|Boundary Corner||Yr.||Field Corner||Yr.||Nickelback||Yr.|
|Channing Stribling||Jr.||Jourdan Lewis||Jr.||Jabrill Peppers||Fr.*|
|Jeremy Clark||Jr.*||Brandon Watson||Fr.*||Wayne Lyons||Sr.*|
|Wayne Lyons||Sr.*||Terry Richardson||Jr.*||Dymonte Thomas||Jr.|
Peppers, and the nickelback spot in general, are addressed in the safeties section.
This is a spot of unexpected alarm. Michigan gets Jourdan Lewis back off an outstanding sophomore year and expected to pair him with either Blake Countess or Wayne Lyons. The winner of that battle was going to be a fifth year senior with a ton of experience and probably all right. Michigan was confident enough in the outcome of that battle to stick Jabrill Peppers at nickelback and never look back.
Fast forward to now and Countess is at Auburn, Lyons at safety, and the corner opposite Lewis is very much in flux.
But have I told you about Jourdan Lewis? And that the worst case here is probably just throwing Peppers out on the other side?
JOURDAN LEWIS spent a year watching balls scrape over his outstretched fingers.
The long outside completions were also a problem. Not the first one, as Lewis gave Akron's QB about a six-inch window, which he hit:
It's not perfect coverage—ideally Lewis forces the fade route closer to the sideline—but that's a one in a hundred throw from the QB.
He didn't like it much, so he went to the darkest parts of the swamp, seeking out the forbidden knowledge. He had heard Michigan State cornerbacks passed this way. The weird bronze scat they deposited in obscene patterns confirmed it. The hut loomed ahead.
In it, Lewis learned terrible and wonderful things.
When Raymon Taylor got hurt in the Notre Dame game, Lewis moved into the starting lineup. Lewis took a couple of quick pass interference calls—probably due to nerves more than anything else—and then locked down his spot. After ND I said he was "the best CB by some distance" despite the PI calls, and soon after that was not a remotely controversial opinion. Hell, after Lewis picked up a nice PBU in zone coverage Notre Dame decided they were done testing him:
…that was the end of targeting Jourdan Lewis. Literally. The only other UFR mention of him comes when he gets too deep on a zone and Golson dumps it off to a running back for profit. … Lewis committed two silly pass interference penalties on his first two tests and Notre Dame stopped targeting him three minutes into the second quarter.
With Will Fuller showing Blake Countess his own intestines the whole game that could have been interpreted as faint praise. Even if it was intended as such, by the end of the year it was clearly not.
That is Lewis against Michael Thomas, who Todd McShay has as the top available receiver in the upcoming NFL draft. That is probably ridiculous, but Thomas is a very large and leapy man who succumbed to swamp knowledge.
Here's Lewis against Leonte Caroo, the other popular pick for best wide receiver in the Big Ten:
Here's 6'5" Kyle Prater running a fade:
I've got more of these. Lots of them. Against Dres Anderson. Against anybody. Lewis would get beat from time to time because that happens to cornerbacks, but almost never deep and when opponents went at him he was alarming enough that even completions on him sent signals that maybe you should try the other guy.
By Big Ten Media Days, Lewis was on the receiving end of the best compliment a corner can receive…
On cornerback Jourdan Lewis: "Our receivers really thought he was pretty good. They said he got his hands on your really early in the route, but they were complaining to the officials all the time too because he never let go. He was messing with them the whole time. That's good if you can get away with it, but it'll probably cost you a couple flags every game also."
…bitching about interference. As a person who has done his fair share of bitching about interference, I can testify that means you have arrived as a cornerback.
This is the bit where I come up with problems, so: Lewis isn't the biggest guy. He could end up with his fair share of flags by the end of the year. There's not much else.
Are you worried that we might see a devolution similar to that of Countess? Doubtful. Countess went from a good, crafty zone corner to a guy exposed by man press coverage. Lewis excelled in that same scheme a year ago. As a bonus, the cornerbacks coach is not a former linebacker who'd never coached the position before.
Lewis just about maxed out expectations for him a year ago and doesn't have that much farther he can go without suddenly becoming Patrick Peterson. He should have another year like 2014, except now everybody knows about him and will avoid him more. Maybe he can aim for more interceptions—to go from a guy who is dangerous because he'll get a PBU to a guy who's dangerous because he will turn you over.
Either way, Lewis will be one of the best corners in the league.
