Your defensive line’s got some depth this season. Why is that depth going to be important for this team?
“I think depth’s really, really important with any defense nowadays with the way people like to run spread offenses and fast-paced offenses. A lot of them try to do that to try to negate a good defensive line. They try to tire them out, they try to get them running from sideline to sideline, and then they try to make them down to their level or average by being tired.
“Nowadays these D-linemen are bigger than they used to be and they’re carrying a lot of weight, so to have guys that rotate is really, really key for us. You saw that last year. We were a better defensive team when we had rotation, and when we got hit with some injuries it brought us down to not having the ability to rotate.”
Why do you see defensive linemen rotate and not offensive linemen?
“Well, offensive linemen don’t run to the football sideline to sideline. I mean, ours do. The good ones do, but there’s a lot of people that if you watch a defensive line, every play, whether it’s a pass all the way downfield or a sweep wide, you expect your defensive line to be running as hard and fast as they can to get there. Offensive guys are behind the ball sometimes so it doesn’t really matter to get down there that close.”
Have you found eight that have earned the right to be in that rotation at this point?
“Yeah, I think we have eight for sure, and there are more and more guys that are coming on. I would never rotate probably nine or 10 guys, but you always want the ability that if something does happen that another guy can come in and be one of those eight. That’s what we’re working for. Working for the ability to have a true rotation of guys.”
You really haven’t had a full, true eight guys here, have you?
“I think last year during the middle we were there. Then when Ryan got injured and Mario got injured, we bounced down under that.”
Who will you put out to start on Saturday?
“I really try to tell them that we have two starting lineups. You know, who goes out there for the very first play, we still have a couple days to decide that. Chris Wormley’s had a very, very good camp. Glasgow’s had a really good camp. Mone has really done well. Matt Godin’s doing very well. Taco. The whole group. I don’t want to single out one guy, because as we watch the film there’s an expectation, and to be in that first unit that takes the field very first of who’s in there the third or fourth play, they all have to do the same thing. I’ve been pleased with the effort and the work of all of them.”
[After THE JUMP: on communication during substitutions, working in Rashan Gary, and more Onwenu praise]
|STRONGSIDE LB||Yr.||MIDDLE LB||Yr.||WEAKSIDE LB||Yr.|
|Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Ben Gedeon||Sr.||Mike McCray||Jr.*|
|Noah Furbush||So.*||Mike Wroblewski||Jr.*||Devin Bush||Fr.|
|Josh Uche||Fr.||Elysee Mbem-Bosse||Fr.||Jared Wangler||So.*|
The old guard had been around forever—Desmond Morgan started as a freshman and had an injury redshirt in there—and is now gone. In their stead there is… well, a guy. Michigan's linebacker recruiting in the Hoke era was a major failing, so after one guy they've mishandled and one guy who narrowly evaded a career-ending injury there's freshmen and the only non-Order-of-St.-Kovacs walk-on on the two deep.
Could get hairy if anyone can get to these guys on the ground or protect their quarterback long enough to get 'em in the air. So probably not that hairy. Still, along with the offensive line and quarterback, linebacker stands out as a position at which things could go pear-shaped.
On the other hand, Peppers. He's actually in this post!
STRONGSIDE LB: HYBRID SPACE ASSASSIN
WOOOO! [Bryan Fuller]
Oh hey, it's JABRILL PEPPERS again. He's taken the baton from Jake Butt when it comes to posting shirtless jugs machine exploits:
Seen this on IG.. Had to try it lol harder than I thought pic.twitter.com/ZvLZRjfLhM
— JP5 (@JabrillPeppers) August 6, 2016
And this year he hopes to refine his immense talent into a TFL and PBU machine.
One part of his game is already flawless and has been so from the drop. He was a bonafide hybrid space player from his first snaps against Utah. Any sort of swing, flare, or screen to the wide side of the field was going to die horribly. Peppers was truly, literally unblockable in space. He'd slow up, pick his moment, and just explode past the wide receiver who drew the short straw:
Three times in this game Peppers destroyed plays that attacked the wide open spaces he is set to patrol. If Michigan can rely on that, those passes across the middle that open up because of bubble fakes get removed along with the screens; it's kind of a big deal to be able to do that.
