Just going off of the raw numbers, it would be hard to improve on Michigan's 2012 pass defense. The Wolverines spent much of the year as the top pass yardage defense in the nation, and finished up fifth nationally at just shy of 170 yards per game. However, these numbers belie the fact that Michigan's pass defense was a bit of a sheep in wolf's clothing: a good unit that looked great because of the level of pass offenses faced. Such was life in the Big Ten in 2012 -- the year when passing the football curled up and died.
Given that Michigan is losing two starters from last year's back four, what can we expect from the newcomers? Will Michigan's returning players step up to help continue Jordan Kovac's recent legacy of not letting Michigan get burned by big plays? Whither a healthy Blake Countess?
Last year: So. Raymon Taylor (mostly)
This year: RS-So. Blake Countess
Countess got the redshirt year that no one expected him to get. He just had to get injured to do it.
Early in the Alabama game when Countess went down, Michigan lost a big piece of its defense. He had emerged as a true freshman, showing promise as Michigan's potential next big thing in the secondary. His coverage skills were strong and he didn't look perpetually lost like most freshmen thrust into early playing time. He would have been a nice addition to the defense, especially given the lack of depth at corner last year.
Or, make that an apparent lack of depth. Courtney Avery got some run on the outside, but that soon gave way to Raymon Taylor, an athlete out of Detroit in his second year on campus. There were some early struggles, but Taylor acquitted himself well in the long run.
The main question for 2013 is how recovered will Countess be from his ACL injury a year prior. He was limited in the spring -- not strange given the fact that his injury was eight months prior -- but will have had a full year of recovery time. If the injury hampers his athleticism then Michigan could have some issues, but that seems unlikely given what we know of the injury.
Verdict: slight upgrade
Last year: Sr. JT Floyd
This year: Jr. Raymon Taylor
Taylor isn't leaving the starting lineup, but instead shifting over to the other side of the field (figuratively speaking). With Countess (presumed to still be) the best cover guy on the team, he is a natural fit on the wide side, making Taylor -- the second best corner on the roster -- the de facto option on the boundary.
The coaching staff likes bigger guys at this position since it is a bit more geared toward run support. While Taylor doesn't fit that mold at just 5'10, he is the biggest of the guys on the roster with experience and proved to be solid in run support last year. Given this staff's success with the JT Floyd Reclamation Project, turning what many thought was a liability into a solid Big Ten caliber corner, things should be fine. Given Taylor's athletic advantages over Floyd, this should be an upgrade, albeit a small one.
Verdict: slight upgrade
Last year: Sr. Jordan Kovacs
This year: Sr. Thomas Gordon
You don't replace Jordan Kovacs, but if you're going to try, you should at least do it with a guy that played beside him for two years.
Thomas Gordon -- despite his middling recruiting profile and lack of hype compared to everyone else that was expected to beat him out for playing time -- has been a roster mainstay his entire career. After redshirting as a freshman he played well at the hybrid S/LB position in the final year of Gerg Robinson's grand defensive experiment. With the new coaching staff came a new position: deep safety. Gordon once again beat out his more highly touted challengers to seize the job, which he has yet to relinquish.
Kovacs was Kovacs, but over the last two years Gordon has been nearly as reliable and with a bit more athleticism. He knows the system as well as anyone and has three years of on field experience including two at his current position (strong and free safety in this defense are fairly interchangeable). There shouldn't be any drop off in production with Gordon taking over the lead role in the defensive backfield.
Verdict: no change
Last year: Jr. Thomas Gordon
This year: So. Jarrod Wilson
This is the position on the defense that looks to have the largest possible range of variance. Despite players shuffling around at the three other secondary positions, all of them have starting experience. Wilson is the one exception. He was an early enrollee that used his extra time on campus to fight his way into the two-deep. Of course "true freshman playing at safety" pretty much always means "oh god why" at some points during the year, and this was no exception. Wilson had issues in coverage, being the scapegoat on at least one touchdown to a tight end over the middle. However, he is also a four-star prospect that looks the position (6'2 196lbs) and has the requisite athleticism to excel. With a year of playing time as a backup, two full off seasons on campus, and experience all around him, he should be fine in a shift into the starting role.
Verdict: slight downgrade
Last year: Jr. Courtney Avery
This year: Fr. Dymonte Thomas? (and probably Courtney Avery)
Now, Avery will have a role on the nickle defense. He has shown himself to be a capable underneath pass defender and solid in run support. But it seems clear that Avery's skillset isn't quite what the coaches want at the position. MGoBlog explains the situation in the spring:
[Dymonte] Thomas played exclusively at the nickel spot; with Countess still not taking contact Avery mostly played outside. Anyway, Thomas's presence at the nickel is not unprecedented. They've wanted bigger guys there for a while, it seems. Michigan wanted to go with Thomas Gordon there before they determined he was needed at safety; Ohio State actually calls the spot their "star" linebacker, and it's usually featured safety-sized clubbers. Their current guy, Christian Bryant, may not wrap up but he will thump you if he gets a chance.
While Avery will still be a feature of some of Michigan's more pass oriented nickel formations, it would appear Thomas will be spending a good part of the year at the position to give the coaching staff a different defensive weapon.
Verdict: without knowing how playing time will break down or what the coaching staff plans to do with the position, it is hard to make any predictions. Therefore I'll give this an incomplete for now.