good luck with that
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we have very reasonable expectations [Fuller]
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.||Nickelback||Yr.|
|Jarrod Wilson||Sr.||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*|
|Dymonte Thomas||Jr.||Delano Hill||So.*||Wayne Lyons||Sr.*|
|Wayne Lyons||Sr.*||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*||Dymonte Thomas||Jr.|
So, JARROD WILSON…
Never be too proud to recycle a joke, I say. I know what you animals want. You want the man I've listed on half the depth charts in this preview, most of them at least semi-seriously. You want…
HYBRID SPACE PLAYER: NICKELBACK WITHOUT THE NICKELBACK CONNOTATIONS, YOU KNOW, THE BAND, BOY DOES THAT BAND SUCK THEY'RE JUST NOT GOOD AT MUSIC OR BEING ALIVE
Everyone all together now: the hybrid space player is a reaction to the spread offense. He must be a triple threat, capable of blitzing, playing the run, and covering. He is very very important. They made Charles Woodson into a hybrid space player right before he was the NFL's defensive MVP, because the NFL is basically a passing spread league:
NFL offenses are identifying the nickel corner as a key part of any defense. “This varies from defense to defense, but the amount of your sub package that you play nowadays — because we’re seeing more three wide receivers on the field — your inside player is going to play as many, if not more plays,” Capers says. “You could be in some form of your sub defense two-thirds [of the time].” The number Hayward throws out is 75 percent; Whitt says 80. No matter the math, the point is that the nickel cornerback is as much a “starter” as any other spot in the defensive backfield.
Michigan State's lack of appropriate HSPs last year led their defense to get torched by every decent spread they came across, because said spreads would put their #1 receiver in the slot and run 'em at MSU's inexperienced safeties, who were not cornerbacks. This has been your hybrid space player preview review.
So… JABRILL PEPPERS [recruiting profile]. This is a man that has been hyped to the moon. Tellingly, his coaches aren't trying to put the brakes on. They have in fact shoveled on a little more coal. Harbaugh in spring:
"He’s been A-plus, he really has, all spring. He was just out there taking reps. … A lot of times a guy’ll get in the front of a drill, which he would do, but he would go through the repetition of the drill and I’d see him back in the front again and then again. It’s like, ‘Hey, come on. Jabrill Peppers isn’t taking every rep in these drills.’ But that’s the kind of youngster he is."
Harbaugh again in this fall:
"He's been good, he's been all the things that have been advertised about him. He's a tremendous football player."
The spring game indicated that Michigan had in fact built its defense around him playing HSP/nickel/whatever:
Under Hoke it was difficult to tell who was the strong safety and who was the free safety. That will not be the case this year, as Jabrill Peppers was operating as a lightning fast outside linebacker for big chunks of the game. He tattooed running backs in the backfield more than once.
Peppers barely left that location. When Michigan went to a nickel package they did so by bringing in an extra safety and leaving Peppers over the slot, where he nearly caused an interception by breaking on a quick slant to Bo Dever.
That was the plan last year as well, but even before he got hurt Michigan was forced to adapt. Press coverage was a disaster in the Notre Dame game and Raymon Taylor was out, so Peppers was delployed as a boundary corner in the Miami (Not That Miami) game. (That's a spot he may resume if things don't go well with Stribling and Clark; he has been repping there a bit this fall.)
Miami did people wishing to have any useful scouting from Peppers's freshman year a favor by going at him over and over again on the usually-sound principle that freshmen seeing their first extended action should be slow-roasted until they can be pulled apart with forks. That didn't go the way the Redhawks thought it might.
They did get one completion on him, that a bullet skinny post against zone that Peppers still got a rake in on. His first extended playing time looked pretty damn exciting, and then his knee locked up and it was goodbye season. There are a ton of fascinating counterfactuals from the last year of Michigan football; "what if Jabrill Peppers is healthy?" is one of the best. Does he end up the starting running back halfway through the season? Does Michigan lose to Rutgers? (A: no.) Does Brady Hoke eke out his job at 7-5?
Anyway. That's in the past.
Also in the past is his high school scouting, but other than a bunch of talk and those clips above it's all we have to go on. Also it is fun to revisit, so let's revisit it.
"Peppers is a rare athlete with potential to be great at the next level. He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen at the high school level. At 6-foot-1, and 205-pounds, Peppers has college ready size to go with un-matched speed and explosiveness."
USC coach: "Holy s---, that's him? I've only seen two players in high school with a body like that and both of them are named Peterson [Adrian and Patrick]."
And this player comparison is a damn good one.
"I think his impact on the game [would be maximized by] letting him roam around a little bit and freelance and let him play – an Eric Berry style of safety where they would walk him up. I mean, Eric Berry had 15 tackles for loss. He is that kind of a player. Eric Berry, I thought, was maybe the best player in college football a couple of years ago.”
That remains the mission. Be Eric Berry. Or Woodson. Judges will accept either.
I know it's a lot to heap on a dude who's barely seen the field but every indicator from the program is that this gentleman is the real deal both on and off the field. He will start living up to the hype this year.
[After THE JUMP: how many shoes are you wearing stop throwing them]
Michigan doesn't have another Peppers in the wings. Obviously. Should he get knocked out again—please no—Michigan would likely reduce their nickel snaps and go with a corner-type dude on passing downs, whether that's JEREMY CLARK or WAYNE LYONS or whoever.
Meanwhile in people you will forget about the instant after finishing this post, JARROD WILSON is a senior and three-year starter. You wouldn't know it because he is the dry white toast to Peppers's Flavortown USA, but Wilson is pretty good. Long plays last year were 1) quite infrequent (Michigan was 13th in 20+ and 7th in 30+ yard plays allowed) and 2) almost always not his deal.
