|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.