A Michigan defense that started coming along towards the end of last season is looking to make strides in 2013. The defense was dominant against Central Michigan last weekend, but I wouldn’t have expected anything else. With injuries playing a role in their matchup with the Irish this weekend, who knows what version of the Wolverine defense we’re going to see Saturday night.
Defensive Line: Last season, the Michigan pass rush was inept at best. The Wolverines ranked just 78th in sacks per game last season. Michigan’s defensive line is anchored by seniors, Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. Washington isn’t huge up front but was effective against the run last season with 32 tackles. Next to Washington is Jibreel Black; at 6-2 and 275lbs is effective with his quickness off the ball, but his size can be a hindrance against the run. The main difference for Michigan’s line this season is their depth. Sophomore Ondre Pipkins helps improve an ailing pass rush along with Willie Henry, who is over 300 pounds, and is expected to step in behind Black against the run. Michigan is excited about defensive end, Keith Heitzman who should bring a consistent threat of a pass rush at 6-3, 277 pounds. With an improved defensive line, full of young depth and athleticism, the Irish offensive line will face off against a formidable opponent at the Big House.
Linebackers: Replacing the Wolverines best defensive player last season (Jake Ryan, out till October rehabbing a torn ACL) is fifth year Senior, Cameron Gordon. A former safety, Gordons speed replaces void at SAM Linebacker, for now. At weak side or WILL linebacker stands sophomore James Ross who had a good freshmen season with 36 tackles as a reserve, earning the starting nod this season. The middle of the line backing corps is secured by Desmond Morgan, at 6-1, 228lb; the junior is a surprisingly stingy presence against the run.
The Secondary: Perhaps the most consistent unit for Michigan’s defense, with Thomas Gordon holding down the defensive backfield; Rees will need to be confident is his reads. Last season, Thomas racked up 81 tackles and 2 interceptions and is known to bring the wood to opposing receivers. Back from injury is Blake Countess, a redshirt sophomore, who sees time at cornerback and moves to nickel back when Michigan goes to its nickel package. At the other cornerback position looms junior Raymon Taylor. Taylor is known to be a great open field tackler, which is something Michigan will need against the elusive receiving corps of the Fighting Irish.
Analysis: While Michigan’s pass rush needs to improve from last year, they still finished the 2012 season ranked 13th in total defense. With arguably the Big Ten’s best defense last season, the Irish have a much tougher test to pass this weekend if they plan to start the season 2-0.
The Wolverines have improved up front and redshirt freshman, Ronnie Stanley faces his first big challenge under the light in Ann Arbor. The rest of the Irish offensive line leaves much less to be pondered with the talent and depth of guards Christian Lombard and Chris Watt along with tackle, Zach Martin protecting Rees’ blind side. While the Irish boast talent depth in the trenches, so does Michigan; I expect the Irish to be challenged here but ultimately hold strong and keep Tommy clean, for the most part. The game will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage.
The Michigan linebackers in where the Irish have the biggest advantage. Nobody on Michigan’s defense can cover Troy Nicklas one on one, period. Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly have to incorporate him into the offense this weekend and take advantage of the matchups. Along with Nicklas, the threat of the Irish running backs is a force to be reckoned with; and while the defensive line of Michigan is improved, they are not proven against a high level running game. Look for Greg Bryant to get a chance this weekend to establish a running game between the tackles.
The secondary is where Michigan has a slight advantage over the Irish. With Thomas Gordon and Jarrod Wilson patrolling the back end of the defense, the deep balls to Daniels and Jones will be tougher to come by. The speed of the secondary and linebackers will force Rees to move in the pocket, make accurate reads and even more accurate throws.
It’s going to be a tight game and will show us if the Irish offense is ready to take charge in 2013.