Changes to expect in 2014: MLB Jake Ryan

The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some big changes that fans will see in the spring game next month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

The linebackers were the most productive and deep group on the Wolverines' roster this season. Generally when something works, the last thing any coach would want to do is change it. However, with the Michigan coaches moving players around in position groups, the make up of the linebackers will see some changes as well.

Desmond Morgan will play weakside linebacker and James Ross III will move to the strongside. But the most interesting move is shifting Jake Ryan from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker.

Ryan was the Wolverines’ best defensive player two seasons ago. Last year, after returning from an ACL injury, he showed flashes of being that same player, but he wasn’t able to display it consistently. Now, with another offseason of development coming up, much is expected of Ryan in his final season at Michigan.

The coaches believe that the move to inside linebacker will help Ryan play up to his potential and create more of the big plays that he was known for two seasons ago.

“From a playmaking standpoint, you’re putting him in the middle of the defense,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I think that’s an aspect that’s good.”

Ryan said he’s excited about the move and eager to do whatever the team needs in order to have a more successful season in 2014. One of the main differences is that Ryan will go from reading the tight end, as he did on the strongside, to reading the running back.

It’s a way to allow Ryan to become more involved throughout the course of a game. With defensive coordinator Greg Mattison becoming the linebackers coach, moving Ryan to middle linebacker presumably makes him the focal point of the defense.

Ryan should be able to disrupt to opposing running games while also being more involved in defending the passing game by dropping into coverage. Presumably, Mattison will try to use Ryan similarly to how he used Ray Lewis as a middle linebacker when he was with the Baltimore Ravens.

“My feeling on Jake is that he’s one of our best defensive players, and he has got to get to the football, and he’s a really good blitzer,” Mattison said. “The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now is that [strongside linebacker] was always out in the flanks. If they’re not running at him, your best player is not as involved in the game as he should be. We felt that would be a good move so he would be right in the middle of everything.”

It’s a big move for a Michigan defense that needs to make major strides next season. The Wolverines gave up 371.5 yards per game this past season (No. 41 nationally, No. 5 in the Big Ten). Michigan allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 36 nationally, No. 6 in the Big Ten) and 6.93 yards per pass attempt (No. 54 nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten).

By putting a team’s best playmaker in the middle of the defense, Ryan should be able to affect and help the Wolverines improve in all of those categories. His presence could also help the pass rush get to opposing quarterbacks with less difficulty. Last year Michigan recorded 25 sacks (tied for 65th nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten), so that number is going to need to jump next season if the Wolverines want to have a more effective defense.

Mattison said that every year he evaluates who his consistent playmakers are and then tries to find a way to get them as involved as possible. That seemed to work for Ryan at the strongside position two seasons ago, but it didn’t work quite as well in 2013. Now, with the change happening before the spring season, the Wolverines will have a chance to see how Ryan looks playing in the middle of the defense. So far, that picture appears to be bright.