Position-by-Position Look at the Defense
You knew this was coming. On Tuesday, I looked at the groups that Doug Nussmeier will have to work with on offense. Now, let's move over to Mattison's side of the ball. The mastermind behind the Baltimore Ravens' defense for three years and the co-coordinator of a national championship team in 2006 is hoping, after three years of influx, this will finally be a real Michigan defense.
Tackle looks like it could be the deepest and strongest part of our line next year, and possibly for the whole defense (not kidding). Willie Henry can start at either tackle or nose, and there's Chris Wormley and Matt Godin at the three-technique and Ondre Pipkins, Jr., Ryan Glasgow, and Bryan Mone at the one, with Mo Hurst also available for either. Depth is key for this position, and we have more of it than Notre Dame, Michigan State, or Nebraska (...yeah, Ohio State is deeper than us).
Quinton Washington was underrated last season against the run. It wasn't uncommon for him to handle his block and be able to tackle a ball-carrier running through his gap. Tackles are supposed to make life easy for the linebackers and leave them free to make plays, but he did both. In his stead, there are three very good options in Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow, and Pip. Ryan, like his brother Graham, is an unrecruited workhorse who's meant a lot to the Michigan football team and earned his scholarship the old-fashioned way after walking on in 2012. He hasn't been a big name, but he's produced in spades and he'll provide good depth. As for Pip, he hasn't started a game yet in his career (he's played in 18), and I'd like to see him realize the potential he came to Michigan with.
At the other spot, the three-technique, there's Chris Wormley, Matt Godin, and for depth purposes Maurice Hurst, Jr. The best-case scenario might be for Henry to start here if someone else breaks out at the nose tackle spot, but Godin and Wormley are fine options regardless. Also, a point about the new defense, in the 4-3 over scheme, both tackle spots mirror each other more than before, so while one is more of a slasher and interior disruptor and the other is charged with getting a double-team, both now are mainly going to want to draw a double-team and keep the linebackers clean from the O-linemen.
End is also looking good: at the strongside, Brennen Beyer is backed up by Taco Charlton and Henry Poggi, and on the weakside, Frank Clark is supported by Mario Ojemudia. Poggi looked like a freshman during the spring game, but anything can happen through summer and fall camp. Also, there's Lawrence Marshall coming in on the weak side in case of injuries and apocalypse.
Linebacker is the most proven and known commodity; to be honest, I doubt I have much to add given that Jake Ryan's all-world ability, the veteran nature and the depth are all well-acknowledged already. Ben Gedeon and Joe Bolden have developed well; I am curious what becomes of Mike McCray this year, as he's disappeared somewhat. Also, if Michael Ferns and Chase Winovich reach their potential, this position should be in good hands for the foreseeable future. Michigan will be Michigan again when every position has as little drama and as much of a next-man-up approach as this one.
This is a position that worries me greatly, maybe more than the offensive line (the offensive line still matters more, though). If there was something that plagued us in 2013 other than our inability to run, or our turnovers, or our lack of a pass-rush, or the sacks or our youth and burning the redshirts of players we knew weren't ready yet .... it was our penchant for allowing big plays. Jordan Kovacs has not been replaced, and looking at a depth chart filled with athletic players, I remember a great line from Ian Boyd, that offenses challenge defensive linemen and cornerbacks physically, but safeties and linebackers mentally. Athleticism is great but it's nothing until the players figure out how to use it.
The presumed starters, Jarrod Wilson and Jeremy Clark, are both in their third year. For comparison's sake, Bradley Roby left for the NFL after four years and still looked lost sometimes on the football field. I don't know Roby's acumen. I do know that safety is an extremely challenging position, and the best move possible has already been done, by putting Curt Mallory on the safeties only and teaching them that way. At the same time, it is very important that the safety position is productive against the quarterbacks of this league, because not even the best defensive lines are able to disrupt plays consistently within 4 or 5 seconds.
For better or worse, Jabrill Peppers is the most important question mark to this position. Let's take him out of the equation for a minute, though, and get back to him. You have two veterans returning in Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, both very similar, but Taylor a bit stronger and liable to deliver a big hit and Countess a little faster and ready to return a tipped pass for a lot of yards. However, questions abound about both these corners; they were not physical enough last year, and were susceptible to double-moves and quick athletes and thus had to give up space to protect against getting beaten deep. The Taylor- and Countess-led secondary of 2013, with below-average support from the safety position, was an average unit.
