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Michigan Football Spring Rundown: Defensive Backs

We continue our coverage of Michigan's 2015 Spring Game by breaking down the defensive backs, a position headlined by two future stars in Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers.

Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog

Last season, Michigan's secondary was supposed to be a strength. After Michigan fans spent years praying to the Angry Michigan-Defensive-Back-Hating Gods and promising that they would never forget the constant attrition and injuries the position suffered, Michigan was flushed with talent and experience at cornerback and safety. Raymon Taylor was a senior. Blake Countess returned as a former All-Big Ten first-team selection. Jarrod Wilson was about to embark on his second season as a starter after a solid sophomore campaign. Michigan had added this new guy by the name of Jabrill Peppers, whom you may have heard about here and there. With the popular shift to press man coverage, expectations for Michigan's secondary were exorbitant.

However, AMDBHG returned with a forceful vengeance, and Michigan's secondary deteriorated faster than Urban Meyer's desire to remain retired. Injuries in fall camp and the first two weeks of the season wiped out four of Michigan's potential starters for an extended period of time, while the coaches discovered that the switch to press man coverage exposed some of their defensive backs' flaws. As a result, Michigan's secondary was middling at best, finishing tied for 44th in passing yards allowed per attempt and 64th in defensive passer efficiency, and often torched when it faced a competent quarterback -- or even Gary Nova. Add in that the secondary nabbed only two picks, and it's easy to understand why there weren't many positives to glean from the group.

Nonetheless, this is a new season with a new coaching staff. Though there are more question marks about the defensive backs entering this spring than last, this is not a reclamation project. There's still plenty of talent at these positions, and, if defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and secondary coaches Greg Jackson and Michael Zordich can develop these Wolverines and put them in the proper coverages that optimize their production, Michigan's secondary can be the strength it was supposed to be last season.

On that note, let's run down the scholarship defensive backs Michigan has on campus this spring. Given that there are 12 of them, my analysis of each will be barer than usual in order to protect you from reading what would otherwise be a lengthy dissertation.

Cornerbacks

The Future All-Big Ten Player: Jourdan Lewis

No. 26 | Junior | 5-10 | 176 lbs. | Cass Technical HS | Detroit, Mich.

Jourdan Lewis - PSU INT

(Credit: Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2013 13 14 3 17 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 2 0 / 0
2014 12 28 11 39 0 / 0 1.5 / 2 0 0 6 2 / 4
Total 25 42 14 56 0 / 0 1.5 / 2 0 0 8 2 / 4

One of the few positives in the secondary last season was the emergence of Jourdan Lewis, who is the only guaranteed starting cornerback as the spring game draws near. He thrived in Michigan's press man coverage, exhibiting solid technique and a tenacity at the line of scrimmage that permitted him to jam receivers. When the receiver did get off the line, Lewis demonstrated that he had very fluid hips, allowing him to stick with his assignment, and fantastic ball skills -- he was responsible for the secondary's only two interceptions and led the team with six passes defended. However, his biggest weakness was that he didn't always trust himself to make the play when the ball was thrown in his direction, even when he had stuck to the receiver like glue, and tugged at the receiver's jersey and arms as he leaped into the air, committing pass interference. This is what Lewis must work on the most this spring. If the coaches can teach him to trust himself to make the play in jump-ball situations, Lewis can be an All-Big Ten player in 2015.

The Former All-Big Ten Player: Blake Countess

No. 2 | RS Senior | 5-10 | 185 lbs. | Our Lady of Good Counsel HS | Owning Mills, Md.

Blake Countess - OSU PBU

(Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2011 12 30 14 44 0 / 0 1.5 / 3 1 0 6 0 / 0
2012 1 0 0 0 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0
2013 13 26 20 46 0 / 0 2 / 4 0 0 4 6 / 169
2014 12 16 8 24 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 3 0 / 0
Total 38 72 42 114 0 / 0 3.5 / 7 1 0 13 6 / 169

No Wolverine defender had a more disappointing season in 2014 than Blake Countess.

As a true freshman in 2011, Countess became a starter midway through the season and performed so admirably that he was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team. Then, in 2013, one year removed from a torn ACL that forced him to redshirt in 2012, Countess exploded into what we thought was stardom when he hauled in six interceptions -- tied for seventh in the nation and the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard grabbed six in 2000. He accomplished this because he was a zone merchant -- an excellent term coined by someone that I can't recall -- and lured quarterbacks into throwing towards zones they thought were open but actually were covered by Countess. This interception he returned for a touchdown against Minnesota is a perfect example. For his production, Countess earned All-Big Ten first-team honors, so, when it was announced last summer that he would wear the prestigious No. 2 in 2014, fans felt that he was a deserving candidate to wear Charles Woodson's former number and would represent it well.

