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2014 Michigan Football Preview: The Defense

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Michigan's offense might be slow out of the gates in 2014, but its defense isn't going to disappoint.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Michigan brought in Brady Hoke, who immediately went out and pulled Greg Mattison out of thin air? Remember that? Sure you do. Michigan has the coach, now it just needs the talent, you thought. Then three seasons of respectable but not fantastic defense passed, capped by a poor showing against an erratic Kansas State offense, and you began to wonder if that elite defense was just a figment of your imagination.

Nope. As it turns out, Michigan was dealing with major roster deficiencies from 2011 through 2013. Lack of depth at the corner and safety positions haunted the Wolverines for years before Hoke and Mattison arrived in Ann Arbor, and undersized defensive lineman poured through the program long after.

Four Hoke recruiting classes later, Michigan has a defensive depth chart deep enough to give me fits as I tried to put the playing time picture together, and it promises to get deeper. The cornerback depth alone is enough to make you look twice. Three linebackers could be swept away by a sharknado and Michigan would still have linebacker depth. On second thought, the sharknado would go after the offensive line first, but I digress.

This defense has a chance to be something special, and the reasoning for it stretches beyond the amount of raw talent currently on the roster. Greg Mattison saw the depth at corner and defensive tackle and scrapped the 4-3 under for an ultra-aggressive 4-3 over – a scheme that ripples the effects of the new found talent at defensive tackle all the way back to the corners. Mattison is trading Jibreel Black for a healthy Ondre Pipkins, and he might just be trading Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor for Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers. In between the first and last layers stand Joe Bolden, James Ross, Desmond Morgan and a former edge terror turned blitz aficionado.

In short, Michigan is challenging you to throw the ball over a plethora of elite talents or meet Jake Ryan in the A-gap. Choose wisely.

The Front Four

Moving from a 4-3 under to a 4-3 over is no small change, and it should impact the front four more than any other position group. The weak- and strong-side defensive ends are now more similar to each other than before; no more constantly facing double-teams for the once overwhelmed Brennen Beyer. Both Beyer and his counterpart Frank Clark should see more rushing lanes as a result of the scheme change, and we all saw flashes of greatness from Clark when offenses couldn't key on him.

The tackles won't benefit quite as much, but their loss is Jake Ryan's gain. Although the three-technique's role doesn't change drastically, the nose tackle will be put under more pressure to protect the roaming Ryan from guards who could reach the second level and keep Ryan from penetrating – or even block him into his backside linebacker friend. Greg Mattison has placed his chips squarely on the shoulders of Ondre Pipkins, Willie Henry and Bryan Mone.

Weak-Side Defensive End
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
57 Frank Clark Senior 6'2" / 277 Locked starter
53 Mario Ojemudia Junior 6'3" / 251 Backup contributor
93 Lawrence Marshall Freshman 6'4" / 241 Backup contributor

The weak-side ends, otherwise known as rush ends, should improve this season. Frank Clark holds the top spot by a wide margin and won't relinquish it; he showed spurts of elite ability in 2013 when given the opportunity to go one-on-one against offensive tackles. Weight used to be an issue for Clark, but he's now up to a solid 277 pounds and should be more consistent against the run game because of it. Expect his tackles, hurries and sacks to peak in his senior season.

Depth won't be much of an issue here, but I'm not convinced that junior Mario Ojemudia has the backup role locked down. Although he is seasoned in comparison to true freshman Lawrence Marshall, he has been underwhelming and doesn't possess any one great physical trait. Marshall, on the other hand, has the length and explosiveness to become an elite pass rusher. Don't be surprised if he is used as an extra edge rusher on long downs.

Strong-Side Defensive End
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
97 Brennen Beyer Senior 6'3" / 256 Probable starter
33 Taco Charlton Sophomore 6'6" / 275 Backup contributor
7 Henry Poggi Freshman* 6'4" / 270 Backup

Brennen Beyer finds himself in more of a battle than Frank Clark, but he's fully expected to begin the season as the top strong-side defensive end. Similar to the dynamic between Ojemudia and Marshall, Beyer lacks the elite physical tools that his main competitor doesn't. Beyer is one of the most consistent run defenders on Michigan's defense but hasn't produced as many hurries and sacks as the Michigan staff would have liked. Then again, he had a solid season in 2013 despite being played out of position for a good portion of it, so he could come out and make Charlton wait for another year.

