Preview 2016: Cornerback

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2016 at 10:58 AM

Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker.

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Are you not entertained by PBUs? [Bryan Fuller]

Depth Chart

Boundary Corner Yr. Field Corner Yr. Nickelback Yr.
Channing Stribling Sr. Jourdan Lewis Sr. Jabrill Peppers So.*
Jeremy Clark Sr.* David Long Fr. Jourdan Lewis Sr.
Keith Washington Fr.* LaVert Hill Fr. Brandon Watson So.*

Last year's secondary was sort of good. Michigan led the nation in yards per attempt allowed at 5.4 and opposition passer rating. S&P+ had them 11th nationally because Big Ten quarterbacks were double plus ungood a year ago, but that's still near-elite.

There's about to be some hedging about non-Jourdan Lewis corners because they weren't straight-up killers when they showed up on your television, but keep those numbers in mind when expectations are (slightly) tamped. Michigan gets back five of the six guys who spearheaded those stats. If you consider Jabrill Peppers a member of this unit, which you should, you have to back to 1997 for a comparable.

CORNERBACK

RATING: 4.5.

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NOPE [Patrick Barron]

I'm about to write a lot about JOURDAN LEWIS, but you can skip it. The tl;dr version is "is Jourdan Lewis." He's an All-American. He's a perfect cover corner minus a few inches. He was all but impossible to escape a year ago:

He will be this again in 2016. The end.

Our probably unnecessary epilogue kicks off with an assertion from Don Brown that is both unexpected and extremely important:

This is a weird thing for Jourdan Lewis to be since his run responsibilities a year ago were 404 file not found. Lewis was constantly locked in man coverage and almost never involved in the opposition's run game, which turned out to be much to Michigan's detriment against good spread offenses like Indiana and Ohio State.

As a result I don't have much of anything in which Lewis is active as run defender. He had a decent play against Florida when he was forced into the Peppers role:

And he ended up mirroring a WR in space effectively on a screen in the Maryland game. That's it. If that seems like an incredibly small sample size, it is. Lewis had probably under 20 tackles that weren't a direct result of a guy managing to catch the ball on him. We simply don't know how he's going to do when activated against the run. 

Everything else is established. If you complete a pass on Lewis 90% of the time it's going to be like this:

Good luck creating an offense around that. For some reason, opponents kept testing Lewis despite this invariably being the result. PFF:

The top-graded cornerback in the nation last year at +22.3, Lewis broke out by leading the FBS with 15 passes defensed while surrendering only 36.7 percent of his targets to be completed, good for fifth-best. Perhaps most impressive was his ability to maintain his strong play from start to finish in 2015, despite facing 90 targets, 10th-most in the nation.

Lewis grades out like this because he is super quick and always in the pocket of whoever he's matched up against. By midseason I was clipping literally any completion on him that wasn't heavily contested for the sheer novelty. In addition to being impossible to shake, Lewis has mastered the craft of not quite interfering. One of his best traits is an sense of when to grab the receiver's hand such that his only option is to go up for a circus catch:

And that cat-quickness allows him to recover on routes that should be RPS minuses:

That should work. Lewis should not even be in position to get a little bit of hand on the waist and then extend through for a PBU. He is set up outside and has to make up a ton of ground in not much time. He does.

Lewis's main—only?—flaw is not being 6'1". A 6'1" version of Jourdan Lewis is a 15-year NFL All Pro. The 5'11" or 5'10" version is a good longterm starter. This didn't come up much last year. When Lewis was challenged by 6'5" quasi-TEs he won.

No fade route thrown on Lewis a year ago was not heavily contested, and their success rate hovered around 10%.

If it was a factor it was probably in Lewis's epic battle against Aaron Burbridge and Connor Cook. Lewis narrowly won that battle despite Burbridge going over 100 yards because it took almost 20 attempts to get there, but a hypothetical version of Lewis that is just as mobile and has another few inches of reach turns difficult completions into international-sign-of-no waving and punts.