However, that is not what happened. Instead, Countess struggled with Michigan's shift from soft zone coverage to press man coverage. He tried to jam receivers at the line, but his technique was poor, particularly his footwork, so he whiffed often. This enabled receivers to release inside on slant routes at the snap and quarterbacks to connect with their open targets before Michigan's pass rush could generate pressure. This happened on critical third downs over and over again. Then, when Countess would shade inside to prevent the slant, the receiver would jab inside to knock Countess off balance before bursting up the field for a large completion. It was tough to watch Countess get burned on a consistent basis, and, after rough outings against Notre Dame and Rutgers, his playing time waned until the former All-Big Ten first-team selection was bumped as a starter and demoted to nickelback. In the preseason, no one envisioned this would occur.

So the question is which Countess will we see this spring: the one that won All-Big Ten honors as a freshman and redshirt sophomore or the one that lost his starting job last season. This is the most important question concerning the defensive backs because, with the graduation of Raymon Taylor, there is a starting position available, and, with Jabrill Peppers' move to safety and the remaining cornerbacks' lack of experience, Michigan would really like that spot to be filled by a Wolverine that has shown that he can compete with the Big Ten's best. And it'd be a resounding resurgence by Countess.

The Challenger: Channing Stribling

No. 8 | Junior | 6-2 | 178 lbs. | Butler HS | Matthews, N.C.

Channing Stribling - Indiana

(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2013 13 14 2 16 0 / 0 0 / 0 1 0 0 0 / 0
2014 10 6 1 7 0 / 0 0.5 / 1 0 0 0 0 / 0
Total 23 20 3 23 0 / 0 0.5 / 1 1 0 0 0 / 0

The Wolverine that will challenge Blake Countess for the second starting corner spot is Channing Stribling. Stribling was a complete unknown when he camped at Michigan the summer before his senior season of high school, but he impressed the former coaching staff so much that he walked away with an offer and a commitment to the Wolverines. Though fans were mystified by the offer, Stribling had a great senior season, and he quickly became the consensus sleeper pick of the 2013 class due to his 6-foot-2 size and length. In his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, he saw action as a reserve and flashed that he can be a future starter. In addition to his size, he has solid straight-line speed, which should prevent receivers from beating him over the top as long as he learns how time his jump balls -- an issue that cost Michigan two touchdowns his freshman season. If he can improve that as well as the fluidity of his hips, Stribling will contend for the starting position in the fall. If he can't, he'll be seeing spot duty for the third year in a row.

The Tiny Technician: Terry Richardson

No. 13 | RS Junior | 5-9 | 174 lbs. | Cass Technical HS | Detroit, Mich.

Terry Richardson - Sideline
(Credit: Eric Upchurch-MGoBlog)

Terry Richardson is a former four-star recuit from nearby Cass Technical High School, which used to be a pipeline to Michigan but has been leaking to that school in Columbus in recent seasons. Richardson was heralded because he had all of the attributes coaches wanted in their corners except for one: size. When he arrived on campus, he was listed as 5-foot-9 and 162 pounds, and, though he appeared in a few games as a backup corner as a true freshman, he was just too small to be an effective college cornerback. So much so that Brady Hoke and staff chose to redshirt him the following season because he still was listed as only 167 pounds. This spring, Richardson is 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds and wants to make an impact as a redshirt junior, but, given his place on the depth chart and the rumored transfer of 6-foot-1 Wayne Lyons from Stanford, his size will limit his snaps.

The Blank Canvas: Reon Dawson

No. 30 | RS Sophomore | 6-2 | 175 lbs. | Trotwood-Madison HS | Trotwood, Ohio

Reon Dawson - Spring Game

(Credit: Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog)

Reon Dawson was a late add for Michigan in the 2013 class, but Brady Hoke brought him on board because he liked Dawson's physical attributes. This was when Hoke tried to upgrade Michigan's size at cornerback, and Dawson's 6-foot-2 frame fit the criteria. So Michigan swooped him from Illinois a few weeks before signing day. However, Dawson was a low three-star recruit for a reason. He was extremely raw entering his first year at Michigan, so he took a redshirt in 2013 and remained on the sideline all of 2014. I call him a "blank canvas" because Michigan needed to start from scratch to teach him the proper technique. We'll see if there's a resemblance of a masterpiece-in-the-making this spring.