The utter consistency with which this happened became a defensive bellwether. I eagerly awaited the moment when the offensive coordinator got fed up with having zero access to a big chunk of his playbook and said "screw it." One snap later the OC was reminded why he wasn't doing this:
There was an internet item purporting to show that Peppers missed 20% of his tackle attempts; you can mostly ignore that. A Peppers missed tackle was often something a lesser player wouldn't even get an attempt in on.
Blocking someone with his explosiveness on the edge is a futile task. This is a screen that he turns in barely outside the hash and still gets a tackle in on, because he can wait until the proper moment and just explode past the guy who drew the short straw:
Peppers gets places fast and brings a pop when he gets there. Sometimes he makes the play himself and sometimes he allows others to rally to make it, because he's constricting space that other guys cannot.
I say "mostly" because Peppers does need to refine a few things. He has a bit of Brandon Harrison disease wherein he gets going so dang fast that he overruns his target, and his tackling form could use some work. But even when he missed a tackle last year he funneled things back to his teammates.
As Peppers moves inside more often this ability will serve him well. There was a spate of tiny linebacker articles over this offseason, and this one from The Ringer highlights that Peppers evasion thing:
The key to smaller linebackers surviving in a land of 330-pound giants isn’t taking them on in single combat; it’s anticipating movements to avoid combat altogether.
“Those guys seem to make their living not by getting off blocks, but by never getting blocked,” Snead says. “They’ve got to read things quickly so they can use their deficiency to their advantage.”
There was the occasional indicator that Peppers would be able to continue his uncanny ability to blow past blockers even as space gets constricted. Here he reads the play and simply redirects past a fullback assigned to him:
His explosion is such that he can dart around blockers to the "wrong" side so fast that he makes it right. He makes all that Joe Bolden stuff work, and that'll be key when he is faced with much larger opposition.
We have some evidence what Peppers will look like as a linebacker. He was in the box on scattered snaps. He was kept clean, for the most part, and Peppers showed an ability to read and react. This isn't hard, but we don't have much else to go on:
Against UNLV he lined up as a Jake Ryan-style SAM on the line of scrimmage and did a good job to push the play back inside.
He was used as a blitzer very occasionally, and looked much like he did whilst erasing screen games nationwide. He's fast and brings a load and often comes in too hot to get a clean shot.
If he does get a free run at a blindside target an Oregon State receiver can tell you what the likely outcome is:
Peppers has the potential to force a ton of fumbles.
When Peppers is an actual SAM linebacker and not reprising his hybrid space player role, Plan A is keeping Peppers clean by demanding double teams for the SDE; Plan B is Peppers blowing the minds of linemen and blocky/catchy guys with his ability to do make something conventionally understood to be wrong work for him.
Peppers's coverage is still somewhat in question. He had issues early trying to defend horizontal double moves. That first impression lingered, and then the big bad thing against Penn State hammered it home for a lot of folks:
Peppers was rough early, no question. He was much better at playing press man as an outside corner, where he could set up to the inside and just run with his dude.
He developed over the course of the year. By midseason he was racking up some physical PBUs, usually when he was allowed to set up in press:
He was still a bit iffy in the slot but started making it difficult for guys to get in their routes, and he started making the occasional play in off man. The Penn State debacle is evidence enough that his coverage is still a work in progress, but in this case we really do mean "work in progress" instead of "permanent problem" as people so often do when they deploy that phrase. His improvement should be obvious. He won't be perfect but slot receivers aren't going to get the best of him for much longer.
Peppers also has upside as a safety. He's obviously kind of a big deal in run defense, and his speed allows him to get over the top of deep routes even when he lines up close to the line of scrimmage.
Peppers can and will do a half-dozen different things on D. You'll see him as a SAM, as a nickel, as a strong safety, as a boundary corner as Michigan tries to put out fires and exploit mismatches. Boston College SAM Matt Milano is a good baseline: 60 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and 3 PBUs a year ago. Peppers is around the same size and much more athletic. (I have no idea how athletic Matt Milano is and I'm sticking with that assertion.) I'd expect more pass defense stats and not so many TFLs since the DL will eat up their share, but as I said on the other side of the ball his omnipresence should lead to a bunch of stats both ways and a Heisman finalist slot.