Lewis's lack of size also occasionally figured in as opponents muscled through him, like on this completion in the bowl game:

Lewis has done an A+ job against lumbering 6'5" guys over the past two years but occasionally he will get ripped off balance by larger guys. That will continue.

Also in the tiny pile of areas for improvement is off coverage. Lewis wasn't bad at it, per se, but when opponents wriggled free it was often because they'd been issued breathing room.

Interceptions are not an issue. Some folks have asserted that Lewis got thrown at a bunch because he's not a threat to intercept the ball. He had just two a year ago, and one was against Maryland so that barely counts. I don't buy it; that feels like an answer to an unanswerable question. Q: Why do you do something that doesn't make sense? A: Well, here's something else that doesn't make sense.

Michigan's approach had a lot to do with the minimal INTs. Michigan rarely switched up their coverages and didn't run much zone, so opportunities to bait a quarterback a la Blake Countess were few and far between. Lewis ended up in a ton of trail coverage on which he could either secure a PBU or "get his head around" and potentially lose the plot.

It'll be fascinating to see how Don Brown changes this dynamic. Either way, Lewis is an All-American ticketed for the late first round of the NFL draft.

[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! Seriously this time!]

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stay on-universe [Bryan Fuller]

Opposite Lewis is CHANNING STRIBLING, at least for now. The best arguments in Stribling's favor are circumstantial. This doesn't mean they're not convincing. For one, he beat out Jeremy Clark for the starting spot. Clark had a couple biffs a year ago but was by no means bad. You could stick him on quite a few Michigan teams of the last 20 years an expect him to start. For two, holy crap opponents targeted Jourdan Freakin' Lewis 90 times last year.

If Michigan's second corner spot was even slightly wonky they would have had targets rain down on their heads. Instead opponents were content to go after WR1 matched against Lewis. Stribling and Clark must be pretty all right. PFF says he "graded well," FWIW. I can't really confirm or dis-confirm that.

That's because Stribling barely showed up on screen. He had an interception on a poorly thrown ball against UNLV and another PBU in that game, but from then until the bowl game I didn't have much to say about him. Like everyone else on the roster his defense on fade routes was top notch, which he displayed a couple times early in the season. Michigan was comfortable isolating him with 6'5" BYU guys and that went fine.

Then Clark sent him to the bench for the Maryland and Northwestern games and was the focus of much of the analysis. He had one decent play against MSU that I clipped:

And then it was almost all Clark in the Minnesota game until the final drive, when a horrendous overplay of Drew frickin' Wolitarsky came within inches of costing Michigan the game:

Afterwards I stated what I thought was pretty obvious:

Clark has emerged as the #2 corner. Or #3 depending on how you look at Peppers, but whatever. Stribling was not featured much in this game; he only really came into play on the near-disaster at the end. At least when Clark got hit for a big play it was A TOTAL FLUKE THAT WILL BROOK NO DISCUSSION.

Stribling came in for scattered grading the rest of the year and was clearly the backup until Jabrill Peppers's bowl injury forced him into the starting line up, whereupon he had one impressive PBU…

…and not much else in a game where Florida did everything it could to prevent Treon Harris from throwing downfield.

Sooooo this is not a resume that says super-lock, but dude must have blown up in spring for real because:

“Channing Stribling. He’s a starter. It’s cold. It’s in stone."

That is one Jim Harbaugh, and the spring game bore that out. Stribling got yanked off the field at the same time Lewis did. Webb was down in Florida to take some of that move in himself:

Channing Stribling was given the game ball by Jim Harbaugh after practice #4 and with good reason. … His route recognition led to numerous plays including two interceptions. His first pick came while covering Drake Harris and seemed to run the pattern better than his offensive counterpart before jumping it and intercepting the ball. He nearly picked off another pass… a deep out to Harris… where he also seem to run that route better than Harris also before knocking it away.  His second interception occurred when the Sean McKeon beat Noah Furbush down the seam and Stribling slid over the top to help, skied for the ball, and picked it off.