We know this because lots of them were obvious; we asked after the ones that weren't and Greg Mattison respected the assembled media enough to tell us. So when Rutgers hits an 80 yard touchdown, this is what happened from the horse's mouth:
…we called a defense where a safety would be lower than usual to be able to help with the run and we didn’t get inside enough with another defensive back… The guy- we bit on it and they hit. And that’s what happened.
The worst thing I've got for him on a long play is a bad pursuit angle on a screen that went down the sideline. Compared to the decade pre-Kovacs that is unbelievable.
Wilson's worst outings at Michigan came when he got stuck in man coverage on Maxxxxx Williams and when Indiana tempoed the entire defense to death; one is not his specialty and the other is on Brady Hoke more than anyone. Michigan inexplicably pulled him for guys who played much, much worse than him shortly after the Indiana game in 2013, because it was panic time. I don't think that reflects on him.
Wilson is not the kind of guy who is going to be very comfortable rolling down into the box. That'll get him in man coverage, something he hasn't been great at:
In zone he rarely ends up circled on a replay, but PBUs like this are equally rare:
Wilson isn't the proverbial playmaker. Anonymous Big Ten opponent again:
"There's no one that really hits you like some teams so you knew you could get away with going over the middle or going up for a ball because you weren't going to take a lick. Some teams have these safeties that will just kill you, but Michigan wasn't one of them. They did have a guy [Jarrod Wilson] that was around the ball a lot but he wasn't a headhunter."
That's accurate. Wilson does not put the fear of God into guys coming across the middle. He neither MAKES PLAYS or MAKES PLAYS FOR THE OTHER TEAM.
Jarrod Wilson is This Is Fine if the building wasn't on fire.
This is fine.
Delano Hill has his Greg Oden face on [Eric Upchurch]
Peppers is nominally the other starting safety. He'll be in the box the whole time, though. When Michigan plays nickel, which will be a lot, DELANO HILL [recruiting profile] is set to get a bunch of snaps as a deep safety.
Hill was supposedly the leading candidate for the job next to Wilson last year until he broke his jaw just before the season. He missed the first couple games as a result and then bounced from the starting lineup to second string the rest of the season, switching with Jeremy Clark. (Part of the reason he got bounced around: a one game suspension for Maryland.) In his time he acquired 20 tackles… and did almost nothing I noticed. I have one clip that even involves him, a deep sideline route he couldn't get over to in time:
Not ideal; sophomore safeties in their first playing time have done worse, especially since in a sane world he'd have been a redshirt freshman:
• Earned first varsity letter
• Appeared in one game as a reserve linebacker
• Also contributed on special teams.
Marcus Ray has been very high on Hill for a year now, pumping him up as Michigan's best safety period… including Peppers.
That said, according to former All-American Marcus Ray another defensive actually earned the distinction of the spring’s top performer. Ray highlighted junior safety Delano Hill as the most consistent play-maker and on the back end and as a strong candidate for a move up the depth chart.
That is a bit hyperbolic, and we know from hyperbolic since we just talked about Peppers. Still, there was a consistent drumbeat of support last year and this fall Greg Jackson also made encouraging noises:
“He has got a bundle of talent,” Michigan defensive backs coach Greg Jackson said of Hill. “He just needs to focus each and every day, take one play at a time, and practice as a hard as he can. He can play so many different positions, which is a bonus for us. When you have a safety that can play dime, nickel or safety it’s great. You have two guys back there that can do all of those things.”
Moving Jeremy Clark, who started six games a year ago, to corner is another indicator of the faith Michigan is putting in Hill.
If he's mentally ready Hill provides an enticing physical package. He outran a lot of corners when he showed up at The Opening as a recruit and sounds a bit like Ray himself in scouting reports:
Hill is an aggressive run defender with good zone coverage skills; also displays the athletic skills needed to cover inside receivers. … a tough customer who demonstrates open field tackling skills … His run support is outstanding; will come up and force off the edge while demonstrating quickness filling the ally; is a very aggressive downhill run defender with the ability to move through traffic; displays very good long pursuit ability.
If Ray sees himself in Delano Hill… that would be just fine with me.
Hill should acquire either most of the nickel snaps or most snaps, period, depending on whether Michigan can make the Clark/Stribling boundary corner setup work. He will probably be less reliable than Wilson due to inexperience, but maybe he will make up for it by being able to make plays—something Michigan safeties have not been known for since I've been paying attention.
DYMONTE THOMAS [recruiting profile] is another guy in the the Aargh Y U NO Redshirt club, one especially painful because he's a terrific athlete who hasn't yet found the consistency he needs to see the field.
He saw a reasonable amount of time last year, especially late. Like the rest of Michigan's safeties his season was defined by the things he didn't do well instead of the plays he made. In Thomas's case the errors were frequent enough to draw mention.
Here he threatens to turn a first down into a very big play by losing contain on a jet sweep:
That's basic, and he didn't even make it particularly difficult for the guywith the ball to read. He just set up inside.
This kind of errant run fill isn't something we've seen from Wilson or Hill. (Clark was guilty of a couple.)
For big portions of last year it looked like he didn't quite know what he was seeing. He'd run a zone, see nobody anywhere near him, and just kind of stand around instead of trying to adapt his coverage to the situation. On that jet sweep above he waits for the hit and gets sealed inside instead of doing something, anything. He's far behind the other guys when it comes to understanding what the defense is trying to accomplish.
None of that is too surprising since he was a high school running back and linebacker. There have been the occasional blips of encouragement for him. Sam Webb:
While some have labeled Thomas a disappointment so far in his career, I can confirm that the new staff really, really likes what he brings to the table. The issue for him has been the fact that he's been moved around so consistently and hasn't been focused or told to focus on only one position.
Aargh /throws dart at Hoke dartboard.
