DEPARTURES IN ORDER OF SIGNIFICANCE
Black and Gordon are the only two starters departing. [Eric Upchurch and Bryan Fuller]
DT Jibreel Black. Went from average-sized SDE to undersized three-tech to massively incredibly undersized NT over course of the season; effective pass rusher; clubbed by double teams a lot, especially late; NFL FA camp cut type.
S Thomas Gordon. Inexplicably futzed with midseason as coaches were dissatisfied with him for reasons obscure to me; was that one touchdown on which he was a step late against MSU really that bad? Never a playmaker, but rarely busted large; a solid performer; coaches don't think they'll miss him, I guess.
SAM Cam Gordon. Michigan's leader in sacks on the season, which says a lot about the Michigan pass rush, no offense Mr. Gordon; beat out first by Beyer and then by Ryan once he returned; did provide quality depth.
NT Quinton Washington. Lack of utilization only explained by nagging injury, disease, or vampirism, assuming that really bright stadium lights also qualify in this version of vampirism. Like seriously they played Jibreel Black at NT over this guy after he was very good as a junior. Inexplicable. I guess they won't miss him much because they didn't play him?
Nickelback/S Courtney Avery. Pushed out of corner rotation by freshmen; relegated to rotating in at safety, where he blew coverages because he played them like he was a nickelback. Missed a tackle on Braxton Miller spectacularly.
SLB Jake Ryan. Was not the barbarian he was as a sophomore with just 4.5 TFLs in his eight games played, but came back from ACL tear in about three weeks so was probably not full-go. Michigan really needs him to return to his terrorizing ways as a senior.
MLB Desmond Morgan. Better player than he's given credit for; had to deal with way too many free-releasing Gs who saw Michigan's DTs as no threat late; thumper; coverage was pretty solid, at least insofar as when someone tried to dump a ball over Morgan's head he was inches away from making a play.
CB Blake Countess. Ruthlessly exposed by Tyler Lockett in bowl game; prior to that, largely avoided because when not avoided he was picking off six passes. When not put up against Tyler Lockett, very good, and as a redshirt sophomore. A step up would maybe put him somewhere in the vicinity of All Big Ten.
CB Raymon Taylor. Targeted extensively; won some; lost some; four INTs of his own, most of them impressive. Run support a problem. Probably good! Probably.
S Jarrod Wilson. Inexplicably benched midseason like Gordon, then explicably so in the OSU game because he had a huge cast on his hand. Not a playmaker, not a source of WHY DID YOU NO OUCH touchdowns, which is pretty good for a sophomore. Will be relied upon heavily in secondary with little experience other than his person.
WLB James Ross III. Year lacked impact thanks to poor DT play in front of him; still second on the team in tackles with 85. Never going to be a big guy; needs the defense to shape itself around his abilities by having big ol' absorbers in front so he can slash. Prognosis: maybe.
SDE Brennen Beyer. Impact rusher early in the year—at least in the context of Michigan's pass rush—faded later; when Ryan came back was shuffled from SAM to SDE, where he was wildly undersized. Hoping for a Roh 2.0 senior season.
WDE Frank Clark. Total non-factor for first half of season, and just when everyone had given up turned it on and turned in a Tim Jamison-as-a-senior year with 12 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Somehow became second team All Big Ten with those numbers and 43 total tackles; next year may deserve that.
DT Willie Henry. When Willie Henry says he trusts a man as far as he can throw them, he means it as a compliment. Massively strong freshman alternated person-hurlin' with guys getting under his pads and blowing him up. Needs technique badly; if he gets it will be fantastic.
NT Ondre Pipkins. Making some progress when he tore his ACL midseason, complicating many things. Can a very large man keep up the conditioning and recover in time to be effective by fall? Let's hope so.
MLB Joe Bolden. Sophomore essentially a third starter behind Ross and Morgan; still tends to take hits rather than deliver them; blew a lot of coverages early in the season; figures to reprise role next year.
SDE/DT Chris Wormley. Tall guy; made a few plays; mostly a nonfactor; freshman.
An Enormous Pile Of Returning, Undifferentiated Defensive Linemen. Ojemudia, Charlton, Glasgow, Godin, Heitzman, etc.
WHAT'S NEW, OR CLOSE ENOUGH, ANYWAY
Pipkins and Henry are big boys. [Fuller]
A nose tackle! Probably. Also, more size. Michigan's line went from somewhat undersized to massively so when Pipkins went out and Beyer moved from SAM to SDE, giving you a line that often read: Beyer(250 lbs), Black (285), Henry (306), Clark (280). In retrospect, that was asking for it, and Ohio State gave us what we asked for.
Next year Black is out, replaced by some combination of Pipkins, Henry, Maurice Hurst, and maybe Richard Ash. If Henry does get drafted into the nose rotation, Godin and Wormley will probably man the three-tech at 300-ish pounds each. Beyer, meanwhile, will embark on the bacon smoothie diet Craig Roh did as he prepared to play his senior year as an undersized SDE, and while he's still going to be less than ideal at that spot he'll be a lot more plausible at 280.
Jabrill Peppers. Is it too much to hype Jabrill Peppers up as a potential program-changing dude? In year one, probably. But there's an obvious role for him on this defense: boundary corner. Michigan's DBs are generally tiny dudes, and the guys who aren't, like Channing Stribling, are skinny. Michigan could use a 210 pound corner, especially since that pushes Taylor to the nickel package, and that seems like a pretty good nickel package.
