At this time last year, prospects for the SAM linebacker position were great. But by the end of spring football, there were more questions and fears than anything else because of Jake Ryan’s ACL tear. But Ryan made a speedy recovery and an impressive return, and his absence early in the season brought more depth to the SAM spot. A lot can happen between now and next fall, but at this point, there seems to be the same optimism there was a year ago.
THE GOOD: Senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer really played well as they stepped in for Ryan. Some wondered if there would be a huge drop in production or a gap in the defense without Ryan on the field and it really didn’t seem that noticeable in the first few games, which is a credit to Beyer, Gordon and the defensive coaches. In the 2012 season, Ryan took the majority of snaps at the SAM position and Beyer played on the defensive line, so neither Gordon nor Beyer came in with the experience of an upperclassman at the position. But with Ryan sidelined, both played very, very well, and when Ryan came back, the rotation still seemed to work. Gordon led the team in sacks (five) and Beyer was second on the team with five quarterback hurries. Ryan played in eight games and finished the season with 30 tackles. The position, as a whole, was productive. The three accounted for 97 tackles, including 17 for loss.
THE BAD: Obviously the Ryan injury was terribly unfortunate for both himself and the defense. Had he played a whole season and been 100 percent, he could have been in the running for conference or national awards, based in his production in 2012 as a sophomore. The injury also forced Beyer and Gordon to move around … again. Gordon came in to Michigan as a wide receiver before being moved to safety and then outside linebacker. Beyer has flip-flopped from SAM to defensive end nearly every season for the Wolverines. All things considered, the trio seemed to make the best out of a situation that was less than favorable.
THE FUTURE: Ryan will be the Wolverines’ starter in 2014 as a senior, and with another offseason of weight training and conditioning, he should be able to play almost full games at the spot. When he needs to take a break here and there, the coaches are going to have to decide whether they want to go with Beyer -- who should be back on the defensive line, but can come in at SAM to give Ryan a break -- or Allen Gant, who could use the experience as a sophomore but only played on special teams this season. Past that, the coaching staff would really be looking at true freshman talent, so it seems doubtful they’d get that far. Depending on the situation, Gant might be the better way to go because he’s going to need the experience. Ryan and Beyer will graduate after next season, so it would be good to have someone step into Ryan’s shoes with a bit of experience.