Spring Stuff 2015: Defense

Spring Stuff 2015: Defense

Submitted by Brian on April 7th, 2015 at 12:56 PM

Previously: the offense.


hello [Patrick Barron]

This is the good part. There were a few folks trying to find the nearest available ledge after yesterday's post. I'm not sure if they're wildly optimistic about HARBAUGH and expect next year's team to be year four Stanford or if I came off too brutally negative. Either way, this post will be a lot sunnier.

It's not a 3-4. Unless Michigan was sandbagging in their spring game they are running a defense quite similar to last year's—at least as far as the front seven goes. We have great experience with paranoid coaches as Michigan fans and not once has a major structural shift in the defense been concealed in spring. Even last year under Sir Puntsalot Michigan went full man press and that was their defense until circumstances dictated otherwise.

So we'll run with the assumption that what Michigan put out there was about what they'll run. This game saw Michigan run a 4-3—actually more of a 4-4, but more about that later—almost all the time. They went so far as to deploy Royce Jenkins-Stone as a weakside end because they were all out of weakside ends outside of Lawrence Marshall.

They will mix fronts, as all teams do. It is not a radical departure from last year's approach. And that's a good thing.

There is a departure. That is…

17032765582_dbe45344a6_zA hybrid space player is here. The biggest difference between Mattison's defense and Durkin's is at safety. 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.

[@ right: Upchurch]

If you were worried that moving Peppers to safety would make him a peripheral player who mostly shows up when making a tackle ten yards downfield, don't be. The vision of Peppers provided on Saturday was one of Tennessee-era Eric Berry or Packers-era Charles Woodson: an all-purpose sower of havoc. Berry had 16 TFLs his final two years at Tennessee. Woodson evolved into an NFL Defensive Player Of The Year as something beyond traditional positional definitions:

“They’re playing a lot of nickel, you know the old split six, so an eight man front,” said Mornhinweg. “They’ve got a good cover man with [Charles Woodson] down there who’s a very, very good tackler, so they sort of invite you to run the football into that base type personnel group however they’re very good.”

While that would normally be a successful strategy, Woodson’s ability to defend the run as a slot cornerback gives the defense some teeth.

“They feel very comfortable with him playing in that, which really is like a WILL linebacker position, he’s a physical guy,” said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. “He has great speed. He’s a great blitzer, great blitzer. So that’s how they use him.”

Woodson acted as that triple threat: 

Woodson is fast enough to get to the quarterback in a hurry, but still strong enough to defend the run.  Most of all, he’s a highly talented cover cornerback.

That is Peppers's role. Michigan's "nickel" is a base package with a hyper-athletic WLB; its base set looks like an eight-man front with a guy in that front who can cover anyone on the field. The defense is designed around his uncommon abilities.


Hurst was a regular annoyance to Morris [Bryan Fuller]

Activate DT depth. One of the striking things about the roster is that I had no idea who got struck first when drafting the defensive tackles. Glasgow and Henry were starters last year but both Mone and Hurst flashed ability as backups; a year later everyone's back and Maurice Hurst is in your base every play.

As a recruit Hurst was regarded as a lightning quick first step above all, with questions about whether he could hold up. That makes him an ideal three-technique. Three-techs get more one on one matchups if the nose tackle absorbs doubles, and Hurst is a good bet to shoot into the backfield. That was the case on Saturday. Hurst was a regular entrant into the land where TFLs are made.

He was going up against Ben Braden and David Dawson at guard, neither of whom is established as a starter-level player on the inside. But Braden did start all of last year and Dawson was a well-regarded recruit; neither is a walkon; both have been around a couple years. He was slicing through those guys with regularity.

Henry did well for himself after the first snap and should maintain the starting job. That two-deep looks set to be a high quality platoon.


I am ready to respect your authoritah [Eric Upchurch]

Inside backers are ready to rip. With James Ross out and Royce Jenkins-Stone drafted at WDE, the third linebacker in most sets was an odd duck. It did not seem to matter much, because the ILBs were filling with abandon. I have long been a skeptic about Joe Bolden's ability to hit people hard, but I thought he looked great.

There has always been a hesitancy about his play that has caused things like third and two conversions when Bolden goes entirely unblocked; that feels like it's finally out the door. Bolden showed up in the backfield a ton and hit guys hard when he showed. If that is not a spring mirage that sets Michigan up excellently for fall. Desmond Morgan's return gives Michigan another hard-hitting, dead-stop-tackler with a ton of experience, and Ben "Inexplicably Not Redshirted" Gedeon is ready to be the guy who spots both starters so regularly that he is a virtual starter as well.

The third linebacker should be Ross if healthy. In this defense I wonder how much run he'll get. Michigan has gone from a team that resigns itself to a ton of 4-3 sets against spread personnel (remember Jake Ryan walking out over three WR sets?) to one downright eager to play nickel.

In any case, two senior linebackers is a luxury.

Questions. The pieces are there for an outstanding defense. In my mind there are four main questions:

  • Can anyone rush the quarterback?
  • Can they find a second man press cornerback?
  • Are the safeties reliable enough?
  • Will the offense sell them out too much?

The last question is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that the last two years the defense had a tendency to collapse late after the offense's millionth three-and-out of the game.

Let's try to address the others.


Marshall is a breakout candidate and a 2015 key [Fuller]

Can anyone rush the quarterback? Michigan has not had a standout pass rusher since… Brandon Graham? Jake Ryan had a year in there but then he blew out his knee and wasn't an impact player as a junior; as a senior he had a distinctly muted impact (2 sacks) as a middle linebacker*. Brennen Beyer led last year's team with 5.5; Frank Clark had 4.5; neither was the kind of edge terror that needs to be accounted for every play.

Prospects are dim for that guy to emerge this year. Lawrence Marshall, a highly-regarded in-state recruit coming off a redshirt, has gotten a lot of hype. It would be a meteoric rise to go from not playing to being a terror. Mario Ojemudia is what he is at this point.

Michigan's best hope might be Taco Charlton, who seems set to move back to the weakside end after a season spent on the strongside in a 4-3 over. Charlton has a package of athleticism that is unmatched; this is a point where the proverbial light might come on. A spring injury prevented a hype train from building up steam; he'll be a guy you hope starts opening eyes in fall.

The defensive tackles also offer some promise here. Glasgow offered little pass rush a year ago, but Hurst, Mone, and Henry could be plus gentlemen, especially if they're all fresh because they can rotate freely without much drop in production. And the havoc Peppers causes might open up opportunities for other guys.

Even so this seems like the biggest gotcha in Michigan's quest for an elite defense.

Can they find a second man press cornerback? Michigan wanted to run an in-your-face aggressive defense last year and did so until it became clear that this was exposing Blake Countess to Spock levels of toxic radiation. Jourdan Lewis thrived, though, and returns as Michigan's #1 corner. Is there someone around who can let Michigan go Teddy KGB on opponents?

The two main contenders here are Countess, a year wiser and receiving cornerback coaching from a couple gentlemen with a slightly better pedigree in that department than the departed Roy Manning, and Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons. Lyons started for large chunks of the year for a lights-out Stanford secondary; he was regarded as something of a weak link. He can be the weak link in the #2 defense in the country and I will find that acceptable.

I give the slight edge to Lyons here, as he is bigger and faster than Countess. The boundary corner slot beckons.

A darkhorse: Brandon Watson. The redshirt freshman spent some time at safety last year, which made no sense since literally the only thing he did in high school is line up with his facemask molecules away from the opposition and jam the hell out of them. He looked pretty good on Saturday.

Are the safeties reliable enough? Jarrod Wilson is probably fine. I thought Michigan's tendency to jerk him around because he gave a team a small window to hit a pass in was one of their worst qualities under Hoke. They played nonsense guys over him from time to time, seemingly out of pique, and the defense got worse. Anyway, he's back and he should be reliable to good.

The second safety is not really Peppers since Peppers is a destroyer-of-all-trades in or near the box. The second safety is the guy who comes in when Michigan goes to the nickel that we are all going to interpret as Michigan's base defense by midyear. That is some combination of Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas, Jeremy Clark, and Tyree Kinnel. Clark and Hill are the favorites. The numbers there are reasonable; can they find a player?

*[A move that was way more bonkers than it seems in retrospect because of Morgan's injury. Michigan opted to move their only impact rusher to MLB when they had Bolden and Morgan at ILB.]

What To Watch For: Spring 2015

What To Watch For: Spring 2015

Submitted by Brian on April 3rd, 2015 at 12:28 PM

Looking forward to tomorrow's event. Logistical details can be found here.


[Bryan Fuller]

It's going to be a bit strange. Michigan has never had an actual spring game before. Carr generally provided an open practice with an attached scrimmage and was all too happy to cancel the thing if given any pretext to. Rodriguez seemed to want to play a game but having only seven offensive linemen rather prohibited that. Hoke was cut from Carr's cloth; if possible it seemed like he was even more opposed to the entire idea. Punting exhibitions were ironically common.

These intrasquad practices were always difficult to glean data from, but they did give you a pretty good picture of who was on the first team and who was on the second at that moment. Saturday will not provide much clarity in that department.

If he had a draft order that might, but we don't. We only know that Malzone was the first QB taken and others didn't follow for a while. We can also make a couple of guesses based on the distribution of certain players, but the depth chart will remain fuzzy.

