Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Defensive Line

Another installment in my season preview which looks at reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic about the coming season.  Now that Secondary and Linebacker are out of the way things should be a little more cheery around here.

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.
If UM is going to win more than they lose in 2010   a novel idea I know   the defense is going to have to show a level of competency that has been absent the last two years.  The ability of the defense to do this is going to rise and fall with the ability of the defensive line to control the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback.  Even the most optimistic view of the linebacker and secondary performance this year still recognizes the obvious shortcomings that both units have.  There will be no coverage sacks this year, and unless Greg Jones gets lost on his way to Spartan Stadium on game days and somehow ends up in Ann Arbor, there is no knight in shining armor lining up five yards deep who is capable of neutralizing the talented group of running backs the Big Ten has to offer.  With great power comes great responsibility, and the defensive line is going to have to set the tone every game.

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   word is only 10 of those pounds is in his eyebrows.  Roh was a monster in the Army All-American game coming out of high school, and has a wide array of pass rush moves that should see him terrorize quarterbacks and running backs all year.  The added weight will also help him hold up against runs directed right at him, where he proved to be a liability last year.  Joining these three at the recently vacated 3-tech spot will be either Greg Banks or Renaldo Sagesse.  Neither will be mistaken for an All-Big Ten first teamer, but should both do well against the one-on-one blocks they will most likely see.  Solid is all we ask, and solid is what we should get.  This unit could even be bolstered by the emergence of young William Campbell, who probably has another year of conditioning and development before a breakout season can be reasonable expected.  If he can steal playing time at NT later in the season, it will allow Martin to slide out to the 3-tech spot that was virtually made for a player of his talents.

Fear the brow.
All in all, this group has the potential to improve the sack numbers from last year despite the loss of Graham.  Playing undersized and out of position made it tough to rack up the gaudy stats, especially when the back seven left much to be desired in defending the pass.  While we won't have Brandon Graham, the defensive line should be full of above average contributors who are all capable of making plays and shouldering the burden that will be placed on the unit this year.

Miss you, big guy.
The glass half empty scenario is simple.  If the defensive line fails to live up to its billing, don't look any farther than Philadelphia and the only member of last years line who will be playing on Sundays.  Brandon Graham not only filled up the stat sheet on one of the worst defenses UM fans have ever seen, he did it against constant double and triple teams and game plans designed to make his life hell.  Losing the production that Graham brought won't be the defensive line's biggest problem in 2010.  Losing the ability to go largely one-on-one against offensive linemen will.  Graham provided the rest of the line, and to an extent the linebackers, with the opportunity to work in relative peace.  Mike Martin excelled at nose tackle because he had the luxury of being a somewhat overlooked factor for opposing offenses.  As the number one player on the line at NT he is guaranteed to see almost constant double teams on the interior of the line, something that teams couldn't always afford to do with Brandon Graham lined up close by.  Can Martin handle being the man?

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   and the many others that I am leaving out   are examples of Graham putting the defense on his back and single handedly making an important stop.  Graham was the catalyst for what little defensive success this team had last year.  Can Van Bergen replace a suitable fraction of that spark?

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.

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