Hoke was top notch at this aspect of his job.
2008 Michigan Football Season Preview Part-2: Defense
Also, if you haven’t read part one which previews the offense, click below: http://mgoblog.com/diaries/2008-michigan-football-season-preview-part-1-...
To recap from part 1, here is the grading scale:
A: Obviously the best rating. Players at this position should compete for all Big Ten or be among the top players at their position in the nation.
B: Good players, but not good enough to carry or lead the team.
C: Average. Position will not likely make very many big plays and should be expected to give up a few/make mistakes.
D: Should be a significant liability to the team.
F: We are fucked.
We will have the same starting line up as last year as all starters return. This should be the strength of our defense next year (tops in the Big Ten?) as you can expect improvement from all players since all were first year starters besides Terrence Taylor.
The two starters are Terrence Taylor and Will Johnson. Taylor is a large man that takes up blockers and had a high number of tackles for a NT. While he is excellent at times even when double teamed, he needs to stop taking plays off (sounds like most skilled Michigan DTs of the recent past). With a good year and more consistent effort, he has the talent to go in the early rounds of the draft. Side note: In the beginning, he had problems with the new coaching staff, but those issues appear resolved and it sounds like he has bought into the new coaches and their intense training, which should help his effort.
Will Johnson was a solid starter, not really standing out in anyway. Expect more of the same since he is more of a motor player than a skilled one (read: he lacks talent). He is balding at the age of 22 which makes him look at least 20 years older than he actually is.
Tim Jamison and Brandon “BG” Graham are the starters at end. Jamison was a solid pass rusher and played fairly well against the run last year. He had a normal body, but had a gut that stuck out enough that he looked fat, but not as much as a Buddha belly where although you’re fat, you can at least rest your arms on it (yes, in the back of my mind I always thought it would be fun to have one). Fortunately, with the help of Barwis, he’s lost 10 lbs., looks svelte (not really sure if he does actually, but I’ve always wanted to use that word), and likely can see his penis again. Regardless, being faster and in better shape, Jamison should improve on a strong effort from last year.
Brandon Graham was a beast last season—literally (he was fat)and figuratively (he chased fleeting QBs like a madman). While this resulted in a high number of sacks and QB pressures, he struggled against the run. He is now 20 lbs. lighter and has received some of the highest praise on the team during the spring. BG should be the best player on next year’s D and will hopefully be a more all-around player. Side note: While the above players were the standard four man line, Michigan often moved BG to the tackle spot, especially on passing downs. It is unclear whether the new coaching staff will do this since he’s lost weight and the depth is not great at DE. I personally don’t think Michigan was successful at employing this formation last year, anyway.
Depth along the DL is essential as players rotate in more than most positions. There is no “can’t miss” player on the bench ready to step in if there is an injury, in my opinion. The team only has a few highly-recruited young players, but none have significant experience. Depending on who you listen to, various writers claim this or that player is ready to “step up” and “demand significant snaps,” but I don’t really know what to make of any of it; I’ve probably heard redshirt freshman Ryan Van Bergen the most since the spring. Also, DT Marques Slocum is likely going to get kicked off the team for academic reasons, hurting the depth at DT, which is unfortunate since he showed promise last year in very limited time.
Obi Ezeh (who a friend nicknamed Obi Ezeh like Sunday Morning,Chris Berman style) is the only returning starter. There has been continued discussion that he might move to the strong side, but I don’t really buy it. He played all last season here and his bigger body type is best suited inside. Anyway, Ezeh’s season started off poorly, but as the season progressed, he improved and showed glimpses that he can be a good player down the line. There are times on the field where you can tell he is thinking and therefore is slow to react. However, there are times where he had some big games as well. He was clearly still learning the position last year (played running back in HS) and I think he’ll continue to improve this year.
The rest of the linebackers aren’t settled yet. There are four guys currently on the team who are supposedly competing for these last two spots. Jonas Mouton started the season hurt, but never got on the field besides special teams, which was surprising since the LB play last year was questionable at best. Hopefully, this was more indicative of something other than his talent. He was highly regarded out of HS as a safety prospect, so he has good speed for the position, something important to the coaches. Also, for some reason, he just seems like he should be good.
His biggest competition for the starting WLB is Marell Evans. He was lightly regarded coming out of HS, but is also a speed guy like Mouton. He mostly played special teams and I don’t remember him playing on defense whatsoever. He’s also seen playing time at SLB where . . .
Senior Austin Panter is expected to start. Panter came to Michigan from junior college (the first in quite some time) and was expected to immediately contribute. He did, but only on special teams. The previous staff did not seem enamored with him once he got on campus, but that could have been for a number of reasons unbeknownst to me (i.e. adjustment to division 1 college, lack of effort in practice, etc.).
The last guy supposedly in contention is John Thompson, who sounds more like an accountant that a football player. He is likely getting a shot at playing more because he’s a senior rather than anything else. He played some last season (and even started a few games), but he might have been the worst player on the team who continued to play; he is just not that talented. I expect him to start the season as a backup and likely get passed up on the depth chart by some of the four incoming freshmen later in season, all of which were rated fairly high. I expect at least one to emerge and play a significant role this year. Also, given our lack of depth at DE, one might be moved there.
