Analysis: What Jake Ryan's ACL injury means for Michigan
Taylor Lewan, a reigning All-American at left tackle, is the team's most talented player.
But make no mistake: Linebacker Jake Ryan is the Wolverines' most proven playmaker. He is the muscle of Greg Mattison's defense.
And now, he's gone for a long, long time.
Michigan announced Wednesday that the junior strong-side linebacker tore an ACL in practice this week and will be out indefinitely. The best-case scenario is he misses half the season -- and that's if everything goes right.
On the other hand, it's possible he misses the entire regular season. We just don't know yet -- not until we know how serious the injury is, and if other ligaments were damaged.
Ryan's absence is a major blow for the Wolverines, who already have the fewest number of returning starters in the Big Ten. Mattison knows how to reload a defense, but he's now dealing with the loss of his best defensive lineman in Craig Roh, best defensive back in Jordan Kovacs and now his best linebacker in Ryan.
Ryan led the Wolverines in tackles last year, but it was his impact plays that left a mark. He recorded 16 tackles for loss, third in the Big Ten, and forced a league-high four fumbles. He recovered another.
And that's where his loss will really be felt.
Michigan has options. Ryan's backup, senior Cam Gordon, has played in 33 games and started 13, playing a strong-side linebacker-type position since Rich Rodriguez's final year.
He's no Ryan, certainly. But at least he's a guy with some experience. And with the injury occurring March 19, Michigan has ample time to prepare Gordon for his first regular playing time since Brady Hoke's arrival.
Gordon arrived at Michigan in 2009 as a 6-2, 208-pound receiver from Detroit. He redshirted, moved to defense and started 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2010.
But he didn't play much in 2011, at first due to a bad back and then because of the emergence of Ryan. He played more last year though, registering 17 tackles and three for loss while spelling Ryan.
Hoke mentioned last week -- before Ryan's injury -- that Gordon has made significant gains and that the staff would look for ways to get Gordon and Ryan on the field together.
That likely would have meant Ryan playing down on the line, which won't happen now. But at least there's still Gordon, and it's reassuring to know that Michigan was looking for ways to get him on the field even before the injury.
As for depth behind him? One option could be junior weak-side end Brennen Beyer, who began his career at strong-side linebacker before moving to the line before last season. It's possible Beyer could move back to linebacker, especially with junior Frank Clark and sophomore Mario Ojemudia both experienced options at weak-side end.
Michigan is fortunate, in a way, that this loss occurred at a position of depth. There's a surfeit of experience in linebackers Desmond Morgan, James Ross and Joe Bolden, each of whom played major roles last year. Gordon played some as well.
The thing, though, is Ryan is Michigan's defensive enforcer. There might be bodies to throw at strong-side linebacker, but none of them wears No. 47.
And that's a big-time loss, no matter who ends up replacing him.
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