LBs must QB the defense

Mattison says linebackers must communicate, know every position well

Updated: August 6, 2012, 4:58 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

To preview Michigan's football season this year, WolverineNation takes a look at each position through the spectrum of the expectations of the position set by head coach Brady Hoke and the coordinators -- along with those who have played the position at Michigan in the past.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When former Michigan linebacker Rob Swett converted from fullback to linebacker, he already had a familiarity with his new position group. Teammates, sure, but Swett had known Steve Morrison from when he took his visit to Ann Arbor as a high school student.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen, Mike Martin
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioKenny Demens (25) returns to man the middle for the Michigan defense.
So as he made the conversion, he also had an immediate mentor who explained the differences between playing offense and defense at Michigan along with exactly what he had to know as a linebacker.

In short, he had to be prepared for anything.

"He said, 'Look, follow me and I'll show you what it's all about,'" Swett said. "Taught me how to watch film and pick up tendencies and you have to go back to being a student of the game. I had some physical ability but I wasn't the strongest or fastest guy out there, having to make up for either a lack of size or speed.

"Being better prepared and knowing the game plan better than anybody else on the field."

Much of his preparedness had little to do with any physical limitations Swett had. Instead, it is really the expectation of what linebackers are supposed to do at Michigan beyond defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's typical mandate of playing with toughness and technique. Linebackers have to understand every defensive position on the field and be prepared to make calls both for the linemen and the secondary.

Right in the middle of any defense, the linebackers are a defense's heart and ultimate utility men, able to do a little bit of everything and do it well.

They can't be quiet, either. Linebackers at Michigan have to be vocal, otherwise Mattison's defense likely won't work.

"They are the ones in charge," Mattison said. "They are right in the middle. If a defensive line is not lined up correctly, it is their responsibility. If a call comes in late or it is a hurried situation, it is their job to get everybody set."

Last season at Michigan, in some cases, was a remedial course in football communication for linebackers for a multitude of reasons, including learning another new defensive scheme -- Mattison installed a 4-3 defense looking much different than the 3-3-5 under Greg Robinson -- and new terminology. Plus, other than Kenny Demens, the majority of linebackers the Wolverines played were freshmen or sophomores.

But they had to learn how to communicate fast -- otherwise the defense would fail.

"Some high school linebackers have had that taught to them," Mattison said. "The majority of them don't. Young linebackers are sometimes afraid to do that because you have to know what to do to be able to communicate. Nobody will ever, ever bark out a command if they are not really sure what they are doing.

"That linebacker has to take great pride in knowing what to do so when he tells a Mike Martin you should be shaded over here instead of over here, he has the confidence to know it is the right thing. Not have a senior turn around and say, 'Hey, what are you talking about?'"

By this past spring, Mattison could ramp up the defensive education, now spending time explaining the whys of making changes and checks within the defense to the linebackers instead of merely coaxing them just to do it. The majority of his linebackers, including projected starters Desmond Morgan, Jake Ryan and Demens, all played significant snaps during Mattison and Brady Hoke's first season.

After all, to really run a defense, the linebackers had to understand it.

"The linebacker, you're kind of the quarterback position of the defense," Swett said. "... You've got to be in the game in a lot more respects than the linemen and secondary, to play run and pass, you're going to be in right in the middle of both.

"Any of the linebackers that are in there, they really do have to know the game a little bit better than any other position on the field."

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter