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…
A 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.]