[After the JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! Probably!]
[I didn’t label these MGoQuestions because it was a one-on-one interview]
Where would you say you’ve made the biggest gains from last year to this year as far as technique’s concerned?
“I think just kind of honing in on the little details of my technique. That was big for me, going back and watching past years and seeing where I need to improve and kind of honing in on the smaller details of things. Getting off blocks, finishing tackles, finishing plays were the biggest for me.”
With Don Brown coming in, are you guys going to be dropping into coverage a little bit more or is it about the same as what you’ve done in the past?
“Pretty similar. But his motto is ‘Solve your problems with aggression,’ so we’re going to get after the quarterback. We’re going to be blitzing a bunch. We had aggressive defensive coordinators in the past as well. Coach Durkin got after the quarterback as well, so it’s not too much of a change for us.”
Technique-wise, what does Coach Partridge or Coach Brown preach to you most often?
“Just really getting off blocks and finishing tackles. That’s the art of playing linebacker. You’ve got to get off blocks. You can’t stay on blocks, you can’t trade one for one. You’ve got to finish plays.”
You were saying you feel like you’ve made pretty big strides as far as shedding blocks?
“Yeah, I think so. Spring’s a big fundamental time for us and I think altogether us linebackers got a lot better in that regard.”
How do you get better at that? Is it through drills, is it through live reps, or can you study it on film? What helps the most?
“I think it’s a combination of all of them. You start with the drill. You start not against another person and you hone in on the technique, but once you get to a live period sometimes you forget all that and you fall back on your technique and you evaluate it at film [sessions] and try to improve.”
What, if any, differences are there from last year’s defense to this year’s defense as far as your assignments are concerned?
“The biggest difference?”
Yeah, if there are any.
“Pretty similar. I mean, for me personally it’s just being more vocal and making the calls as a Mike linebacker. Play a lot of man coverage. No secret there. We’ll be blitzing a lot so we’ll play a lot of man.”
[After THE JUMP: Learn how Carlo Kemp became Chris Wormley’s psedo-son and which NFL players’ film Amara Darboh watches]
It's submarine time. Yea, the beat writers will rend their garments and republish articles about Clayton Richard from ten years ago. Insider rumblings of wildly varying utility will leak out in drips and drabs. Half of them will be outright falsehoods. A quarter will be somewhat true. A quarter will be very true.
As per usual, I enter this month of the season frantically assembling data for the season preview; fall camp chatter will factor in as it always does. Here are the things I'm hoping to hear, the things that I'm hoping are never said again, and ridiculous things I'll dismiss out of hand.
if Charlton had a Happy Days spinoff it would be called Taco Loves Tacos [Eric Upchurch]
STATUS: Our tentative expectation is that the starting spots are manned by Taco Charlton and Rashan Gary. If Gary isn't ready to go you may see Wormley bounce out—I mean, you will see Wormley bounce out no matter what. But Michigan could start Hurst if Gary isn't quite ready to fight a bear. Probably not though.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Lawrence Marshall and Chase Winovich are going to get their fair share of time. That's right: I'm taking the starters for granted. One is Rashan Gary. The other is a near top-100 player as of last year per PFF and my own dang charting. For both this year and next it'll be real nice if the next generation is able to make their voices heard over that noise.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: "I'm taking my talents to Clemson." Yes I know this is a literal impossibility now. I'm still keeping the ol' eye peeled.
ACTUAL THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Shelton Johnson's team picture absence ends up being about a thing that terminates his career.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Any assertion Charlton will play SDE, as he did this spring. Even if Chase Winovich is a revelation there's still no depth at WDE without Charlton. Also he dropped a bunch of weight. He's your WDE.
