Why Peppers Might Be A Safety Comment Count

Brian January 21st, 2015 at 12:31 PM


coming to a slot seam matchup near you?

I'm a tiny bit skeptical here since the source right now is recruit Iman Marshall (and Freddy Canteen if Canteen isn't just reacting to that) and Michigan's coaches other than Mattison haven't seen Peppers take a snap, but it's out there:

Michigan does return Countess and Lewis at corner, plus Channing Stribling, Terry Richardson, and Brandon Watson. If they find a third guy there's enough depth there to make the move. Meanwhile Michigan never settled on a safety opposite Jarrod Wilson last year, rotating through Delano Hill, Jeremy Clark, and Dymonte Thomas with middling success.

"But why?", you ask?

We have seen a lot of defenses move to a quarters system of varying aggressiveness as a response to the spread, and depending on how good and deep your safeties are that's either gone really well (Michigan State two years ago) or gotten you blazed down the slot whenever you run up against a good offense (Michigan State last year). OSU is also playing quarters for the most part, and when they're not they're putting a lot of pressure on a single high safety.

This trend comes from the NFL, where passing offenses were more advanced and you could unearth a freak of nature more often at safety. Chris Brown on quarters:

At first glance, Cover 4 looks like an anti-pass “prevent” formation, with four secondary defenders playing deep. But therein lies its magic. The four defenders are actually playing a matchup zone concept, in which the safety reads the tight end or inside receiver. If an offensive player lined up inside releases on a short pass route or doesn’t release into the route, the safety can help double-team the outside receiver. If the inside receiver breaks straight downfield, it becomes more like man coverage. This variance keeps quarterbacks guessing and prevents defenses from being exploited by common pass plays like four verticals, which killed eight-man fronts. The real key to Cover 4, however, is that against the run both safeties become rush defenders (remember, the outside cornerbacks play deep). This allows defenses to play nine men in the box against the run — a hat-tip to the 46’s overwhelming force.

The problem college teams often face is what happens when that man coverage from a vertical receiver comes from the offense's best WR against your third-best cover guy: the touchdowns linked above.

In a spread-oriented world, a safety has to be a corner and a linebacker at the same time. This is very hard, and modern offenses are targeting them more than anyone else for their big plays. After decades in which cornerbacks were the glamor players in any given secondary, the way many teams are playing and the shortcomings against slot receivers exposed this year demands a new, crazy athlete safety, even at the college level.

That's Peppers. If Michigan is set on quarters coverage, he's a guy who can sit over that "slot" receiver and not give up a major athleticism mismatch. 

UPDATE: Peppers seems to confirm on the twitters.



January 21st, 2015 at 12:38 PM ^

Whoa, a football - non coach/commit - related post.   I miss these.

I think the run support that Peppers could provide would also lean him towards a potentially elite S down the road.  You have to match up with TEs, running backs (both in pass and run support), and have speed to you to be elite. 

This was sort of what Dymonte Thomas was brought here to do and if he had developed as we expected maybe this would be a 2016 decision not 2015 (once Wilson goes). 

Last staff was very high on Brandon Watson from "practice reports" - how real that is, who ever knows... it was real for Bolden and not real for Jenkins-Stone.  Stribling also needs to come back with serious weight on it - he left 2013 at 175ish and showed up 8 months later at 175ish - unacceptable for his frame.

Blake seems best as nickel so if this happens we'd need Watson or Stribling to emerge.  You also assume the Reon Dawson experiment at RB (I believe it was him who was moved) was over and he is another name. 

You hope Hill and Thomas at least can be contributors as backups in this scenario.  Clark looked lost once the competition raised over App State.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:57 PM ^

You don't move a CB to S to improve your run support. Michigan's existing S candidates are a couple of big thumpers and a converted LB.  Peppers is (hypothetically) there to improve coverage.  His 'replacement' at CB will be smaller and probably not as good against the run.  All of this is fine because your secondary is there first and foremost to prevent pass plays.

Stribling needs to add some upperbody strength to fight better than he did in past years, but I don't want to see him add too much weight.  He's not going to be a safety and he needs to maintain his speed.

