What's that, a position group on defense that we can actually be reasonably excited about this year? You don't say.
|Graham is leaving big shoes to fill.|
Just what we can expect is still somewhat of a mystery.
Since we have moved away from the ledge and are talking about Big Ten caliber units from here on out, lets look at the positives first, then temper expectations with what could go wrong.
Glass half full? Not if Mike Martin has anything to say about it. Mike is going to smash that glass on his way to the quarterback and All-Big Ten honors. This unit is no longer The Pips to Brandon Graham's Gladys Knight. This unit is deep, experienced, and ready to breakout.
Last year Mike Martin was a sophomore starting for the first time and delivered a solid stat line of 51 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and 2 sacks from the NT position that is not his natural slot on defense. Ryan Van Bergen was a RS-sophomore who is a natural fit at DE, but was forced inside to the 3-tech DT position because of a lack of players with suitable athleticism for the position. Players who are 6'6 270 lbs don't usually hold up well on the interior of the defensive line but Van Bergen contributed 40 tackles, 6.5 TFL, and 5 sacks, solid production for a miscast DE. Craig Roh spent the year laughing at how easy Van Bergen had it inside, as Roh took over the spot of deathbacker (weakside DE/LB hybrid) at the end of fall camp despite being a true freshman and weighing a ridiculous 230 pounds. Despite getting pushed around by tackles almost one third heavier than him, Roh still came away with 37 tackles, 7.5 TFL, and 2 sacks.
The good news is that all three are back and in a better position to contribute. Martin is a year stronger and still has the athleticism to beat double teams inside to get penetration into the backfield. Van Bergen is now sliding out to try and fill the shoes of possibly the best DE ever to wear the maize and blue (and this is coming from a guy who worshiped at the temple of Woodley every fall Saturday during his undergrad years). Van Bergen is a prototypical DE and should be a better than average contributor rushing from the outside. Roh is back and finally playing at a sustainable weight of 251
|Fear the brow.|
|Miss you, big guy.|
Van Bergen is a natural DE, but hasn't played there since spot duty in '08. Now he is stepping into the shoes of the cornerstone of last year's defense. What success UM had against both the running and passing game last year began with Brandon Graham. Graham was the player who broke through the line to level Glen Winston in the backfield on a goal line stand against the Spartans. Graham was the one who almost single handedly killed a OSU drive in the Red Zone (and kudos to Tressel for calling the screen pass that neutralized Graham on that 3rd down play). Plays like this
Losing one of the best players this program has ever seen is not going to easy, and how Martin and Van Bergen respond to their increased roles in the defense will go a long way toward setting the ceiling on the defense's production this year. If these two can emerge as the All-Conference players that they have the potential to be, they should give the secondary help in disrupting the passing game and the linebackers help in controlling the run game. That can only happen if they answer the questions above.
If any unit on the defense is poised to step up and answer the tough questions, it is the defensive line. Thats good, because Brandon Graham isn't around to provide answers anymore.