STATUS: Glasgow is back. Mone is back. Hurst is back. They're moving Wormley inside because they can. Michigan has a two deep of NFL players if Mone lives up to a quarter of the hype.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Maurice Hurst has leveled up his run defense. We've already heard all the things you can hear about Bryan Mone and I both know and expect the final boss version of Ryan Glasgow this fall. Chris Wormley is pretty much Chris Wormley, too. That leaves Hurst as the remaining wildcard amongst persons with a chance to play a bunch. Last year he was great when not met with mashing doubles or over-penetrating on stretch plays. If he can fix those two items dude will live up to the first-round expectations PFF put on him.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Both nose tackles are injured and they moved the OSU game to week one. A little sick of being down multiple DTs for the OSU game you guys. The injury thing is going to get a little repetitive in this post because Michigan has a lot of established guys. There's going to be little coming out of spring practices we don't already know or, in Bryan Mone's case, haven't heard before.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Mone will start over Glasgow. Going to hear it. Have been hearing it.
Listen to me now and believe me later: Ryan Glasgow is a goddamn robot Viking. Mone's probably real real good and is going to play this fall; Glasgow is proven beyond doubt. Except radio callers. And certain internet people.
STATUS: The two ILB starters graduate and this is an area of concern... for a given definition of concern. The likely starters are fourth-year players who were highly touted recruits. While that's not a guarantee they'll be good, this is not like previous episodes of Michigan roster concern like "James Rogers is a starting cornerback" or "converted fullback and walk-on Mark Moundros might start at linebacker."
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: "Gotdang, Mike McCray can play." A continued resurgence from McCray is the most likely way the linebacker corps is pretty all right this year. Furbush is playing outside, likely in preparation for the Iowas and MSUs and Wisconsins of the world. Devin Bush Jr is a freshman. Nobody is talking about Jared Wangler. It's gotta be McCray.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Any sort of injury rumor. Linebacker is another one of the spots on the team where there's a big drop from the projected starters to the backups.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Ben Gedeon hype. I am dreading this. Gedeon didn't beat out Joe Bolden, so I am worried he literally is Joe Bolden. Therefore people saying good things about Gedeon == annual overhyped Bolden offseason. (This is potentially irrational.) I'm not saying that Gedeon can't be good. I'm saying that I'll take all praise about him with a grain of salt because he's gotta play by default and he wasn't able to break through previously.
STATUS: Jourdan Lewis returns, not worth discussing, All-American. The other side is a fierce battle between seniors Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Channing Stribling is in this dimension to stay. Stribling moved ahead in his position battle this spring and like quarterback the best thing to hear is that someone is grabbing the job with authority. Since I think Jeremy Clark is pretty good I won't be upset if it's a real battle; unless Michigan gets really lucky they're not going to have three elite corners.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Anything about Brandon Watson playing corner or nickel or whatever. He spotted Peppers a bit last year; this year he won't be able to do that. Given the roster his best shot is at safety, where he should be moved posthaste.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: I'm still tempted to scoff at Stribling's emergence as the second corner but Michigan seems very serious about that. He might start. What I don't believe is that there won't be a role for the third corner. They're close enough and good enough that both will play.
STATUS: Two seniors with a fair amount of playing time and then a very scary drop to not many underclassmen.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Dymonte Thomas is Jarrod Wilson but fast. Wilson was a safety blanket for years; one of the few things that could disrupt what looks like a killer defense is a sudden vulnerability to big plays. If anyone can protect their quarterback long enough to test the safeties.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: The seniors are way way ahead of any pursuit. This was the case in spring despite the presence of Tyree Kinnel, a highly-regarded recruit who seems to fit the way Brown wants to play his safeties. Now Hudson and Metellus join the fray. Ideally someone comes through as a third option and penciled-in starter next year.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Khaleke Hudson didn't kill a guy.
STATUS: Kenny Allen's back. Punter is up in the air. Return units should be Peppers Peppers Peppers, but they moved him off kickoffs late last year.
THING YOU WANT TO HEAR: Allen is a Zoltan-level boomer as a punter. This is highly possible; as I've mentioned before I've seen more punts from Kenny Allen than anyone else has in the history of backup punters. They tend to go an enormously long way.
