In one season under the tutelage of D.J. Durkin and Greg Jackson, Michigan’s cornerbacks absolutely suffocated their opponents. The Wolverines led the nation in completion rate allowed (47.5%), passing yards allowed per attempt (5.4), and quarterback rating allowed (94.61), and ranked in the top five in numerous other pass defense categories. The only major pass defense stat in which Michigan did not rank in the top five was interceptions (t-78th with 10). This was not a pass defense that relied on turnovers or fortuitous bounces to get stops. This was a pass defense that executed their technique, stuck to receivers, and forced incompletions. Lots of incompletions.
Though Michigan’s safeties certainly played a significant role in the success of the pass defense, it was the cornerbacks that stood out. Durkin and Jackson constructed a pass defense that was built on press man coverage — a scheme that poisoned Michigan’s back four the previous season, leading to Blake Countess’ demotion and eventual transfer. However, with Jackson teaching the fundamentals rather than Roy Manning, who had not previously coached defensive backs in his career, Michigan’s cornerbacks picked it up and flourished. They were physical at the line of scrimmage, bumped receivers off of their designed routes, and allowed the tiniest of windows for opposing quarterbacks to hit. Quarterbacks tried nonetheless and, unsurprisingly, failed often.
This season, Durkin and Jackson are gone — with the former taking the top position at Maryland and the latter returning to the NFL to be the Dallas Cowboys’ safeties coach — and defensive coordinator Don Brown is in. Brown guided one of the nation’s best defenses at Boston College last season (#3 via S&P+), and good news, Michigan fans: Brown dialed up lots of press man in Cover 1 (and 3). However, do not expect the Wolverines’ corners to be jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage on every down. Or at least not as much as they did last season (I don’t think that is possible). Brown plans to mix up his schemes more than Durkin and Jackson did, throwing in some Cover 2 “trap” zones (Trap Coverage 101) and altering how Michigan defends the perimeter against the run (the “Necktie Sharpies” series by MGoBlog’s Seth Fisher is a must-read for the Xs and Ox aficionados or those just trying to learn more about football). There may be a bit of an adjustment period as Michigan’s defense learns these new concepts.
However, while there may be a new director and some new schemes, it still is the same cast of characters at cornerback for Michigan. The Wolverines return everyone at the position from last season, which includes a first-team All-American and two other seniors with starting experience who have performed well. Michigan also added two blue-chippers that should gain experience this season before vying for the starting jobs in 2017. With this mix of talent and experience, Michigan has an excellent group of cornerbacks. And odds are that they will suffocate their opponents once again.
#26 | Senior | 5-11 | 186 | Detroit, Mich.
2013 (Fr.): 17 tackles | 2 PBU
2014 (So.): 39 tackles | 1.5 TFL | 2 INT | 6 PBU
2015 (Jr.): 52 tackles | 3.5 TFL | 1 sack | 1 FF | 2 INT | 20 PBU
There may not be a better cornerback in the country than Jourdan Lewis.
This is not hyperbole. It doesn’t matter that Lewis was not named as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award last season (there’s more to being a cornerback than interceptions). It doesn’t matter that Lewis is not listed as the top cornerback prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft (size be damned). No cornerback frustrated quarterbacks more than Lewis. They targeted Lewis an absurd 90 times despite the fact that he “allowed just 37 percent of the targets into his coverage to be caught — a top-5 mark — and had a position-leading 15 passes defensed ....” You’d think these quarterbacks would learn.
But they didn’t, which is why Pro Football Focus graded Lewis as the best corner.
Lewis really doesn’t have any weaknesses. He can be physical at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of a receiver’s route. His quickness and technique prevent receivers from getting separation on their routes. He has learned how to use his hands and grab receivers’ jerseys in a way that goes unnoticed by referees — something that wasn’t the case when Lewis was a sophomore (ahem, 2014 Notre Dame). He does not gamble too much for interceptions, often preferring to use one arm to knock down the pass or thrust one arm through the receiver’s hands to prevent him bringing in the football. Even though Lewis will get knocked for his lack of size, he has shown an ability to high point the ball and challenge 6-foot-5 receivers. And, on the uncommon occasion that he does permit a completion, he makes the tackle almost immediately.
Good luck to any offense that tries to get behind Lewis through the air.
The number of times Lewis is targeted and the number of interceptions he makes (unfortunately) will determine whether he is a contender for the Jim Thorpe Award at season’s end. Regardless, though, Michigan has a special shutdown cornerback in Lewis.
