U-M Spring Game Review: Defensive Stars

GoBlueWolverine's look back at some of the notable performers on the defensive side of the ball. Quinton Washington, Frank Clark, Taco Charlton, James Ross, and more.

No winner was anointed in Michigan's spring game Saturday, but if one had been, the defense would have reined victorious. The talk of the consistent havoc being wreaked by Greg Mattison's unit over the past month wasn't overblown. Leading the way were a couple of defenders that appear poised to take their games to another level.

First on the list was senior nose tackle, Quinton Washington was unblockable at times. The South Carolina native began the day by manhandling opponents in one-on-one drills. On one memorable occasion he tossed redshirt sophomore center Jack Miller to the side like the 6-4, 291-pounder wasn't even there. During game action Washington's number wasn't called that often for making tackles, but his presence was undeniable. He consistently freed up linebackers to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Jibreel Black also proved effective at applying pressure up the middle. He still stands out as the quickest interior lineman off the snap and was able to get up field in a hurry. Black notched a sack, but and showed an improved ability to hold position at the point of attack.

Frank Clark was every bit as impressive on the outside and the aforementioned two on the inside. He was a force during one-on-ones thanks to his patented speed rush and his newly effective bull-rush. The added strength was especially obvious during one of his victories over Michael Schofield. During scrimmage action he also notched one of the Wolverines five sacks on the day.

"I want to be a player that Coach Mattison can rely on," Clark said afterward. "I want to be that player that he can look at that says 'I know Frank can make that play.' I want him to know that if it is third down and five or third down and 10 that I am going to be the guy that is going to sack the quarterback and make a play."

Doing that consistently throughout the spring was one of Clark's more noticeable improvements, but it wasn't his biggest one.

"I think one of the biggest things is that Frank Clark is really emerging as a leader," Taylor Lewan stated. "I think that is a really big deal because you need leaders -- you need leaders everywhere."

"I think I believe I have made my biggest steps as a leader," Clark added. I'm trying to bring the young guys up with me. I'm not a selfish player. I want everybody to come up after me and eat. I want other players to look at me as a role model. That is where I think I have grown the most."

Orange jerseys meant nothing to Charlton
USA TODAY Sports

Two of the players Clark is charged with leading are Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Like Clark, Ojemudia grabbed the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, while Charlton did so twice. The freshman defensive lineman's weight and strength gains in his short time on campus have been praised by the coaches. Saturday he showed why, frequently too quick and overpowering for the reserve lineman. He bested redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson a couple of times on the day. The only real criticism of the early enrollee was his complete and utter disregard for the orange jerseys. Orange was supposed to mean stop Saturday. Charlton never did.

Moving back to the linebacker position, the star of the afternoon and arguably the entire scrimmage was James Ross. The sophomore LB was a heat-seeking missile. Whether it was stuffing Drake Johnson in the backfield, pressuring the quarterback on blitzes, or tracking plays to the perimeter… Ross seemed to be get to the action wherever it occurred, and he got there in a hurry. He finished the day with eight tackles, including two for loss.

Junior linebacker Desmond Morgan looked more comfortable in coverage. He goaded Devin Gardner into his worse pass of the day. Morgan watched Gardner's eyes lock onto his primary target, waited for the throw, and then broke on the ball for what should have been a pick six. The only problem was he forgot to squeeze the pigskin.

On the outside it was a very memorable day for senior strongside linebacker, Cameron Gordon. The man of many positions finally looks at home. He spent very little time thinking and a great deal of time reacting. That was apparent during a stunt where he knifed into the backfield for a QB pressure to force an errant pass. On one run play he set a hard edge, dismissed his blocker, and tackled Dennis Norfleet in the backfield for a tackle for loss. He did the very same thing on another play, but Norfleet escaped his grasp. It was one error on a day in which Gordon didn't make very many.

In the secondary the corners did an impressive job of breaking on the ball. That was likely aided by their knowledge that the QB was going to have to get rid of the ball quickly. Raymon Taylor and true freshman Ross Douglas both had pass break-ups where the broke on the ball and jarred it loose from receivers with hard hits. Delonte Hollowell also looked more comfortable out there. The former Cass Tech standout ran with the ones in a recent scrimmage and looks like he has begun feeling like he belongs.

Other notes…

  • Keith Heitzman was the fourth member of the starting front and he too got into the backfield for a QB pressure.

  • Dymonte Thomas looks like he will be a weapon for this team. He turned in one of the day's top defensive plays, breaking up a pass over the middle at the goal line and almost picking it off.

  • On the comeback front, Chris Wormley showed in one-on-one drills that his quickness is coming back.

  • Fellow redshirt freshman Willie Henry busted through the line for a tackle for loss during scrimmage action.

  • Kaleb Ringer came through with a couple of jarring hits on the day. He doesn't look quite 100% yet, but that he is moving around fairly well and isn't playing tentative are both encouraging signs.

  • Jeremy Clark is a hulking figure in the secondary. Shades of Ernest Shazor as far as his stature is concerned. He dispatched of the quarterback with a shove out of bounds late in the scrimmage. He got lost in coverage a time or two, but he is another example of a player that looks like he has started to feel like he belongs.

  • Allen Gant is still manning the safety spot. He came up in run support and laid one of the day's biggest hits.

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