Michigan football position preview: linebackers

This is part four of our Michigan Football 2014 season preview series. This edition will take an in depth look at the linebackers, a group that is headlined by defensive-playmaker Jake Ryan. Part Two in the series focused on the defensive line and Part Three on the wide receivers and tight ends.

What we know

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Jake Ryan with a sack against MSU

Before suffering an ACL injury during spring practice last season, Jake Ryan emerged as a defensive force in his first two seasons at Michigan. During that span, Ryan recorded 125 tackles, including 27 for loss and 7.5 sacks. He made a courageous and speedy recovery to return to the field in 2013 and is physically prepared to return as an impact player for this defense, once again.

Internal competition will play a key role for the success of this group in 2014. Royce Jenkins-Stone outplayed James Ross III in spring practice to overtake the SAM (strong-side linebacker) starting job. Ross has more in-game experience of the two but both are likely to compete for the starting position heading into, and throughout the season.

Desmond Morgan, who replaced Ryan on the inside last season, will compete with Joe Bolden for the starting job at the WILL position (weakside linebacker). Morgan is naturally an inside linebacker, however, the majority of his 31-career starts have been on the outside.

Areas of concern

Without Jake Ryan’s presence for the majority of last season, Michigan recorded just 25 sacks as a team, which ranked 66th-best in the country. Hopefully Ryan is able to return to the ball-hawking defender that he was in 2011-12, doing everything in his power to meet the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.

Having a force like that in the middle of a defense elevates the caliber of surrounding players tremendously. The main concern for the linebackers is the possibility that Ryan doesn’t return to the Clay Matthews-level of play that he once possessed. That possibility can make or break this unit’s play as a whole.

Potential breakout player

As previously mentioned, Royce Jenkins-Stone impressed the coaching staff during spring practice, which is why I’m choosing him as my potential breakout player. The 234-pound linebacker only has two-career appearances at the position but is chomping at the bit to see more action on the field. At the very least, Jenkins-Stone will have a huge impact on special teams and in a substitution role this season.

Projected starters

SAM: James Ross III (Jr, 6-1, 227)

MIKE: Jake Ryan (RS Sr, 6-3, 236)

WILL: Desmond Morgan (Sr, 6-1, 232)

Key reserves: Royce Jenkins-Stone, Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray, Joe Bolden, Allen Gant

True Freshmen: Michael Ferns, Noah Furbush, Jared Wangler, Chase Winovich

Final thoughts

With questions surrounding the secondary, the linebackers are going to be called upon to keep this defense afloat. Along with the return of Jake Ryan, experience and competition will help advance the growth of this unit, even more so now that Greg Mattison is coaching the group.

Check out our Michigan Football team page as we continue to preview each position group and follow me on Twitter @isports_Jordan