Smith "Feeling Pretty Good" About LBs

Michigan linebacker coach Mark Smith sat down with GoBlueWolverine's Sam Webb recently to discuss progression of the players at his position this far in fall camp. Smith highlighted the leadership emerging at the position, the growth of Joe Bolden, and James Ross, Desmond Morgan's move to the MIKE, Royce Jenkins-Stone's improvement, and more.

Sam Webb: What kind of sign, what kind of strides have you seen from your guys at your position?

Mark Smith: “At this point Sam, very, very pleased with the work ethic and the commitment and the improvement that they’re made from spring ball. You see them being a little more knowledgeable about the game. You see the new kids still trying to play catch-up a little bit. But at this point after one week of camp, [I] feel pretty good.”

Sam Webb: One big aspect of it is leadership. You don’t have a senior in that group. Have you seen, for instance, Desmond [Morgan] step up into that role?

Mark Smith: “You know, we actually, before camp started, knowing the situation we were in, we sat and talked about it as a position one day. And we talked about leadership and who it has to come from and where it has to come from and Desmond has tried to step up. But you know what? We talked about leadership; it is not dictated by age. It’s dictated by who you are and how you handle yourself. We talk about commitment, accountability, and respect and trust that this program was built on. I think the leadership part of it is coming along fine and more-so from how they act rather than what they say. So I’ve been happy about it.”

Sam Webb: You slid Desmond over to the MIKE. How do his talents really translate to where he’s playing now?

Mark Smith: “It’s probably a little more of the true leadership role of the defense as far a setting fronts and moving people; taking calls and making adjustments. Not that both linebackers have to be able to do that. But the guy in the middle is obviously the guy that is capable of getting to both sides of the field versus, “Okay if I’m only playing the strong side or the weak side.” It’s going to take me a little longer I’m not going to get there as quick. The guy in the middle can go both ways. So that’s the biggest difference. I think it’s just a different vantage point or view that you see. The coverage aspect of it changes a little bit. Who he’s dropping off of and when he’s responsible for. But as far as the fundamentals and the techniques it takes to play the position doesn’t change much.”

Sam Webb: So James Ross; I talked to him. He said he doesn’t weigh more [than he did last year], it’s just distributed differently. He feels like he’s not only faster physically, but he’s playing faster because of his mental progression as well. Have you seen that from him?

Mark Smith: “There isn’t any doubt. Our strength program here with Aaron Wellman, bar none, is the best in the country. He has done a remarkable job of changing James’ body. You see a kid now that was a good sized kid, not so much height-wise, but he was thick. But you see a solid thick now. Along with that, you don’t see a change in his movement. He’s a very athletic kid that moves very well. So it’s nice to have that kind of pop to him but still keep that athleticism.”

Sam Webb: I got a chance to talk to you and Coach Mattison about Joe Bolden a little bit more. One thing [Mattison] said that kind of stuck with me; he said [Joe] came in as a freshman knowing football [thanks to]  coming from a football family. But like a lot of freshmen, despite that, he came in and he was seeing everything on the field and not just his keys. But {Mattison] feels like now he’s starting to see his keys and that’s making him play faster. Have you noticed that as well?

Mark Smith: “No doubt. Him and James. You can’t replace experience. You can practice. You can do drills. But when they actually have to go out and play and be on their own where you’re not just standing close where you can yell stuff out to them, there’s nothing that replaces experience. So for those two kids, getting the chance to play quite a bit a year ago, particularly Joe. You look; he played the whole Outback Bowl basically. You can see now that they feel much more comfortable about what they’re doing. And not just what they’re doing, but what people around them are doing.”

Sam Webb: When we were talking to Brady just a few minutes ago, he said Royce Jenkins-Stone, he felt like first week of camp, was a guy he was really noticing. [He] was really doing well. What have you seen from Royce?

Mark Smith: “I’ll tell you, Royce and I have discussed this and talked about it quite often… [he’s] a much more focused player, staying on task, doing the things on a daily basis that he needs to do. Royce has all the physical tools you’re looking for. It’s just a matter of understanding better and remembering what he needs to do. And to this point, after one week, he’s done a great job.”

Sam Webb: He was in a position physically last year [where] you guys wanted him on the football field to help you. He was physically ready to go even he wasn’t ready to really step in at [linebacker]. What about your freshmen this year? I know you’ve only been in there a week but do you kind of see a course or a track that they’re on? Is it going to be more of the Royce path or more of the Joe Bolden / James Ross path?

Mark Smith: “You know, Sam, it’s a little early to tell yet because we’ve been one week but also just one day in full pads. And they’ve still had some off the field commitments that they’ve had to take care of. So rather than put expectations on them or anything, I will tell you this. They are working hard and they’re kids who learn well when you tell them something; they’re pretty sharp at picking it up. So we’ll wait and see how it all shakes down for them, but I think we recruited the right ones. I’ll put it that way.”

Sam Webb: When you look ahead, are you really rotating two guys at two positions or are you going even deeper than that?

Mark Smith: “Well, ideally, for sure we’d like to rotate two. After that, I think it’s hard to get a consistent amount of practice time where they all get enough practice reps that you can get three guys consistently ready. But what you’re looking for are the top two at each position. You have a third guy that you feel good about that if a guy goes down on a long term basis, or maybe they just compete better that week, you can make roster changes weekly. From the standpoint of rotating three guys at one position during the course of the game? Not usually. [You’re] usually looking for two guys that can alternate back and forth.”

Sam Webb: Like I said. I know you guys really haven’t gotten out there for an extended period of time in full pads. But do you feel like guys, even at the linebacker position or even more broadly as a defense, are faster and more athletic this year.

Mark Smith: “Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. You see size but you also see athleticism and speed. I talk to the D-linemen every day. I say, “Guys. If you guys show up and play, my linebackers look good.” And they’ve done a great job to this point. It’s an easy position to play when you’ve got four big hawses in front of you that they have to worry about and they have to account for them. Now they don’t get up on the second level quite as easy.”

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