Thomas's physical skills are not in doubt. He is of course the gentleman who did this en route to blowing that redshirt:
That is a punt on which Thomas hit the ball—with his foot!—before the punter did. If we could just harness that energy into something approximating consistency… man.
Thomas will get rotation snaps at safety and hopefully prove more consistent. While he waits for a shot created by Wilson's departure, look for Jon Baxter to use Thomas as a block generator on special teams. He can obviously do it, and now Michigan cares to try to make plays here. But that's another post.
WAYNE LYONS [hello post] and TYREE KINNEL [recruiting profile] round out the depth chart. Lyons was supposed to be in a battle for the starting corner job with Blake Countess; Countess transferred and Lyons has been taking backup safety snaps. I don't know what that means for the team; it's not good for Lyons. Lyons had a rep as a guy who had great athleticism but tended to get beat deep. If the "beat deep" is taking precedence; time will be scarce for him.
True freshman Kinnel could play some this year without it being a total disaster, but hopefully there's no need and he gets a redshirt. Long term he could be a non-Superman version of Peppers: a hybrid space player.
Hey look, we're not so depressed about the expected outcome of every game as to give up on the weekly score-guessing contest for stuff again. Harbaugh!
How this works again:
- Readers predict the final score of a designated game by placing a guess in the comments, preferably in the format of [M score][hyphen][Opp score], for example "41-30" or "35-31 Michigan", or "28-24 Go Blue", or "38-0 Harbaugh!" etc.
- The three guys who read this part holler at people who post in a different format
- First five people (by timestamp) to post a particular score have it.
- If you got it right, I contact you for an address by your MGoBlog account email, and you give me some time to get that to you.
- If nobody got it right or I don't hear from the winner(s) we push it to next week or let it go.
About Last Time:
This Week's Game:
@Utah on a Thursday night and I'm not even mad.
And on the Line:
FIVE!!! That is 5/cinco/1-2-3-4-5 copies we have to give out this week to five different winners. So here's the deal: this time you can choose the same score as someone else did, because the closest five to the final score get copies of
Endzone Brandon's Lasting Lessons.
This is the Dave Brandon book, with the How Harbaugh Happened story to finish it. I'll save the deep stuff for my upcoming review of it, and Bacon never puts it this way, but the gist of the story is how the organism that is Michigan athletics contracted NFL disease then fought it off. The thing about it is Bacon talked to everybody! Groups of former players from different eras, the leaders of the students, the bloggers, the program insiders, the old guard, the university's leaders, and yes, the people inside both Martin's and Brandon's athletic department when Michigan skewed into its tangent.
Contest fine print: One entry per user. First user to choose a set of scores wins, determined by the timestamp of your entry (for my ease I prefer if you don't post it as a reply to another person's score--if you do it won't help or hurt you). Deadline for entries is 24 hours before the start of the game. MGoEmployees and Moderators exempt from winning. The algorithm finds the winners as it chooses. The algorithm is self-correcting. The algorithm is back! This is not the algorithm. But it will be again soon.
KJ Hamler looked strong in all three phases [Dave Nasternak]
Orchard Lake St. Mary's was a heavy favorite against Detroit Loyola in Saturday's first game of the Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State. While they won 24-12 and generally controlled the proceedings, they weren't as dominant as expected.
The same was the case for 2017 linebacker Josh Ross, the younger brother of Michigan linebacker James Ross. He had an up-and-down performance, but 2017 ATH KJ Hamler lived up to the billing, showing out in all three phases of the game—Hamler's big-play threat at receiver combined with a strong OLSM run game to give them the win.
Split into sections for Hamler and Ross. Thanks to Dave Nasternak for manning the camera.
[Hit THE JUMP for scouting breakdowns on Hamler and Ross.]
2017 WR/DB/KR/PR Kahlee "KJ" Hamler (M Offer)
Hamler, known around these parts as Speedy Eaglet, looked like a potential difference-maker in all three phases of the game. He finished with 52 yards on four receptions, made several plays on defense, and had a couple solid punt returns.
Although he looked like a legitimate defensive prospect, I still like Hamler best when he has the ball in his hands. He gets off the line in a hurry, possesses great straight-line speed, and once he gets the ball he's a constant threat to make defenders miss in tight spaces and go all the way. His route-running has improved; he does a great job breaking down at the top of his route on comebacks, when his deep speed kept defenders on their heels, and when Loyola switched to zone he found the soft spots. When he went deep, he set up defenders so he had ample room between him and the sideline.
Aside from one muffed punt that he turned into a solid gain anyway, Hamler's hands looked solid when his quarterback gave him a chance, and he made a couple impressive efforts to grab passes that simply weren't catchable—I like how he tracks and adjusts to the ball.
Hamler also looked excellent as a cornerback and safety. Despite being listed at 5'9", 165, he arguably stood out the most in run support, reading and reacting before closing quickly and finishing plays when he got there. Loyola didn't even bother testing him in man coverage on the outside; he stuck step-for-step with his counterpart. He tallied a nice pass breakup late in the game (1:47 mark), identifying a seam route and undercutting it with perfect timing, nearly coming away with the pick. He looks to have the quickness, speed, and instincts to play corner at the next level.
I was a big fan of Hamler last year and I came away even more impressed with him this time around. He'd be very dangerous as a slot receiver and return man, and it's also quite possible a team could utilize his playmaking ability on defense.
2017 LB Josh Ross (M Offer)
It's easy to see why Ross, who's now listed at 6'1", 225, has been highly regarded for so long. He's an impressive athlete for a player of his size, able to explode through gaps to disrupt plays. He's at his best when his assignment called for him to shoot a gap; he's too quick for guards to get their hands on him a lot of the time and when he builds momentum he can blow up lead blockers.
