Preview 2015: Cornerback

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2015 at 1:11 PM

Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive Tackle. Defensive End. Linebacker.


[Bryan Fuller]

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.


[Eric Upchurch]

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.

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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 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.



September 1st, 2015 at 1:30 PM ^

Jourdan Lewis does an excellent job locating the ball, and making a play on it. That is huge, because if both guys are making a play on the ball, almost all contact is incidental, and therefore no PI can be called. Definitely helps when he's going against taller receivers. 

As for the other side, I think Jim is playing games with his depth chart. I'm not going to be surprised if/when we see Lyons line up at corner. 


September 1st, 2015 at 1:34 PM ^

Bobby Taylor was a 6'3" consensus All American cornerback for Notre Dame in the mid-90s and also made at least one Pro Bowl during a reasonably long-ish NFL career.  So, two tall CBs panned out, which doubles the odds on Clark, right?


September 1st, 2015 at 1:36 PM ^

So, I've got faith that superior coaching has smoothed out the rough edges.  He's long and lanky which I'm sure the coaches like.  He should be able to hang with large receivers.  I guess we'll know how this is going to work by the end of the first quarter on Thurs. night.


September 1st, 2015 at 1:46 PM ^

Last year with such a lack of experience at S, Wilson was the guy I thought we could least afford to lose - not that he was the best player on D but that there were so many questions behind him (and aside him).  This year it is Lewis.  I was not a huge fan of Lyons and wrote so in the diary area many months ago but did think he'd be competing with Countess to start at corner - mostly by default i.e. lack of competition.

With all the excited inside chatter about Hill you just have to think Peppers is going to see a lot more corner than we think even though I realize we will play a lot of 5 DB sets where is the nickel.  Will be interesting what Stribling has become as like Ross last year he was lost in the shuffle - now both are presumed starters.

Also very interested to see if Watson can build on the spring game - havent heard much chatter on him but he looked like a potential guy who could help in that 1 Saturday appearance.  Could have just been a good day for him but he has the size (bulk) we need badly to play press.


September 1st, 2015 at 1:46 PM ^

Canteen is an oddity to me.  I get the conventional wisdom that freshman WRs don't make impact but Canteen was regarded as an exception.  He was touted as having all the physical tools -- highly developed tools at that -- to play receiver so what's holding him back?  Obviously injury right now, but that's far from the whole story.  Unfortunately I didn't get to see his play much last season which doesn't help my confusion.

That said, his move to CB is less explicable to me than most.  Whatever's the problem, there's a lot more to receiving than having fancy feet, so if he's had trouble adjusting to an actual football offense, as Brian says, his montage-worthy regimen of footwork drills will be an asset if his job is to stay in a receiver's noon shadow.  Of course -- like receiving -- there's more to CB than that, but being in position is 9/10ths of the battle.  And while INTs are nice, if you can reliably swat the ball away you've at least done your job.  If you can't be shaken, you have a chance.


September 1st, 2015 at 1:54 PM ^

There was way too much hype about Canteen.  He was a low 4 star with a modest offer sheet with only 3 other P5 offers aside UM - and 2 of those were Maryland and Rutgers.  41st ranked WR in the country.  People act as if doing footwork drills makes you a "sure fire" WR.  If he was so sure of a contributor as a freshman so should have been about 25 other WRs.  No one at OSU was saying OMG so college ready, he is like Treadwell, what a get for UM.  That was a Mgoblog hype job much like  Norfleet was.

Long term we have much more need for Canteen at CB than WR to be blunt.  Look at our CB depth chart.  Then realize we only brought in a major project in Washington as a 2015 CB.  Then our 2016 class is a 3 star and some projects, incl a guy no one had heard of from Canada.  Meanwhile we brought in 2 top 200 WRs in this class alone, and have a bunch from the prior 2 years.

In 2 years Lewis, Stribling, Peppers (S/CB) - assume he is half the hype, and Clark are gone and you are talking Brandon Watson, Washington, and the under the radar 2016 recruits. 

Our 2015 and 2014 classes combined had 13 defensive players in it, that is 50% as many as OSU and MSU had in those 2 years.  We only had 4 defensive players in 2015.  So that means some offensive guys are going to need to convert to defensive guys to fill in the depth chart or we are going to have a nearly empty 2015 class on the defensive side of the ball.


September 1st, 2015 at 2:09 PM ^

When Hoke first offered him, he was a middling 3-star and the board had a near-meltdow because they didn't know if ECA was a legit institution.  Canteen was a rise and by the end of senior year, he was a 4-star and by spring practice, he was one of the most hyped new players. 

I think it's just a case of too much expectations too fast.  He'll turn out to be a quality player, but Harbaugh will need to see where he fits in.

Bertello NC

September 1st, 2015 at 9:17 PM ^

It all comes down to how well are you coached up and do the coaches put you in positions to succeed to reach your fullest potential. That did not happen under Hoke. You have to have talent don't get me wrong but once they get there they have to progress no matter what their star rating.


September 1st, 2015 at 2:52 PM ^

That's overstating the case on Canteen.  I don't recall an expectation of him having a significant impact. There was a chance he pushed for slot snaps based on his quickness and footwork, but "having all the physical tools"? No way, he isn't a burner, isn't a tree and is quite skinny. This year I wouldnt expected some talk of him locking down slot or or wr2/3.  Doesn't seem to be the case.


