Joe Bolden, James Ross make cases for starting jobs as Michigan turns toward freshmen
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan's defense took the field midway through the fourth quarter trying to preserve a fragile 31-25 lead against Air Force and its maddening triple-option offense.
It was the most important defensive series of a game that would determine whether the Wolverine would climb to 1-1, with hopes intact for a special season, or fall to 0-2 and face a torrent of problems.
But as they took the field, something was missing: Starting linebackers Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens, the latter of whom is a senior and the team's reigning leading tackler.
Instead, Michigan turned to true freshmen Joe Bolden and James Ross.
The Wolverines forced a turnover on downs, then another, and escaped with a 31-25 win.
It could be a sign of more to come, as coach Brady Hoke said Monday there is legitimate competition for Morgan's job on the weak side and Demens' job in the middle.
“I don’t think they’re beaten out," Hoke said. "They’re competing. We want to roll some guys in anyway. We rolled a lot of guys in in the front during the course of the game.
"But as far as (the linebackers go), I think there’s a healthy competition that’s going on.”
Demens especially might be on notice, after being benched for two series in the first half and the duration of the second half. Bolden played for him and finished with 10 tackles, second on the team.
Bolden made mistakes as well, but seemed to flow to the ball much better than Demens.
The youth movement isn't confined to linebacker. Michigan already has played a staggering 12 true freshmen this season, and five have received regular snaps on defense.
At one point against Air Force, those five -- Ross, Bolden, safety Jarrod Wilson and defensive linemen Mario Ojemudia and Ondre Pipkins -- were on the field at the same time. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Keith Heitzman joined them to make it six freshmen playing at once.
Hoke, in his 10th year as a head coach, said he's never relied so much on freshmen.
“I think we feel real comfortable with them," Hoke said. "They’re competing, and this whole game’s about competition. Guys who are playing well, or guys who are earning time, they’re going to play.”
What kind of challenge is it to rely on so many young guys?
“We had 17 true freshmen go to Dallas -- some of them hadn’t flown," he said. "The schedule that we keep, there’s an itinerary and when we meet, what we wear, what we eat and all of those things.
"I don’t want to call it babysitting, but it’s a lot of educating. Our upperclassmen have done a good job so a young guy understands what’s expected.”
Freshman are vying for time elsewhere as well. At nose tackle, Pipkins received considerable snaps down the stretch against Air Force.
“Ondre, he’s a long way from being the nose tackle that he will be," Hoke said. "He has pretty good quickness for a big guy -- more explosion, probably. Technique and fundamentals, he keeps working, (and) has to be better with his hands and his eyes, but he’s making progress. ”
Defensive tackle Will Campbell is one senior who could lose time, or even his spot, to a freshman. Pipkins played for him during stretches against Air Force.
But he doesn't see it as a bad thing, noting that so many freshmen who are proving themselves boosts the overall depth for a team that was supposed to be lacking it.
"It gives us more bullets to our gun, I would say," Campbell said. "It gives us more weapons and having more people to rotate and give us more time to rest, and be able to come in and go full speed all the time."
How are the veterans reacting to so many freshmen vying for their jobs?
“I think it would get your attention, if you were one of those guys,” Hoke said.