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Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015: Defense, Dominance, and Durability

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In the sixth installment of the series that addresses the 10 biggest storylines surrounding Michigan football in 2015, Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett discuss how dominant the defense can be and how much of the weight Michigan needs it to carry.

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Last week, we at Maize n Brew began a series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will be successful in 2015. We’ve hit the midway point of the series and will conclude it at the end of the week. Today marks the sixth installment, in which Anthony and Drew debate if Michigan’s defense can be dominant and do so without breaking down into pieces.

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Drew: On the surface, Michigan had a first-rate defense last season. Nationally, the Wolverines ranked seventh in total defense (311.3 YPG), 15th in rushing defense (117.6 YPG), and 19th in passing defense (193.7 YPG). To finish in the top 20 in each of those categories generally is a sign of a defense to be feared.

However, Michigan’s defense was not as good as those ranks suggest. The first indicator is that Michigan finished 27th in the nation in scoring defense (22.4 PPG). This is not a bad number by any means, but it’s not a number that an elite defense posts. The second indicator is that Michigan was 37th in Defensive S&P+, which is an opponent-adjusted ratings system derived from play-by-play data that measures a defense’s efficiency. The third indicator is that Michigan ranked 82nd in Football Outsiders’ field-position statistic and, more specifically, 112th in opponent short-field drives. I draw two conclusions from these indicators. First, Michigan benefitted by facing numerous inferior offenses, which it shut down, but were exposed by superb ones, allowing 42 points to Ohio State and 35 to Michigan State. Second, Michigan’s total defense rank is more shine than substance because offenses drove shorter fields against Michigan than against other defenses.

The first conclusion speaks to Michigan’s defensive ability. Last season’s defense was above average -- not excellent -- but fared well because the Big Ten lacked offensive firepower. However, the second conclusion alludes to forces outside the defense’s control, which is the point I want to emphasize. Michigan’s defense had a chance to be excellent last season. It did. But, because the offense could not move the chains and committed 26 turnovers -- good for 101st in the nation in giveaways -- while the special teams were horrid, Michigan’s defense routinely was forced into difficult, short-field situations. Early in games, the defense usually held strong and made the opposing offense work for its points. However, by the second half, the defense had been worn out and would break, allowing teams like Minnesota, Michigan State, and Ohio State to pull away or a team like Maryland to complete a comeback. It was disappointing to watch this occur on a regular basis, but I didn’t blame them. You can’t expect the defense to do everything.

The reason for this lengthy introduction is that expectations are high for Michigan’s defense in 2015, but there are still tons of questions about the offense. Anthony, given the defense that Michigan is expected to field this season, just how much weight does Michigan need it to carry?

Anthony: I think they are going to be burdened with a considerable amount of weight, especially early on. I don’t want to spend much time on the offense here, but I think part of the reason that they are in the submarine has to do with the fact that they are really unsure about what’s going to happen on that side of the ball. It’s going to be a work in progress throughout the year.

That’s where the defense kicks in. I hate to make this parallel, but in a lot of ways, they have to be what the 2013 Michigan State defense was in terms of carrying the load and literally hardly ever allowing anyone to score on them. In some ways, Michigan’s offense is further behind than MSU’s was that year, but the point remains the same. DJ Durkin and company have to have the lunch-pail mentality over there. Willie Henry said as much to me during media day when I asked him if they felt the pressure of carrying the team. They expect to be great and don’t plan on letting people score. They can say that, but they have to do it now. Overall, this group has the ability to be better than they were last year.

Drew: You may have hated to make the parallel with 2013 Michigan State, but I think it is very apt. That Spartans offense was an utter mess the first few weeks of the season until it found gold in quarterback Connor Cook, and it was the defense that kept their season intact. Of course, that Spartans defense finished second in the nation in Defensive S&P+, and I don’t think Michigan will have that caliber of a defense this season. Nonetheless, I do think this Michigan defense can be very good and a shade below excellent. Though Michigan lost stud linebacker Jake Ryan and defensive end Frank Clark, the Wolverines return linebacker Desmond Morgan and hybrid-space player Jabrill Peppers from injuries and countless other contributors in general. There is experience everywhere, and, if the offense can limit its turnovers and special teams can flip field position to Michigan’s advantage, the defense should be capable of holding strong all four quarters. And that will be paramount in the non-conference season as the offense finds its groove.

Another area where Michigan must improve that will help cement its status as a defensive power is turnovers. For the life of them, Michigan’s defense could not force turnovers last season. The Wolverines forced only 10 turnovers, which was 126th out of 128 FBS teams. Michigan cannot afford a repeat of that in 2015. How much do you expect that will change this upcoming season?

Anthony: It has to get better because quite frankly it can’t get any worse than it was in that department. And for the Wolverines I really do think that as good as their back seven is/could be, it all starts up front. When was the last time we could say the defensive line really just dominated and got to the quarterback consistently? It has been awhile.