September 1st, 2015 at 2:02 PM ^

I feel good about Stribling.  Showed well for being a freshman in 2013, and this year he beat out a Senior PAC-12 starter level player (and since Lyons isn't starting anywhere else, we can be sure Lyons got beat out, not that he was needed somewhere else)


September 1st, 2015 at 7:01 PM ^

Mattison was an offensive lineman.

Jay Harbaugh was a high school defensive lineman and never played at a higher level.

Jedd Fisch never even played high school football. He was a tennis player.

I hope those position groups turn out OK. But at least our DBs will be coached by guys who played DB.

Rich Rodriguez, innovator of offensive football renowned the world over, was a linebacker.

Bill Walsh, the guy who invented offense before Coach Rod, played defensive end.

Bill Belichick did play football, but much preferred lacrosse and squash.


September 2nd, 2015 at 8:50 AM ^

I can grok an O-lineman understanding D-line technique.  Like putting your hand on a hot stove, it doesn't take long to intimately know what burns you, and a lot of linemen switch sides anyway.  So OK, though that's not really a counterexample.  The rest of your examples, and I've heard very similar from Space Coyote, range from dubious to disingeuous, and overall not convincing in the least.

First off, I'm not sold on the resumes of Jay Harbaugh and Fisch at all.  For what is an otherwise star-studded cast and I know I'll eat some knee-jerk zealot negs for saying this, Jay's a blatant nepotism hire and Fisch is a career gypsy Harbaugh didn't even meet with whose last OC gig didn't go well at all.  I hope I'll be pleasantly surprised but no one should be confusing these guys with John Baxter or Greg Jackson and I'm genuinely concerned about who's coaching receiver technique.  To my point, the number of drops in the spring game was downright ugly and very much the most obvious problem.  So we'll see, but it's telling that you mentioned what are to me the two most questionable Harbaugh hires.

As for Rodriguez, Walsh and Belichick, they are reknowned at the schematic level, which is a different beast.  Not every great composer was a skilled performer, not every engineer is necessarily a competent mechanic.  Playing, coaching and creation are very different skillsets.  And in this case we want apples to apples -- a guy coaching a position who knows the goddamn position.  Hell, in 10 years Roy Manning may well be the best NFL HC in the country and a household name reknowned for his genius schemes but that means jackall if we simply wanted a CB coach to teach CBs how to CB.  It just doesn't prove anything in this context.

All that said, I think Roy Manning got a bad break.  Because while he couldn't teach press man to Blake Countess, I think that has more to do with Countess' game than anything (Lewis did fine), and the stupid decision to run press man without any coach that could coach it, players that can do it or experience to implement it was on Hoke (or maybe Brandon but that's speculation).  It was a classic copycat move that took the secondary away from its strengths (you had an All-B1G zone merchant FFS) and absolutely none of that's on Roy.  As any middle manager can relate, his poor job was to make a dumb executive decision work.

So was moving Manning to DB coach a bad idea?  I dunno.  The evidence isn't really there.  But there's NO evidence it was a GOOD idea either, all your examples included.  I've read the same justifications several times now with QED authority.  It's not working.  So while I'm not as negative on the job Manning did, if you think you're on to something, bring some stronger sauce.


September 2nd, 2015 at 9:28 AM ^

Fair enough, but your last paragraph sums up my thoughts. I'm not saying it was a good idea. I'm saying I don't think it was a bad one, and the results seem to support me. As you said yourself, we weren't bad back there outside of Countess. And I'd argue that Lewis's Manning-coached improvement was equal to or even greater than Countess's regression. Lewis today is a better corner than Countess has been, IMO.

As far as QED, I think that very short list compiled straight from my head with 30 seconds of Bing(?) is actually kind of approaching it. Not as evidence that Roy Manning was a good DB coach, but as evidence against the level of thinking that produces, "How can a LB possibly coach DBs?"


September 1st, 2015 at 2:02 PM ^

Channing Stribling Posbang!!!

My one memory of him was not a good one - getting skyed by Allen Robinson at PSU... But hoping, that's all in the rear view mirror as Channing is now going to be a solid CB.


September 1st, 2015 at 2:10 PM ^

Haha ahh Bill Cosby is a new type of funny. This coaching staff has me sold with their pride in work ethic. When Harbaugh made his comment about never asking this much from a team before, the players' positional moves he and the staff has made proves his assertion. These boys are working on a construction project. Football is relatable. 


"You're mimicking this man! You're playing Bo!"

He just laughed. "Guilty!"


Well, that being said..



September 1st, 2015 at 3:46 PM ^

(outside of QB) is something close to honest, I am encouraged by Lyons being down the list a bit.  If he is viewed as a "floor" level of talent I think it demonstrates some others are exceeding expectations.  

(Alternatively, no one beating the "floor" provided by Braden does not bode well for the OL.)


September 1st, 2015 at 4:46 PM ^

Look at his game stats from last year: LINK

He threw for 404 yards against us. The next closest team was Maryland at 347. The rest were all below 300.

Our secondary gets a believe it when we see it from me.