As I wrote in my spring preview of the position in March, Michigan's secondary was expected to be a strength last season, but, instead, it was a season marred by injuries and disappointment. Hyped freshman Jabrill Peppers was injured in the opener versus Appalachian State, former All-Big Ten first-team selection Blake Countess was neutralized and exposed by his own coaches with a switch from zone coverage to press man, and Jourdan Lewis was the only defensive back to intercept a pass -- he had two. Statistically, Michigan's pass defense was average, finishing 36th in Passing Defense S&P+, tied for 44th in passing yards allowed per attempt, and 64th in defensive passer efficiency, but, given the talent and experience Michigan possessed, the secondary should have been much better than just average.
One year later, Raymon Taylor has graduated and Countess has transferred to Auburn for his fifth year, but, with the arrival of Michigan's own graduate transfer and Peppers' hype train still chugging along at full speed, the expectations remain the same. Michigan has the pieces to have a strong secondary in 2015. We will provide an overview of those pieces, starting with the corners today and the safeties in a post tomorrow morning.
No. 24 | Fifth-Year Senior | 6-1 | 193 lbs. | Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Wayne Lyons was recruited heavily by Jim Harbaugh when Lyons was a four-star prospect from Florida, and Harbaugh's efforts paid off. On January 8, 2011, in front of a national television audience at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Lyons picked up a Stanford hat and placed it on his head, committing to Harbaugh. There was one tiny problem, though: Harbaugh was no longer Stanford's head coach. One day earlier, Harbaugh accepted the offer to coach the San Francisco 49ers. It seemed, unless their paths crossed in the NFL, Lyons never would play for the coach to whom he committed.
It's funny how things work out sometimes.
Four years later, to Lyons' excitement, he and Harbaugh have teamed up -- not in the NFL, but in Ann Arbor. Shortly after Harbaugh was announced as Michigan's new coach in December, rumors floated around that Lyons, who planned to (and did) graduate from Stanford with a degree in architectural design in June, was looking for a new school to finish his collegiate career. Given Lyons' ties to Harbaugh and Harbaugh's hire of his mother, Gwendolyn Bush, as the director of player development, the obvious pick was Michigan. Then, on May 11th, after being one of the worst-kept secrets for months in Ann Arbor, Michigan announced the addition of Lyons as an incoming grad transfer.
Lyons brings with him tons of experience. At Stanford, which ranked 6th, 7th, and 8th in the nation in Passing Defense S&P+ the past three seasons, he appeared in 43 games and recorded 128 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and three forced fumbles. Initially, though Lyons was more of a contributor than a starter at Stanford, the thought was Lyons would compete with Countess for one of the starting cornerback spots. However, after Countess' unexpected decision to transfer, the spot is all Lyons'.
No. 13 | RS Junior | 5-9 | 174 lbs. | Detroit, Mich.
This likely will be Terry Richardson's final season at Michigan, and the odds are that you will not see him on the field for much of it. Richardson is a former four-star recruit from nearby Cass Technical High School, but there's always been one major red flag: his size. When he arrived on campus, he was listed at 5-foot-9 and 162 pounds, and that had not changed much until this season. For the past three years, Richardson was just too small to be an effective cornerback at the Big Ten level -- so much so that Brady Hoke opted to redshirt him as a sophomore when he was only 167 pounds for non-medical reasons in the hope he could use the time to gain weight. That is never a promising sign for one's career. However, Richardson has built his weight up to 174 pounds and seems to be in a position physically to compete for a prominent role. But, given his place on the depth chart and the addition of Wayne Lyons, Richardson seems to have run out of time.
No. 26 | Junior | 5-10 | 176 lbs. | Detroit, Mich.
When last season's All-Big Ten teams were announced, I laughed. I laughed because, somehow, Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess were given honorable mentions while Jourdan Lewis was handed nothing. This was the same Jourdan Lewis that thrived in Michigan's press man coverage while Taylor dealt with injuries and Countess dealt with scraping his ashes off the field after each game. It did not make any sense. Lewis had a breakout sophomore season. He played in all 12 games, posting 39 tackles, nabbing the secondary's only two interceptions, and leading the team with six passes defended. What emerged was Lewis' technique and tenacity at the line of scrimmage. He routinely exhibited great footwork and an ability to get his hands into the chest of a receiver before the receiver could break into his route. This disrupted the timing of the route and forced quarterbacks to look elsewhere. No other Michigan corner did this. The downside is Lewis was grabby after he applied the jam and often was flagged for interference. But, if Lewis used the offseason to trust his body position more and learn a few veteran tricks with his hands, he'll be the one laughing when the 2015 All-Big Ten teams are released.
No. 8 | Junior | 6-2 | 178 lbs. | Matthews, N.C.
