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Michigan Football: Five Breakout Players on Defense for 2016

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Michigan’s defense is stacked with stars, but we take a look at five defensive players who may make more of an impact in 2016 than you expect.

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NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2016 Michigan Football Preview: Breakout Players - Offense

It’s no secret that Michigan returns one of the nation’s most talented defenses.

There is Jourdan Lewis, who blossomed into a first-team All-American and shutdown corner last season thanks to his physical press coverage. There is Jabrill Peppers, a preseason All-American and Swiss Army knife that thrives in space and blows up screens to smithereens (he also looks pretty dashing on magazine covers) . There is Chris Wormley, a potential first-round draft pick whose 14.5 tackles for loss last season were the most by a Michigan defensive lineman since Brandon Graham last donned the winged helmet in 2009. And there are Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst, Jr., both of whom broke out on a star-studded defensive line last season and placed in the top 75 of Pro Football Focus’ 101 best players entering the 2016 season.

But this column isn’t about Michigan’s breakout players from last year. It’s about the ones that will break out this year and make a considerable contribution to what may be the No. 1 defense.

Here are the five* candidates most likely to break out on Michigan’s defense in 2016:

Taco Charlton, Senior, Defensive End

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This is the easiest pick of the pack.

Some may wonder how Taco Charlton qualifies to be a breakout candidate when he ranked third on the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (5.5) last season, but the reason is simple: he was a reserve. Charlton backed up Chris Wormley at strongside defensive end for much of the season and started only three games, two of which came at the end of the season against Penn State and Ohio State. Yet, despite such a limited amount of playing time, he was a pass-rushing force. According to Pro Football Focus, Charlton recorded 41 pressures in just 213 snaps in 2015 and owns the best pass-rushing rating among returning 4-3 defensive ends.

Now picture what Charlton will do in a full season as a starter.

With Mario Ojemudia and Royce Jenkins-Stone graduating, Charlton has moved from the strongside to the weakside, and, unless Chase Winovich or Lawrence Marshall make great strides this fall, he will be receiving the majority of the snaps at that spot. And Charlton is primed to excel at the position. He shed 13 pounds (from 285 to 272) this offseason, which should enhance his amazing athleticism (remember this?) and improve his speed rush. Plus, he’s shown he has the needed strength and technique to execute bull rushes and swim moves.

And, because offensive lines won’t be able to double team Charlton very often due to talented teammates next to him on the line of scrimmage, a 10-sack season is not out of the question.

Bryan Mone, Redshirt Sophomore, Defensive Tackle

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan already has three defensive tackles in Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, and Maurice Hurst, Jr. that are considered top-100 players. Yet the Wolverines may add a fourth defensive tackle to that list. Bryan Mone displayed promise as a true freshman in 2014, posting nine tackles and 1.5 for a loss. However, he must have taken a giant leap the next summer because, according to Jim Harbaugh, the staff ranked Mone as the third-best player on the roster entering training camp last season. Of course, fans were not able to see such a breakout materialize in 2015 because Mone suffered a freaky leg injury that forced him to miss the season.

But they might in 2016.

Even though Mone will be a reserve behind Wormley and Glasgow, Michigan’s rotation at defensive tackle will be so frequent that it’ll seem as if Mone is a starter. And, given how Mone tussled with Mason Cole in the spring game, he should use that playing time to demonstrate that he’s fully recovered and returned to the form that generated so much hype just one year ago.

Mike McCray, Redshirt Junior, Linebacker

Eric Upchurch-MGoBlog

Prior to this past spring, the last time most Michigan fans heard Mike McCray’s name was in his collegiate debut in 2014 when he blocked an Appalachian State punt that Ben Gedeon returned for a touchdown. But, like that, he was gone. Or at least it seemed that way because, for the next two seasons, McCray, a former four-star prospect, was rarely mentioned. Much of this can be attributed to the assortment of injuries that he suffered in the span, including a shoulder injury that kept him out for all of 2015, but it left many wondering if McCray exited the picture.

If he did, he certainly reentered it during the offseason.

McCray is finally healthy and, showing off some impeccable timing as Michigan looks to replace last season’s three senior linebackers, had an impressive spring. He emerged as the starting weakside linebacker and performed well in the spring game, accumulating a game-high seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Though McCray was a bit lost in pass coverage and got caught on mesh routes, he read his run keys properly, particularly when the offensive guards began to pull on power, and attacked the ball carrier fiercely. And, per Chris Partridge, McCray added a “heck of a summer” to his impressive spring, getting leaner, quicker, and faster.

Accordingly, McCray says that his confidence is at an “all-time high.”

His game just might be, too.

Channing Stribling, Senior, Cornerback

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, as everyone ooh’d and aah’d at Jourdan Lewis’ All-American campaign, there was a battle occurring on the other sideline. It was not a battle between opponents however. It was a battle between teammates, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, competing to be Michigan’s No. 2 cornerback. But neither of them could separate from the other. By season’s end, Stribling had started four games and recorded 17 tackles, two interceptions, and three passes defensed, while Clark had made four starts and posted 21 tackles, three interceptions, and three passes defensed. If anything, Clark had a slight edge, with his 6-4 frame giving him that extra nudge.

However, this past spring, Stribling seemingly locked up the job. So much so that Stribling was treated like the other sure starters in the spring game: he barely participated because the Michigan coaches preferred that he not risk injury. This doesn’t mean that Clark will be riding the pine because, when he doesn’t lose the ball in the lights, he has proven to be a very good cornerback. However, it appears that Stribling will be given more snaps next season, and, given that opposing quarterbacks likely won’t test Lewis as much as they did in 2015, Stribling should have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that throwing in his direction is a bad idea, too.

Dymonte Thomas, Senior, Safety

Dustin Johnston-Maize n Brew

Dymonte Thomas’ athleticism has always jumped off the screen.

He just didn’t know how to channel it at safety. Until now.

Thomas’ athleticism made him a highly coveted recruit, but he spent his time in high school at outside linebacker even though he was pegged to move to safety at the next level. Accordingly, Thomas was very raw at the position and needed time to learn it, develop his field awareness, and hone his instincts. But Brady Hoke opted to toss Thomas on special teams rather than redshirt him as a true freshman and wasted what could have been a very valuable year for him. As a result, Thomas didn’t start to figure out how to play safety until the end of his junior season.

But, boy, did he figure it out.

By the end of 2015, Thomas was showing glimpses of safety play that Michigan has not had in some time. Whereas Jordan Kovacs had great instincts and made plays at the line of scrimmage and Jarrod Wilson did not let plays get behind him, Thomas was sprinting from the middle of the field to the sidelines in a flash to get over the top of fades and go routes to break up passes.

Or, in the case of the spring game, intercept them:

There are very few college safeties who can do that.

Add in that Thomas has shown the ability to make open-field tackles against some pretty elusive weapons, and it seems that it is all coming together for him. He knows the position. He trusts his instincts. And, in his last season as a Wolverine, he can finally dazzle us all with his athleticism.

*Rashan Gary is disqualified. You can’t break out from being the nation’s top overall recruit.