Maybe he won't. Take one good hard look at Taco Charlton and you'll see why some believe he'll eventually push Beyer for the starting role. He's 6'6", long enough to fend off future NFL tackles and explosive enough to jump over tackling dummies. He has yet to develop the ability to disengage from blockers in the run game but will certainly see the field on long downs, where he'll hopefully use his speed and length to help improve Michigan's average pass rush. The defense goes from great to elite in a flash if he makes the metaphorical leap.

Rounding out the position is redshirt freshman Henry Poggi. Poggi came to Ann Arbor a hyped recruit holding offers from the best programs in the country, but he looks like an awkward fit at defensive end and could eventually end up sliding into the massive party at the three-tech. He's technically sound for his age and might contribute as a run-stopper but doesn't have the same ceiling as players such as Charlton or Wormley.

Three-Tech

# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
43 Christopher Wormley Sophomore* 6'4" / 295 Starting rotation
73 Maurice Hurst Jr. Freshman* 6'2" / 282 Starting rotation
99 Matt Godin Sophomore* 6'6" / 286 Backup contributor
50 Tom Stroebel Sophomore* 6'6" / 268 Backup
96 Ryan Glasgow Sophomore* 6'4" / 296 Backup
54 Brady Pallante Freshman 6'0" / 263 Redshirt

I said there's a party at the three-tech and really meant there's a party at the three-tech. Christopher Wormley, Maurice Hurst Jr. and Matt Godin have all made strides to go with your typical young-man mistakes, but whoever comes out of the party will be primed to wreak havoc – or at least play well enough to make this one of the best defensive lines in the conference.

Who wins the job? I'm going with Wormley if I have to choose one man. He's the best combination of length, burst and strength at a position that should have its chances to explode into the backfield in this new 4-3 over scheme. He also happens to have more game experience than anyone else at the position. That said, this is a field of golfers: Always put your money on the field over the favorite. Hurst has been receiving praise since last season; the same can be said for Godin, who is probably the best technician of the bunch. Hell, even Stroebel and Glasgow are capable of stealing snaps. Expect true freshman Brady Pallante to spend a year in the weight room before competing next season.

Again, whoever takes this spot will be battle-tested and ready to fill in the only uncertain spot on the defensive line. A healthy rotation will be used throughout the season, and a healthy rotation is always a good thing.

Nose Tackle
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
56 Ondre Pipkins Junior 6'3" / 306 Starting rotation
69 Willie Henry Sophomore* 6'2" / 293 Starting rotation
90 Bryan Mone Freshman 6'4" / 312 Backup contributor

Nose tackle and strong safety are the two crucial pieces to the 2014 defense. The nose tackle in the 4-3 over is the linebackers' best friend and absolutely has to have great size and strength; there's no way 2013 Michigan pulls this off with Jibreel Black manning the center of the front. Thankfully Michigan gets Ondre Pipkins back from an ACL tear, returns super strong Willie Henry and gained a commitment from a Utah native who easily could have committed to play for a 3-4 front.

This is a healthy rotation that might not ever see one man jump ahead of the others, and that's quite alright. Ondre Pipkins looks just as quick as he did before his knee injury and Willie Henry is still ridiculously strong, giving Michigan an hilarious thunder and lighting combination of 300-pound men.

The real wildcard is Bryan Mone, who has done plenty enough to make a burned redshirt worthwhile. He's cleaning up his frame and should only look progressively better as the season moves along, but will his technique improve enough for him to challenge the two veterans ahead of him? Maybe, but probably not. It doesn't matter because Michigan is in great shape with or without him, so any production whatsoever turns him into a 312-pound cherry on top of the Michigan Defensive Sunday.

Middle Men

Mattison's art is linebacking. He's about to paint his masterpiece.