Clark did have a major bust in zone coverage against MSU last year, so it might be advantage Stribling when Michigan runs zone. They will do that more often this year under Don Brown.

Michigan started matching Stribling up against Darboh a lot because that's the best test for your potential second starter, and results were mixed. Webb tweeted that "Stribling continues to make plays against everyone except Amara Darboh"; at Ford Field I thought he won some of those battles:

Stribling won a couple of battles against Darboh, and in this setting that's the most impressive thing you can do. He jumped one route for a would-be pick but had a finger or two phase out at the last second.

To beat out an established guy who's at least reasonably good is a great sign, if it takes. I have to admit I'm not really seeing it. We were in this exact same position last year. Clark moved to corner and was supposed to be the man for the job, but it was Stribling atop the depth chart on game week. (Harbaugh actually issued one last year.)  He kinda sort lost the job then and I wouldn't be surprised if it happened again. It was hard to overlook the two shots our photographers got of Stribling chasing long completions to Grant Perry and, of all people, Ahmir Mitchell.

Stribling can't be actively bad. He played a reasonable amount in a secondary who averaged out at +13.6 in the UFR coverage metric, which is bonkers. Even if his appearances in our lives were generally negative he must have been doing many good things to not appear on the screen much. While I'm a little skeptical of the spring surge the worst that happens is that he biffs some things early and Clark comes back over the top and is fine. The upside here is still pretty good; if he has indeed blown up as much as he's reputed to he could be of interest to NFL teams.

BACKUPS

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I'm just as tall as you man [Bryan Fuller]

Nominal backup JEREMY CLARK entered last year a 6'4" converted safety who I was extremely skeptical could hack it at corner. He pretty much hacked it. Clark played probably 60 to 70 percent of Michigan's snaps a year ago and thus gets even more rub from the overall performance of the secondary than Stribling. Part of my surprise at Stribling's emergence is because of how Clark performed last year:

In general, Clark's first season as a starting CB was highly encouraging. His stature didn't seem to negatively impact his ability to cover very much, and it came in handy frequently. He's still got to adapt to various nuances of the position but as experiments go it was an extremely successful one.

As you might imagine, Clark's size makes him an asset on fade routes, especially in the redzone. There's just no room:

That length allows him to recover a half-step just by reaching out to someone:

He did in fact emanate the Richard Sherman vibe I specifically dismissed in last year's preview. He is not that guy, but he was a lot better than he had any right to be as a position-switching three-star. When he was not busting coverages he was racking up UFR positives. We'll talk about the busts in a bit. Right now we're talking about Clark's ability to put himself in position to defend things when he gets the play right. It was very, very good.

He came in for scattered negatives, but when bad things did happen to Clark they were often creepy voodoo things like that "back shoulder corner" that Mitch Leidner threw:

That's an interception if Clark is in bad coverage instead of excellent coverage. Hell, we'd just seen that exact INT a few games before:

Against Ohio State he'd give up a touchdown catch in coverage that it literally the best you can do while still somehow managing to give up a touchdown. (Okay: non-Prothro division.)

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yeesh [Fuller]

Clark touchdown ceded: just a thing. Clark may have to go apologize to the gypsy after this game, because the touchdown OSU hit on him featured Clark's hand right between Jalin Marshall's arms. 95% of the time that's an incompletion. The ball was right there and Marshall managed to bring it and good for them. I don't hold that against Clark at all.

These were two of the four big plays that Clark was burned on all year and to me they're actually encouraging indicators for next year because he's in exactly the spot he needs to be. I'm not even that exercised about the third, which was a badly underthrown fade route that he dorfed:

I gave him a big negative for that but he just misjudged the ball in the air. He's in great position, he's got his head around. He lacks the Peppers-punt-fielding thing. That cropped up again in the bowl game and could be a problem to watch out for going forward. Nonetheless, that's a low-percentage shot that happened just the once.

The potential catch: Michigan's move to a system more complicated than "man free every damn down" could be a problem. Per Marcus Ray, part of the impetus for the move to corner were some mental struggles

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.