Blake Countess was at his best at CB, not nickel.  He struggled last year but was very good in prior seasons.  This points to a change in coaching emphasis, at least as much as a problem with player ability.  I'm penciling in Blake as the starting CB until we get indication otherwise...and I'm a HUGE believer in Stribling.

There is talk that Clark may be tried out at CB and Thomas started at NB. Hill was recruited as a generic DB who was purported to have CB coverage skills...  Perhaps we'll see a reprise of the hybrid nickelback that can provide run support, blitz off the edge, and play adequately in space rather than the smaller guys who have taken the role in recent years.


January 21st, 2015 at 1:13 PM ^

Who is a thumper among our Ss? Last I saw Connor Cook ran over Hill like he was a cardboard box.  Thomas is supposed to be - we are still waiting to see if he is ever going to be impactful.  If Thomas can't do coverage right it doesnt matter how hard he hits.  Quite a few busted plays per UFR were due to Thomas being lost - can't hit if you are not in the vicinity of a player. Clark is tall and lanky - good weight but on a 6'4 frame.  Can't recall any thumping hits by him outside of App State competition.

Brandon Watson is a decent sized kid - came in around 190 lbs as a 18 year old - you hope he is 200ish this year with a year of S&C/redshirt - so if he has the appropriate coverage skills he would be fine in run support at CB.  But there were reports they were even trying him at S last fall camp which probably was a good inkling S was going to be an issue last year. 

Stribling is Stribling - dude just needs to eat for 8 months and attach to hip of Tolbert.


January 21st, 2015 at 1:18 PM ^

Peppers is smaller, but he's the only other DB over 200.  Thomas is next at 193 pounds, and every other scholarship DB was under 190.

Both Clark and Hill got in some good licks during the season I thought.  Their problems seemed to come in making poor decisions/reads.   Thomas just hasn't been very good period.



January 21st, 2015 at 1:30 PM ^

Agree on decision making and reading plays.  You can hit all you want but if you are not in the vicinity it doesn't matter.  Safeties have to be smart and diagnostic.  And when you screw up it helps to have track speed to help make up for the error.  It's a very difficult position.

I am looking at Trae Waynes and he is listed at 182 lbs on a 6'1 frame.  He was put on an island all year and asked in MSU's scheme to be run support as needed.  He will be an NFL 1st round pick.  Part of this is just sheer will - you need to want to come up and take on those bad ass 210-220 lb RBs or work off the 200 lb WR blocking you.  Brandon Watson came to Michigan heavier than Waynes will enter the NFL draft.  Jourdan Lewis is all of 175 lbs.  If you have that 'dawg' in you, you can do the run support.


January 21st, 2015 at 1:49 PM ^

It isn't about size per se, but bigger LB-sized DBs are generally better in run support than smaller CBs.  Not always, but generally.

I thought our safeties were fine in run-support this season but struggled in pass coverage.  I don't know if it was about one-on-one coverage, poor reads, or both, but our pass coverage was poor this year and I think a lot of blame falls on the rotation between Clark-Hill-Thomas.

Peppers is (presumably) moving there to shore up pass defense and provide more flexibility in coverages.  It'll be interesting to see if there is a corresponding move elsewhere for someone out of Clark-Hill-Thomas.

Watson seems young enough and the right size to fit wherever he is needed.  As a recruit he was heralded for his press coverage so I would expect him to be at CB despite where he practiced last season.  It might have been a teaching exercise a la Brandon Graham practicing at DT. 



January 21st, 2015 at 8:34 PM ^

They effect the whole field pass and run. Peppers from what little he played looked like the best hitter with the best run pass instincts on the field at DB. Lewis is smaller but has a total nose for the ball. Our safety play has been so soft lately and yes all I can think about is qb Cook trucking Hill for a statement.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:37 PM ^

If it makes sense then Harbaugh will make him play safety. We are back to our football program making sense. Regardless of his position he needs to be on the field to make plays and destroy other teams plays.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:43 PM ^

Seems and seemed like the natural place for Peppers, especially given the depth at CB. 