#8 | Senior | 6-2 | 175 | Matthews, N.C.
2013 (Fr.): 16 tackles | 1 FF
2014 (So.): 7 tackles | 0.5 TFL
2015 (Jr.): 17 tackles | 0.5 TFL | 2 INT | 3 PBU
Channing Stribling is poised for a second breakout senior season.
The first one was in high school.
Stribling was an unknown when he arrived at Michigan’s camp in the summer of 2012. Some recruiting services had not even ranked him, and he held only one offer from an FBS school: Ball State. Yet not only did he return home with an offer from Brady Hoke and the staff, he returned home as a Wolverine. Fans were mystified at the suddenness of Stribling’s recruitment, wondering why Hoke did not wait for their more heralded cornerback targets. However, Stribling responded by leading Butler High School to the North Carolina 4AA State Championship and being named to the AP’s all-state first team as a senior. Just like that, he became the sleeper pick of Michigan’s 2013 class.
Now, after spending his first two seasons at Michigan as a reserve and his third sharing starting duties with Jeremy Clark, Stribling reportedly has locked up the second cornerback spot. So much so in fact that Jim Harbaugh and his staff decided to sit Stribling for most of the spring game to limit the risk of injury — a decision reserved for only the team’s surefire starters. This should be welcoming news for Michigan fans because Stribling performed well as a junior, nabbing his first two career interceptions and earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. If he really has improved that much to separate himself from Clark in a position battle in which he was engaged all of last year, then he developed into a pretty darn good football player this offseason.
And Stribling should have many more snaps this season to demonstrate that.
#34 | Fifth-Year Senior | 6-4 | 206 | Madisonville, Ky.
2012 (Fr.): Redshirt
2013 (RS Fr.): No Stats
2014 (RS So.): 18 tackles | 1 PBU
2015 (RS Jr.): 21 tackles | 3 INT | 3 PBU
Jeremy Clark may have lost the cornerback competition with Channing Stribling, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be seeing the field this season. Clark transitioned from safety to cornerback in 2015, and, at the time, no one outside the Michigan locker room was sure what to make of it. While Clark’s 6-foot-4 frame made him a desirable candidate at cornerback, the time he spent at safety did not suggest that Clark had the hips, speed, or technique to make the move. However, Clark did have those traits, and, through the first five games, he hauled in three interceptions. Where Clark excelled was his trail technique. Once receivers maneuvered past his jam at the line, Clark stuck with those receivers and traced their routes with precision. This made it difficult for quarterbacks to attack him because they had to lead their receivers with great accuracy. If they didn’t do that and instead under threw it, this then happened:
Like Stribling, Clark performed well at cornerback last season. Though Pro Football Focus has not officially commented on Clark’s performance, it would be a surprise if he did not receive a positive grade as well. Nonetheless, that does not mean that Clark did not make mistakes. Clark’s awareness of the football dipped in the latter half of the season. Though he would be in position to make a play, he could not always locate the ball in the air once he turned his head to look for it. Thus, this touchdown occurred:
Regardless, Clark still showed that he can be a good Big Ten starting cornerback. That he may be coming off the bench as a senior speaks more to the talent that Michigan has at the position than it does about him. Clark will get plenty of playing time this season, even if Stribling receives a majority of the snaps at the second cornerback spot. And between Jourdan Lewis, Stribling, and Clark, Michigan is set at cornerback.
#28 | RS Sophomore | 5-11 | 203 | Wilmington, Del.
2014 (Fr.): Redshirt
2015 (RS Fr.): 8 tackles
Brandon Watson is a utility defensive back with the ability to play cornerback or safety. Watson began his Michigan career at safety before unproven depth behind Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess in the spring of 2015 (which has since been proven) prompted the staff to move Watson closer to the line of scrimmage. Watson had a notable spring game in 2015, bringing in an excellent interception while covering Moe Ways in the picture above. However, he played sparingly on defense as a redshirt freshman last year, and his name wasn’t mentioned much this past offseason. Watson’s sophomore season should be similar to his freshman one. He should see snaps at cornerback or nickelback in 2016, but, with Lewis, Stribling, and Jeremy Clark firmly ahead of him, those will be minimal. He will be more of a special teams contributor.
#6 | RS Freshman | 6-2 | 170 | Prattville, Ala.