Behind them, there are two young players with a lot of upside, who haven't put it all together yet. I love Stribling's length and competitiveness, but he always seems to get beaten at the eleventh hour or by a veteran move or sidestep. Lewis, meanwhile, has excellent quickness and was the darling of the spring alongside Freddy Canteen. However, he was also called for multiple interference penalties during that game, something that Brady Hoke seemed very displeased about. If Lewis can be physical but is able to still draw that line, he'll be terrific. He's quick and competitive. But he's not polished right now.
As it stands right there, I'd be cautiously optimistic about the corner spot, but not expect a dramatic improvement from last year's 66th-ranked passing defense into an elite group. If Jabrill Peppers can start at one spot and be okay, here's what you have on the other side: two veterans, with strengths and weaknesses, and two athletic young guys fighting for the remaining starting spot, the nickelback position, and providing depth everywhere in case we face a spread team or an injury to one of our guys. That would automatically turn the secondary into a strength. If that were the case, I would happily take any growing pains by Peppers, and again, he wouldn't have to be all-world to have a big impact.
Lighthouse Candidates for Heisman, Part I
In the last few years, a darkhorse candidate came from relative obscurity to capture the Heisman Trophy, and fairly, a lot of people in the know have wished for Heisman lists to disappear until around early November. In the olden days, which in this case ended just a few years ago, the top quarterback/running back from the top team had the real inside track, but patterns are changing.
For one, younger players stand a much better chance now than they used to. For another, I think the time will soon come where another defensive player (Charles Woodson was the only one) brings home the glory; Manti Te'o, who in 2012 was the best player on the #1 ranked team, came close. And for another, Heisman voters are starting to separate just a little bit what individual performance means versus team performance. Robert Griffin III, the 2011 winner, won it despite Baylor going only 9-3.
I think the only thing that we do know is that the five or six candidates at the end of the year will be pretty different from the ten or so names that people are throwing out right now as the ones expected to perform at the highest level possible. Team performance will still matter greatly; offense will still be favored, though not as much; and seniors, juniors, and the "famous" ones whose names were touted early and often who do succeed will still have some advantages. That said, while it's a fool's business predicting who will capture the trophy (Devin Funchess! Mitch Leidner! Mike Bimonte!), I also found it's as much a fool's business writing anyone off. Can T.J. Yeldon win it for Alabama? Bryce Petty, for Baylor? Here are the pre-season (cynical) cases for some of the lighthouse candidates, who shine bright from afar, but still beware the rocks off the coast.
As tailbacks go, there aren't many stars brighter than T.J. Yeldon. The five-star recruit who flipped from Auburn to rival Alabama has had consecutive 1,100-yard seasons since joining college football's ranks. As A.J. McCarron departs, smart money is on Nick Saban opening up the running lanes for T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry to wreck havoc on the SEC West. T.J. Yeldon, entering his junior year and possibly departing soon for the NFL, is the star of the group and of the team.
There are a few potential problems, though. While the time may have come for new trophy winners, college is still a hard place for perennial 1,000-yard rushers. Only a couple running backs every year successfully get a third 1,000-yard season. And while I'd be willing to bet that Yeldon succeeds, he would need more than a second 1,235-yard season to win the Heisman. Of the 6 running backs to have won in the last 20 years, the average total was 1,923 yards. Can Yeldon make that big a leap, while playing with Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry? Would Saban, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, run him that much?
In 2009, when Mark Ingram, Jr. won Alabama's last Heisman Trophy, the Tide ran the ball 601 times, with Ingram getting 271 and 1,658 yards. He also got 17 touchdowns for the Tide, with a few more catching. In 2011, Trent Richardson was a finalist for the award, putting up 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns, at a similar rate to what both Ingram and Yeldon amassed, around six yards a carry. This time, Richardson came in third to Griffin III and Andrew Luck of Stanford, and got less than 16% of all first-place votes. Griffin, the winner, got 4,992 total yards that year.
We know that Saban has a propensity for getting a lot out of his running backs. More than that, he tends to get closest to the national title when his teams pound the ball. His championship teams of 2003, '09, '11, and '12 were also the first, second, fourth, and seventh most rushing offenses of any Nick Saban team. Every coach, even the very best, has difficult choices to make about how much to adapt and how rigidly they adhere to what's worked for them before. Up until his hiring of Kiffin, Saban had been an old-fashioned dogmatist, with four titles to show for it and Ingram now (technically) the only runner to win the Heisman in the 21st century. It's yet to be seen what kind of effect Kiffin, and the Tide's greater emphasis on passing, will have. Ordinarily, I'd say if any running back could sway Heisman voters, it would be a Saban running back. But this year, I'm not so sure.