Even though CB depth has dwindled with Taylor's departure, there will be more.  Position where youth can thrive.

What's interesting is what will happen with Clark, Hill, Thomas.... perhaps we'll finally see that nickelback that people imagined when Thomas was internet-handed a "starting" job before 2013.... or perhaps they'll just stay exactly where they are.

Possible they'll let competition play out for 2015. Peppers a backup until Wilson departs after this year.


January 21st, 2015 at 1:19 PM ^

If they don't believe they can keep Thomas on the field as a S/NB due to coverage skills, one option is bulk him up to 210ish and make him an OLB on obvious passing downs.  He is mid 190s now.  It would be especially useful in 2016 when we lose our entire starting core of LBs.  Hope for success for this kid somewhere - he came in as such a big recruit.  If not S, he can play a role like MSU has for some of their small but quick OLBs who come out just for passing downs.  Basically they are just big Ss out there on the edge.


January 21st, 2015 at 1:27 PM ^

Always made sense to me, but our last coaching staff wanted bigger LBs instead of faster ones.

The truth is this is all guesswork right now because we have a new coaching staff.  Whatever assumptions or hypotheses we may be formulating today should be made with an acknowledgement of great uncertainity until we hear from the coaches themselves (if they even bother to discuss scheme).

Maize and Blue…

January 21st, 2015 at 4:46 PM ^

Is out all year, or even the majority of it with the knee he injured in the Ohio State game, why not move Thomas back to his natural position of RB, and allow him to be the "speed" or "change up" back ? Or at least, let him compete there in the spring, and see what he has to offer ?

It seems like all of our backs are cut from the same piece of cloth, big tough runners, without great vision or great speed, he might be just what we need to get our running game going again, and tap some of the vast, unused potential that this highly rated recruit has yet to show us.

By getting the best players on the field in one capacity or another, you only enhance the team.

I don't know about moving him to linebacker, you might be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole just to fill a depth/roster position, it seemed like a number of years ago, this very experiment was tried, maybe by Lloyd, and the player in question was just too small, and got the crap kicked out of him, I don't remember the player, but I remember the outcome, not good.

But then again, it worked with Josh Furman when he went to Oklahoma St. so I guess it would just depend on the player. I just hate to waste so much potential, for some were touting him as "Woodson's second coming" so I hope they can find a place on the team where he can reach his full potential.


January 21st, 2015 at 4:58 PM ^

Most of whom are great fits for the Harbaugh/Stanford-style offense.  Plus we might add Weber or Kelly to the mix as well.

It was nearly universally accepted that Thomas' best potential was on defense.  Unlike, say William Campbell or Josh Furman, who were talked about on both sides of the ball.

Maize and Blue…

January 21st, 2015 at 7:46 PM ^

By Hoke and his staff, but they may have made a mistake there, like they did in so many other areas. It would be intresting to see their criteria for making that decision other then need or numbers.

Remember B.J. Askew ? He came to Michigan as a big RB, not unlike Green,or Smith, and in order to see the field, switched over to FB, and played excellent in that capacity, I am curious to see if the staff moves any of our big bruiser backs to FB for the same reason, and who.

While I would love to get Weber, he is still an OSU verbal, and Kelly seems destined foir the slot.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:48 PM ^

Brian, thanks for this analysis but I was actually hoping to get your opinion on the PSI of the footballs used in the Patriots-Colts game...

Just kidding of course. Interesting stuff. I know this is probably wishful thinking in the modern college game, but I really hope they try to get Peppers involved in the offense as well. Seems like even using him as a slot guy that only runs a handful of plays would be extremely dangerous. I doubt there are many college DBs that can run with him.

Space Coyote

January 21st, 2015 at 12:48 PM ^

My guess isn't that Michigan goes more quarters, but instead that they go more multiple. Mattison has been a bit odd in this regard, as he's always been "multiple", but it was mostly multiple from game-to-game rather than within a game. Yes, he switched up coverages in certain situations even in game, and no, he wasn't like MSU is with Cover 4, but he didn't change a lot of things during the course of a game.