2015 (Fr.): Redshirt
Jim Harbaugh was not shy regarding his feelings about Keith Washington in 2015:
"Keith Washington, I just want to talk about him for a little bit, one of my very favorite players in this class," Harbaugh said. "He hurt his MCL in the first round of the playoffs and took his team to the state championship. He is a very, very humble person but a winner. Another theme, I think, that this entire recruiting class that we have. He went to Prattville (his hometown) for only one year, he told them that he was going to take them to the state championship and he did just that."
Nonetheless, to the surprise of no one, Washington took a redshirt last season. Washington may be one of Harbaugh’s favorite prospects from the 2015 class, but he still is a very raw prospect. Attributes like his length (6-foot-2 frame) and speed (he claims he runs a 4.3 40) pop out, but, as someone who spent much of his time in high school playing quarterback and still is only 170 pounds, Washington still is being molded into a cornerback. It is unlikely that he will play much in the back four this season. Any playing time he receives should be on special teams unless injuries hit. Then, next year after another season of development, he will make his case to start.
#22 | Freshman | 5-11 | 187 | Los Angeles, Calif.
David Long has a bright, bright future at Michigan.
The recruiting services agree, with all four placing the California native within the top 104 of their respective 2016 class rankings — he was #65 in the 247Sports Composite. The scouts agree, with Scout.com’s Greg Bibbins having difficulty finding a weakness:
Long is a two-way player who emerged this past spring as an elite cover corner. Has all the physical tools you could want in a next level DB including size, quickness, top end speed, instincts and toughness. He's a smart player with a high understanding of how to play the game and always competes at a high level. He's smooth in his backpedal, shows explosiveness getting in and out of his breaks and has excellent recovery speed as well
Jourdan Lewis agrees, marveling at Long’s (and Lavert Hill’s) physical maturity:
"[Long and Hill are] way better than me when I was that age," Lewis said. "Shoot, maybe they're better than me right now."
"Man, it's crazy how mature (these guys are physically). You see them at camps running 4.3s (and 4.4s) and stuff. When I went to The Opening, I was running a 4.6," Lewis said. "These guys are so mature, their bodies are ready for a 15-game season or a 14-game season. You can see that these guys are ready to play right now."
Don Brown agrees, noting Long’s mental sharpness and professional attitude:
David Long, really happy with him. A special player as a freshman. He’s a professional. Comes in, notebook’s open. Taking notes, being sharp.”
You’re going to have a hard time finding someone who disagrees.
Usually, when a true freshman enters a program at a position where there are three experienced seniors at two spots, that freshman would not be expected to play and likely would take a redshirt. However, Long is not the usual true freshman. He seems to be ready to step on the field in Week 1 and produce. Though he will not receive many snaps because of Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Jeremy Clark, he should see time at cornerback nonetheless. Jim Harbaugh believes that the best players should play, regardless of age or eligibility, and, with both of the starting cornerback spots opening up in 2017, Harbaugh will want Long to earn some invaluable experience this season.
And, thus, Michigan fans should get a glimpse of Long’s shiny, shiny future.
#24 | Freshman | 5-11 | 168 | Detroit, Mich.
Much of what could be said about David Long can be said about Lavert Hill, and, in fact, Long and Hill very likely will be paired together for the rest of their Michigan careers.
Hill wasn’t the near-consensus top-100 prospect that Long was, but he still was a consensus four-star recruit that finished #136 in the 247Sports Composite. Oh, and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Selection Committee named him the top prep defensive back in the country after he piled up 12 interceptions, four of which he returned for touchowns, and an additional 12 pass breakups as a senior. So not too bad for him.
When scouted, Hill often was praised for the same abilities: his elite feet, fluid hips, sudden change of direction, and closing speed. In other words, he demonstrated many of the traits that have made Jourdan Lewis so special at Michigan. However, whereas Lewis (and Long, too) can be physical, display an edge, and provide good tackling, Hill is not as proven in those areas. He needs to add some strength and tenacity to his game.
So Hill isn’t as polished as Long at this stage, but that should not stop Hill from seeing the field as a true freshman for the same reasons that Long will see it. Simply, though Brandon Watson and Keith Washington are older and have been in the program longer, Hill and Long are the future for Michigan at cornerback. There is a very good chance that both can be three-year starters beginning next season. And, with full knowledge and awareness that may be the case, Jim Harbaugh will want them to get reps now.