The issues arise when Ross has to read and react. If he hasn't built up a head of steam, too often he finds himself caught up in the wash, or in some instances even blown off the ball (3:29 is a notable instance of this). He hasn't learned how to use his hands to disengage from blockers yet, so instead of shedding and making tackles he'll lunge to one side or the other, which opens up lanes. He needs to get stronger and refine his technique.
In our group chat, Brian mentioned Ross looks miscast as an inside linebacker, and he'd be better suited playing SAM in Michigan's system, much like his brother. I agree; that would better suit his combination of size and athletic ability while mitigating his issues in tight quarters. He's also really disruptive when he flies up that A-gap—he timed his blitzes well and came away with a huge sack on fourth down—so if he bulks up and learns how to use his hands, I could see him sticking inside, as well. Ross has a ways to go to live up to the hype, but the raw tools are there for him to reach his lofty ceiling.
|Boundary Corner||Yr.||Field Corner||Yr.||Nickelback||Yr.|
|Channing Stribling||Jr.||Jourdan Lewis||Jr.||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*|
|Jeremy Clark||Jr.*||Brandon Watson||Fr.*||Wayne Lyons||Sr.*|
|Wayne Lyons||Sr.*||Terry Richardson||Jr.*||Dymonte Thomas||Jr.|
Peppers, and the nickelback spot in general, are addressed in the safeties section.
This is a spot of unexpected alarm. Michigan gets Jourdan Lewis back off an outstanding sophomore year and expected to pair him with either Blake Countess or Wayne Lyons. The winner of that battle was going to be a fifth year senior with a ton of experience and probably all right. Michigan was confident enough in the outcome of that battle to stick Jabrill Peppers at nickelback and never look back.
Fast forward to now and Countess is at Auburn, Lyons at safety, and the corner opposite Lewis is very much in flux.
But have I told you about Jourdan Lewis? And that the worst case here is probably just throwing Peppers out on the other side?
JOURDAN LEWIS spent a year watching balls scrape over his outstretched fingers.
The long outside completions were also a problem. Not the first one, as Lewis gave Akron's QB about a six-inch window, which he hit:
It's not perfect coverage—ideally Lewis forces the fade route closer to the sideline—but that's a one in a hundred throw from the QB.
He didn't like it much, so he went to the darkest parts of the swamp, seeking out the forbidden knowledge. He had heard Michigan State cornerbacks passed this way. The weird bronze scat they deposited in obscene patterns confirmed it. The hut loomed ahead.
In it, Lewis learned terrible and wonderful things.
When Raymon Taylor got hurt in the Notre Dame game, Lewis moved into the starting lineup. Lewis took a couple of quick pass interference calls—probably due to nerves more than anything else—and then locked down his spot. After ND I said he was "the best CB by some distance" despite the PI calls, and soon after that was not a remotely controversial opinion. Hell, after Lewis picked up a nice PBU in zone coverage Notre Dame decided they were done testing him:
…that was the end of targeting Jourdan Lewis. Literally. The only other UFR mention of him comes when he gets too deep on a zone and Golson dumps it off to a running back for profit. … Lewis committed two silly pass interference penalties on his first two tests and Notre Dame stopped targeting him three minutes into the second quarter.
With Will Fuller showing Blake Countess his own intestines the whole game that could have been interpreted as faint praise. Even if it was intended as such, by the end of the year it was clearly not.
That is Lewis against Michael Thomas, who Todd McShay has as the top available receiver in the upcoming NFL draft. That is probably ridiculous, but Thomas is a very large and leapy man who succumbed to swamp knowledge.
Here's Lewis against Leonte Caroo, the other popular pick for best wide receiver in the Big Ten:
Here's 6'5" Kyle Prater running a fade:
I've got more of these. Lots of them. Against Dres Anderson. Against anybody. Lewis would get beat from time to time because that happens to cornerbacks, but almost never deep and when opponents went at him he was alarming enough that even completions on him sent signals that maybe you should try the other guy.
By Big Ten Media Days, Lewis was on the receiving end of the best compliment a corner can receive…
On cornerback Jourdan Lewis: "Our receivers really thought he was pretty good. They said he got his hands on your really early in the route, but they were complaining to the officials all the time too because he never let go. He was messing with them the whole time. That's good if you can get away with it, but it'll probably cost you a couple flags every game also."
…bitching about interference. As a person who has done his fair share of bitching about interference, I can testify that means you have arrived as a cornerback.
This is the bit where I come up with problems, so: Lewis isn't the biggest guy. He could end up with his fair share of flags by the end of the year. There's not much else.
Are you worried that we might see a devolution similar to that of Countess? Doubtful. Countess went from a good, crafty zone corner to a guy exposed by man press coverage. Lewis excelled in that same scheme a year ago. As a bonus, the cornerbacks coach is not a former linebacker who'd never coached the position before.
Lewis just about maxed out expectations for him a year ago and doesn't have that much farther he can go without suddenly becoming Patrick Peterson. He should have another year like 2014, except now everybody knows about him and will avoid him more. Maybe he can aim for more interceptions—to go from a guy who is dangerous because he'll get a PBU to a guy who's dangerous because he will turn you over.
Either way, Lewis will be one of the best corners in the league.
[After THE JUMP: And now for something completely different.]
The guy opposite Lewis was supposed to be the winner of a knock-down, drag-out fight between Countess and WAYNE LYONS, but Countess transferred to Auburn after spring practice and Lyons was reportedly practicing at safety, a spot where Michigan has three solid guys on their depth chart. Lyons remains an option here, but that's because anyone vaguely corner-shaped is… and also some guys who aren't.
The guy who topped the depth chart released yesterday was a surprise. CHANNING STRIBLING [recruiting profile] seemed a lot like Jourdan Lewis when both were freshmen. Both guys showed up around the ball all the time; neither was able to do anything to prevent completions from being made. These were not always his fault.