The Nomad: Ross Taylor-Douglas

No. 29 | RS Sophomore | 5-10 | 186 lbs. | Avon HS | Avon, Ohio

Ross Douglas - BWW Bowl Tunnel

(Credit: Christian Petersen-Getty Images)

Ross Taylor-Douglas has been a man without a position at Michigan. Douglas was a cornerback when Michigan recruited him away from Penn State, and he spent his first season in Ann Arbor at the position. However, the following spring, he was transferred to running back -- a spot he played in high school -- out of necessity because Michigan needed depth there. Then, seven months later as fall camp for the 2014 season kicked off, he was moved to slot receiver because Brady Hoke felt that was the "best opportunity" for him. Of course, things have come full circle as Douglas is a corner once again. While it's selfless of Douglas to make these moves, it's not a promising sign for his career.

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Rumored Transfer: Wayne Lyons (RS Senior | Stanford)

Incoming Freshman: 3* Keith Washington (Prattville HS | Prattville, Ala.)

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Safeties

The Next Woodson: Jabrill Peppers

No. 5 | RS Freshman | 6-1 | 205 lbs. | Paramus Catholic HS | East Orange, N.J.

Jabrill Peppers with Charles Woodson

(Credit: Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2014 3 6 2 8 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0
Total 3 6 2 8 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0

Okay. You're right. It's unfair to compare Jabrill Peppers to Charles Woodson because, not only is Woodson one of the best defensive backs ever, Peppers won't even play the same position next season as he's moved from cornerback to strong safety. However, Peppers will be the closest player Michigan has had that can have the type of impact in the secondary that Woodson had when he donned the winged helmet in 1997. Ranked as the third-best overall prospect in the 2014 class, Peppers is the highest ranked prospect Michigan has landed in the era of online recruiting services and had the most hype of any incoming Wolverine. Though his freshman season was derailed when an Appalachian State player injured his knee with a nasty cut block in the opener, forcing him to miss the final eight games of the season and redshirt, the hype around Peppers remains deafening. Reports from spring practice indicate that he's "outstanding at safety" and a "leader of the defense." Not one practice report that I've seen has had a single negative remark about him because, with his size, speed, strength, and agility in space, he'll be a weapon both in coverage against the pass and in support against the run when closer to the line. There's talk that Peppers will be Michigan's defensive MVP this season as a redshirt freshman. I know it's not fair, but I can't help it: he sounds like the next Woodson.

Mr. Boring: Jarrod Wilson

No. 22 | Senior | 6-2 | 210 | Akron Buchtel HS | Akron, Ohio

Jarrod Wilson - Rutgers

(Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2012 13 4 4 8 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 1 0 0 / 0
2013 13 28 22 50 0 / 0 2 / 4 0 0 2 2 / 1
2014 10 24 26 50 0 / 0 1 / 2 1 0 2 0 / 0
Total 36 56 52 108 0 / 0 3 / 6 1 1 4 2 / 1

Each spring, when I peruse the roster, there's one player that I can't believe is a senior because it feels like he committed to Michigan only two years ago. In 2012, it was Craig Roh. In 2013, it was Drew Dileo. Last season, it was Matt Wile. This season, it's Jarrod Wilson. These players have two things in common. First, they never redshirted. Second, they started or contributed most of their four years on campus but weren't wont to make flashy plays. They were boring. And being boring isn't bad. Wilson has been Michigan's regular starter at free safety the past two seasons. Though Wilson makes the occasional big play -- like his end-zone interception that prevented Akron from upsetting Michigan in 2013 -- he's not a ball-hawker or a big-hitter. He's the safety that doesn't bust and keeps the play in front of him -- Michigan was sixth in the nation in fewest passing plays of 30 yards or longer allowed. With Peppers as the playmaker at strong safety, Wilson will be the perfect complement at free safety. And then he'll be gone before we know it.

Dynamite or Dud: Dymonte Thomas

No. 25 | Junior | 6-2 | 191 lbs. | Marlington HS | Alliance, Ohio

Dymonte Thomas - Utah Tackle

(Credit: Gregory Shamus-Getty Images)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2013 13 5 2 7 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0
2014 10 19 8 27 0 / 0 0 / 0 1 0 0 0 / 0
Total 23 24 10 34 0 / 0 0 / 0 1 0 0 0 / 0

