The Michigan Wolverines suffered a huge setback before their 2013 regular season even begins as linebacker Jake Ryan tore his anterior cruciate ligament in one of the first spring practices of the year yesterday. The redshirt junior who led Michigan in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles (88, 16, 4.5, and 4 respectively) was poised to lead Michigan’s defense to another top-20 national ranking.
The team announced that Ryan is out indefinitely and when taking the average recovery time into consideration, it is very likely that Ryan will miss most, if not all, of the 2013 season. However, due to recent medical advancements, other high-level athletes have shown that a quick recovery is becoming increasingly possible for athletes with torn ACLs. Most notably, Adrian Peterson sustained a six-month rehabilitation program that allowed him to participate in the entire 2012 NFL regular season. Another sign of encouragement for Ryan comes from former Michigan defensive tackle Will Heininger, who tore his ACL on March 30, 2010 and returned to play the final 6 games of the season. While these impressive comebacks are not typical, they provide hope for many Michigan fans after this disparaging news.
This leads the discussion towards who will replace Ryan’s dynamic role this season. In short, no one is going to fill in for Ryan and have the same impact. Ryan provided a strong pass rush and sound tackling that is not equaled on this year’s Michigan team. However, linebacker is one of the deepest position groups this year, giving new linebacker coach Roy Manning some competent options to choose from in Desmond Morgan, James Ross, Joe Bolden, and Cam Gordon.
It is widely believed that coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are going to put the best 11 players on the field in the positions they best fit. Hoke told reporters, "What we’ll do a little different than we have before, is (Morgan and Ross) better know both positions because it makes them so you can slide guys in so you always have your best 11."
Morgan, a junior, is the closest thing the Wolverines have to a lock at linebacker after the loss of Ryan. Morgan was second (only to Ryan) in tackles last year (81) and also recorded 5 tackles for loss. He has the most starting experience out of this group, registering starts in 17 of the last 19 games and 23 appearances overall.
On Monday Hoke was asked about the then-crowded linebacking corps and how he planned to address all of the depth, referring to Morgan specifically. “I think we probably have more versatility," Hoke said. "Desmond Morgan will play some MIKE, and (James) Ross will play a little more at WILL, and put them on the field at the same time.”
Once Morgan is penciled into a starting linebacker position, the remaining starting roles become a lot more vague. Ross is a promising sophomore that has shown the ability to push Morgan for the starting role last year during his freshman campaign. Ross contributed 36 tackles last year, 2.5 for loss, before being named to the ESPN and BTN All-Big Ten Freshman team. Hoke touched on the versatility that he sees in Ross and the possibility to use him in conjunction with Morgan this year.
Joe Bolden, drawing many comparisons to fellow 2012 recruit Ross, played primarily at the middle linebacker position last year. Bolden was also named to the ESPN and BTN All-Big Ten Freshman team alongside Ross after compiling 31 tackles and 4 TFLs.
The darkhorse in this discussion is undoubtedly fifth-year senior Cam Gordon. Gordon started all 13 games for the Wolverines in 2010 before falling out of favor with the current coaching staff. Gordon, hailing from the same high school as Devin Gardner, saw limited playing time last year, recording only 17 tackles. While Gordon appeared to have little impact at the end of last year, he has impressed the coaches in his performance during winter practices. "Cam’s had a tremendous winter," Hoke said on Monday. “It will be exciting and fun to see the different things that we might be able to do.”
With the further implementation of Mattison’s defensive scheme, it is expected that the Wolverines will run a rotation of linebackers to keep everybody fresh. This makes it likely that all four players will see a considerable amount of playing time this year. It looks like Gordon will have a chance to showcase his senior leadership, while Bolden and Ross will have a big impact on Michigan’s ability to stuff the run and disrupt the backfield, one of Ryan’s specialties.