Coming into the season, the linebacker position was far from Michigan’s greatest area of concern, but it was still a spot with unanswered questions. The Wolverines had to replace two-year starter Mike McCray on the weak side of the defense, as well as fill the void in leadership left by his departure.
Through the early showing against Notre Dame and Western Michigan, there’s definitely reason for fans to feel encouraged about where things stand.
Notes and Observations
In the season opener against Notre Dame, while minor injuries hampered the linebacker unit, it did give fans a look at where things stand in terms of the depth chart at the position.
While junior Devin Gil got the start at the weakside spot, there was no shortage of sophomore Josh Ross on the field, seeing roughly equal snaps in the first half. That appears to be an area where there is a true rotation rather than a clearly defined pecking order. However, when junior Devin Bush went down at the MIKE position, suffering from leg cramps, it showed just how important Ross is to the defense this year, essentially backing up two positions. He shifted inside to take Bush’s spot, playing alongside Gil instead of rotating with him.
That change in the lineup was well reported on, but one change that didn’t get as much attention was that junior Josh Uche took the place of fifth-year senior Noah Furbush at SAM in the first game, manning that spot for the entire second half. Early in the game, Furbush played a lot. In fact, he played with greater regularity than last year, seeing at least as much action as junior Khaleke Hudson, who alternates in at the VIPER position.
Uche was described in fall camp as a pass-rushing specialist, but played the full responsibilities of the position against the Fighting Irish, including making a nice play in coverage to disrupt a long pass. The next week against Western Michigan, Furbush returned, and Uche played more in that designated rusher role, but his showing in the first game should give fans hope for his future.
On a couple occasions against Western Michigan, the Wolverines lined up with three defensive linemen and four linebackers, sending Bush on the blitz one play and both Bush and Uche on the other. When just Bush rushed the passer, he drew a block, but opened up room for the interior defensive line rush, forcing a quick pass that was nearly intercepted by junior safety Josh Metellus. When both players went on the attack, it once again forced pressure, that time resulting in an interception by Furbush.
Clearly designed to produce more pass rush, this was used on third-and-long situations with multiple linebackers showing a blitz before dropping back.
Room for Work
The linebacker spot is definitely one of the strengths of the Michigan team, but there are always areas for improvement.
While not yet worth significant concern, and perhaps just something that only points to first-game excitement level, the linebackers were guilty on a handful of occasions of biting on inside run fakes, which ultimately opened up more room on the edge. That is, of course, what those backfield fakes are supposed to do, but disciplined linebacker play will always rely more on the movement of the offensive linemen directing them to play.
This did not show up again the next week against Western Michigan, although the Broncos’ offense did not attempt as much misdirection.
Against Notre Dame on a couple of occasions, and once against Western, Gil appeared a bit slow in disengaging with blockers.
Both Gil and Ross were guilty against Western Michigan of perhaps having too much faith in Bush’s ability to make a play at the line or for a loss, trailing the play with a pursuit angle that did not leave enough room for error. It worked out in different ways, however, with one seeing a negative result and the other reaping positive reward for that gamble.
On Western Michigan’s first offensive play, had Gil run straight to the sideline instead of moving forward and following directly behind Bush, he could would have stayed clear of the block that took Bush out of the play and been able to force the rusher out after a gain of about eight or nine yards. Instead, he was caught up in the wash and the run went for 25 yards.
In the other instance of note, which happened with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Ross followed closely behind Bush, helping to clean up a tackle as the Broncos’ rusher attempted to break free. No harm came from that play, and in fact, Ross helped make a stop behind the line of scrimmage. But had the tackle on Bush been broken cleanly, Ross may not have been in position to get the stop at all.
Future of the Position
The future looks bright in a number of senses, but there is definitely some uncertainty. Bush will have to consider his future after the season is over, if he feels he is ready to go to the NFL. Hudson also got recognition last season as a player that could potentially leave early, and Furbush is currently in his final season.
If the Wolverines lose all three players, then the starting three will likely be Gil at WILL, Ross at MIKE and Uche at SAM, which was a combination frequently on the field together in the second half at Notre Dame. Sophomore Jordan Anthony also got an opportunity to play at MIKE against Western Michigan, and looked solid in that limited showing, opening the possibility for him at that spot with Ross at WILL.
In a more likely pure two-deep, Anthony would backup Ross at MIKE, with Drew Singleton backing up Gil on the weak side.
Where questions do start to seep in are on the strong side of the defense, where the VIPER and SAM positions alternate. If Hudson does have a season that allows him to leave early and he pursues that option, then there isn’t much depth at VIPER. Junior Jordan Glasgow is currently the top backup, but his only action in the first two games on defense was with the game already out of reach. It also remains unclear at this point where the Wolverines will find depth behind Uche at SAM.