If you want to create turnovers, you have to force the quarterback to make mistakes. He needs to be scared and running around back there for his life. I have questions about the defensive line that we need to see answered quickly. You can put a guy on an island in the secondary all you want, but if the quarterback has time to throw, he’s going to find somewhere to make a play. Michigan cannot give them that chance.

This is where the Bryan Mone injury hurts because he’s a guy I saw as being able to provide a huge push up the middle. If you can blow up the center right off the snap, that damn near screws everything up. Willie Henry should be able to step in and do a really nice job, but that effort needs to be there more consistently. I’m not as worried about the tackles as I am the ends, though. The last time U-M had a great, disruptive force consistently there was arguably Brandon Graham. The argument can be made for Clark, but he had issues of his own and never really was able to put it all together on the field.

So yes, I like Michigan’s linebackers and secondary, but the key to all of that is in the trenches. Greg Mattison has to have a rotation of guys in there that can cause havoc and really create problems in the backfield for the opposing offense. If that can happen, the turnovers will come.

Drew: You make lots of great points, and I agree with you regarding Michigan’s need to apply pressure on the quarterback. However, I know we’re going to discuss that in detail tomorrow, so I’ll save my thoughts on that for then. I will add that the return of Peppers should lead to more turnovers as well. Michigan has lots of solid defenders on its roster, but it does not necessarily have momentum-swinging playmakers. For example, free safety Jarrod Wilson is as solid as they come, but he’s not the type of player to deliver a bone-crunching hit or swoop in for an aerobatic interception. On the other hand, though we have seen minimal snaps from Peppers in his career at Michigan, he has an aggressive attitude on the field, and, regardless of whether Michigan plays Peppers at strong safety, cornerback, or nickel, that will lead to more turnovers. Or it should at least.

And more turnovers forced means less time spent on the field for Michigan’s defense.

Speaking of Peppers, now that Ryan is with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, there is a vacancy for Michigan’s best defender that needs to be filled, and Peppers is a prime candidate. Whom do you think will be the breakout player that leads this Michigan defense?

Anthony: I’ve sort of tipped my hand on that answer already in here, but I’m a big fan of what Willie Henry can bring to the table. I’ve always been a believer in building from the trenches and I think he is a guy that has the ability to be a dominant force in the middle of that Michigan defense. He may not be the star, but he could absolutely be the table setter, the straw that stirs the drink, if you will.

If I had to pick a sleeper of sorts, I think that Lawrence Marshall has the chance to be a very nice player for the Wolverines as an end/linebacker, depending on the look they show. I was a big fan of his ability coming out of high school and the coaches have said earlier in the spring that he is someone who could be primed for a breakout. So those are my two guys. Do you have any sleepers, Drew?

Drew: I have two breakout defenders for Michigan in 2015, only one of which is a sleeper. The sleeper is defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. No one stood out to me more in Michigan's spring game than Hurst. He may be a bit undersized, but his first step at the snap was explosive. He consistently was running right past offensive linemen into the backfield and blowing up plays. One lineman to whom he was doing this was David Dawson, who has received praised in recent practice reports ($). Hurst may not start, but he will be rotated in there often -- particularly on obvious passing downs -- and make an impact. The non-sleeper is linebacker Joe Bolden. Now, you may be asking, "Drew, how can Bolden be a breakout player when he tallied 102 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks last season?" Well, that's because tackles are not always the best indicator of performance. There were many times last season when Bolden would not read his cues fast enough and hesitate after the snap. This put him out of position and caused him to catch running backs rather than stuff them when trying to make a tackle. That difference can be worth two or three yards. However, based on what I saw in the spring game, Bolden seemed to be much more decisive in his actions. I call Bolden a breakout player because, not only will he have another 100-tackle season, he'll be more effective.

As for the player that will be the best defender on the team, I give that honor to a defensive back. No, not Peppers, but cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis is primed to have an All-Big Ten-type season in 2015. He is an aggressive, lockdown corner that will continue to thrive in a man press scheme. He knows how to use his hands to jam receivers at the line and disrupt the timing of their routes. Quarterbacks will not want to target those receivers often because, if they wait, they risk that Michigan's pressure will get home. The key question is whether Lewis will be able to keep his hands to himself on jumpballs and not be flagged for interference. If so, he'll be the most valuable defender.

It's clear: Michigan has the pieces to have a dominant defense, as long as it doesn't break.

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Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will take a closer look at Michigan's defensive line, which reportedly is down one key player, and debate if it can fix Michigan's pressure problems.

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Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015

August 17thThe Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18thDid Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?
August 19thJake Rudock vs. Shane Morris -- Who Wins?
August 20thWill a No. 1 Receiver Emerge?
August 21stThe Running Back Rut