Opponents preview: Michigan defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's look at the 2005 Wolverines

Michigan is making a switch from a multiple front 3-4 defense to a 4-3 set this season, creating a number of position changes, some relatively subtle, in the front seven. More importantly, the Wolverines are looking to replace two All-American defensive backs and two starting linebackers. UM's defense was middle of the pack in the Big Ten for most of 2004 but struggled in season-ending losses to Ohio State and Texas.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 336.3 yards per game allowed (No. 33 nationally); 339.6 in conference-only games (No. 5 Big Ten)
Scoring defense: 23.3 (42); 22.8 (6)
Passing defense: 202.9 (43); 196.4 (5)
Passing efficiency: 114.8 (33); 119.1 (7)
Rushing defense: 133.3 (39); 143.2 (5)
Touchdowns allowed: 33 – 19 rushing, 14 passing; 20 – 11 rushing, 9 passing (5)
Third-down defense: 35 percent - 65 of 186; 30.4 – 38 of 125 (1)
Turnovers gained: 27 – 16 interceptions and 11 of 26 fumbles (18); 11 – five fumbles, six interceptions (5)
Net punting: 34.4 (77); 36.9 (6)
Kick coverage: 19.6 (49); 19.3 (2)
Punt coverage: 13.1 (103)

Defensive line analysis

The front four will be the engine that drives Michigan's defense this season, particularly mammoth defensive tackle Gabriel Watson and end LaMarr Woodley.

If Watson, who stands 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, can smooth out a few rough edges, he could be the best lineman in the Big Ten and one of the most dominate defensive players around. He is an extremely disruptive force, especially in the running game. Watson just needs to keep his motor running every play and he needs to have the conditioning to stay at a high performance level all season long.

The latter could be made easier by Michigan's strong depth at its tackle positions. Pat Massey (6-8, 285) is making the shift from 3-4 end to 4-3 tackle, after starting 21 games at end in his career. The fifth-year senior had 37 tackles and five sacks last year.

Massey's backup at tackle is another anchor inside, sophomore Alex Branch (6-6, 325), who played in all 12 games last year as a true freshman.

Both Massey and Branch could slide out to end. Redshirt freshman Marques Johnson (6-0, 280) could command significant playing time behind Watson and Massey. Another reserve tackle to watch is redshirt freshman Will Johnson (6-4, 290).

The best player on Michigan's defense, though, is Woodley. A second-team All-Big Ten performer at rush end/linebacker last year, Woodley will play end this season. At 6-2, 270 he has good size for the position and the strength to shed blocks and play well against the run. But he also has the athleticism to make plays all over the field and could slide over to rush end or slide back to linebacker in situations. Last season Woodley led UM with 16 tackles for loss, was second in tackles with 70 and second in sacks with four.

The Wolverines front should be very good against the run and has the potential to present a formidable pass rush. But the latter needs to become a reality for a team with adequate talent at linebacker and questions in the secondary.

Woodley and Massey will get after it, but other players need to step up. First among them is the other starting end, senior Pierre Woods (6-5, 250). A converted outside linebacker, UM is counting on Woods to create a good tandem with Woodley. Woods had an outstanding sophomore season in 2003, with 68 tackles, 13 for loss and seven sacks. But he struggled last year and finished with just 22-2-0.

Second-year player Tim Jamison (6-3, 250) has the potential to be a star, but he played just three games last year, making four tackles, before a knee injury wiped away the rest of the season. He was still limited this spring but is expected to be a force off the bench in the fall at rush end, particularly as a pass rusher. Woodley's primary backup at end, junior Jeremy Van Alstyne (6-4, 260), could not take part in spring due to a foot injury. UM has considerable talent at end, but little depth, so injury problems during the season could make this defense came unwound.

Junior Rondell Biggs (6-2, 280) will be in the rotation.

Linebackers analysis

This is a competent if unspectacular group that lacks depth.

Junior Prescott Burgess (6-3, 235) will likely start at sam linebacker after making 27 tackles in 11 games as a reserve last year. He and sophomore reserve Shawn Crable (6-5, 245) could also move up and play rush end.

