A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because 1) there are actual returning players and 2) there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
||Ryan Van Bergen
With four starters returning, three of them seniors, defensive line should be the team's strong point. All are converts to the Church of Barwis. Terrance Taylor and Brandon Graham each dropped 30-some pounds; Will Johnson is lifting small cars for fun; Tim Jamison is noticeably less pudgy. They could be dominant. Let’s hope.
Much was expected from fireplug nose tackle Terrance Taylor last year, but Taylor was just okay. He was bad against Appalachian State’s spread ‘n shred and ineffective against Oregon’s spread ‘n shred ‘n impossibly-easy long touchdown, a weakness that recurred later in the season against Illinois:
Taylor and Johnson weren't much more effective against the zone read than they were in the first week of the season. Taylor did make a couple plays, but +2 is a weak day for a DT playing against a lot of interior run plays.
There was also an ignominious –2 against Eastern Michigan.
On the other hand, when teams lined up and attempted to grind down Michigan all traditional-like, Taylor was pretty dang good.
||Probably thinking "hallelujah, someone who will run straight at me."
||A couple diving tackles that really helped out the befuddled linebackers.
||I thought he was great, but grant you that you might be skeptical. Nine tackles is a hell of a number for a DT, though.
||Positive day, but a disappointing one nonetheless. Given his status as Michigan's most consistently disruptive DT and the steady diet of iso plays, he should have had a bigger impact.
That’s three of four performances that were at least good; there were also big days against spread teams Purdue and Northwestern.
Michigan fans are banking on Taylor improving after his midseason conversion to the Church of Barwis. The gregarious fat man is now more gregarious and less fat after dropping 25 pounds over the summer. He claims his conditioning has improved:
"I'm going to be lean," he said, laughing, knowing what his 6-foot frame can handle. "I know doing that, being more flexible, doing the things they want and improving in the areas I can improve in, all working together, it's a blessing I stayed here and we got (strength coach) Mike Barwis."
Taylor’s ability to stay effective late in games will be extremely important with the loss of Marques Slocum and position switch of John Ferrara: the top backups are a freshman and a Canadian.
If Taylor was a bit disappointing, Will Johnson was more so. After battling through a severe knee injury that forced a redshirt and lingered on, Johnson debuted as a redshirt sophomore backup to unholy terror Alan Branch in 2006. In that role, he was good. Sometimes they’d lift Branch on third and short in favor of Johnson and, remarkably, that turned out pretty well.
Unfortunately, when Johnson was pressed into full-time duty the results were meh. Stats don’t always tell the tale at defensive tackle, but 2.5 TFLs and half a sack does not indicate an impact player. UFRs indicate a strong game against Penn State, a rollercoaster performance against Wisconsin, a good day against Minnesota (BFD, maybe), a clunker against Ohio State, and unremarkable days otherwise.
Johnson also has tales of Barwis:
"I think I'm stronger and more explosive than I've been in a while," senior defensive tackle Will Johnson said. "(Barwis') staff is really good. They're really on top of everything. They know what you need to do and how to get you there.
"I love (Barwis) to death so far. He's a good guy. He really gets after you and wants you to do your best."
He owns many of the weightlifting records for the current team and is a fifth year senior; now is the time. He should be better, but probably not All Big Ten level.
Freshman Mike Martin is the top backup at defensive tackle. Out of high school he’s a smaller version of Terrance Taylor, a shortish but stocky NT sort who was a state champion wrestler and powerlifter. A true freshman at DT would normally be cause for concern but Martin is reputed to be a gym rat much better prepared for the rigors of a college weight program than most. His highlight film is pretty impressive, as he shoots through the line and drags down ballcarriers like he’s a middle linebacker.
No one knew what to expect from Renaldo Sagesse, as he is from Quebec and played mostly against 150 pound guys who got much, much sorrier they didn’t make the hockey team as soon as he wandered on the field. He saw sporadic snaps last year, but they were too few to glean any impression from. Jason Kates stuck around and stuck it out under Barwis a year after dropping from a listed 358 pounds to 318; he will probably start rotating in this year.
