ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- If there is an underrated assistant coach on Michigan’s staff, it might very well be linebackers coach Mark Smith.
After seeing how much Michigan’s linebackers improved this season and how every one of them maximized his abilities, he might be the best overall position coach on a staff that includes a future coaching star in Jerry Montgomery.
While defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has often worked with the Wolverines’ emerging star, Jake Ryan, a look at the growth of the entire unit should earn Smith a lot of praise once the season ends.
The players, though, deserve much of the credit as well. A young group other than Kenny Demens entering the season, they were the best unit on the Wolverines by midseason and one of the tops in the league by the end of it.
A lot. Ryan became the strongest part of the Michigan defense and one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. He was around the ball almost every play, led the Wolverines with 84 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss, forced four fumbles and was generally a menace in opponent’s backfields.
Demens didn’t play particularly well at the beginning of the season, but emerged as a trustworthy middle linebacker in his final season, finishing third in tackles for loss (six) and second in tackles (81) while also improving his pass coverage.
Desmond Morgan turned a decent freshman season into a breakout sophomore year, finishing third on Michigan in tackles (78) despite missing two games to injury. He won’t wow you with athleticism, but his instincts are close to Ryan’s.
Michigan’s youth also stood out. James Ross III and Joe Bolden forced their way into a rotation and showed precocious ability. Ross III’s athleticism and speed, once harnessed with better technique, could turn him into a special player.
Much of what would go here is nitpicking. Demens and Morgan had times where they were inconsistent, and Morgan had some injuries throughout the season.
There were times the trio missed tackles and struggled a little when they were forced in space against spread teams (read: Northwestern), but for the most part, this group was one of the best in the Big Ten.
There is very little not to like about the future of Michigan’s linebackers. While Michigan loses Demens, the combination of Ryan, Morgan, Ross III, Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone should pick up Demens' production without much, if any, drop.
All of those players will have at least two years of eligibility remaining and add more depth and talent with Kaleb Ringer coming off a knee injury with a redshirt along with incoming freshmen Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray.
This position group could be Michigan’s strongest for the next half-decade if most of these players pan out.