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Roundtable: Michigan’s Pass Defense Is The Biggest Concern Of All

With so many new faces, the areas for concern are numerous. But the ceiling is also as high as ever.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Hey, guys. I wanted to get your thoughts on what might be the biggest, most glaring area of concern for next year’s defense: defending the pass, which trips up even the best teams (*cough* like Bama! *cough*) from time to time. Michigan is losing all four starters in the secondary, or five if you count co-starters Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, or six if you count nickelback/do-it-all linebacker Jabrill Peppers. Michigan also loses pass rushers Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley.

So, with experience being such a handicap on such an important part of the team, it’s safe to say this defense is taking a step back... right?

Von: The passing defense will likely take a step back next season simply because of the inexperience. Like you said, Nick, the team is losing Jabrill, Channing Stribling, super athletic freak Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. It also stings the NCAA didn’t allow Jeremy Clark another year of eligibility.

However, I am quite optimistic about the group of defensive backs coming in. Ambry Thomas is someone I am very high on moving forward at the corner position. Benjamin St-Juste is the other corner in the 2017 class. He is a different kind of corner from Thomas, as St-Juste is 6-foot-3, 188 pounds. From what I’ve seen of him so far, he is a very sound tackler, but he could definitely use some coverage work. With that said, it’s a good thing he is an early enrollee at UM.

The last generation, which featured Jarrod Wilson, Jourdan Lewis, Blake Countess and Raymond Taylor among others, hands the baton off to a new generation of Jim Harbaugh recruits.

In fact, all four defensive backs in the 2017 class enrolled early. Thomas and St-Juste being the corners, and Jaylen Kelly-Powell and J’Marick Woods being the safeties. Having all these guys get to work early is huge for the team because of the lack of experience in the secondary at the moment. Give these guys time to develop and adjust to the college level and we won’t be questioning the secondary like we are now.

Will: The secondary does concern me because I feel like in those positions there’s no replacement for experience. A Rashan Gary or (hopefully) an Aubrey Solomon can step right in and contribute on the defensive line from day 1, but even a freakish athlete like Jabrill, while solid, wasn’t a dominant safety in the first few games of his true freshman year (before injuries sidelined him). There’s so much nuance and technical demand in the defensive backfield that I’m hopeful but worried this could indeed be our Achilles heel this season. The talent’s there, but the learning curve is steep.

Kullen: It’s hard to imagine not taking a step back anytime you lose all four starters and that much experience at a position. Lewis, Stribling, Hill, Thomas and Clark were all excellent players and brought that “No Fly Zone” mentality back to Ann Arbor. However, I feel confident knowing the younger players that will fill in this year were all hand picked by Harbaugh and have been coached up by him and his staff from day one.

Lavert Hill got some good experience this season and I think he and David Long will start at cornerback. Tyree Kinnel and Khaleke Hudson will most likely take over the safety spots and Ambry Thomas will fill in at nickelback. While it will take these younger guys a some time to get their feet wet and become a strong unit, they look to be stronger athletes than their predecessors and should be a force by season’s end.

Andrew: How can the defense (especially pass defense) not take a step back? In 2015, Michigan was ranked 4th in total defense, 3rd in passing yards allowed, and 1st in passing efficiency defense. In 2016, the Wolverines were ranked 1st in total defense, 1st in passing yards allowed, and 2nd in passing efficiency defense.

Lavert Hill, David Long, Tyree Kinnel, and Khaleke Hudson will all possess vital experience in Don Brown’s complex scheme which will assist in this transitional off-season. The early enrollees of Ambry Thomas, Benjamin St-Juste, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, and J’Marick Woods, have already begun their PhD of defense from ‘Dr. Blitz’ which shortens the learning curve this fall.

The talent is evident, but the chemistry between the players will be essential for any continued defensive success. As Will stated, this defense requires a technical demand seldom seen from programs outside of Tuscaloosa. Even last season’s veterans struggled in early games with proper alignments and coverages. This is a Goliath task, but the aid of the defensive line’s pass rush will prove pivotal in limiting any glaring exposure from this youthful secondary.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida
Harbaugh knows that even if other parts of the team are clicking, a porous secondary can ruin a lot of games.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: There are going to be a lot of position battles going through spring practice and all the way through fall. With so much up in the air, what’s one position (or player) that you’re least worried about, and what’s one position or player that you think we’ll be having ulcers over when the Florida game comes around?

Von: Ambry Thomas is the guy I’m least worried about just because I am very high on him.