Brandon Graham was injured or suspended or something for Michigan’s first two games of 2007. You probably don’t remember this because it’s not like it’s been brought up every 15 seconds since, but Michigan gave up a lot of points in those games. When Graham returned against Notre Dame, he racked up 3.5 sacks and Michigan gave up no points. From then on the defense dragged itself from dead last to 24th nationally, finishing second in the Big Ten. This looks like an important player.
In truth, Graham wasn’t the all-crushing destroyer of worlds the events of last year may have made him out to be. He did pick up 8.5 sacks and would likely have cracked double digits without the missed time, but in marked contrast to Lamarr Woodley, Graham added just one non-sack TFL and 15 non-sack regular tackles. Tim Jamison, in contrast, had about triple those numbers. Woodley was on another level yet.
Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham, and he came in for some clucking:
He's got a -2 up there, by far his worst total of his career, and it was largely because he got booted out of the line by double teams frequently.
Michigan needs Graham to take the next step forward in the pass game and start wreaking similar havoc against the run.
I tentatively suggest this will happen. Barwis broke Brandon Graham into his component molecules, examined every one individually, and reassembled Graham into a 16-foot-tall fire-breathing dinosaur robot. Or something like that:
…at 287 pounds, Brandon Graham did 315 pounds on the bench press. We cut him all the way down to 250 and then brought him back up to 269. At 269 today, he did 475 for two (repetitions) on the bench.
This quote is amazing for obvious reasons—Graham can now lift Charlie Weis twice—and more subtle ones: we had a 290-pound defensive end last year? Jebus.
We have a player who was already one of the better defensive ends in the league whilst carrying around 20 pounds of Cottage Inn one year more experienced and several times better conditioned. Also there is the cockpit-mounted flamethrower. Survey says: really, really good.
After three years of nonstop hype and the occasional flash of brilliance in a backup role, Tim Jamison debuted as a starting defensive end and was… eh… a little better than okay. Late in the season he was wildly inconsistent. Against Wisconsin he was a measly +1 as the DL as a whole turned in a –8 in the important “pressure” metric, but against Ohio State he turned in a +7 and was the best player on the defense.
Other than that though, Jamison’s porridge was boringly average. Earlier it was meh-plus—+4, +4, +5, that kind of thing—as the pressure metric wandered around the acceptable range. His stats were similarly unremarkable: 5.5 sacks, 52 tackles, ten TFLs. A point in his favor: that’s a lot of tackles and a decent number behind the line; he wasn’t really the issue in the run game.
Jamison enters his final year an established starter who should take another step forward this year. How much depends on how realistic the Barwis hype is, how crazy Scott Shafer is, and how much potential is yet untapped. Jamison’s entering his fifth year in college instead of his third and is thus less likely than Graham to blow up, but he was a slightly plus player a year ago and will probably be an honorable mention All Big Ten sort, maybe second team.
Behind the starters it’s thin. Ryan Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit reputed to have a nonstop motor; he redshirted a year ago and appears to be the top option behind Graham on the strongside. At 6’5” he’s a bit taller than optimal height for a defensive end. Greg Banks was a meh recruit; he’s seen some time here and there but hasn’t done anything of note. Adam Patterson was a major recruit but has done less than Banks so far, as a junior he’s rapidly running out of time.
Obi Ezeh returns; Chris Graham and Shawn Crable do not. Crable will be missed. Unfortunately, available options here are few.
Sophomore middle linebacker Obi Ezeh was the Steve Schilling of the defense in 2007: a redshirt freshman pressed into the starting lineup before his time, he was unprepared and often bad. Now he’s the “veteran” anchor of a shaky unit, counted upon to improve massively.
Though Ezeh doesn’t have the same plague of injuries to excuse his play, he was switched from strongside linebacker to the middle midway through fall camp and was significantly less touted as a recruit. There’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll get better.