Chris Graham's size (5-10, 225) makes him unassuming, but he is a solid playmaker who will get the start at will linebacker after playing in all 12 games as a true freshman last season. His backup is junior converted safety Jacob Stewart (6-0, 225). True freshman Brandon Logan (6-1, 210) could factor in as well.

Fifth-year senior Scott McClintock (6-2, 245) is the starter in the middle, but junior David Harris (6-2, 245) will also command playing time. Redshirt freshman Johnny Thompson (6-2, 230) has potential.

McClintock started 10 games last season and was fourth on the team with 58 tackles. In his career he has played in all 37 possible games, with 13 starts, 134 tackles and eight tackles for loss.

Secondary analysis

This the weakest unit on the Michigan team this year. A couple of solid starters return but replacing cornerback Marlin Jackson and strong safety Ernest Shazor, a pair of All Americans, will be extremely difficult. If the front seven cannot control the line of scrimmage and pressure quarterbacks, the defensive backs could be in for a long season.

On the plus side, junior Ryan Mundy (6-1, 205) returns at free safety after starting all 12 games there last season. He is a sturdy player who had 51 tackles and two interceptions last season.

Sophomore Brandent Engelmon (6-0, 200) will start at strong safety in place of Shazor, who led UM in tackles last season. Engelmon had 13 tackles in 12 games a year ago, including eight stops on special teams.

Sophomore Jamar Adams (6-2, 205) will serve as the top reserve safety after playing in eight games last year, mostly on special teams.

Junior Leon Hall (5-11, 190) is back and is one of the better corners in the Big Ten. He had 48 tackles and two picks last season, starting nine of 12 games. He started three of 13 games as a true freshman two years ago and led UM with three interceptions.

Fifth-year senior Grant Mason (6-0, 195) looks like the starter at the other corner. But he could be pushed by redshirt freshman Morgan Trent (6-0, 185), true freshman Brandon Harrison (5-8, 190) and redshirt freshman Charles Stewart (6-1, 195). Mason had 20 tackles and made one start in 12 games last year.

Special teams notes

Punter Adam Finley and kickoff specialist Troy Nienberg will be replaced by incoming freshman Zoltan Mesko (6-4, 230) and incumbent place kicker junior Garrett Rivas (5-9, 215).

Nienberg's kickoffs traveled 60.9 yards on average last season, with 16 of 70 resulting in touchbacks. Rivas is a fine kicker, but he is not known for his leg strength so it will be interesting to see how well he does handling kickoffs. The kick coverage was solid last year but Nienberg had something to do with that.

Finley averaged 43 yards per punt in 2004, but only 13 were downed inside the 20, compared to 10 touchbacks. And UM's punt coverage was weak.

Matching up with Wisconsin

Lining up across from Watson and Massey, this could be a signature game for Donovan Raiola, considered one of the Big Ten's top two or three centers. His interior linemates at guard — Jason Palermo, Matt Lawrence and/or Andy Kemp — will also be in for a stiff challenge. Give the advantage there to Michigan. But expect left tackle Joe Thomas to fair rather well against whomever he matches up with, even Woodley.

The Wolverines ought to have a strong run defense, with their deep, talented corps of tackles leading the way. Expect a below average performance in this regard from UW's offense. UM's size and athleticism up front will make it very difficult for the Badgers to establish anything between the tackles.

But UW's offensive line should be pretty respectable at pass blocking and Michigan does not have enough good pass rushers to consider this a strength. In the secondary, the Wolverines will be susceptible to teams that can throw several quality receivers at them. And in wide outs Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White and tight end Owen Daniels the Badgers have a senior quartet that could be tough for UM to match up with. Hall and Mundy will be fine, but the rest of the Wolverines' secondary will be challenged.

The talent differential here is not enough that the Wolverines should be expected to struggle. Far from it. But enough matchups would seem to favor UW that if quarterback John Stocco is on, and if he has time to deliver the ball, the Badgers' offense will have a productive day.

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