After a surprising and rejuvenating 10-3 campaign a year ago, the Michigan Wolverines enter 2016 with one of the better situations throughout the Big Ten. But there’s one important caveat: Michigan must improve its linebacker play.
That’s easier said than done, however. Michigan returns six defensive starters to an elite unit that finished fourth nationally in total defense (280.7 total yards allowed per game) and sixth in scoring defense (16.4 points allowed per game).
That’s all good news. The bad news is Michigan won’t be returning much talent at linebacker.
The Wolverines lost their top four linebackers from a year ago, leaving behind a relatively unproven group aside from the versatile Jabrill Peppers, who will see more time in the box this season as a hybrid linebacker.
Veterans Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray are the players expected to fill the voids at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively. Gedeon recorded 34 tackles last season and has appeared in 37 games as a reserve. McCray missed the entire 2015 season with a shoulder injury and has only played 11 games during his injury-plagued career. Both had impressive springs, but will enter the fall with plenty of unanswered questions.
Michigan also isn’t overly deep at the position. Redshirt sophomore Noah Furbush, true freshman Devin Bush Jr., and walk-on Mike Wroblewski – a converted lineman – could factor into the rotation, but none are bonafide options.
Those questions within the linebacking group make a perilous 2015 trend even more relevant.
Michigan allowed an average of 189.3 yards per game on the ground during their final six contests and surrendered at least 300 yards twice during the second half of the season. Every opponent except for Penn State averaged at least four yards per carry during that span, even Rutgers. Rival Ohio State averaged a gaudy 6.83 yards per carry during its 42-13 thumping of Michigan at the Big House.
Despite that troubling trend, the Wolverines still finished 16th in run defense. Perhaps a defense that was forced to carry the team at times throughout the season wore down near the end. But Michigan’s struggles down the stretch shouldn’t be ignored.
The good news is the Wolverines have plenty of pieces in place to supplement the rebuilding linebacking corps. Veteran defensive linemen Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow all return to the trenches. The Wolverines will add the No. 1 recruit in the nation, defensive tackle Rashan Gary, this fall. Those hogs across the line of scrimmage will be especially important this season.
A new aggressive scheme under newly-hired defensive coordinator Don Brown should give Michigan a diverse look strategically. Brown’s former school, Boston College, ranked second in the nation against the run last season, allowing 83.2 rushing yards per game. Brown will implement a blitz-heavy system that could cause havoc against both the run and the pass and likely will emphasize the importance of gap responsibility among its veteran linemen.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be encouraged by what he saw from his linebackers during spring practice. He even went so far as to call Gedeon a “stud.” The Wolverines might not need studs at linebacker and competency will likely do the trick. But anything less than that could result in similar struggles against the run during the entire 2016 season and that won’t bode well for Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes.