Linebackers get off to solid start

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The past two years had been rough. Michigan's defense had been terrible, and one of the most maligned units was the linebackers. Despite having a future second-round NFL draft pick in Jonas Mouton, it seemed like the Wolverines' linebackers did little correct under former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.

New year. New defense. New coordinator and coach.

New attitude, too.

"It's different," linebacker J.B. Fitzgerald said. "Everything is a little bit changed up when you change coaching staffs and all that. However, I think our comfort level this year is really good.

"We've learned a lot, and we've been really comfortable with the game plan and scheme so far."

There are myriad reasons. First is the scheme. The past two years, Michigan ran a 3-3-5, which head coach Rich Rodriguez preferred but with which Robinson was unfamiliar. Also, it exploited a young secondary and left linebackers in space and unable to provide support in pressure situations.

More important than the scheme, though, is the depth at the position.

Last season, Michigan played two seniors, Mouton and Obi Ezeh, before Kenny Demens replaced Ezeh midway through the season. The second half of 2010, Michigan also started Cam Gordon, but he was in more of a hybrid role than what he is now, which is a strongside linebacker.

Michigan also didn't play many linebackers total. The scheme didn't call for it, and many of the players deemed linebacker/safety hybrids -- including Carvin Johnson and Thomas Gordon -- are now strictly safeties.

"We don't have to just count on our first string," cornerback Troy Woolfolk said. "If they go down or they get tired, our young set of linebackers will go in and do the job. It's not the man, it's the position."

Under Robinson, it relied heavily on the man playing the position. In two games under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's 4-3 pressuring scheme, the Wolverines have had a healthy linebacker rotation. Only the middle linebacker, Demens, who is tied with safety Jordan Kovacs as Michigan's leading tackler with 18, has started both games.

In all, Michigan has had nine linebackers play through two games -- in part due to injury and in part because Mattison favors rotation throughout his defensive line and linebackers as a way to keep players fresh and motivated.

"We felt that there's a number of them that are all very equal," Mattison said. "That's the good news. If a guy gets gimped up for some reason, or whatever happens, the next guy has got to be ready to go.

"That's always the way it'll be here."

Junior Cam Gordon was slated to start at the strongsinde linebacker slot both games, but a back injury kept him on the sideline. In his spot, redshirt freshman Jake Ryan started against Western Michigan. Against Notre Dame, the Wolverines began the game in nickel.

Fifth-year senior Brandon Herron, tied with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint as Michigan's leading scorer with 12 points, started the opener at weakside linebacker. He was hurt in practice last week and was replaced in the lineup by freshman Desmond Morgan.

It was Demens, who didn't see significant time until last season, who kept Morgan calm. All last week, he quizzed Morgan on formations and keys.

At the hotel before Saturday's game, Demens went up to him again, asking about his responsibilities.

"The Big House is a tough crowd to go in front of," Demens said. "Just wanted to make sure he wasn't getting sidetracked or thinking too much. Just to enjoy it and focus on the game."

Once the Notre Dame game started, though, yet another linebacker made a massive impression.

Junior Brandin Hawthorne had been hampered by an ankle injury the last week of training camp. He didn't play against Western Michigan and, mostly healthy on Saturday, he went from another linebacker to a future starter.

Hawthorne made six tackles, broke up a pass and had a tackle for loss. He also appeared to be in on multiple key stops for Michigan -- even if he didn't receive credit for the play.

"He had a couple scrimmages where he really showed up and was making plays all over the place," Fitzgerald said. "Saturday, with him going in there and doing his thing, wasn't a surprise at all. We had seen him doing that."

His teammates and coaches had. The general public had not. Like the rest of Michigan's linebackers, he has surprised this season.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.