Weak-Side Linebacker
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
35 Joe Bolden Junior 6'3" / 231 Possible starter
48 Desmond Morgan Senior 6'1" / 232 Possible starter
19 Jared Wangler Freshman 6'1" / 219 Redshirt

The WILL linebacker position embodies Michigan's defensive progression. Rising junior Joe Bolden came out of high school as an elite prospect who needed to play more instinctively; Desmond Morgan is a true senior who hasn't ever had problems diagnosing plays but lacks the kind of physical tools Bolden possesses. Mattison praised Bolden during the spring; but many didn't believe the hype, continuing to write him off for the polished Morgan. Then fall camp rolled around, Mattison continued to praise Bolden for his vocal leadership and improving instinctual play, and Zach Travis began to realize that my long-term bet on Bolden might eventually pay off (had to do it).

While I'm actively pulling for Bolden to win the position – he's the easy choice if he truly is mentally matured – both he and Morgan are worthy of the spot, which is why they could both end up starting. Hoke and Mattison have really pushed the best-players-play button during camp, and they'll slide one of these two over to SAM if they're both playing too well to stand on the sidelines.

I know. Depth. Talent. Multiple players pushing so hard for playing time that we're arguing over who would be really good instead of just good. It's amazing.

Middle Linebacker
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
47 Jake Ryan Senior* 6'3" / 236 Locked starter
42 Ben Gedeon Sophomore 6'3" / 240 Backup contributor
9 Michael McCray Freshman* 6'4" / 241 Backup
51 Michael Ferns Freshman 6'3" / 239 Redshirt
59 Noah Furbush Freshman 6'4" / 210 Redshirt

Yes, nose tackle and strong safety play will make this defense a well-rounded machine, but Jake Ryan could turn that machine into a fire-spitting death machine – or look lost and and promptly be turned into a long-down rush end. While the concerns over Ryan's inconsistent play diagnosis are legitimate, they're largely overblown. Greg Mattison is serious about his commitment to playing aggressive football, and Ryan will be living proof. Expect to see him blitz and stunt with regularity, and pray that the defensive tackles aren't as advertised if you're a fan of an opposing school. Assuming Michigan's aggression pays off, opposing offenses will be constrained and Ryan's reads will become simpler, further fueling a player who's already explosive enough to come back from a torn ACL in record time.

The MIKE backups are also talented and probably more naturally suited for the position than Ryan, albeit without the same ability to wreak havoc. Ben Gedeon will see his share of snaps and has an outside chance at starting should the Jake Ryan experiment fail. Michael McCray has also received praise throughout fall camp, but he's more likely to see garbage time and come back to compete in 2015. The two true freshman are both likely to be redshirted.

Strong-Side Linebacker
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
15 James Ross III Junior 6'1" / 227 Probable starter
52 Royce Jenkins-Stone Junior 6'2" / 234 Backup contributor
12 Allen Gant Sophomore* 6'2" / 223 Backup
58 Chase Winovich Freshman 6'3" / 220 Redshirt

Three linebacker positions, three talented depth charts. James Ross has been good to great for two years now, but again, his competition is more athletic and rounding out his mental game. I don't seen the 'loser' of the Bolden/Morgan battle stealing this position simply because Ross and Jenkins-Stone are both more suited to taking on lead blockers and making the physical play, meaning whoever wins between Ross and Jenkins-Stone will play for quite some time. Ross is the better run-stuffer; Jenkins-Stone is more likely to win the job if it's ever called on to blitz and get in the quarterback's face. Maybe play Ross on the first two downs and RJS on the third? I love playing this game.

Talent isn't fantastic past the two favorites. Allen Gant has been moved more than once and isn't ever going to see real playing time at linebacker, and Chase Winovich is far too prone to meeting blockers with his chest perpendicular to the ground. Gant sits and Winovich hits the weight room before competing in the long haul.

The Back Four

The only way Michigan's new scheme works is if the corners hold up in man coverage and the deep safety stays disciplined. The Wolverines have the bodies to pull it off.

Cornerback
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
2 Blake Countess Junior* 5'10" / 180 Possible starter
26 Jourdan Lewis Sophomore 5'10" / 175 Possible starter
6 Raymon Taylor Senior 5'10" / 184 Possible starter
5 Jabrill Peppers Freshman 6'1" / 202 Possible starter
24 Delonte Hollowell Senior 5'9" / 178 Backup contributor
8 Channing Stribling Sophomore 6'2" / 178 Backup contributor
13 Terry Richardson Sophomore* 5'9" / 170 Backup
30 Reon Dawson Freshman* 6'2" / 178 Backup

This is where the term depth is redefined. Depth: When your roster has four capable all-conference types and two more who could play and keep the coordinator from worrying.