He’ll have to. Michigan Sports Center put this video up to highlight Morgan Trent’s wicked speed but when I look at it all I see is horrible linebacker play:
This is a simple zone read handoff on which Ezeh is unblocked. Not only does Ezeh not read the play and the hole fast enough to make a tackle, he commits the cardinal sin of losing “leverage” on the ball by letting Harvin outside of him. The result is a big gainer.
This happened quite frequently last year, as Colin Johnston detailed in his piece on the differences between David Harris and Obi Ezeh for Hail To The Victors 2008. Ezeh was a freshman and he played like it, especially against Wisconsin when he turned in a –7.
That’s not to say there wasn’t good stuff mixed in there. Ezeh usually managed to stay on the positive side of the UFR ledger, which was more than Chris Graham could say. Ezeh is getting a lot of positive buzz, too. Here’s hoping it’s accurate.
Johnny Thompson backs up Ezeh. He’s a player damned by the shifting tides of football, a guy who could have been a starter back when second and eight was a running down. Our one glimpse of Thompson’s promise came during the 2005 Iowa game, when the ineptness of Chris Graham became too much to bear and he was inserted at weakside linebacker. I wrote this last year and it still holds true:
The first half was full of indecision and error; the second half he made a significant contribution to the win... in the run game. When he was asked to defend the pass, he overran plays and got clunkily out of position.
Though he did intercept Jimmah Clausen last year—raise your hand if you didn’t—put your hand down, Todd Howard—that limitation remains. He’s an outmoded player.
Thompson should see the field as a situation run-stopper on short yardage and goalline sets. If there’s a non-spread team on the schedule that really can’t throw you might see a lot of him in that particular game… maybe Wisconsin?
On the outside things are tetchy. Marell Evans has won the weakside job from presumed heir apparent Jonas Mouton. Neither has seen the field much so we’re reduced to recruiting rankings, extrapolation, and practice whispers.
Evans first: he was a legit nobody (to the recruiting sites, at least) out of Varina High in Virginia a couple years back. Varina also happens to be the school that produced Brandon Minor, and Michigan internet legend has it that a primary reason Evans got his offer was Minor’s recommendation. Minor told the staff “this guy works harder than I do,” and this was suitably impressive. At the time of his commitment, Evans’ other offers were from Buffalo, Temple, and Middle Tennessee. Now he’s a true sophomore slated to start at Michigan. Dude.
Mouton, on the other hand, was a mondo recruit out of California, ranked in or around the top 50 by both sites. He moved down from safety and redshirted his first year; last year an ankle injury lingered into the season, limiting his time early. Nothing limited his time late, however, and Chris Graham was still tres ineffective as the starting WLB. Like Mark Ortmann’s struggles behind an unprepared Schilling, this is a disturbing indicator for his future.
Evans doesn’t exactly have the profile of a future star what with that recruiting story—even if you don’t believe in star ratings, that offer list is less than ideal—but at least he’s beaten out a touted guy and has an encouraging career path to date. I won’t venture a guess as to how it will work out. Mouton remains the better athlete and may see some time as a madman blitzer in Scott Shafer’s madman blitzing schemes.
On the strongside, Austin Panter is the most unexpected starter on the defense, and that’s saying something given the science that was just dropped on Evans. Michigan’s first JUCO transfer since Russell Shaw, Panter arrived with a JUCO Defensive Player of the Year award and was immediately considered a total bust. He saw just enough time to rob him of a redshirt—yay—and seemed poised to languish in obscurity his final year. Exit Crable and enter Rodriguez and he’s a starter.
I have no idea what this portends. The only thing I’ve seen from Panter was a couple good plays in the 2007 spring game. Michigan never uses JUCOs so I don’t know if this is a reasonable thing to have happen. It seems like it might be since there’s a huge leap from some community college in Kansas to Michigan, but it also seems a little desperate. It’s not like this JUCO DPOY award has been a great predictor of I-A success: most of the guys who got it faded away into Bolivia without so much as a start.