Someone next to Wilson. The greatest uncertainty on the defense is who takes over for Thomas Gordon. Josh Furman is an option after getting some playing time late last year; he does not seem like a good one. The other candidates:
Delano Hill. Claim to fame is being in the middle of OSU fracas that got a couple of contributors booted. Supposedly a guy with a good understanding of safety; definitely a quality athlete.
Jeremy Clark. 6'4" potential ballhawk will be a redshirt sophomore.
Dymonte Thomas. Supposed lock starter after spring marginalized; blocked a punt in the opener and missed a tackle when forced into the lineup in the Nebraska game by Countess's concussion.
Converted Corner. There are a lot of corners and one may get a look further back. Stribling and Reon Dawson are the most likely, because they're not 5'10".
It's nice to have four options instead of two, or one, or zero; there is no indicator who's going to get the nod. Something to watch in spring.
WHAT'S THE FIRST FOUR SEASONS OF BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
Veterans. I've piled the various returning DL into one bullet point and glossed over Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis; Michigan loses just two starters and three contributors while returning everyone else. They'll have three year starters at CB (two, in fact), LB (also two), and on the DL (possibly two, depending on how you classify Brennen Beyer).
Depth. Five guys go out the door, and in compensation Michigan gets to age 14 defensive linemen and welcome in Bryan Mone early. Michigan has a solid two deep everywhere on the line save NT, which is still in the air; they return three ILBs with a lot of experience; they may be bumping a senior three year starter to nickel depending on Peppers, and where do Lewis and Stribling go this year, let alone the two corners they redshirted a year ago?
WHAT'S THE LAST SEASON OF BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
Pass rush. Michigan was 70th in sack percentage (sacks / (passing attempts + sacks)) this year, which is worlds better than it felt like. It is still not good. A half step forward from Frank Clark gets him to 8 or 10, and then a full year of a healthy Jake Ryan adds another 5 or 6, and… actually, you're getting towards pretty good already there. There is the potential for this to move into the 30s, which would be a huge boost to every unit's pass defense.
Getting crushed by spread 'n' shreds. This post was going to be a lot sunnier before the last two games of the year, in which Michigan was bludgeoned. Before that they'd turned in a lot of good performances in which they gave up the ghost late. Their one truly bad performance was getting smoked by Indiana, and that was seemingly more for reasons of unfamiliarity and lack of preparation than out-and-out talent.
Then OSU and KSU laid waste. Now you go back and look at Northwestern clubbing Michigan last year only to lose on a Hail Mary and South Carolina's crew of 5'9" speedsters slicing up M's secondary as South Carolina used their QB to paper over the fact their OL couldn't block for their tailback. Or Ohio State putting up 34 in their lost 6-7 year. There seems to be a developing narrative of Michigan failing to contain spread-to-run offenses more often than not. For every 2013 Minnesota there are two 2011 Ohio States. I would say this is reminiscent of the Carr era, but Michigan would have to be a lot better for that to be true.
Getting crushed generally, up the middle. I want to move Henry to nose tackle in my mind, but then 3-tech becomes this jumble of Wormley/Godin/Strobel/Poggi and I'm not sure how confident I am in that. But then: can you rely on Pipkins, and who is your 0.5 starter at nose? Hurst? Ash? I don't want to move Henry out of the starting lineup, but I don't want him trying to play two positions, and I don't want a questionable Pipkins backed up by a freshman.
WHAT'S INEXPLICABLE JIMI HENDRIX
Are the corners actually good? Now we get to extend this argument about Taylor to a larger stage. PRO: between them the two starting CBs had ten interceptions, virtually all of them the impressive sort where the corner makes a play. No batted balls here. CON: Michigan was 49th in YPA allowed at 6.9. PRO: with a crappy pass rush and safety issues. CON: what safety issues?
I'll take 10 INTs and slightly above average pass defense with that pass rush and those huge chunks of yards Stribling and Lewis gave up because of phasing/gypsy issues. Yes, Tyler Lockett annihilated them. Tyler Lockett does that to everybody. Every-damn-body. Against mortals, I would expect Taylor/Countess to be a high quality pairing. But, you know… Lockett.
What about James Ross? He was supposed to be the bees' knees according to someone. Oh, right, me. He was kind of eh, his year bookended by passing spread after passing spread in which he was mostly dropping into zones effectively and injury. More than anyone else he was hurt by having Black and Henry as DTs, as those guys tended to dart into the backfield to do something and get all the credit or get blown up. In the first case there was a guy releasing into him free; in the second he had to try to pick around three guys moving the wrong way to make his read worth anything.
I think Ross will be good if Michigan can keep him clean.
Oh good another new safety. I hate new safeties.
MANDATORY WILD-ASS GUESS
Despite the alarming trend at the end of the year, the arrow does point up for this outfit, which loses very few contributors and has a ton of guys competing to break through into the starting lineup. There are something like five cornerbacks I'd be relatively confident to see on the field, which is 3-5 more than usual. The linebackers return almost entirely intact; the line does as well. They should be better—possibly a lot better.
The major looming issue is defensive tackle. The Pipkins injury was the worst possible one for the defense to suffer, as they have scant options right now a position on the field where you need at least 1.5 starters.
I don't think I can predict this is a top 10-ish defense without one elite DL, and I don't think I see that happening. Clark and Henry both have potential; I don't think either is going to truly blow up. But plenty of depth and experience everywhere should provide Michigan an opportunity to cut down on the mistakes significantly and ramp it up against everyone who can't just maul them on the line. How many teams will be able to do that… let's say two? Two.
I still think this is a unit that takes a leap forward next year. It's a leap forward from ten spots further back now, but a legit top 20 outfit is my median expectation.