Allen Robinson: okay at football [Fuller]
Some were his fault. Some were boggling. But if you are giving me a choice between a freshman corner who is inexplicably not making plays on the ball despite being in perfect position and a guy four yards away, I'm taking the gentleman who occasionally phases out of reality.
Lewis apologized to the gypsy and had a breakout sophomore season; Stribling just about evaporated, collecting just seven tackles all year and appearing in zero plays I thought worthy of clipping.
In this he's a bit like Ben Braden was last year. We gave Braden the stink-eye entering 2014 because Michigan didn't even try him during the rolling offensive line disaster of 2013; for Stribling to not get a look-see when Countess was in the process of almost singlehandedly giving up 400 yards to Gary Nova is a bad sign.
Stribling didn't quite come out of nowhere. His surge was a late one; reports had it that he really came on at the tail end of camp. Both Scout and 247 started rumbling about him recently. Steve Lorenz featured him as an "X Factor" in a prescient post, projecting he would win the second corner slot:
"(Channing) was up and down to begin camp but has started to come into a zone as it's progressed. His current size and frame is what (Michigan) is looking for on the edge. It wouldn't surprise me to see him see a ton of snaps this season."
Sam Webb also heard that Stribling was "starting to push" Clark, though he also cautioned he'd heard Stribling was coming off a rough day or two.
What the upcoming season holds for Stribling is anyone's guess. He could get benched; he could be okay. "Good" is a distant hope given the way the position battle played out. At least he is a corner who has been a corner for longer than the duration of fall camp.
JEREMY CLARK has not been. I scoffed when practice reports held that Clark was being tried at corner, because Jeremy Clark is 6'4". 6'4" guys who can play corner are all but unheard of. Richard Sherman's 6'3", I guess. Banking on your guy to pan out like that one guy who panned out as well as the limits of human physiology allows is… well, it's a lot of things. The thing it is most is "unwise."
Clark started a number of games last year at safety, where he was a bit shaky. Michigan's safeties were generally insulated from criticism since Countess was bearing the brunt of it, but when he popped up in a clip it wasn't a good one very often. He got yanked from the Rutgers game after this:
Afterwards I said he "had an alarming game, his second or third." Thomas rotated with him the rest of the way, performing better down the stretch. Since he is a safety what I mean by this is mostly "I didn't think he was responsible for long gains"; I rarely see them unless something bad is happening.
Clark isn't great in run support and does have unusual athleticism…
He’ll obviously need to be coached up, but the physical tools are there. Based on their testing (forty, bench, pro agility, etc) some of the players insist that Clark is in the running for the title of best athlete on the team.
…so corner is vaguely plausible. Since he sometimes played the ball instead of the man as a safety, might as well move him to a spot where that's usually the idea.
Marcus Ray, who knows something about the secondary, in fact advocated for this position switch before last season:
“We’re talking about a guy that is that tall, 6-3 with his shoes off, 205 lbs., who can run and hit. He’s that physical, he just couldn’t be as physical from the safety position because it just wasn’t his game as far as playing with everything happening in front of him. So that’s why I thought in the spring he would be a great addition [at corner]. He could match up well in the red zone with taller receivers and he has the footwork and the long arms to get jams in bump-and-run coverage. If he gets coached up then I don’t think the transition will be difficult at all.”
The mental part of the game was a bit of a struggle for him, according to Ray, and at corner he can just go play football.
Ray's evaluation carries more weight than anyone else's because it was made before the position switch. There's a tendency to optimism about damn near anything in the preseason—see Hoke era—and Clark's move was no exception. Evidence is thin on the ground. I did clip a couple instances in which Clark ended up in man coverage, albeit against small schools. In the opener his length allowed him to get a PBU on third and medium:
And he got isolated on a go route when Michigan sent a corner. The result was bad, but the optics were good:
That ends up being a perfect back shoulder throw at excellent coverage, and you can see the idea in that clip. If he's with you the window you've got over his hands is tiny. Change of direction will be the key.
No idea how this works out. I'm less skeptical than I was when the move started leaking out of the submarine; I'm still pretty skeptical.
The answer to "what happens if all the boundary guys are disasters" is "Michigan puts JABRILL PEPPERS there and plays Delano Hill full time." As Plan Bs go that's a damn good one. You still have to dig out a third cornerback for nickel packages, and these days football has a ton of nickel packages… but you can live with that.
Behind the starters and guys vying to start there are few gentlemen. BRANDON WATSON [recruiting profile] and FREDDY CANTEEN [recruiting profile] were in fact high school teammates. Watson played nothing but maniacal in-your-face press coverage; Canteen played nothing but wide receiver.
Watson got moved to safety last year. That boded unwell then and in retrospect bodes a bit worse now, since Michigan should have been scrambling for a second non-Lewis cornerback. He moved back to corner under Harbaugh and turned in an encouraging spring game:
Watson's high school tape was literally all him lining up an inch from the wide receiver's nose and riding them into oblivion. So it was bizarre when the previous coaching staff moved him to safety. I interpreted that as you usually do: this guy is not fast enough to play corner, so let's try him at safety. That greatly downgraded my assessment of his chance to play.
Now that he's back and corner and pressing the pants off people again he looks pretty dang good. He recovered to intercept a pretty well thrown fade; he blanketed a number of short routes; he looked like a contender for playing time. Maybe not this year, but certainly next year.
Watson dug out an impressive interception on a jump ball intended for Moe Ways and was in tight coverage a couple other times he was tested. The obvious caveat is that Hoke's wide receive recruiting tended towards the ponderous and Watson might not be able to hang with fast guys. I concede the point. He hasn't drawn mention during fall camp and another year learning is on the docket.