This may work out; I lean towards not so good. It might not matter that much because Michigan will be in a nickel so often.
Brandon Logan exists but isn’t going to see time outside of special teams. A fleet of freshmen will probably rotate in at points. JB Fitzgerald has been the only freshman linebacker drawing direct praise from Rodriguez so far. He’s a middle linebacker by trade, though, so may get buried this year. Kenny Demens, Taylor Hill, and Brandon Herron have not drawn any mentions. Hill was the highest rated but was also a 210 pound DE. Marcus Witherspoon would probably have seen the field this year but a clearinghouse issue has him lingering around home. He certainly thinks he’s going to arrive; at this point a redshirt seems like a foregone conclusion.
The one unit that was a pleasant surprise on last year’s team, the secondary returns about three starters depending on how you classify oft-deployed nickelback and new starting safety Brandon Harrison. The starting corners return and are backed up by some promising young talent; Steve Brown… well, he’s going to play and God willing last year’s contribution to the Horror was an anomaly.
Senior cornerback Morgan Trent underwent a remarkable transformation last year. He was torched time and again in the Football Armageddon ‘06 Ohio State game and was #1 on the fan whipping boy charts until Appalachian State’s first drive. He proceeded to turn in an excellent year, emerging into one of the better corners in the Big Ten. Defenses avoided him in favor of Johnny Sears and, later, Donovan Warren. That might not say much when those two guys are baked out of their gourd and freshman, respectively, but this does:
PASS DEF EFFICIENCY G Att Cmp Int Pct. Yds TD Effic
1. Michigan............ 8 252 134 8 53.2 1382 4 98.1
2. Ohio State.......... 8 276 145 6 52.5 1355 8 99.0
3. Purdue.............. 8 288 166 9 57.6 1783 10 114.9
4. Iowa................ 8 290 167 10 57.6 1933 10 118.1
Michigan missed Jake Christensen's unconvincing impersonation of a man with arms and was still the top pass efficiency D in the conference. Morgan Trent was the best player in that secondary.
This year, NFL scouts are saying Trent is the most draftable prospect on the team, even ahead of the defensive linemen. I could only turn up one highlight for Trent because teams avoided him so much—there was also a “look what I found” interception or two, but those weren’t exactly testaments to his ability. He’s headed for an excellent senior season and some postseason award consideration.
Meanwhile, Donovan Warren is on the same stardom track followed by Jackson, Hall, and Woodson (praised be his name) before him: come in a highly touted recruit, start about half the year as a freshman, and blow up your sophomore year en route to the first round of the NFL draft. Warren actually has more recruiting accolades than anyone on that list—only Jackson was even close—and was a starter by the second half of The Horror.
As you might expect, Warren started off a little shaky. Though he was one of the few Wolverines to escape the Post Apocalyptic Oregon Game without a tongue-lashing, he was one of the “goats” against Penn State. (“Goats” is probably the wrong term when you give up nine points, but whatever.) He was also responsible for a coverage bust against Illinois that led to a touchdown. But as I review the UFRs he’s always at 0 or –1 or +1, which is pretty good for a freshman in a system that has a hard time crediting secondary players for the times they don’t screw up. Most of Warren’s mentions go like this:
Warren(+1) reacts to this quickly and just manages to not screw up the tackle. I'm still pretty leery about his tackling ability, and frankly, this play, but we are a results-based charting service. (Cover +1)
Tackling was his main issue a year ago. And indecision. Tackling and indecision and etc Spanish Inquisition, except that tackling and indecision were about it. Those things should melt away with more experience; the expectation here is that Warren will be very good.
Top backups at corner are true freshman Boubacar Cissoko, a highly-rated player from Cass Tech in Detroit, and Michigan legacy Troy Woolfolk. Cissoko was well regarded by the recruiting services despite the fact he can’t get on any of the rides at Cedar Point, and this hilariously-scored highlight package gives an indication as to why:
There’s only one Black Jesus and he’s Steve Breaston.