[After THE JUMP: And now for something completely different.]
The guy opposite Lewis was supposed to be the winner of a knock-down, drag-out fight between Countess and WAYNE LYONS, but Countess transferred to Auburn after spring practice and Lyons was reportedly practicing at safety, a spot where Michigan has three solid guys on their depth chart. Lyons remains an option here, but that's because anyone vaguely corner-shaped is… and also some guys who aren't.
The guy who topped the depth chart released yesterday was a surprise. CHANNING STRIBLING [recruiting profile] seemed a lot like Jourdan Lewis when both were freshmen. Both guys showed up around the ball all the time; neither was able to do anything to prevent completions from being made. These were not always his fault.
Allen Robinson: okay at football [Fuller]
Some were his fault. Some were boggling. But if you are giving me a choice between a freshman corner who is inexplicably not making plays on the ball despite being in perfect position and a guy four yards away, I'm taking the gentleman who occasionally phases out of reality.
Lewis apologized to the gypsy and had a breakout sophomore season; Stribling just about evaporated, collecting just seven tackles all year and appearing in zero plays I thought worthy of clipping.
In this he's a bit like Ben Braden was last year. We gave Braden the stink-eye entering 2014 because Michigan didn't even try him during the rolling offensive line disaster of 2013; for Stribling to not get a look-see when Countess was in the process of almost singlehandedly giving up 400 yards to Gary Nova is a bad sign.
Stribling didn't quite come out of nowhere. His surge was a late one; reports had it that he really came on at the tail end of camp. Both Scout and 247 started rumbling about him recently. Steve Lorenz featured him as an "X Factor" in a prescient post, projecting he would win the second corner slot:
"(Channing) was up and down to begin camp but has started to come into a zone as it's progressed. His current size and frame is what (Michigan) is looking for on the edge. It wouldn't surprise me to see him see a ton of snaps this season."
Sam Webb also heard that Stribling was "starting to push" Clark, though he also cautioned he'd heard Stribling was coming off a rough day or two.
What the upcoming season holds for Stribling is anyone's guess. He could get benched; he could be okay. "Good" is a distant hope given the way the position battle played out. At least he is a corner who has been a corner for longer than the duration of fall camp.
JEREMY CLARK has not been. I scoffed when practice reports held that Clark was being tried at corner, because Jeremy Clark is 6'4". 6'4" guys who can play corner are all but unheard of. Richard Sherman's 6'3", I guess. Banking on your guy to pan out like that one guy who panned out as well as the limits of human physiology allows is… well, it's a lot of things. The thing it is most is "unwise."
Clark started a number of games last year at safety, where he was a bit shaky. Michigan's safeties were generally insulated from criticism since Countess was bearing the brunt of it, but when he popped up in a clip it wasn't a good one very often. He got yanked from the Rutgers game after this:
Afterwards I said he "had an alarming game, his second or third." Thomas rotated with him the rest of the way, performing better down the stretch. Since he is a safety what I mean by this is mostly "I didn't think he was responsible for long gains"; I rarely see them unless something bad is happening.
Clark isn't great in run support and does have unusual athleticism…
He’ll obviously need to be coached up, but the physical tools are there. Based on their testing (forty, bench, pro agility, etc) some of the players insist that Clark is in the running for the title of best athlete on the team.
…so corner is vaguely plausible. Since he sometimes played the ball instead of the man as a safety, might as well move him to a spot where that's usually the idea.
Marcus Ray, who knows something about the secondary, in fact advocated for this position switch before last season:
“We’re talking about a guy that is that tall, 6-3 with his shoes off, 205 lbs., who can run and hit. He’s that physical, he just couldn’t be as physical from the safety position because it just wasn’t his game as far as playing with everything happening in front of him. So that’s why I thought in the spring he would be a great addition [at corner]. He could match up well in the red zone with taller receivers and he has the footwork and the long arms to get jams in bump-and-run coverage. If he gets coached up then I don’t think the transition will be difficult at all.”
The mental part of the game was a bit of a struggle for him, according to Ray, and at corner he can just go play football.
Ray's evaluation carries more weight than anyone else's because it was made before the position switch. There's a tendency to optimism about damn near anything in the preseason—see Hoke era—and Clark's move was no exception. Evidence is thin on the ground. I did clip a couple instances in which Clark ended up in man coverage, albeit against small schools. In the opener his length allowed him to get a PBU on third and medium:
And he got isolated on a go route when Michigan sent a corner. The result was bad, but the optics were good:
That ends up being a perfect back shoulder throw at excellent coverage, and you can see the idea in that clip. If he's with you the window you've got over his hands is tiny. Change of direction will be the key.