Freddy Canteen is mini-Peppers [Eric Upchurch]
Canteen, meanwhile, is bouncing between corner and wide receiver so fast he could be mistaken for a politician. Amirite? Politicians. Always with the hippin' and the hoppin' and the changin' their minds. I'll be here all week!
Anyway: I dropped Canteen from the wide receiver preview because there was scuttlebutt that he was moving to corner full-time after flirting with the position during spring practice and then again in the fall. That was premature:
I'm a two way player, I play Offense and Defense, too clear up the confusion..
— FreddyFootwork (@FreddCanteen_) August 30, 2015
I'm going to talk about Canteen holistically, then.
I still think he's got skills at wide receiver. WRs didn't do much of anything in the spring game, but late he had a couple of impressive catches on Alex Malzone throws that were not precisely on target. The Countess stuff from last year's spring game turned out to say more about Countess than Canteen, but I don't think a disappointing freshman year is anything to worry about with receivers. Most make zero impact in year one, and Canteen played a lot less football than, say, Grant Perry.
As far as corner goes, Canteen is a footwork maniac, which will help him. He's probably not going to be much of a tackler and it's doubtful he's going to be accurate on zone drops, but ask him to run with a guy in man and I could see it working out. Sam Webb caught up with his high school coach and got a similar take:
“Freddy is a master of route running, so he is a master of deciphering routes. He knows the passing game very well, and his knowledge at receiver enhances his instincts at corner. He runs well, he breaks on balls well, (and) he has got good footwork. … If you’re going to play a lot of man schemes, Freddy isn’t going to hurt you at all."
It's worth a try, I guess. That Canteen didn't end up anywhere on the two-deep, not that it matters much; I expect him to make an impact somewhere.
Michigan also has TERRY RICHARDSON [recruiting profile], REON DAWSON [recruiting profile], and KEITH WASHINGTON [recruiting profile]. Richardson was a touted recruit, but entering his fourth year on campus he has not broken through to play at all. Dawson was an attempt at a like-for-like replacement of Gareon Conley when Conley decommitted in favor of Ohio State; he has not played much or created any sort of chatter.
Washington is a true freshman who spent last year driving his Pratville team to the state finals in Alabama… as a quarterback. Washington looked a lot like Steve Breaston doing so, but people think he's a cornerback so we'll consider him a cornerback. Washington is almost certainly inline for a redshirt; he projects as one of the most interesting guys to hear about during 2016 spring practice.
|STRONGSIDE LB||Yr.||MIDDLE LB||Yr.||WEAKSIDE LB||Yr.|
|James Ross||Sr.||Desmond Morgan||Sr.*||Joe Bolden||Sr.|
|Allen Gant||Jr.*||Ben Gedeon||Jr.||Jared Wangler||Fr.*|
|Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*||Mike McCray||So.*||Noah Furbush||So.*|
This is music to a new defensive coordinator's ear: Michigan sports an all-senior linebacker corps. All have started for multiple years, give or take a hand injury or benching here and there. They've even got a high-quality backup. Senior leadership is out of control, man!
Approximately the fourth-best* thing to happen to the 2015 team's chances over the last year was DESMOND MORGAN breaking his hand after the first game of the season. That didn't have much impact on where 2014 went; it gives this year's team a three-year starter to slot in the Jake Ryan-shaped hole at middle linebacker.
By this point you're probably tired of me extolling Morgan's virtues, and since he didn't do much last year other than fall behind Joe Bolden just long enough for me to eat a lemon this is going to be a rehash.
Morgan is a heady, athletic enough, stick-em tackler who's been yelling at the rest of the front seven to get in the correct spot for a few years now. He is your proverbial quarterback of the defense. That role will probably be lessened this year since the entire front seven consists of upperclassmen, but expect him to thwack Lawrence Marshall and maybe Mo Hurst should the need arise. Mike Spath got a great quote about Morgan's ability in that department:
On U-M's linebackers: "We played them two years ago and the guy that everyone seemed to listen to was [Desmond] Morgan. Those guys are invaluable. Everyone respects them.
"Last year, you didn't hear a lot of talk from the middle linebacker. I don't think Jake Ryan was a talker. He just wanted to do his own thing. He was very good at it, but he wasn't that guy in the middle of a defense that was taking care of the other 10 guys on the field."
When called into duty to make a tackle, he brings the wood.
During the 2014 Minnesota game he uncorked this ridiculous thing where he flew in on a blitz, had to leap over a guy, kept his feet, held up two blockers, and helped stuff a third and short.
When he's not making eye-popping plays he's keeping things going down-to-down. The one glimpse at him we got last year was enough for me to bring out a Picture Pages about Morgan's LB instincts.
Morgan found himself in a bad stop here, taking on a free releasing lineman in a bunch of space. He popped that OL back; the RB ran into said OL, and Michigan saved some yards.
When Jake Ryan faced the exact same situation later on that drive, he tried to make a spectacular play. His attempt to teleport around that OL was an instinct that served him well as a chaos-sowing SAM linebacker; when moved to MLB that instinct meant he didn't delay the back at all. Instead of six yards, Michigan gave up 11.
That's Morgan in a nutshell. He will hit guys hard and funnel back to his help and drop into his zone. He'll make it difficult for a QB to get a completion on him; he'll make it difficult for a running back to get YAC on him; he'll make it difficult for an OL to stay attached to him. He's not going to turn in Ryan's Tarzan plays, but you don't have to do that to be a great middle linebacker.
As David Harris demonstrated, MLB is a thinking man's spot. Harris was just about flawless with his reads, and his understanding of the game extended to ways to get off blocks without even taking them—one of his trademarks was in effect juking OL by momentarily fighting to one side of a block and then cutting back once the OL took a false step. Morgan had some moments like that a year ago:
Do that consistently and you get to be David Harris too.