On the other hand, it'll be a better crucible to observe folks in. Ones versus ones and twos versus twos often saw whoever the second string quarterback was spend his day running from large angry men. While this was in fact an excellent preview of Devin Gardner's life, hopefully that won't be the situation going forward. An even spread of talent on both sides may not give us as much insight into who the coaches think is ahead; it should give us more ground to form (admittedly useless) opinions of their own.

But let's form them anyway

There are a few things I'll be looking out for.


hello sirs [Fuller]

The Peppers disposition. We all know Peppers is starting, and his team has two other legit safeties on it—Jeremy Clark and Delano Hill. His team does not have a third corner. The obvious conclusion is that Michigan will be moving Peppers to the slot in nickel situations on Saturday.

That makes a lot of sense. I've been yammering on about Hybrid Space Players forever. Peppers promises to be that, at long last. The Hybrid Space player is a triple threat. He can cover like a corner. He can defend an edge run like a safety. And he can blitz like a linebacker. He resolves a number of the questions spread offenses pose by flat-out winning the one-on-one battles the spread issues, against all comers.

I thought Dymonte Thomas might be that guy until he disappeared down the depth chart. Peppers has, uh, not. How he's deployed is going to be be a fascinating subplot.

How 3-4 is it? How 4-3 is it? We've tackled this in multiple posts over the past few weeks: a lot of inside chatter holds that Michigan is moving to primarily a 3-4 this year. I'll be watching to see how accurate that is. This is going to be difficult with the lack of anything resembling a weakside end on the Blue team. Meanwhile, the Maize team has only Lawrence Marshall.

There is going to be ample shoehorning no matter what happens. The nature of that shoehorning should give us an indicator as to how "multiple" the defense is, and if they're really going to run a 3-4.

Formations and personnel on offense. Harbaugh has the MANBALL rep, but the real calling card of his offense is diversity. A gentleman named Colin Davy presented a measure of offensive complexity/diversity at Sloan and a friend of his sent it along to me. San Francisco is highlighted:


That edition of San Francisco deviated from Harbaugh's first three years, which were more WR-averse than any other team in the NFL. Harbaugh ran a ton of three-wide shotgun last year…


…and San Francisco had its worst offensive output under Harbaugh. Probably not a coincidence.

But even so the thing that leaps out after watching a bunch of Harbaugh games is just how much weird stuff there is. People tend to think manball is synonymous with pro-style, but whatever Harbaugh is doing is its own beast. Unless you've seen anyone else line up in a goal line set on first and ten from their own 30, that is. Maybe you have.

Mixed in with the popular conception of the Harbaugh offense is shotgun, zone read, pistol, you name it. Last year he adapted because he had to—injuries slashed his tight end corps to ribbons. What will that adaptation look like with Michigan's personnel?


We got excited about the result of Canteen vs Countess last year; we should have been worried. [Fuller]

Skill positions. Usually the easiest group to get a handle on because breaking tackles, cutting quickly, and catching the dang ball are somewhat competition-invariant. This is not a hard and fast rule—Freddy Canteen was the star of last year's spring game-type substance and did little when the live bullets started flying. But there are going to be a lot of receivers competing for time and attention as Michigan tries to find a #1.

Quarterback. I may be looking at the quarterbacks to see if any of them are any good. Previous spring games have actually been pretty good about delivering information here: Forcier was a revelation after he enrolled early, Denard was a revelation after his freshman year, Bellomy never looked plausible, and last year was extremely ominous. A first glimpse at Malzone and Speight will be interesting. And has Shane Morris developed enough to stay in the conversation?

Interior DL. Both sides have starters that look like plausible Big Ten starting lines: Henry and Glasgow versus Hurst and Mone. I think Glasgow is going to be Glasgow. (This is a good thing.) The other guys are all potential breakout players if they can put the proverbial It together.

Countess. Lewis is a lock at one corner spot. Countess is a favorite for the other… until Wayne Lyons comes in. Michigan's coaches are again asserting that they want to be a super-aggressive man to man outfit, which was Countess's achilles heel last year. Does having an experienced DBs coach help him out? Is he capable of putting his nose across from a wideout and preventing him from doing what Will Fuller did to him last year?


Hackett's first gameday. Last year's spring game was the worst. Michigan played Phil Collins constantly. The band sat in the corner, irritated that they were even there, until deciding to play for about 20 minutes straight near the end. Their constant noise was the only way to get Special K to cut out his constant noise.

Hackett's recent comments on how he envisions the gameday experience are as encouraging as possible and this will be the first opportunity to see them in action. I'm not expecting miracles immediately. The athletic department is a large ship that takes some time to steer. I will be looking out for gameday changes that might stick.