…that I spotted as well a year ago:

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."

Mental issues did crop up from time to time last year, most prominently when he had a deep third against Michigan State and bit on a route that was not his to worry about:

That is a very big and very bad bust and hearkens back to his iffy days as a safety. If he's the Kyle Kalis of the defense and not processing what's in front of him fast enough, that would explain the Stribling surge despite Clark's superior 2015. There were a couple other busts where it appeared Clark picked the wrong guy coming out of a bunch and the like. An uptick in audibles and zone coverage might play into his deficits.

Also in predictable scouting, Clark can get shook when smaller guys have the opportunity to make him stop-start. When he gets stuck in situations that would normally fall to a slot corner he can look clunky:

That's probably less of an issue in matchup zone stuff.

I liked Clark a lot a year ago but I suspect Michigan's defense may have obscured some of his issues, and the Stribling surge implies that those are a bit more of a problem now that Don Brown and his complicated defense is in town. There's no doubt he's going to see a bunch of playing time. I wouldn't be surprised by much. He could be a solid backup and nothing more; he could shoot right past Stribling and get drafted pretty high. He'll be somewhere between useful and a revelation; X-factor'd.

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lock lock lock lock lock lock [Isaiah Hole/247]

Michigan's successful pursuit of then-Stanford commit DAVID LONG [recruiting profile] is manna from heaven for 2017 and beyond. Jim Harbaugh sold Long on his ability to be not just a cornerback but an ambassador for the program, a Michigan Man avatar, and hoo boy if this dude isn't Jehu Chesson as a cornerback I don't know who is. Everyone who's talked about Long this fall has hit on his intelligence and diligence. Jourdan Lewis, who knows a thing or two about those traits:

"He's definitely a very smart kid, a very smart guy. He prepares like nobody I've ever seen as a freshman, honestly," Lewis said Wednesday. "He takes notes (that are unbelievable). He's just a great student of the game.

"And he knows, to be good, you've got to prepare."

Don Brown:

"David Long, I'm really happy with him," Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said. "A special player as a freshman. He's a professional. He comes in, the notebook is open, he's taking notes, being sharp. Doing all those things."

You know you're doing various things right when Jim Harbaugh is bringing you up out of nowhere to praise you:

I've been ranting that Long is a lock since I did his recruiting profile, and the reports in private are just as enticing as the ones from press conferences. Webb asserts Long "will help Michigan this season" and that his "speed really sticks out." He's got a "tremendous football IQ." He draws unsolicited and fulsome praise from all persons.

Long will play this year, and he'll get schooled a little bit as all freshmen do. He should still be a valuable contributor. In year two he will be starter-quality and on a stardom track. Dude is a lock, a lock, a lock.

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Watson, Washington, Hill [Upchurch/Fuller/Hole]

Three seniors, Long, and Peppers should be sufficient for the year. The rest of this section is mostly about the future.  BRANDON WATSON [recruiting profile] saw scattered snaps a year ago in the Peppers role as Michigan attempted to keep his workload somewhat reasonable. I clipped him just once, deep into the fourth quarter against UNLV, so data remains thin. The most we've seen him was at the 2015 spring game. 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. Yours truly in the aftermath:

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 hasn't been involved in any chatter, spring or fall, and with some super athletes arriving at corner his best bet for playing time is probably a move back to safety, where he could be a rotation guy.

LAVERT HILL [recruiting profile] spent much of last year a Penn State commit who was the biggest lock on Michigan's board. When not racing for the most crootin recruitment of 2016, he doubles as a close analogue to Jourdan Lewis: super quick, not that big, high ceiling nonetheless.

Hill's considerably farther away from a finished product than Long is. When he comes up it's generally in this vein from Webb:

I hear LaVert Hill has "shown flashes" in bump & run that have put him in the mix as expected.

Hill might play since Michigan needs reinforcements en masse in 2017, but a redshirt doesn't look so bad to your author given the depth detailed above. Either way expect to start hearing a lot about him next year.