No idea how this works out. I'm less skeptical than I was when the move started leaking out of the submarine; I'm still pretty skeptical.
The answer to "what happens if all the boundary guys are disasters" is "Michigan puts JABRILL PEPPERS there and plays Delano Hill full time." As Plan Bs go that's a damn good one. You still have to dig out a third cornerback for nickel packages, and these days football has a ton of nickel packages… but you can live with that.
Behind the starters and guys vying to start there are few gentlemen. BRANDON WATSON [recruiting profile] and FREDDY CANTEEN [recruiting profile] were in fact high school teammates. Watson played nothing but maniacal in-your-face press coverage; Canteen played nothing but wide receiver.
Watson got moved to safety last year. That boded unwell then and in retrospect bodes a bit worse now, since Michigan should have been scrambling for a second non-Lewis cornerback. He moved back to corner under Harbaugh and turned in an encouraging spring game:
Watson's high school tape was literally all him lining up an inch from the wide receiver's nose and riding them into oblivion. So it was bizarre when the previous coaching staff moved him to safety. I interpreted that as you usually do: this guy is not fast enough to play corner, so let's try him at safety. That greatly downgraded my assessment of his chance to play.
Now that he's back and corner and pressing the pants off people again he looks pretty dang good. He recovered to intercept a pretty well thrown fade; he blanketed a number of short routes; he looked like a contender for playing time. Maybe not this year, but certainly next year.
Watson dug out an impressive interception on a jump ball intended for Moe Ways and was in tight coverage a couple other times he was tested. The obvious caveat is that Hoke's wide receive recruiting tended towards the ponderous and Watson might not be able to hang with fast guys. I concede the point. He hasn't drawn mention during fall camp and another year learning is on the docket.
Freddy Canteen is mini-Peppers [Eric Upchurch]
Canteen, meanwhile, is bouncing between corner and wide receiver so fast he could be mistaken for a politician. Amirite? Politicians. Always with the hippin' and the hoppin' and the changin' their minds. I'll be here all week!
Anyway: I dropped Canteen from the wide receiver preview because there was scuttlebutt that he was moving to corner full-time after flirting with the position during spring practice and then again in the fall. That was premature:
I'm a two way player, I play Offense and Defense, too clear up the confusion..
— FreddyFootwork (@FreddCanteen_) August 30, 2015
I'm going to talk about Canteen holistically, then.
I still think he's got skills at wide receiver. WRs didn't do much of anything in the spring game, but late he had a couple of impressive catches on Alex Malzone throws that were not precisely on target. The Countess stuff from last year's spring game turned out to say more about Countess than Canteen, but I don't think a disappointing freshman year is anything to worry about with receivers. Most make zero impact in year one, and Canteen played a lot less football than, say, Grant Perry.
As far as corner goes, Canteen is a footwork maniac, which will help him. He's probably not going to be much of a tackler and it's doubtful he's going to be accurate on zone drops, but ask him to run with a guy in man and I could see it working out. Sam Webb caught up with his high school coach and got a similar take:
“Freddy is a master of route running, so he is a master of deciphering routes. He knows the passing game very well, and his knowledge at receiver enhances his instincts at corner. He runs well, he breaks on balls well, (and) he has got good footwork. … If you’re going to play a lot of man schemes, Freddy isn’t going to hurt you at all."
It's worth a try, I guess. That Canteen didn't end up anywhere on the two-deep, not that it matters much; I expect him to make an impact somewhere.
Michigan also has TERRY RICHARDSON [recruiting profile], REON DAWSON [recruiting profile], and KEITH WASHINGTON [recruiting profile]. Richardson was a touted recruit, but entering his fourth year on campus he has not broken through to play at all. Dawson was an attempt at a like-for-like replacement of Gareon Conley when Conley decommitted in favor of Ohio State; he has not played much or created any sort of chatter.
Washington is a true freshman who spent last year driving his Pratville team to the state finals in Alabama… as a quarterback. Washington looked a lot like Steve Breaston doing so, but people think he's a cornerback so we'll consider him a cornerback. Washington is almost certainly inline for a redshirt; he projects as one of the most interesting guys to hear about during 2016 spring practice.