Just kind of talk about how your guys are coming along a little bit through three games.
“Yeah, the guys are working hard. You know, we just keep pressing them every week in practice, keep telling them to challenge themselves every day and hopefully it translates on the weekends. They’re working hard.”
Jourdan was saying on Monday that he thinks the secondary could be the best in the country. Is that sort of an attitude that you promote?
“Well, that’s what we want them to think and, you know, certainly the work and what they produce has to match that. But we absolutely want that attitude from those guys. It helps. Certainly their position requires that kind of attitude. They’ve got to have a short memory at that position and put things to the side and go play the next play. So, it’s all about attitude, it’s all about challenging yourself every day and just trying to get better and better and win every play.”
Talk a little about the challenge they’re going to get this weekend.
“A big, big challenge. I mean, those guys [are] 6’6”, 6’5”, 6’3”. Really big receivers, good athletes, decent speed; I mean, they’ve got it all, and they roll in those guys. They’ve got four or five really good receivers that they’re rolling in every down, so they’re going to be fresh. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us.
“Just physically, when you line Jourdan Lewis up against a 6’6” guy, as scrappy as Jourdan is, that’s a tough matchup. But that’s how we’re going to play it. They’ve got to fight.”
When a guy makes a couple big plays like Channing did last week, what does that do for his confidence and how he’s able to play?
“You know, hopefully. When you do things right you get confidence, and he’s been doing things right. Throughout camp, Channing has probably had the best camp out of all the guys. He’s just worked hard. He had one bad day, had one bad scrimmage in the summer there. Other than that he’s been playing really hard and really well. I think he realizes, and I’m hoping that all of them realize, that you don’t arrive. You always have to get better, because somebody’s chasing you.”
[After THE JUMP: Covering big receivers, the importance of eyes, and seam responsibility in Cover 3]
What did you think of the secondary against Utah?
“We expected more higher energy out of our players and more competitive spirit. I don’t think- I think they went into the game playing more cautiously than just relying on what they learned in camp. And I know with our older guys, you know, Jarrod Wilson and Jourdan Lewis, they’re going to make a difference for this week. I know they’re going to make sure that we up the tempo this week in playing the defense in the secondary.”
Were you pleased with your corners in coverage?
“I was. I mean, I was. Can it be better? Yes, it can be much better. Same with the safeties. One thing, I don’t try to divide it. I think corners and safeties should all be together, so if the corners look good the safeties look good, if the safeties looks good the corners look good. The coverage overall, I thought it was fair. It could have been much better than what it was. The one thing we strive on is not letting up a big play and we pretty much gave up one big play in the game. Sometimes you can’t give up those plays, so I think we have to be a more aggressive defense in the secondary, which our defense allows us to do that. We just have to get it done.”
Did you feel like Jabrill kind of trusted his instincts a little more in the second half?
“I did. I did. Jabrill came out [and] I think it was more nerves rather than just playing, because this was actually his third game. You know, so he’s still really a true freshman. One of the things Jabrill I think has to do is just trust his instincts, because he’s really very instinctive. One of the things I think he has to do a lot more is just play within himself. He’s trying to get out there and use his speed rather than thinking about the game, and I think that’s what got him in trouble early in the first half. I think he’ll bounce back, just like all our guys will.”
At the start of fall camp Jeremy Clark was a safety and Wayne Lyons was at corner. What’s the reason for that swap?
“Well, we just felt that Jeremy Clark could bring a lot more to the table at corner because he’s long, he’s tall, he’s quick. You know, he could use his hands a lot more and he can run with the big guys, the big receivers in the Big Ten and we felt Wayne was more instinctive as a safety, and he plays in space a lot better back there in the middle of the field so that was one of the reasons we made that change.”
[After THE JUMP: Aggressively pursuing aggressiveness and Freddy Canteen the WR?]
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]
|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.]
Jourdan Lewis emerged as Michigan’s best corner in 2014, demonstrating that he was well-suited to the man press style they wanted to play. That same style is back in 2015, and Lewis talked about that as well as the difference in the defense’s mindset, Wayne Lyons joining the secondary, and Jabrill. This was part of a scrum; my questions are marked.