Morgan's coverage is good. Very rarely does he vacate big tracts of land, as both Ryan and Bolden were prone to last year. He of course saved Michigan's bacon in the 2013 UConn game (for all the good that did them in the long run) with a leaping spear of an interception. Add it up and you get a 2013 UFR in extended, trying circumstances that looks like a guy who is on the verge of stardom:
|1||CMU||4||0.5||3.5||Crunch crunch bang bang|
|2||Notre Dame||7.5||4.5||3||Coped pretty well in coverage. Responsible for both EZ deflections.|
|3||Akron||6||3.5||2.5||Negative coverage number should be factored in here.|
|4||UConn||6.5||3.5||3||Saved the game.|
|5||Minnesota||11||3||8||First real test this year passed easily.|
|6||Penn State||9.5||4||4.5||Rough start, strong finish.|
|9||Nebraska||5||4.5||0.5||Blew one TFL big. Otherwise solid.|
|10||Northwestern||6||5||1||Drawn in by some misdirection.|
|11||Iowa||1||-||1||Pulled early with injury.|
UFR is tough on linebackers, so anything above zero is good. To consistently go over it over the course of a season, generally on heavy usage is very difficult.
The main drawback here is explosiveness. Morgan doesn't rack up TFLs and sacks; he's not great at getting to the quarterback on blitzes. (Run blitzes, on the other hand, he is excellent at, especially on short yardage.) He is not the kind of athlete that is going to make the NFL salivate.
But there are few guys I'd rather have on third and one. Morgan should reprise his 2013 with some incremental improvements. That would make him an All Big Ten level guy even if the lack of fancy stats prevents that from happening in real life.
*[Your top three are Dave Brandon late night email sessions, Harbaugh, and Jake Rudock's transfer.]
[After THE JUMP: seniors are made of leadership]
Next to Morgan will be JOE BOLDEN. Bolden improved a great deal in 2014. In past years this space mostly talked about how Bolden didn't hit anyone, or about how he looked hesitant. Last year the light started to come on, and violence crept into his game.
On occasion the violence annihilated an entire offensive line.
Last year, Greg Mattison told people that Bolden had gone from "catching blocks to destroying them," and there was some truth in that. Bolden took and delivered contact much better than he did as an underclassman.
But that thing remained. That one where Bolden finds himself unblocked with a running back looking for a first down and doesn't come close to getting the stop. This, against Northwestern's Justin Jackson, was frustratingly familiar:
Later in the year he'd find Jalin Marshall in space and end up looking at lot like Tanner Miller against Denard. It remains a work in progress, and Bolden will tell you that. He'll go farther than that, actually. He was witheringly blunt at Media Day:
“I didn’t play good,” Bolden said matter-of-factly. “You don’t have to sugarcoat it. … I’m to the point where my first two years here I didn’t play good football and there is no sugarcoating it. …
“ I sat down with my brothers and my dad and I was trying to figure it out. (They) talked about how I was playing in elementary school and little league, just flying around. ‘Who cares if you take one false step as long as you get to the ball?’ That kind of registered."
This echoes what he said before 2014:
"I was definitely more hesitant last year," Bolden admitted, noting his desire to master the defense had the opposite effect.
"I really wanted to know the system. I really wanted to understand the whole defense - what all 11 guys are supposed to doing on every play, and how they fit together - but it was overwhelming and I was probably thinking too much on any play."
That fits our pattern. The past two years, offseason Bolden hype has been out of control because after weeks and weeks of practicing against the same stuff, Bolden downloads it and starts walloping on people. This spring was no different:
I have long been a skeptic about Joe Bolden's ability to hit people hard, but I thought he looked great. … Bolden showed up in the backfield a ton and hit guys hard when he showed. If that is not a spring mirage that sets Michigan up excellently for fall.
Moments where he's been able to do that in games have been considerably rarer. They did get more frequent a year ago:
On plays like that where Bolden figures it out and goes you can feel that he's Bolden is more explosive than Morgan. He gets there fast when he's going. He can also get impressive depth on drops that come literally from the line of scrimmage.
Bolden could be anything from a slight improvement on last year—occasionally good, frequently frustrating—to a guy who lays waste to those around him, like he did in spring. Split the difference and the heart of the bell curve is a version of Bolden that consistently finishes above zero in UFR and makes more spectacular plays than bleah ones.
The primary backup at both inside linebacker spots is BEN GEDEON [recruiting profile]. For some reason, Gedeon got a reasonable amount of playing time as a true freshman, then disappeared last year despite the loss of Morgan. He did not play defense (he did return a blocked punt for a touchdown) except in garbage time until Penn State, and even then time was sparing:
A wild Gedeon appears. Oddly, Michigan has dropped linebacker rotation to zero after Desmond Morgan's injury. It's odd because Michigan did a reasonable amount of rotation last year with Ben Gedeon and now he's gone. I think the sack he got early may have been his first meaningful snap of the year. And then he went away.
Rumors had it that he was so frustrated with his playing time that he was not likely to stick around if Hoke was retained, not that we live in a universe where that was ever likely.
Gedeon didn't do particularly well during his extended run as a freshman…
Gedeon made a number of rookie mistakes on which he got pwned by OL and did not even try to funnel to his help:
That video of Clark owning Polish Hat above also features Gedeon taking a crap angle and then getting flung yards backwards by an Iowa OL.
…but freshman linebackers rarely do.
Since then, the drumbeat that kid can play has been regular. In spring, 247 talked him up:
[Ben] Gedeon has popped out early as a potential contributor in this year's defense. He has potentially the best combination of size, athleticism and intelligence at the position and it might turn into a situation where it's difficult to keep him off the field.