THING YOU DON'T WANT TO HEAR: Jourdan Lewis is returning kicks. He's good at it, sure, but there are other guys who should be in his league at a not-very-important job. Those guys are not also All-American corners. Give the job to David Long or Ty Isaac or whoever.
On the other hand, Peppers returning punts is totally worth it. He saved so many yards last year just by fair catching a bunch of punts most people would have had to let drop, and he's been a hair's breadth away from busting loose for touchdowns. The gap between Peppers and the next best punt return guy is huge compared to the gap between Michigan's various kick return options.
THING I WILL DISMISS OUT OF HAND: Any Andrew David chatter that doesn't involve him pooch-punting. David was behind two walk-ons a year ago and Michigan took the unusual step of recruiting kickers in consecutive years.
It lives part II! When Homesure Lending sponsored these posts, Matt admonished me that his sponsorship was contingent on me actually doing all of them. So, yeah, next time you see him buy him a beer and get a mortgage. Matt just pinged me in case a refi made sense, demonstrating that 1) he's always on the lookout if he can save you money and 2) rates must be even more absurdly low than they were a couple years ago.
Formation notes: Michigan spent almost the entire game in nickel, as you would expect against a spread. There were only a few plays on which they deployed odd formations. Here RJS is a standup DT in a dime package on third and eleven:
This was "dime standup DT," because sometimes obvious is obvious. Michigan also had a couple plays where they walked out a bonafide linebacker over WR bunches:
But it was mostly standard stuff as Florida failed to threaten those formations.
Substitution notes: Peppers missed this game with a broken hand. Michigan moved Lewis inside and played Clark and Stribling on the outside. Thomas and Hill rotated at one safety spot next to Wilson. LB was the usual Morgan/Bolden pairing with both guys getting spotted by Gedeon.
DL was variable, with Wormley seeing time at three tech and SDE; Charlton was at WDE and SDE; RJS got a lot of WDE time. Hurst and Henry started at DT and got the bulk of the snaps. Marshall saw some snaps at WDE. Godin and Strobel saw scattered snaps on the interior. Brady Pallante even got a few plays in.
[After THE JUMP: way less data than the offense provided.]
Same. [Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog]
The Question: What was your biggest revelation from the spring?
Adam: The biggest thing the spring game did for me was ease lingering fears about two defensive position groups. The linebackers were almost universally question marks heading into the spring (unless you count the snaps we saw Ben Gedeon play last season) and they played well enough to quell concerns heading into the fall. I don't remember noticing Gedeon live or in the three or four times I've rewatched the game, which is passable for the Mike position; he also didn't get many snaps, which is indicative of how the staff feels about him. Mike McCray looked good in the spring game, while Devin Bush Jr. looked good in the open practice at Ford Field. Jabrill's gonna Jabrill at Sam; it's unfortunate that Noah Furbush was on crutches considering the hype he received from the coaching staff, but at least there's an excellent starting option at that spot.
Even though we've seen Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas play quite a bit I was a little concerned about them, particularly Thomas taking over Wilson's free safety spot. Thomas lived up to the hype he'd received this spring whether he was jetting up to support the run or dropping and covering acres of space; his interception in the back of the end zone is a great example of what he can do with his athleticism. Thomas mentioned that he didn't feel like he hit his stride last season until he fully learned the playbook; it looks like he's learned this playbook very quickly. Tyree Kinnel looked like an excellent backup to Hill at SS, reading the field well and bumping receivers off routes regularly.
When I step back and take a 10,000-foot view of things, I find myself taking twisted joy in the things that cause hand wringing about the defense. Sure, some of the position switches on the defensive line are curious, and though I've written in this very space about trying Gary out at WDE (or End in Don Brown's defense) and keeping Wormley at SDE (or Anchor to Brown) it's fun to worry about how to best deploy an armory of Dudes who deserve significant snaps instead of whether there are any Dudes to be deployed. After the spring game, we know the latter isn't an issue for any defensive position group.
[Hit THE JUMP for more positive defense feels, Tyree Kinnel hype, quarterback reassurance, and a stunning reversal of course from Brian.]