Is this lack of experience at certain positions or personnel limitations? I don't really know. But my guess is that Durkin wants to be more multiple on the back end and Peppers at Safety allows him to do that. It allows him to cover the slot in Cover 4. It allows him to move over the slot in Cover 1 and maintain a numbers advantage in the box. It allows for more blitzes from the nickel position (whether that's still Peppers or a dedicated NB like Countess). It allows Peppers to come up in Sky support from the secondary in Cover 3. And, still, you can invert your coverage and have him play deep center. Essentially, Peppers at Safety allows you to do a lot of different things with the coverage that Michigan couldn't do before.

In my opinion, the question isn't what this means for Peppers (I really liked him at the NB role last year because of the multiple ways he could be used in that defense), the question is how the other members can handle the multiple roles. But that's my opinion for why he's making this move and the direction of the defense.

Space Coyote

January 21st, 2015 at 12:59 PM ^

This lack of ability killed Michigan several times last year when they blitzed the corner. Michigan safeties really struggled in man coverage much of last year, be it in Cover 6 MEG or straight man or what have you.

My guess, based on the guys Michigan is recruiting at CB, is that Michigan wants to play more zone (and eventually be more multiple) and utilize length on the outside to press and then make up ground and move the quickness to the safety position. The slide approach to CB play will help in this regard, and you'll see less straight Cover 1.

EDIT: This seems substantiated by potentially moving Clark to CB. He had the best man skills of the group (Hill, Thomas, Clark; Clark struggled in run/pass conflict situations, probably an eye discipline issue, but was probably better than the other two as a pure man cover safety) and would fit from a length standpoint, while not necessarily being a great pure man cover guy.


January 21st, 2015 at 3:55 PM ^

I'm gonna be smug here and say I called this several times last season, although I was cautious to not make any bets.  I basically argued it makes sense given the personnel, though I wasn't sure if they would pull the trigger.

Like you, I doubt we'll see quarters because Wilson isn't the crazy athlete Peppers is.  This move more frees up Durkin to move things around.  If you can't do one thing really well, you have two choices:  Try to disguise your coverages or play soft.  Michigan tried to do one thing (press man), gave up and played less aggressively but with little to no deception -- largely because I think they didn't have the luxury.  Of course, Peppers was out but he started as the nickel anyway.

Long story short, Peppers can afford to underplay certain assignments to make the QB guess what he's doing.  For example, the guy's wicked fast so he can blitz from ten yards out when the QB might think he's going to backpedal into deep coverage.  You can't get creative like that when he's a cover corner and the offense is going three-wide, not without taking some pretty big risks IMO.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:52 PM ^

If the move is going to help the team, Peppers, and possibly a big-time recruit, I hope it works.  Looking forward to just seeing him on the field but will more intrigued to see how Durkin developes these guys before the start of the season.  I thought Countess took a giant step backwards last season. 

San Diego Mick

January 21st, 2015 at 12:53 PM ^

I wouldn't be surprised at all if Peppers plays various positions on D to take advantage of what he can do and also maybe return punts or however else we can get the ball in his hands, he is a supreme talent and we need to take advantage of that.

I'm sure Jim will be able to figure that out.


January 21st, 2015 at 12:56 PM ^

I probably missed this somewhere along the line, but has Peppers' 2014 injury been explained?  I do not remember seeing anything more specific than "leg" or "lower body".

Seems odd that an injury significant enough to ruin his 2014 isn't part of the discussion when looking forward to 2015. 


January 21st, 2015 at 12:56 PM ^

Nice breakdown of the potential move.  At this point it looks like the corners are a position of strength on the defense (or at least of depth), and Peppers is really the only guy in that group would could make the move to Safety without giving up much in terms of size and/or speed.  He'll probably ultimately move to corner once players ahead of him graduate, but I'm fine with him as a Safety if it means a sense of calm about the secondary.  


January 21st, 2015 at 12:58 PM ^

Haven't had an elite safety in awhile. Probably going to play SS with his aggressiveness and tackling ability.

With his speed and athleticism, I could also see him being the last line of defense. Fun problem for our new coaches to tinker with.