What would you do with all of this talent? Play the veterans and use the greatest recruit in your program's history as a world destroyer at nickel? Play the world destroyer at corner and put the former All-Big Ten performer at nickel? Scrap both veterans for a pair of more highly-touted youngsters? Choose. You're correct.

What would I do? I'd choose the final option above: scrap the two veterans. I have great respect for both Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, but Jabrill Peppers is physically talented enough to close the gap yesterday and I've had three different Michigan writers tell me that Jourdan Lewis' hype is warranted. The youngsters are more capable press defenders, and Michigan insists that it's going to challenge your receivers with everything it has. To me, Peppers and Lewis are the best options.

Blake Countess will have to settle for (basically) still starting at the nickel, and Channing Stribling might not ever start despite an extremely high ceiling. Such is the price of depth.

Safety
# Player Class Height / Weight Playing Time
22 Jarrod Wilson Junior 6'2" / 205 Locked starter
34 Jeremy Clark Sophomore* 6'4" / 205 Possible starter
44 Delano Hill Sophomore 6'0" / 205 Possible starter
25 Dymonte Thomas Sophomore 6'2" / 193 Backup contributor
28 Brandon Watson Freshman 5'11" / 188 Possible redshirt

Jarrod Wilson rounds out your relatively short list of guaranteed full-time starters. The junior is talented and has received ample praise for his leadership throughout the off-season; why he was yanked from the lineup in 2013 remains a mystery.

There's also a mystery at the other safety spot, where a trio of less experienced players are battling for the starting nod. Tall, rangy freak Jeremy Clark is your current leader for the spot; he'll have to fend off former leader Delano Hill, who was supplanted when he hurt his jaw in practice. Dymonte Thomas is the last of the real contenders here, but he's still too lanky and I haven't heard much of anything about his ability to diagnose plays or play instinctively. True freshman Brandon Watson is competing but won't win the spot.

And the mystery of the other safety spot doesn't end there. Jarrod Wilson was expected to be the ball-hawking free safety of the defense, with the other safety rolling into the box to stop the run and knock receivers off of their routes. That might not end up being the case, as Wilson has been asked to step into the box just as often as his younger teammates. Having Jeremy Clark or Delano Hill as the last line of defense scares me, so I'm praying that Wilson eventually settles into a deep-man role.

Finishing the Puzzle

By now it's clear that talent and depth are no longer major issues. It's time to put out an elite product.

Still, Michigan isn't elite at every position. The safety who plays opposite Jarrod Wilson will be prone to the occasional mistake. Frank Clark has improved steadily from year to year at his rush end position, but he isn't guaranteed to make the senior jump to elite status. Much of the assumption that the defense as a whole will make a leap depends on the improvement of the pass rush, which puts pressure on Clark and Beyer to stay disciplined in the run game and still get into the passer's face.

The same can be said for the defensive tackles and the man they'll be protecting. I'm extremely confident in the nose tackles, but there remains a chance of the three-techs making a lateral move from 2013 to 2014. This might force Mattison to stretch the nose depth thin by moving Henry over, which puts more pressure on true freshman Bryan Mone. An unlikely scenario, but possible nonetheless.

And the aforementioned Ryan experiment. Does Michigan use him as aggressively as I project they will, or do they use him passively and watch as he struggles to make reads? A failure here doesn't move the defense back – Bolden, Morgan, Ross, RJS, Gedeon and McCray all but guarantee this – but it does keep it from making an incredible leap forward.

Now, think about what happens if the majority of the improvement that should come with an aggressive scheme and plenty of depth actually materializes. Michigan then fields a defense that is extremely difficult to run on because of disciplined and talented defensive line play, bolstered by a play-making MIKE and instinctual outside linebackers. Quarterbacks struggle to beat the deepest set of corners in the conference and don't have enough time to take advantage of what could be the only true weak link in the chain: a sophomore safety.

We'll take those odds.