I really wanted to spend a few paragraphs knocking Baylor QB's Bryce Petty's chances (this was originally going to be an article on who wasn't going to win the Heisman), but somewhere around typing up the 32 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, 4,200 passing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, and the schedule whose tougher challenges came against Kansas State and TCU (combined: 12-13), I had to give up and acknowledge that Bryce Petty could win the 79th Heisman Award despite being in the Big 12 and facing defenses like swiss cheese.
While Lache Seastrunk departs early for the NFL, after being the first Baylor Bear to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons, there are plenty more talented runners to take his place, led by Shock Linwood, who's been mentioned in the Brews before. The offensive line should be one of the better ones you'll see in the Big 12, and as I've mentioned, 11-1 Baylor will play some good defenses but no elite ones. Petty faced a top-30 defense four times last year, and it amounted to some of some relatively poor performances.
|Kansas State, W, 35-25||12/21||3||0||332||1||-15|
|Oklahoma, W, 41-12||13/26||3||0||204||2||45|
|TCU, W, 41-38||19/38||2||1||206||1||-5|
|Central Florida, L, 52-42||30/47||2||1||356||3||17|
Let's break that down for a second. The first four columns all deal with passing totals, and as you can see Petty was forced into a completion percentage around 50% three times. He threw for 10 touchdowns against 2 interceptions, and averaged 285 yards of combined offense. The last two columns are his running stats, including his rushing touchdowns in each game. That adds up to 5 touchdowns against Oklahoma, 5 against Central Florida, and so forth. Half of his rushing touchdowns came against the four teams that were talented enough to take away some of his passing. In short, the man is hard to contain.
If there was an argument against his Heisman campaign, that I initially sought to find, it would be the fact that voters put him seventh last year, behind Tre Mason, A.J. McCarron, Andre Williams, Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (2,892 and 24/8), and Johnny Manziel. As Heisman voters change their tendencies and adapt to new methodologies, it's tough to predict who will come out as the darling in voters' eyes and who will be pegged as a product of a great offensive system. Petty may find himself in the latter category; for better or worse, no other argument would be needed.
Hitting the Links Drives a Mustang
BTN's The Journey looks at the last Game. This is a supremely good video; I recommend watching all of it. The beginning shows a fight that almost broke out before the game.
This is a great summary of where the Buckeyes are right now on the defensive side of the ball. Also, a quick tip - most terms on defense that sound confusing are just referring to the secondary and are pretty simple. People know what a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 defense are; very few know what Cover 2 or Tampa 2 is, for example. This breaks that down a little bit, and I think I will have a feature soon on Chris Ash and/or Luke Fickell as well. But Ian Boyd is the best.
John Chavis, who won the 2011 Broyles Award, uses a lot of speed, obviously, but there's a lot more to it.
This was a good read and underscores the importance of good assistant coaches for your program.
That's great, but unfortunately, it's still Ohio State.
I mentioned Kevin Wilson on Tuesday; this is a good quick impression of him. He's gruff, knowledgeable and cares about his team. What's different is how open he is with talking to the media; in this interview he tackles a question before it's asked and then takes that question and adds in even more. Very unlike Hoke and Dantonio in that way. Also, I loved this line: "I'd like to see our kids fly around, hit each other in the chops and have a great day." Amen.
For a program that historically doesn't bother with Michigan "talent," they sure do love recruiting at Cass Tech now, apparently.
I'll throw this in. It's a good format to look at some of the top players in the conference but you could nitpick the selections. On Tuesday I'll do just that for the tight ends, and my #1 isn't on the list.
We know that the East will be a slugfest; the West will be interesting, though, with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa all being a little difficult to peg.
Another interesting point about Alabama last year is that their offensive line was less dominant than it had been in the past. I'm not enough of an expert to say if this was something that could be fixed within a year, or if Saban felt he needed to scheme out of it and couldn't rely on his run game as much as in years past. But their 2014 class featured six offensive linemen, all of them at least four stars.
Purdue's already gotten a lot of attention here at MnB and a Purdue diss even came up in the Notre Dame preview. At least their shortcomings haven't made it into a rap yet.
I know I'm going to sound like a grumpy man for a minute. But there's too much damn red in the Big Ten now. Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland. Indiana. Minnesota and Illinois have reddish colors. It's getting annoying. And get off my lawn, dammit.