While most of the attention leading up to the second year of the Jim Harbaugh era has been on what happens at quarterback and around the offensive side of the football, the real key to success lies on the other side.
Case in point — the 2015 season. As Michigan’s offense was wholly inconsistent, the one constant was Michigan’s ability to win games with its defense. It led to Maryland plucking defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin for its head coaching position and that means a new leader at the top of the defensive food chain in Ann Arbor.
Leading the way for this season will be Don Brown, who was at the helm of college football’s best defense in 2015 — Boston College. Hopes are high that his philosophy and coaching can help a different level of athlete at Michigan produce similar results to what BC did under Brown’s leadership.
Does Brown have the pieces to get that done in 2016? Let’s take a look at the state of Michigan’s 2016 defense.
Few teams can lose its star defensive end to the NFL and not skip a beat. Michigan is one of those teams in 2016, with veteran defensive ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton back for one last season and top-rated defensive tackles Ryan Glasgow and Bryan Mone back as well.
Mone will be interesting to watch, as he returns to the starting lineup after suffering a broken leg last season. He showed up well in spring and should be a massive help in a loaded front four.
Given the veteran nature of the starters, the attention rightfully is placed on the depth behind them. There is plenty of experience at defensive tackle with seniors Maurice Hurst and Matthew Godin in the two-deep and having combined for 52 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season alone.
As for outside, expect to hear names like the nation’s No. 1 recruit of 2016, Rashan Gary, along with junior Chase Winovich and Lawrence Marshall often this season.
New defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense is designed to be more attacking up front, and with a defense that had 32 sacks last season and finished fifth in the Big Ten there is plenty of potential for this group to be even better at getting to the quarterback in 2016.
All eyes are going to be on linebacker/all-everything Jabrill Peppers entering the 2016 season as he slides inside after a season of secondary play. It’s an interesting situation, as Peppers comes in to the season at just 208 pounds according to Michigan’s official roster. However, Peppers’ role is more about blitzing and playing in space at the line of scrimmage — and few things suit Peppers better than those roles on defense.
His ability to roam the field and not play a specific position persay is exactly what makes Peppers a unique player. The move also allows expected starters Ben Gideon and Mike McCray the freedom to do a lot of different things as well.
This group also has the experience and talent to be deep, and when Peppers plays an extra role in pass coverage, look for the likes of Michael Wroblewski and freshman Devin Bush to see plenty of action.
Moving a stud defensive back like Jabrill Peppers to linebacker may seem crazy, but part of the reason for that move is due to the huge wealth of talent in said secondary. The 2016 group will be led by Peppers’ opposite number in 2015, cornerback Jourdan Lewis.
He has the potential to be the Big Ten’s best cornerback this season and may be the 1b to Peppers’ 1a in terms of overall athletic ability. Lewis is coming off an All-American season in 2015 and the trick will be to make opponents not direct the passing game to the opposite direction in 2016. That challenge lies with Peppers’ replacement, Jeremy Clark or Channing Stribling. Both are seniors and both have experience, with Stribling racking up four starts in his career and Clark having made 13 starts himself.
It’s a nice set of problems to have, but the depth and strength continues at the safety position with seniors Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill locked in to starting positions. Thomas made four starts last season, appearing in 10 total games, while Hill mad eight starts at safety and has 13 career starts at the position.
The questions come when you look beyond the top of the depth chart, with inexperience but plenty of potential existing in this group. Names like Tyree Kinnel and Keith Washington are going to get plenty of opportunities to showcase that talent in the two-deep of this secondary.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Chris Wormley, Sr.
DT: Ryan Glasgow, Sr.
DT: Bryan Mone, So.
DE: Taco Charlton, Sr.
OLB: Jabrill Peppers, Jr.
MLB: Ben Gideon, Sr.
OLB: Mike McCray, Sr.
CB: Jourdan Lewis, Sr.
FS: Dymonte Thomas, Sr.
SS: Delano Hill, Sr.
CB: Jeremy Clark, Sr.