Both starters will be back and it will be essential for them to live up to their potential as the safeties lack experience. Morgan Trent is a converted corner, so the transition to becoming a good player took longer than most, but he played surprisingly well last season. Teams attacked the other side of the field for the most part (this might have been partly due to the lack of skill of the other corners before Warren became a reliable player). Trent should continue to develop this year. He has great size and speed, which he often relies upon to make plays. As he’s developed, he’s learned to play smarter and has given up fewer big plays.
Donavan Warren makes up the other half of arguably the best cornerback tandem in the Big Ten. Last year, he definitely showed he was a true freshman at times, especially toward the beginning of the season. However, as the season progressed, he turned into a solid corner and made every All-America freshman team. He showed that he could eventually reach the level of a Leon Hall or Ty Law as a true shut down corner. Warren has great size (and pretty much every other characteristic you would want) for the position and should continue to develop quickly as he is more skilled and younger than Trent. Other than BG, he has the most talent/upside on the defense.
If Harrison moves over to safety as expected, some of the younger CBs should expect increased playing time. The leading candidates are Troy Woolfolk and Boubacar Cissoko. Woolfolk rarely played last season, and I have not heard too much about him during the spring. Boubacar Cissoko could receive some minutes as well and could become a good player down the line, but he is shorter than you would like; I would characterize him as a feisty little pipsqueak. Short corners will always have issues to overcome, especially with taller receivers, but he appears to be a talented guy and other than height, Cissoko has all the characteristics (cocky, quick, explosive, jumping ability, etc.) that you want in a good corner.
The only upperclassman who has a chance to compete for playing time is Doug Dutch Jr. He came in as a WR with plenty of hype and has since switched positions. He hasn’t received much playing time and I don’t expect things to be different this year. If he sees the field it will be early in the season when the younger players are still learning the defense.
This position is somewhat of a concern considering that we’re replacing both starters, and that both potential candidates are inexperienced. Starting at free safety will be Steve (Stevie? I’ve seen it both ways) Brown. I supported his choice as a starter last year as he appeared to be ready (rave reviews during the spring, 4-star recruit, etc.). Unfortunately he was not. Brown was quickly replaced by Engleman and was one of the biggest reasons for the Appalachian St. loss (the other being Johnny “Mary Jane” Sears). Although he has all the physical tools, Brown struggled to diagnose plays correctly, continually taking poor angles to the ball carrier, and not properly leveraging the ball (odd for a player who supposedly had good instincts). He has again looked great in the spring and would have been the MVP (if they handed one out) of the spring game according to some. Furthermore, at the end of last season, he saw the field a few times and looked better. I think this is the year he puts it all together.
Brandon Harrison played nickel last season and was a quasi-starter in the sense that we often deployed 5 DBs to combat the spread offense. While his season did not start well (like many on last year’s defense), he eventually became a reliable player at that spot. His ability to read and stop screens was his biggest strength. He even learned and improved on his blitzing capabilities. Before, he just tried to run really fast, often out-running the play. Last year he realized the goal was to aim for the person with the ball, and more positive results followed. Harrison is now being considered for the strong safety spot (he is really a corner/safety tweener who has seen limited time here in the past, I believe his freshman year). I personally think he’s better suited as a nickel back since he is short, fast, and strong. This allows him to match up better with slot receivers and help support the run better than most at his position. If he does become a safety, I would not be surprised to see him slide over to the nickel spot and another safety be brought in when teams try to spread Michigan out (this assumes that the backup safeties are at least as good as the backup CBs which may not be the case).
Another player competing for playing time is Charles Stewart. He moved to safety (where he is a better fit) since he failed as a corner. Overall, he’s not very talented and I don’t really trust former 3-star players who take till their redshirt senior year to compete for playing time, especially ones without injuries as an excuse. Some have brought up that he could see time as a nickel cornerback, but I like him even less at that position. Pushing him for playing time at safety are more talented players, such as Artis Chambers and Michael Williams (both freshmen last year). They should be able to pass him on the depth chart early in the season, if not before. Chambers enrolled early to begin playing with the team, but was ruled ineligible for the year after playing 4 games on special teams. Michael Williams was the more highly touted of the two, but was redshirted. The chance of them seeing the field this year is likely contingent upon the player starting ahead of them; Chambers is a SS and Williams is better suited as a FS.
By returning our entire DL and CBs, all talented players, these units can be expected to be among the best in the Big Ten. However, there are questions as to whether the LBs can make the necessary plays that the DL sets up, and also if the safeties can hold up as the last line of defense. I think the LB play should be sufficient and will improve as the season progresses and the safeties will be solid, but they may be the cause of a big play or two per game. Furthermore, we lose leadership on defense by the graduation of players like Crable and Adams, but this happens every year and others will step up. Overall, Michigan should have a strong defense that will (hopefully) carry it through the early part of the season until the offense comes around.
K. C. Lopata, although he lacks any range whatsoever, will continue to kick and be accurate inside the 40. Hopefully, Rich Rod will be more aggressive on forth down than Carr so that Lopata won’t have to kick from long distance. Bryan Wright will continue to handle kickoffs.
Zoltan will average 75 yards a punt on kicks he doesn’t drop inside the 20 yard line. The team plans to employ directional punting, which should prevent instances like last year when Zoltan kicked it perfectly inside the 20, but since our kick coverage sucked, it would eventually bounce into the end zone.