To be honest, I just don’t know what to expect come September and the Florida game. We all could be totally off on who starts, who plays well, who plays poorly, etc. So until the Florida game happens, I don’t know who I will be concerned about and/or what position is going to be a problem for the Wolverines.

I’ve said this in past roundtables and I am going to stick to it — whatever Harbaugh decides in regards to starters, I am confident in that decision. I was skeptical of Speight last year being the starter, but it worked out really well until he got injured. Harbaugh is a great football mind; whatever he ends up doing has my golden seal of approval.

Kullen: The guy I’m least worried about is Tyree Kinnel at safety for sure. He has the most experience of any guy coming back and has proved himself on special teams. He will be the captain of the secondary.

The guy I’m most worried about is the guy I believe has the most upside and that’s David Long at cornerback. Unlike Hill, Long did not get much playing time as a freshman and will most likely have to start next season. He could get burned a little to start the season, but I think he will be a potential All-American down the road with his blazing speed and size.

Andrew: I am the least worried about Tyree Kinnel because of the invaluable experience he gained during 2016. He will anchor this group and Brown will rightfully demand more from him than any other defensive back.

Cornerback is arguably one of the three hardest positions in football and I am worried about both starters in 2017. Whether it’s Hill, Long, Thomas, or St-Juste, any time Florida tests them on September 2nd, I will be holding my breath (literally) and praying.

No pressure, Tyree, but we’re counting on you.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Nick: What’s one thing you’ll be looking at during the spring game to get a sense of how this group will end up?

Von: I’ll be paying attention to the aggressiveness from the defensive backs. Early on in college careers — and it doesn’t matter what position it is — some players get very aggressive at times, which could either burn them or actually work in their favor. I am curious if they will be that way, and if it will work for them or not.

It would be awesome if all four early enrollees ended up on the same team during the spring game so we could evaluate them all at the same time, but that probably won’t happen. Still, I believe a lot, if not all of the freshman defensive backs will have that attitude going into the spring game and play extremely aggressive, especially Kelly-Powell since that’s just the way he balls.

Will: I’ll be looking for a breakout early enrollee, that player who surprises with his ability to perform at the next level. I think we’re all anticipating Thomas or Kelly-Powell might be that guy, but Benjamin St. Juste and J’Marick Woods have the size to be disruptive if they can adjust to the college game, and quickly. There’s a couple of big safeties, here, which could bolster the run defense coming out of the secondary.

Kullen: I’ll be looking to see how well they play against the wide receivers -- a group that is equally as young and talented. Big things are expected out of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black, who are all huge and athletic. The defense is always supposed to be ahead of the offense in spring ball and the secondary can send a big message if they can shut those guys down. Look for Hill on Peoples-Jones -- his former Cass Tech teammate -- to be the matchup of the game.

Andrew: Chemistry, communication, and football IQ. Whichever combination is chosen to start has never played meaningful (if any) snaps together. Each player must learn audibles, adjustments, and simply how each other play regarding technique and tendencies. Moreover, Brown’s schemes require communication deeper than most relationships and that begins with the players’ football IQ’s. A high IQ will allow them to understand offenses at an instinctual level thus making Brown’s system easier to learn. At that point, I will be focused on which players look like natural insertions into this defensive mechanism and those that interrupt the fluidity.

Nick: Lastly, going way way big picture for a second, how good does this pass defense have to be for Michigan to contend for a Big Ten and national title? We know this will probably be the weak spot of the defense, and maybe the entire team. Will it really cripple our chances, or can these guys get to some level that’s good enough to get hyped for 2017?

Von: It doesn’t have to be great, but it does have to be pretty good.

Michigan’s defensive line is going to be so damn good that it will actually help the secondary out quite a bit. Guys like Rashan Gary, Bryan Mone and Aubrey Solomon are going to cause so much havoc to opposing offensive linemen that they are going to put a ton of pressure on quarterbacks, forcing bad throws and potential plays on the ball from the secondary. The defensive line, as stated in last week’s roundtable, is the strength of the defense, so having these dudes on the defense will greatly help the inexperienced defensive backs.

Give it another year and everything will be gelled so nicely on defense that Michigan could have the top defense in the country come 2018.

Having a bad secondary didn’t cripple Bama’s chances of making it to the title game, but it did perhaps lose them the title game (or its freshman QB did, you could make that argument, too). The secondary will have to be good enough just to make it to the Big 10 title game, let alone the National Championship. I have about the same level of concern with the secondary as much as I do with the running game, so we will see how everything works out come September.

