The Michigan Wolverines were counting on a strong linebacker group to carry the defense in 2013, led by junior Jake Ryan. But after Ryan tore his ACL in practice on Tuesday, Brady Hoke is left without his best player on defense and will be forced to shuffle bodies around to accommodate his absence. Luckily for Michigan, there is plenty of talent ready to step up next fall.
Replacing Ryan will not be an easy task and his absence will undoubtedly be felt throughout the season. The linebacker led the team in tackles during his sophomore year, tallying 88 tackles including 16.5 for loss and five sacks. He also had a pair of quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and five forced fumbles. He was a playmaker who was ready to be a leader on defense next fall.
The biggest issue facing the Wolverines’ linebackers without Ryan is a crippling lack of experience. Outside of junior Desmond Morgan, who started at outside linebacker last season and recorded 81 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss, Michigan doesn’t have anyone with significant starting experience on the roster. Their only seniors in the group are little-used reserve Mike Jones and Ryan’s backup Cam Gordon.
But Michigan hopes that the talent level of the group makes up for their lack of game experience. Morgan was working out at middle linebacker this spring to make room for sophomore James Ross III at weakside linebacker. Ross made an impact in two games spot starting for Morgan last season and showed the ability to be an impact player if given the opportunity.
Behind him, the Wolverines also have sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone to go along with incoming freshmen Mike McCray II and Ben Gedeon. Michigan was looking to get all of them reps in practice to compete for snaps next season, which would allow them to call more creative and versatile plays with their linebackers.
While that plan was going to be a perk thanks to their depth at the position, it may now become a necessity to cover for the lost playmaking of Ryan. Gordon will be under pressure to step up and play better than he has at any point in his long career with the Wolverines, but he may come up short as he hasn’t really shown the ability to significantly impact a game.
The interesting name to watch next fall may be McCray. Of the numerous linebackers looking for spots to fill in, he is the only one, outside of Gordon, who projects to have the size and strength to effectively play the strong-side linebacker position. If he can come in and pick up the defensive schemes quickly, he may find himself in the starting lineup while Ryan recovers.
There’s no sugar-coating how devastating losing a player of Jake Ryan’s caliber is to the Michigan defense. But with a little ingenuity and maybe some luck, the Wolverines could be able to patch things up with talented youngsters until his return next spring.