Position Preview: Linebacker

Despite being a three-year starter, fifth-year senior Obi Ezeh is fighting for his job this fall.

The position previews continue with a look at Michigan’s middle and weakside linebackers:

Returning Contributors: Obi Ezeh (RS Sr.), Jonas Mouton (RS Sr.), J.B. Fitzgerald (Jr.), Kenny Demens (RS So.), Mike Jones (So.)
Ready to Contribute: Isaiah Bell (RS Fr.), Mark Moundros (RS Sr. — moved from fullback)
Incoming Freshmen: Jake Ryan
Key Departures: Stevie Brown, Brandon Smith

Returning Player Stats:

[table id=118 /]

The Projected Starters: Perhaps the most embattled player on a team full of them, redshirt senior Obi Ezeh is penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker, but keep those erasers handy — Ezeh will have to hold off a strong push from fullback-turned-linebacker Mark Moundros if he wants to keep the starting job he has held for most of the last three seasons. After leading the team with 98 tackles as a sophomore in 2008, Ezeh appeared to regress last season and was benched late in the year in favor of sophomore J.B. Fitzgerald and walk-on Kevin Leach. At 6-2, 250 pounds, Ezeh has the size and physical tools needed to be a solid middle linebacker, but tentative play marred his junior season and he must now prove he’s the best option in the middle or risk riding the pine in his final year at Michigan.

At weakside linebacker, redshirt senior Jonas Mouton is also coming off a disappointing year, but unlike Ezeh he has managed to keep a strong hold on his starting job. Mouton entered Michigan as a highly-touted safety prospect, but quickly outgrew the position before having a breakout year in 2008. Like Ezeh, Mouton’s issues at linebacker seem to stem more from the mental side than the physical — he is a gifted athlete, but was caught out of position far too often last year and was the main culprit on several big plays allowed by the defense. With defensive coordinator Greg Robinson now coaching the linebackers as well, there is hope that these mental mistakes will become a thing of the past. If they do, Mouton has the potential to be an all-conference player in 2010.

The Competition: It’s hard to believe that a former walk-on fullback would push to start at middle linebacker after switching sides of the ball before his fifth year in the program, but that’s exactly what Mark Moundros has done since moving to MLB in the spring. Moundros was very impressive in last weekend’s scrimmage, diagnosing plays quickly and delivering solid hits when he got to the football. Whether it’s feasible for him to absorb the defensive playbook, not to mention the intricacies of playing middle linebacker, well enough to start this year is a question only the coaching staff can answer, but those of us who scoffed when reports of Moundros getting time with the first team first surfaced may be eating our words come September 4.

Moundros isn’t the only backup looking to unseat one of the seniors; junior J.B. Fitzgerald and redshirt sophomore Kenny Demens are both former four-star prospects who should make a push to see the field this fall. Fitzgerald saw action at middle linebacker when Ezeh was benched late last season, and although he was caught out of position at times, he also showed flashes of playmaking ability in recording four tackles for loss (for comparison, Ezeh had five all season, while Mouton recorded just three). Fitzgerald has seen time at both inside linebacker positions and Craig Roh’s hybrid spot, and could be the team’s top backup at all three positions this fall. Demens, meanwhile, is a very solid athlete and hard hitter who has thus far only seen special teams action as a Wolverine — he appears to be behind Fitzgerald and Moundros in the linebacker pecking order, and might reprise his special teams role for another season before Ezeh and Mouton graduate in 2011.

Others: Sophomore Mike Jones enrolled early last season and proceeded to burn his redshirt for seven games of special teams action. At 6-2, 208 pounds, Jones still needs to add some size before he competes for time at linebacker, and he’ll likely see more time on special teams this year while he waits his turn.

Redshirt freshman Isaiah Bell went from high school safety to 6-1, 245-pound inside linebacker in his time at Michigan — like Jones, he will probably play mostly on special teams until the logjam ahead of him at linebacker clears up next season. True freshman Jake Ryan is an intriguing prospect with one of the best highlight tapes in the 2010 class, but he is a lock to redshirt unless the coaches want to make his this year’s version of Mike Jones.

It is worth noting that while Kevin Leach filled in at middle linebacker last year, the 6-1, 205-pound former walk-on is now practicing at spur and is unlikely to see time at his old position.

Outlook: Linebacker was the team’s most disappointing position group in 2009, but with Greg Robinson taking over coaching the position and with two redshirt seniors (tentatively) holding down starting spots, we should see improvement from this group in 2010. How much the unit improves will likely hinge on the progression of Ezeh and the coaching of Robinson — if he can get the linebackers to be in the right place at the right time, they have all the physical tools needed to make plays.

Previous Position Previews: Quarterback, Running Back, Outside Receiver, Slot Receiver, Tight End, Offensive Tackle, Interior Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End

For every position preview, click here or hit the “2010 Position Previews” tag at the bottom of the post.

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