Anyway, Cissoko’s short but he’ll get in your grill and jam your ass to the ground. My go-to comparison for him is former Arkansas corner Chris Houston, who spent his college career lined up six inches from his man and rode them all the way downfield. Sometimes this worked out great; sometimes it did not it was spectacular to watch either way.
Woolfolk, meanwhile, was a high school track star and is the son of Michigan legend Butch Woolfolk. He’s physically reminiscent of Trent, a long, lanky guy who can go fast in a straight line but doesn’t have the change of direction a dwarf like Cissoko does.
In a way, I blame myself. Mostly I blame other people with a direct hand in it, but in a way I am culpable. There’s the “Functional DNP” thing and then Angry Michigan Safety Hating God saw this arrogance re: Steve Brown in last year’s preview and struck us all down:
It's usually silly to expect a new starter to outperform a departed one, but in this case it would be nearly impossible for Brown not to. Ryan Mundy was the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform.
Mundy, of course, transmogrified into a safety decent enough to actually get drafted by an actual NFL team in the actual NFL draft. Meanwhile, Brown’s first start caused in mass chaos, tragedy, and this:
our safeties remain way downfield holding their penises, or, in Stevie Brown's case, trying very hard to grab his penis but falling down and watching it score a touchdown.
I was a little cranky.
Brown (right) was yanked halfway through The Horror and blameless Brandent Englemon occupied the starting job for the remainder of the year. Brown emerged from time to time when injury demanded it or just to spot a tired starter; in this time he made no big plays but neither did he give any up.
So now he’s the man, man, at free safety, and there are few other options available. (Maybe Artis Chambers is ready. Maybe not.) Brown’s still racking up the hype that caused such a sunny prediction in last year’s preview. He has full guru approval. He’s a junior now. He still scares the living daylights out of me.
This probably isn’t fair; I’m no doubt overrating two very bad plays from an inexperienced player in his first real action. If Brown had just sat behind a highly reliable Brandent Englemon, everyone would be terribly excited about him.
But, yeah, he didn’t.
Mighty mite Brandon Harrison has claimed the strong safety job. Though he’s technically not a returning starter, Harrison saw a ton of time last year as Michigan’s nickelback. From that spot he strung out options and attempted outside runs, provided underneath coverage, and blitzed quarterbacks. His proficiency at these things: excellent, average, and why don’t you run AT him instead of PAST him?
I’m a little disappointed Harrison will be giving up that spot as a quasi-linebacker, because he really was excellent at crushing outside runs last year. Three plays expound on a season:
Harrison(+2) jets in, fending of a blocker to chop this down in the backfield. Thompson(+1) also out there to help after a quick read. … Harrison(+2) reads and shoots into the backfield, making a huge TFL just as the ball arrives. … Harrison(-1) in unblocked but overruns the QB.
Those instincts will serve him well, though, and I expect he’ll be in that familiar spot over the slot receiver with frequency as Shafer brings another guy up to blitz.
Harrison’s coverage was been decent to good last year, though he missed an occasional tackle underneath; he should be acceptable to good in his final year.
Fifth-year senior Charles Stewart is the main backup at safety. His most extensive time on the field to date was as Morgan Trent’s ineffective replacement during the 2006 Minnesota game. After getting torched in a variety of ways there, he was buried on the bench and moved to safety. He’s been getting sporadic praise from the new regime and may see some time in nickel and time packages.
Artis Chambers was getting some time on special teams when the Big Ten dinged him for some eligibility snafu and forced him out for the remainder of the year. There are reports he’s playing some outside linebacker in a weird pass-down dime package. Whether that signals disaffection with the linebackers or a desire to get Chambers on the field is yet to be determined.
Brandon Smith is a high-rated true freshman who will see some time as he’s groomed to step in Harrison next year. He’s got wicked dreads.