorz), or your weed-loving suspended punter (Will Hagerup). Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. Erm . . . uh . . . yeah, Jeremy Jackson. He’s bad.

Let’s end on a high note. (Not that kind of high note, Hagerup.) So how about Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, and Brennen Beyer picking off those terrible throws from Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock? Let’s be honest – those picks were more about Rudock being bad than Michigan having great coverage, but these Michigan cornerbacks are better playmakers than we’ve had in a while. For a little while – the J.T. Floyd years, basically – Michigan struggled to make any plays at cornerback, and the notable plays from defensive backs had to come from the safeties. Taylor’s still afraid to tackle running backs, but overall, I like where Michigan’s headed in the defensive backfield. And kudos to Beyer, who has made some steps forward this year and tallied his first interception and first touchdown.

Just kidding. What does this mean for the Ohio State game? Probably doom.

*Of course, I know Jeremy Jackson was mainly offered because his dad is the running backs coach. Also, aliens.

31Oct 2013
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Poll results: Who will be Michigan’s leading tackler in 2013?

Desmond Morgan (#48) and James Ross III (#15) are the top two tacklers so far.

Prior to the season, I asked which player would lead Michigan in tackles. So far the voting has been pretty accurate for the leader, although cornerback Raymon Taylor – whom I didn’t even put on the list – is close to the lead with 44 total takedowns.

James Ross III: 56%
After seven games, Ross has 50 total tackles.

Desmond Morgan: 27%
Morgan has 47 tackles at this point.

Joe Bolden: 6%
Bolden has 23 tackles as the main backup inside linebacker.

Thomas Gordon: 3%
T. Gordon sits at 25 tackles.

Cameron Gordon: 2%
C. Gordon has just 13 tackles right now.

Brennen Beyer: 1%
Beyer has made 18 tackles through seven contests.

Other: 1%
The “other 1%” have made 257 tackles altogether.

Blake Countess: 0%
Countess is the third-leading tackler among defensive backs with 27.

23Oct 2013
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2013 Midseason Awards

Devin Gardner

Offensive Player of the Midseason: Devin Gardner, QB. Gardner has had lots of ups and downs, but he has kept Michigan in some games – especially with his feet – when things looked like they were going south. So far this season, he’s 107/175 passing for 1,779 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He is also second on the team in rushing with 520 yards on 95 carries (5.5 yards/carry) and 9 touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Midseason: Blake Countess, CB. Receivers have beaten Countess a couple times over the top, but unfortunately for them, the quarterback hasn’t been able to hit them. Regardless, Countess is bouncing between cornerback and slot corner fairly well, coming in fifth in total tackles (27) with 2 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, and 3 more pass breakups; one of those picks was returned 72 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota.

MVP of the Midseason: Taylor Lewan, OT. Aside from being an outstanding pass blocker, Lewan has been a stellar run blocker as well. Of course, it doesn’t show in the rushing statistics. But Michigan tries to run off left tackle or flip Lewan to the right side if they want to go right. The guy is tough and works hard, and I think his mentality helps the team almost as much as his physical skills.

Rookie of the Midseason: Jake Butt, TE.No freshmen are making a huge impact at this point, but tight end Jake Butt is quietly having a solid debut season with 7 receptions for 67 yards and some solid blocking. He has shown some nice body control in catching some low passes, but he probably has a couple jump ball-type passes he would like to have another chance to catch.

Coach of the Midseason: Mark Smith, linebackers coach. The linebackers might be the strongest unit on the team. Weakside linebacker James Ross leads the team with 50 tackles and has 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. Middle linebacker Desmond Morgan is second on the team with 47 tackles, adding 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, and 2 pass breakups. Morgan turned in a spectacular one-handed interception and 29-yard return against UConn. Meanwhile, converted defensive end Brennen Beyer (18 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) has been splitting time with Cam Gordon (15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) at SAM linebacker while Jake Ryan (5 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) has been returning from his ACL tear. The SAM trio has combined for 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 5 sacks, which are some pretty good numbers for the position.

Disappointing Player of the Midseason: Devin Gardner, QB. The hype for Gardner was off the charts in the off-season, with coaches, analysts, and players talking about how good he was going to be. At times Gardner has looked excellent (against Notre Dame, second half against Penn State, flashes in every game), but overall, the numbers and ball security have been unimpressive. With 10 interceptions and numerous fumbles after just six games, he’s been extremely frustrating to watch if you’re a Michigan fan.

Disappointing Coach of the Midseason: Al Borges, offensive coordinator. Borges, who doubles as the quarterbacks coach, has lacked creativity in his play calling recently. The Penn State game was extremely vanilla except for some odd unbalanced formations that included using poor blocking tight end A.J. Williams as a left tackle and generally running to the strength in some very obvious formations and situations. Borges has struggled to make his quarterback comfortable, and that has resulted in turnover after turnover. Overall, the team is averaging just 4.2 yards/carry, even though the most consistent rusher (Gardner) averages 5.5 yards/pop. Michigan’s scoring average is good enough for #11 in the country, but the sky would be the limit if they had a consistent running threat aside from Gardner.

Game of the Midseason: Penn State. Michigan is yet to have a completely dominating performance where both the offense and the defense clicked. I refuse to choose the 59-9 win against Central Michigan, since both the starting running back and starting quarterback for the Chippewas were injured early in the game. The Penn State game was exciting for lots of wrong reasons (overtimes, missed field goals, blocked field goals, interceptions, big plays, etc.), but it was nonetheless exciting. Michigan lost 43-40 in four overtimes, unfortunately.

Play of the Midseason: Desmond Morgan’s interception against UConn. Quite possibly the most exciting play of the year was Desmond Morgan’s one-handed pick against the Connecticut Huskies. He got depth to get underneath a post route, leaped up, and pulled the ball down with his right hand. A 29-yard return ensued in which he showed some nice vision, if not some decent speed for a MIKE linebacker.