Michigan has waited two years for Dymonte Thomas to explode, but it may be time to wonder if there's a bad fuse. It's not all Thomas' fault, though. Thomas was a headliner of Michigan's touted 2013 class -- a top-100 prospect and even a five-star according to one recruiting service. He was special in high school because of his strong, athletic build and punishing mentality. He wanted to hurt ball-carriers. The concern was his awareness in coverage, which is necessary to be a successful strong safety at the collegiate level, but it was assumed that Thomas would have time to learn the proper technique with practice. But then Brady Hoke made one of the not-so-few puzzling decisions during his Michigan tenure: he chose not to redshirt Thomas as a freshman and played him almost exclusively on special teams. While this paid off in the form of a blocked punt in the 2013 opener against Central Michigan, it was a wasted season for a gifted player that needed to learn how to play strong safety. Last year was the first time that he earned significant snaps at the position, making three starts, but he often was lost in coverage and unsure of himself. And, now, Thomas suddenly is a junior with only two more years of eligibility remaining, when he should have three and a bright future still ahead of him. While there's still time for the fireworks to go off, it seems we may never see the show we've been waiting to see.

The Gamble That Has Pushed (So Far): Jeremy Clark

No. 34 | RS Junior | 6-4 | 205 lbs. | Madisonville North Hopkins HS | Madisonville, Ky.

Jeremy Clark - Utah Tackle

(Credit: Gregory Shamus-Getty Images)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2013 7 0 0 0 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0
2014 12 10 8 18 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 1 0 / 0
Total 19 10 8 18 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 1 0 / 0

When Brady Hoke was in town, he recruited so well that he took few gambles according to the rankings, but one was Jeremy Clark. Clark was a 2012 two-star recruit when he accepted Michigan's greyshirt offer, which meant that he would walk on to the team for the fall of 2012 before receiving a scholarship in the spring of 2013. Though Michigan would upgrade Clark's offer once interest from other schools picked up in earnest, he still was considered a project at free safety. What the former staff liked about Clark was his size and range, standing at 6-foot-4. However, he was skinny and very, very raw, which is why he took a redshirt as a freshman in 2012 and contributed only on special teams in 2013. Last season was our first chance to see if Clark was a gamble that would pay off when he was thrust into the starting lineup as other potential starters went down with injuries. The results were so-so. Clark had little impact and made more than his fair share of mistakes. It was only his first season of significant playing time, though, and he's supposed to be a long-term gamble. But Clark is nothing more than a push right now.

The Forty-Year-Old Junior: Delano Hill

No. 44 | Junior | 6-0 | 204 lbs. | Cass Technical HS | Detroit, Mich.

Delano Hill - App State Pregame
(Credit: Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog)

Season G Solo Ast Total Sacks / Yds TFL / Yds FF FR P Def Int / Yds
2013 13 0 1 1 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 0 0 0 / 0
2014 7 14 6 20 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 1 0 0 / 0
Total 20 14 7 21 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 1 0 0 / 0

No, Delano Hill isn't 40 years old, but peek at the photo above and tell me with a straight face that he doesn't look like someone that could have been on Lloyd Carr's 1997 national championship team. Nonetheless, Hill didn't earn his first notable playing time until last season when he appeared in seven games, of which he started five at safety. He was okay in his time spent on the gridiron, recording 20 tackles and recovering one fumble, but we didn't have a legitimate opportunity to see of what he's capable. Hill missed fall camp and the season opener with a broken jaw before a leg injury and suspension sidelined him for an additional four games. Though safety should be set with Jabrill Peppers and Jarrod Wilson, Hill will have a great chance to make an impact as a reserve if he remains healthy because, in nickel packages, the coaches may bring a third safety on the field and move Peppers to the nickel. Hill could be that third safety with a strong spring and summer of development, which is possible for a player that's very young for his class -- he won't turn 20 until November of this season. And that's ironic given that he looks twice his age.

The Utility Man: Brandon Watson

No. 28 | RS Freshman | 5-11 | 189 lbs. | Eastern Christian Academy | Wilmington, Del.

Brandon Watson - Spring Game

(Credit: Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog)

Brandon Watson began his Michigan career at safety, but he should be moved back to the position he played in high school soon: cornerback. With two starters in Jabrill Peppers and Jarrod Wilson and three reserves with starting experience in Dymonte Thomas, Jeremy Clark, and Delano Hill, Michigan has depth at safety. On the other hand, there is little such depth behind Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess at corner. Michigan needs numbers there, and Watson is the perfect utility man to make the switch -- in fact, there are reports that he's practicing there now. But, given that Watson was an unheralded recruit and redshirted last season, it would not be a good sign if Watson saw the field.

***

Incoming Freshman: 4* Tyree Kinnel (Wayne HS | Dayton, Ohio)

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Tune back in tomorrow when I feature the return of the one and only Jabrill Peppers.