Channing Stribling will be the first cornerback off the bench this season, which would have surprised Michigan fans had you told them that when he first committed to the Wolverines. Stribling was a total unknown when he camped at Michigan the summer before his senior season of high school. Nevertheless, he impressed the former coaching staff so much that, rather than catching the interest of possible MAC suitors ($), he walked away with a commitment to the Wolverines. Though fans were mystified that Michigan accepted his commitment with so much time remaining in the recruiting cycle to find a more heralded prospect at that position -- sound familiar? -- Stribling had a great senior season and became the consensus sleeper pick of the 2013 class. In Ann Arbor, he has had flashes that he can be a future starter. We all remember his collegiate debut against Central Michigan in 2013 when he tallied five tackles and raked out a football to force a fumble after closing the gap between he and a Chippewa receiver running a slant in an instant. However, he hasn't had a similar impact since then, and his most memorable moments in the meantime have been of the how-did-he-mistime-that-jump-ball variety. Still, Stribling should see more playing time with Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess gone and will have a chance to prove he was worth that Michigan offer.
No. 30 | RS Sophomore | 6-2 | 175 lbs. | Trotwood, Ohio
Reon Dawson was a late add for Michigan in the 2013 class. Brady Hoke wanted to upgrade Michigan's size at cornerback, and Dawson fit the criteria with his 6-foot-2 frame. Accordingly, Michigan swooped in and stole him from Illinois a few weeks prior to National Signing Day. But Dawson was a low three-star recruit for a reason: he was extremely raw. And, given that he redshirted his first season in 2013 and remained on the sideline for all of 2014, he likely still is extremely raw. Maybe this will be the season that Dawson finally gets on the field, but, if so, it likely will be on special teams, not defense.
No. 29 | RS Sophomore | 5-10 | 186 lbs. | Avon, Ohio
It may be listed on the official roster that Ross Taylor-Douglas has two positions, but he truly is a man without one. Michigan recruited Douglas as a cornerback when the Wolverines pulled him away from Penn State, and he spent his first season in Ann Arbor at that position. However, in not even a full two years since then, he has shifted to running back, to slot receiver, back to cornerback, and now to a defensive back-running back combination. This speaks to Douglas' versatility and selflessness, agreeing to do what the coaches ask for the team's best interest. But the problem is that Douglas is being asked to move to shore up depth concerns at certain positions, not to compete for snaps.
No. 28 | RS Freshman | 5-11 | 189 lbs. | Wilmington, Del.
In my spring preview, I wrote this about Brandon Watson:
But, given that Watson was an unheralded recruit and redshirted last season, it would not be a good sign if Watson saw the field.
I am here to declare that statement incorrect. If anyone will compete with Channing Stribling to be the first corner off the bench, it will be Watson. And that is not a bad thing. Though we have yet to see Watson in an official college contest, he impressed in Michigan's spring game in April. In addition to collecting an interception after he perfectly placed his arm between Moe Ways' hands and chest to knock loose the football as Ways tried to haul in a bomb from Alex Malzone, Watson stuck like glue to his receivers in press coverage and swatted away a few passes. It was a performance that made one realize that Watson may be a solid contributor for the 2015 season and beyond.
No. 6 | Freshman | 6-2 | 175 lbs. | Prattville, Ala.
Keith Washington is Jim Harbaugh's kind of player:
[...] Washington found himself in his living room fielding questions from Harbaugh and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. They asked him how fast he was, and he told them he'd been clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.3 seconds.
They didn't believe him, but Washington wasn't having it.
He looked them both straight in the eye and basically told them not to question him.
"They told me they had heard I was pretty fast, and I told them I run a 4.3," Washington recalls. "And they were like 'we don't believe you.'"
"So I just said, OK, I'll run one for you right now outside. Let's go."
Harbaugh had heard all he needed to hear.
Harbaugh offered Washington on the spot, and, on National Signing Day, the three-star prospect committed to Michigan over Cal. However, regardless of how much Harbaugh may like Washington's attitude, it will not guarantee Washington playing time this season. In fact, expect Washington to redshirt for a variety of reasons. First, he is a rail-thin 6-foot-2 at 175 pounds and will need a season in the weight room with the strength and conditioning staff before he is physically ready to play college football. Second, he played exclusively at quarterback as a senior at Prattville High School and has not competed at cornerback since he was an underclassman. It will take some time for Washington to relearn the finer points of the position and loosen up his hips, which were stiff when he did play corner in high school. And, third, Michigan has sufficient depth at the position, so there is no need to thrust Washington into the fray just yet. Washington is a project through and through. He may pan out over time, but it won't happen for 2015.
Check back tomorrow, when we will review the safeties and create a depth chart.