Most of you guys grew up together and kind of emerged together, then Wayne [Lyons] just sort of gets dropped in your lap. What’s it like when someone has experience but at the same time is trying to compete with you?
“You’ve got to bring him in. You’ve got to bring him in just like one of our brothers. He is one of our brothers now and we’ve just got to bring him in and come together and compete. That’s what’s going to make a great defense.”
When someone comes from a different program they have done things before. Did he have anything or did you say, ‘This is the way we did it here’?
“No, he came in and he wanted to listen. He wanted to learn. That was great. He wanted to learn from us and we wanted to learn from what he had. We learned some things from him and he learned some things from us.”
“Yeah. It was just a collaboration between both of us. It wasn’t ever ‘This is how we do things.’ It wasn’t ever- it was all love as soon as he got here.”
There’s a lot of attention on Jabrill, as there always is. Do you see strides in him even though he’s at a different position than last year? Have you seen him make a lot of progress this summer?
“He’s going to compete and he’s going to be aggressive and he’s going to make plays, always. That’s always Jabrill’s mindset and I love it. That’s what’s going to make us a great defense is just his mindset and his enthusiasm and him flying around, so he’s just always the same Jabrill.”
[More after THE JUMP]
I've written in various places, and Brian said again just yesterday, that Blake Countess is a very good zone cornerback who was exposed last year by being asked to do things outside of his comfort zone. Or outside his natural abilities. Or outside the capabilities of a guy his size.
The tape is the best evidence that he's not a fit for the aggressive man-to-man stuff Michigan switched to early last season, and will almost certainly try again this year. The best evidence against it was produced by Countess this spring, when he generated above the usual level of comments for controllable things like his work ethic, his knowledge of the defense, his toughness, etc.
But his size is a thing Blake can't change, and that plus the inability to shut down Tyler Lockett or William Fuller downgraded our hopes for a next-Woodson (leave him on an island) ceiling even before we discovered he's no MC5:
(you forgot to kick out the jams.)
That kind of thing can be mitigated by not lining him up so close—you give up that lock-down mentality for either soft coverage that lets the QB complete short stuff, or puts a safety over the top so Countess can break on that stuff.
Is Countess too small?
His size is below average for a guy who registered a play on a Power 5 roster, though not debilitatingly so. Here's how the CB depth chart stacks up against cornerbacks on all Power 5 rosters from 2010-2013 (#6 is Lyons):
Bubble size is more guys with that listed ht/wt. Avg height was 5'11", and weight was 183. Year-to-year differences were negligible.
If you need a roster refresher I put the tentative depth chart below-right. Our guys are generally on the line of distribution, with Richardson a wee little dude and Stribling and Dawson (and Keith Washington) on the edges of lankiness. I included Peppers to show just how different he is from most cornerbacks on this level of football, even as a redshirt freshman whose conditioning was hurt by a year of injury.
There were also quite a few teams who list all safeties and cornerbacks as "DBs"; indeed the cornerback sample we did get seems like it wouldn't change much. If you care here's Michigan's expected 2015 backfield rotation against the distribution of one year's Power 5 cornerbacks.
Interesting side-note: Florida's cornerbacks last year under Durkin were the smallest of any school in the Power 5. Using the formula from the chart above, Auburn and Minnesota were by far the biggest defensive backfields—both teams were about 6'0/200 with their cornerbacks. I know Minnesota at least is a man-all-day-long team. Nebraska and Ohio State were top five biggest, Iowa and Notre Dame around there and Stanford relatively big. Michigan was smallish—right around FSU and LSU. TCU was the second-smallest at CB.
Anyway Countess isn't the little guy according to the rosters; Lewis is. Jourdan's game is based on his recovery speed. He is just okay at jamming a guy at the line, but is so fast on a dead run and so quick to change direction that he doesn't have to stonewall his guy.
[Jump for what we've got in Lyons]