While displacing either doesn't seem particularly likely, Gedeon should rotate in at both spots, both to keep the starters fresh and to keep the pressure up. The goal is for him to emerge into a clear starter for his—sigh—final season in 2016.
McCray, Wangler [Upchurch]
After Gedeon there is suddenly very little. Redshirt sophomore MIKE MCCRAY [recruiting profile] has some variety of injury and made some ominous noises about it a few weeks ago; he's not available for a bit and if he doesn't show up at some point during the season concern for his career will start in earnest. Chase Winovich got moved to tight end; Michael Ferns transferred before last season was even over.
Furbush was a truly enormous linebacker recruit at 6'4" 240 who showed up on campus 30 pounds lighter than he was supposed to be. Now he's back to 242, having added 32 pounds in a year. Typo? Probably not since the spring roster had him at 217. Mono? As good an explanation as any but we have no data to that effect. In any case, nobody's said a word about him and he doesn't appear on the depth chart; he is likely to need another year of seasoning before he's a serious candidate for playing time.
Wangler is in a similar boat, though he added a less implausible amount of weight. A high school safety, Wangler is in the mode of Ross or Stevie Brown or other space-backer types. He will get a chance at Ross's job next year, but for now it looks like he's being deployed on the inside. He, too, did not make the depth chart.
Michigan has gone back to a defense where you might expect the strongside linebacker to be a Jake Ryan type. You know, a guy who weighs 250 who you can line up as a DE if you feel like it. JAMES ROSS is not that guy, but he's the strongside linebacker anyway. How is this going to work?
Well, if Ross can do this on the regular…
…it'll work just fine. You probably thought that was going to be the thing against Penn State…
…which it wasn't because I thought I'd lead with a play against a team that was not starting a confused hamster and TV's Patrick Duffy at guard. But also that Penn State thing happened, and I went "WOOO!"
Ross had an awkward settling-in period last year that he got over about midway through the season. Once he figured out he could hammer the guy assigned to block him and use his momentum to two-gap effectively on plays where the hit didn't knock the OL into next week, he looked damn good.
It looks like Michigan will be an eight man front this year. If Peppers is in or around the box consistently that allows you to protect your light-ish SAM in the same way Michigan protected Stevie Brown when he was the "spur" in a 3-3-5 his senior year. The 3-3-5 is an eight man front with a couple of DB/LB hybrids flanking the front six, and while I want to make it explicitly clear that Michigan is in no way running a 3-3-5, they do have a couple guys who look like the spur and bandit from said defense.
You probably don't remember this because you were busy clawing your eyes out whenever Michigan was on defense, but Brown was a highly effective run defender who doubled as a good pass defender; his year at spur was his route to the NFL.
Ross feels like he can be a similar player this year. His breakout sophomore year never happened in large part because Michigan's line got injured and could neither penetrate to break up blocking schemes or protect him from linemen getting in his face.
When that happens as an inside linebacker it's a whole different deal than the clips above where Ross can ID and go jack somebody up with a full head of steam. At most you get a couple steps and you have to be a thick, thumping guy like Morgan to do even a decent job. Ross couldn't pull it off in 2013:
Once Ross actually got on the field last year he had a middling adjustment period; by midseason he was performing well against both run and pass on the edge. This is the kind of chuck that blows up aroute:
And this is the kind of edge play that a safety-ish SAM has to make if he's going to be an asset to a defense:
While it seems like the time during which Ross could become a star have come and gone, his play over the second half of last year was encouraging. He's also come in for some positive offseason chatter. Sam Webb:
James Ross' drawing raves for his pursuit to the football in camp. He seemed to take a turn in last years PSU game, and that's the way his play has been described to me thus far.
Ross is also competing on the inside. Michigan's first depth chart listed him as the top backup to Joe Bolden at WLB, and Webb reported that he was repping with the ones for a healthy chunk of fall camp:
While I don't think he has supplanted Joe Bolden there, but I also don't thing the staff is simply cultivating depth.
Bolden is likely to hold on to his spot on regular downs for the same reason Ross feels like a more natural fit on the outside, but Ross could boot Bolden to the bench on passing downs. Expect Ross to have a much more prominent role than he did last year despite the prevalence of nickel. He won't bust out; he'll be a quality player.
Nobody other than Ross has seen a meaningful snap. ALLEN GANT [recruiting profile] got moved from safety a couple years back and is now listed second on the depth chart. There's been very little talk about him since his enrollment; as a recruit he was a middling three star guy. That was quite a comedown from his underclass exploits, when it was expected he'd be a national recruit.
Gant will undoubtedly start seeing the field this year; nobody knows how that will go.
I listed JABRILL PEPPERS here, and in this case that's only kind of a joke. Michigan looks set to play a ton of nickel as long as they get reasonable production out of their second cornerback; he will eat up linebacker snaps as a result. If Ross gets knocked out for an extended period of time, Michigan will run even more nickel, making Peppers a kind of SAM by default.
It's SO CLOSE.
It's so close your phone is dinging it at you because you put it in as an all-day event and there's a three-day auto-reminder.
It's so close that you know how when you get to Thursday evening and you think "where has the week gone?" because it went by that fast, well that is all the time since today that went by.
It's so close that you don't have to say a date, just an Anglicized version of an ancient Norwegian day of the week to describe when it's happening.
It's so close…well it's so close our contest at fantasy partners Draft Kings this week is actually A MICHIGAN COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME THAT TAKES PLACE THIS WEEK!
- $100,000 prize pool
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By now if you've been paying attention at all you should know things like how to get a free copy of HTTV by starting a Draft Kings account and depositing $15 or more, or that Jake Rudock is starting for Michigan in this game whatever coyness is coming from Schembechler Hall.
By now you should be quivering. It's that close.