Finally, redshirt freshman KEITH WASHINGTON [recruiting profile] is the guy from the last recruiting class who offered to run a 40 for Harbaugh on the spot. He's a proverbial Harbaugh guy, but he's also moving to the secondary after spending his last two years in high school at quarterback. There are a lot of rough edges that need sanding down. Not much has been heard about progress in that department yet, but Webb did say that he's "definitely looked better in coverage" and that he's "one of the players who's put in the most work" in camp. While that's good for his long-term future, Washington's going to have to wait until 2017 for a shot at serious playing time.

NICKELBACK: THIS TIME WE REALLY MEAN A NICKEL BACK

RATING: 5 or N/A

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The whole point of Peppers is that he is a LB/CB [Patrick Barron]

For years this section has been a rant about hybrid space players and why they're important and what they could do for Michigan if any in fact existed in a winged helmet. I assume the point is made after Jabrill Peppers obliterated every edge play to his side of the field over the past year.

With Don Brown's arrival, Peppers moved to SAM; we have correspondingly moved all talk about shutting down the opposition's attempts to stretch your defense horizontally to the linebackers section. So for the first time in forever, this section on nickelbacks is actually about gentlemen conventionally designated as such: an extra defensive back who enters the field on passing downs.

It's just that… well, it's probably still JABRILL PEPPERS. That's kind of the whole point: having Peppers as your SAM means you're able to use him against slot receivers whenever you please. And… well, if it's not Peppers it's probably JOURDAN LEWIS, who operated as a slot corner for the duration of the bowl game. (Peppers was injured.) Michigan will bring in both Clark and Stribling in that situation.

I would expect a ton of quasi-dime stuff on passing downs with Peppers as a nominal WLB and all three senior corners on the field. Michigan will have the best passing-down four verts D in the country. The nickelback is the base offense now. Maybe next year's preview will feature Noah Furbush as the pennybacker or something.

Comments

The Man Down T…

September 1st, 2016 at 1:51 PM ^

where he took the ball from the receiver when the receiver put an arm down to brace himself and left the ball exposed.  That was as good as any highlight you could have put up there.  I still love that Northwestern coach's reaction where he starts to cheer then sees Lewis running with the ball and has the perfect "WTF???" look on his face.

kevin holt

September 1st, 2016 at 2:11 PM ^

Don Brown also said Stribling needs to get more physical in run support and tackling in practice. So I'm also really surprised he's the starter "in stone." I wouldn't be surprised if Clark starts at least against running teams.

kevin holt

September 1st, 2016 at 2:14 PM ^

Why do you guys always say the back shoulder corner isn't a thing? If it works against good coverage then isn't it a good idea? Is it just not replicable? Hell if I'm facing our secondary I'm looking for ways to beat good coverage in weird ways right?

dragonchild

September 1st, 2016 at 2:32 PM ^

He threw it inside to a receiver going outside.  As Brian said, if the coverage was anything less than perfect, it's an interception.  To be fair, that's not the first time I've seen it work.

You do that on purpose, though, as in more than once a season, then it's much easier to do less-than-perfect coverage and just pick it off.  A designed turnover isn't a very good play.

bluesalt

September 1st, 2016 at 2:42 PM ^

But Brady Hoke was great at not just recruiting D-linemen, but in general. Clark was a grayshirt who turned into a full offer, and Stribling was a who's that guy out of North Carolina. Brandon Watson may yet turn into a capable corner as well, and I'm fairly sure he was a 2-star when Hoke offered him.

I'm glad we have the coaches we now do, but Hoke did a great job of filling the cupboard, especially on defense.

YoOoBoMoLloRoHo

September 1st, 2016 at 3:07 PM ^

as a junior. Assume it was a bit fast by the hand timer - even 10.8 or 10.9 by a guy who runs track (rather than a track guy) - that is real speed. His tape also shows a guy who understands CB and advanced FB knowledge in baiting QBs. Playmaker. This D only needs a couple of playmakers to turn it into a phenomenal D.