Just an awesome photo.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Eric: I think the interplay between the defensive line and the backs that Von mentioned is really important. One additional concern around the inexperience of the d-backs is that Michigan isn’t going to get nearly as many coverage sacks/hurries as last year. And I think that Brown is going to be much more conservative on his blitzes than last year, as he won’t have the same confidence in the coverage.

If they can get by Florida (not sure I buy into the reports out of their camp that the Gators have solved their QB issues), Michigan’s schedule will give them time to gel, and let Harbaugh/Brown start to add more wrinkles before the tougher games.

Will: I agree with Eric that getting by Florida is key. Because there are so few starters returning, I’d rather have had a few warm-up games before taking on another powerhouse program right out of the gates. That said, Harbaugh has no problem stirring the team for a big game, and Florida might have as many question marks as Michigan. So, I’m hopeful we can get a win over the Gators and then develop as we move toward the Big Ten season.

The defensive line, while undeniably talented, will also need some time to flesh out their game. Again, a warm-up game would have been nice. But I’m with Von that this will be a disruptive, game-changing factor for the Wolverines. It’s just a matter of when they reach that elite level where they can anchor the defense and take some pressure off the secondary. If the secondary is solid, this defense should be good enough to ensure they contend for a conference title. A run at a national title is probably another year away, though.

Kullen: I agree with Von that the defensive line will help the secondary tremendously, which will allow for some wiggle room at the beginning of the season. They do not have to be perfect, but if this team wants to compete for a Big Ten Title and National Championship, they will have to get more takeaways than last year.

The secondary last season was great at forcing three-and-outs, but only had 13 interceptions on the season for three touchdowns. Ohio State on the other hand had 21 interceptions for seven touchdowns -- one of which was a killer against Michigan. This young unit can help out the offense if they can create more turnovers and put some points on the board next year. If they can do that, this team could be very special.

No Jabrill at linebacker anymore to rush the passer, but there is a linebacker converted to defensive end who can do the same. Expect Chase Winovich to make some noise in 2017.
Photo credit: Eric Upchurch, MGoBlog

Andrew: So we’re alllll on the defensive line, eh? I could not agree more. The best pass defense begins with the pass rush. The depth and talent of this defensive line is frightening if you include all of the incoming freshman talent. However, Michigan cannot be expected to pressure the quarterback every play.

Kullen hit the nail on the head when referring to takeaways. Turnovers will allow this group to get off the field and will keep the defensive line fresh. Florida’s offense is suspect so if the Wolverines can clear that first hurdle, this secondary will not be truly tested until the game October 21st at Penn State. Every question and concern we are discussing will be addressed that evening at Beaver Stadium.

Eric: Andrew is right about getting the D off the field being crucial. Even the vaulted Alabama D wilted after too many plays vs. Clemson (as did the Falcons in the SB). Michigan’s lack of depth is more of an Achilles heel here than its inexperience. However, keeping them from being on the field too long will be more driven by the offense’s ability to establish the running game and control time of possession than by the D’s ability to force turnovers (which can be a bit flukey and hard to depend on). I know the question was about defense, but ultimately even that is going to come down to the o-line.

Alex: Hey guys. Sorry for being late to the party but just got caught up on everything from above. Nick, some very solid questions and I’ll just add on here to some of Eric’s great points regarding the D. The O can’t keep them out there for 2.5+ quarters (I think it was 40+ mins for the Pats possession time) like we saw with the Falcons. Dan Quinn is a good friend of my older brother and I and he said that was the biggest thing that killed them- having to lean on that D line to get pressure and all of that possession time for the Pats. Now regarding the Wolverines, they keep refilling the shed with great talent, there’s no questioning that. The secondary is going to be tested earlier and often in the opener so it’s paramount that the D line/LB rush is there and Coach Brown is sending a lot of looks and different numbers to keep the QB (whether it’s Del Rio or Franks) guessing. I think you guys hit on a lot of good points above with the underclassmen who are expected to step into the starting roles and this spring is going to be a huge opportunity and a very necessary 15 practices for them to get some field time under their belts. It’s a whole new monster/speed for the early enrollees so I hope they can adapt and evolve in Coach Brown’s system as he’s going to put them in a position to succeed now it’s just a question of who is going to pick it up and apply it that fastest.

Thanks to everybody for participating in this week’s roundtable (and shout-out to all the new faces!). Any thoughts you have that we didn’t cover? Sound off below.