Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Linebackers

My continuing attempt to look at reasons to feel good and bad about the upcoming season by position group.

If you look at last year's team on paper, one position group jumped out above all others as the strength of the defense.  The linebacking corp returned a two year starter at MLB in RS-junior Obi Ezeh and the previous year's starter at WLB in junior Jonas Mouton.  The two were joined by senior Stevie Brown in the new hybrid safety/linebacker position.  Brown was plagued by mistakes in his time at safety in the previous years and was unsuitable for the defensive backfield.  He was placed at what is now the Spur position as a stopgap.  If he turned in a solid campaign in '09, everyone would be relieved.

Jonas Mouton
But oh how the tables have turned.  Brown turned out to be the best LB of the bunch, leading the team in tackles leading to his going in the 7th round of the NFL draft.  Somehow, Ezeh continued to be on Mel Kiper's top five list (does he watch the games!?) after turning in another disappointing season that saw him get benched late in the season in favor of a 200 lbs. walk-on.  Mouton didn't fare much better, only retaining his weak hold on the starting job at WLB because JB Fitzgerald couldn't step up and take it from the under-performing junior.

What does the future have in store this year?

Glass half empty, this unit continues to add to the heart problems I am no doubt developing by continuing to watch this defense.  It is no secret that players make the largest jump in talent early in their career as they adjust to the college game and become physically ready for the grind of a twelve game D-1 schedule.  Theoretically, if Ezeh and Mouton were going to turn into All-Big Ten linebackers, they would have done it last year or the year before.

Mouton has loads of athletic ability, coming to UM as a highly ranked safety who was slated to bulk up for the role he is in now.  Problem is, the mental aspect of the game hasn't followed his physical maturation.  When executing blitzes Mouton has shown promise, but linebackers are faced with more responsibilities than just, "run downhill and tackle the QB."  Mouton routinely over pursues and gets caught out of position on run plays.  This is not what you want from the guy on the weakside who is supposed to lay the wood on any cutbacks in the running game.

This about sums it up.
Ezeh, for what he lacks in recruiting rankings entering college (only a three star runningback) he makes up for in game experience.  Ezeh has racked up more starts than anyone else, first starting as a promising rs-freshman, but then taking steps back in in each subsequent season.

That leaves the backbone of UM's defense this year manned by its two most experienced players, but the two most underachieving   and often infuriating   players from last year's failed campaign.

But not so fast my friend, it seems Ezeh can't even hold on to his starting position thus far in fall camp.  Bad news, it isn't RS-soph Kenny Demens pushing the beleaguered Ezeh but rather the former fullback Mark Moundros.  So the three year starter can't hold off a former walk-on who spent his entire career up until this spring at fullback.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.  And both these two look to be the same over-matched linebacker tandem that has continually disappointed over the past two years.

On the other hand, the glass might be half full.  Might.

For the first off-season since UM was coming off a BCS bowl appearance, there will not be a full scale change at defensive coordinator.  That in itself is good, as continuity in the system should at least guarantee a level of play equal or slightly better to last year   a rather low baseline I know, but bare with me while I grasp at straws.  However, there was one coaching change on the defensive side of the ball.  Former linebacker coach Jay Hopson has taken his talents to Memphis, and left behind a unit that has not improved at all under his watch.  Replacing him is none other than the fair haired Greg Robinson himself, taking over linebacker coaching duties after coaching a much improved Brown at Spur and an overachieving true freshman Roh (more on him later) at deathbacker.  This is the same man who is responsible for Stevie Brown's final year turn around.

So what we have are two continually under performing linebackers who will now be coached by the guy who turned Stevie Brown from the player most likely to make me pull my hair out to a player who led the team in tackles and was arguable the second best player on the defense last year.

We aren't likely to see the kind of drastic career resurgence that Stevie Brown showed last year.  For one, Brown moved positions from one that exploited his weakness (an inability to play deep pass coverage) to one that amplified his strength (run support and coverage in the flats).  Mouton and Ezeh are still in the same positions that occasionally see their biggest weaknesses give the other team open tight end crossing routes for an entire game, or allow Kirk Cousins to cut back to wide open field for 41 yards (excuse me while I slam my head in the door).

On the bright side, if this unit just plays average and cuts down on the disastrous mistakes, it could mean a solid improvement in both run and pass defense.  Hopefully the subtle shift to a 3-3-5 will give Mouton more opportunities to show off his freaky athleticism, and Ezeh might attack his gap once or twice a game instead of waiting for the running back to meet him four yards downfield.  At least we have a baseline of suck for this unit.  If they perform that bad again, pray that the offense's glass is a helluva lot more full than just half.

(Bonus glass half full - Mark Moundros.  Yes, he is a former walk-on who began learning the position just months ago, and yes he looks to be unseating a three year starter.  But think of it this way:  Ezeh is bad, has been bad, and probably will be bad.  Moundros, if he supplants Ezeh, should theoretically be an improvement, even if it is only a slight improvement.  On the other hand, he is a former walk-on FB who just began learning the position six months ago.  The defense might not be pretty this year, but it'll sure be interesting.)

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