On the day Jake Ryan’s right knee blew out two years ago, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison tried to keep the mood light.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament is a scary thing. Recovery requires patience, perseverance. Maybe even prayer. No need, Mattison thought, to overwhelm his junior linebacker with a heavy conversation.
Ryan wouldn’t let his coach change the subject. He wanted to talk about football. His knee. The future. Facing an injury that can snip careers short, there was every reason to expect Ryan would miss his entire junior season.
He had a different plan.
“Coach,” Mattison remembers Ryan saying, “I’m going to be back faster than any guy you’ve ever been around.”
Want to gauge toughness? Watch a kid play these set of cards. A budding Big Ten linebacker, Ryan attacked his rehab like a running back in the hole. He worked tirelessly, Mattison said. There were no setbacks.
Ryan, a Green Bay Packers rookie, wasn’t bluffing about his return. His first game back was Oct. 12, 2013, less than seven months after the injury. Most players take eight months to even get back on the practice field, Mattison said.
“He’s as tough of a kid as I’ve ever been around,” Mattison told Press-Gazette Media. “You get hit, where some guys might’ve been out, he’s not coming out. He’s telling you, ‘I’m not coming out. I’m fine.’ The thing is, he loves the game. He’s like a throwback. He’s one of those young men who comes in happy every day. He’s excited to be in the football office. He’s excited to be around football, and he’s very intelligent.
"He’s one of those guys, you just say, ‘This guy is really going to be something.’”
Ryan faces another challenge this week. Another toughness check. The Seattle Seahawks are coming to town Sunday, and the Packers are one inside linebacker short.
Sam Barrington was lost for the season with a foot injury in last week’s opener. With the depth chart down to three players, Ryan has an opportunity everyone expected would come eventually. He’ll be on the field in a significant role Sunday night, the top backup behind Clay Matthews and Nate Palmer.
“I feel like they’re coming along well,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said of Palmer and Ryan. “We’re asking a lot of those guys, with a little bit of inexperience, a little bit of playing time. They haven’t been out there. So we’re asking a lot of them to come in and play at a high level. I think they’re doing an adequate job.”
From the moment Ryan arrived in Green Bay, anticipation has grown. He is the only newcomer at a position the Packers desperately needed to restock this offseason. Naturally, the spotlight finds him.
Still, the rookie knows his place. He may be the heir apparent to A.J. Hawk, an important piece of the Packers’ long-term plans, but there have been no bold proclamations. Not even this week.
“It’s terrible, what happened to (Barrington),” Ryan said. “But I’m preparing this week like any other week. I’m doing the same thing, watching the same amount of film, and looking at my playbook the same amount as I did last week.
“This happened. It’s time to step up. I can’t just sit back and not do anything. I’m preparing every single day.”
Mattison, now Michigan’s defensive line coach, said Ryan has the temperament required for a rookie to play significant snaps. He has watched Ryan overcome obstacles that would halt others.
Like his senior season, when Michigan coaches decided to move their best player to the middle of the field, barely a year after Ryan tore his ACL.
On the right path
There was a time when Ryan was on a path to becoming one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten.
Through his first three seasons, he played strong side linebacker or defensive end in the Wolverines’ base 4-3 defense. As a sophomore, he had 4.5 sacks and was named second-team all-conference.
Eventually, opposing offenses got smart. In a ground-and-pound league, the recent advent of spread offenses forced defensive coaches to adjust. In the summer before Ryan’s senior season, Mattison talked to him about a position change to middle linebacker.
“Without a doubt,” Mattison said, “he was our best football player on defense. I mean, there’s no question. He got to the football any time he could get to the football, and when he was spread out on outside guys – way outside – he couldn’t get to it all the way across the field even as hard as he would run to it. So we needed him right in the middle where we could get it both right and left.”
Looking back, Mattison admits, he was concerned with how Ryan would handle the move inside. Recovering from a torn ACL is hard enough. Add a position change, and Mattison knew his fifth-year senior could be overwhelmed.
For Ryan, the move was pragmatic. No longer would he have to match up against slot receivers. With less field to cover, Mattison said, there would be less stress on his right knee.
“There’s just more stuff in front of you,” Ryan said. “More guys in front of you. On the edge, you’re just focusing on one guy. (Mattison) showed me the inside linebacker technique. I never really played it, but that year I stuck to my guns and did what was necessary to master that position.”
Ryan’s move inside was also a hunch. Mattison saw Ryan’s height (6-foot-3), weight (236 pounds) and demeanor (“a student of the game,” the coach called him). He knew inside linebacker would be his best fit in the NFL.
“I think everything for him is ahead of him,” Mattison said, “because of his lack of number of reps at playing inside. So I think every day that he’s coached, he becomes a better football player.”
Playing a role
Ryan’s transition from outside linebacker is nothing new for the Packers. In the past year, they’ve moved at least four outside linebackers to partial or full-time roles inside.
Ryan makes a fifth.
“It’s kind of how we’ve worked our roster,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said.
There are significant differences between the two positions. In the middle of the field, linebackers take on more downhill blocks from guards, centers and fullbacks. Basic fundamentals like hand placement, spacing and field vision change.
But, McCurley said, there are similarities that bind both positions. With the Packers, inside and outside linebackers share the same meeting room. They have the same defensive terminology.
“It’s different,” McCurley said. “There’s no doubt about it. When you step off the ball, and you stack, it’s different keys, different vision, a little different feel for your fits. Obviously, you’ve got to read those keys. It doesn’t happen as fast as when you’re on the line, but I think it all just starts with being in that same room. Being that outside linebacker, inside linebacker dynamic in the 3-4 that you’re able to move those guys around a little bit easier.”
Since May, McCurley said, he’s watched Ryan “steadily grow” as a player. He picked up the Packers’ defense well, becoming more confident through training camp. In the Packers’ preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints, Ryan showed his range to make plays all over the field.
He broke through the Saints’ offensive line in the third quarter, splitting the tackle and guard before tackling running back Marcus Murphy two yards behind the line of scrimmage. On the next series, the Saints tried a wide pitch to halfback Edwin Baker. Ryan beat the right guard, stretched the play wide and tackled Baker for a 2-yard gain.
They were the kind of plays the Packers rarely got from inside linebackers last season, at least before Matthews and Barrington started taking snaps. His teammates have been impressed.
“I think the thing you really like about Jake is the fact that he looks like a middle linebacker when he’s out there,” Matthews said. “He finds his way to the ball, he makes plays. We saw that during the offseason, but more importantly recently in the preseason. I think he’s shown he has a knack for getting to the ball and being a true middle linebacker.
“When his time comes, look for that.”
Ryan’s time arrives this week. On Sunday night football, everybody will be looking.
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood