Last week we talked about the Top 5 questions for the Michigan offense going into spring ball. This week we go to the other side, with some of the unknowns on the defense.
5. What do ya got, Don Brown?
Michigan fans like to think they have a pretty good idea of what Don Brown brings to the table at this point. The Wolverines finished the season tied with Alabama as the No. 1 team defense, allowing a very impressive 261.8 yards per game, and finishing near the top in every major defensive category.
Last year’s Michigan defense likely would have been right near the top no matter if it was Brown, Durkin, Mattison or a third year grad student at the helm though, as we were absolutely stacked with senior leadership and NFL caliber talent. What remains to be seen is simple: what can Brown get out of the defense when the experience and the rotational depth are not there anymore?
Michigan replaces all but one starter (McCray) on the defense - although Hurst, Mone, Gary, and Kinnel have played a bunch of football for the Maize and Blue. So Brown is going to have to bring a lot of young guys up to speed in a hurry in order to avoid big defensive breakdowns, especially in the back end where we replace every starter in what ended up as the No. 1 ranked pass defense in ‘16.
If Dr. Blitz can coach up his younger guys for some depth, and find a way to cover up some of the early warts caused by inexperience, the defense can once again be the strength of this team.
Don Brown’s proven track record, along with a fair amount of returning experience - especially on the defensive line - keep this from being a larger concern.
4. Can the mega-hyped d-line recruits live up to their billing?
Michigan has brought in a superstar defensive lineman in each of the last two recruiting cycles, and this year we will need them both to be as good as advertised to make up for the loss of impact players.
Rashan Gary was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation last year out of Paramus Catholic in New Jersey. He was stuck playing behind a wealth of NFL talent last year, but should be the starter at SDE in ‘17. Aubrey Solomon was the prize from this years recruiting class but he won’t get on campus until the fall, so for now the focus is on Gary.
With Rashan Gary, you are getting an ultra-athletic defensive lineman with prototypical size to play either inside or out, along with a growing arsenal off pass rush moves. If his Michigan combine numbers are to believed, he is one of the fastest guys on the defense already (4.57 40-yard dash), with a frame reminiscent of Julius Peppers. This is a guy that physically, is way ahead of the rest of the roster.
In order for Gary and the Michigan defense to reach their potential this season, he will need to be a student of the game and soak up every ounce of coaching he can get. If Gary can learn the subtleties of the position and to let his athleticism work for him within the scheme, he could be the best player on a really good defense in 2017.
The depth behind him, as well as what we have already seen from Gary, makes this less of a concern than some other potential issues with the defense, in my opinion.
3. Will young guys be able provide depth at linebacker?
A consistent theme when discussing potential issues with next year's team on either side of the ball is the lack of proven options. The linebacker position is no different.
Returning for his fifth year is senior Mike McCray, who after coming out of the gates on fire to start last season, settled in as an above average defender as the season progressed, showing a knack for stopping the run and getting his hands on a few passes as well. He had some issues against speedier guys on the edges, but he is an upgrade from recent guys like Desmond Morgan at the position.
Behind him, there are a lot of freshmen and sophomores without much experience. Devin Bush and Noah Furbush both return after seeing some run last season. Furbush is a big dude, measuring in at 6-5 and 240 pounds, and he has the size to move around and rush the passer from the edge if need be. But he doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as some of the freshmen and sophomores.
Devin Bush will be asked to play a much larger role this year after seeing a reserve role last year. He is not as big as Furbush or McCray, but is very athletic and quick to the quarterback. Bush can cover sideline to sideline and can absolutely lay the lumber when he squares a ball carrier up - he’ll be special once he learns the position.
After the above mentioned, Michigan doesn’t really have any experience at linebacker, and young guys are going to be expected to, at the very least, provide some depth and give the starters a break every few downs.
From last year’s recruiting class, Josh Uche and Elysee Mbem-Bosse return after both seeing special teams and garbage time minutes. The sophomores have excellent size (both measure around 6-3) and are very athletic, but came to the program very raw. Spring will be critical for both of these guys. Expect one, if not both of them, to crack the two-deep.
The incoming freshmen are also going to get a chance to see some minutes right out of the gate. Michigan brings in a borderline ridiculous haul at linebacker with Drew Singleton, Jordan Anthony, and Joshua Ross all joining the fray. Ben Mason likely moves to fullback.
“You work for what you get.” Uche has a winning approach to playing football.
None of those guys enrolled early, so we won’t see them until fall camp, but each is a real threat to unseat an older guy in front of them and lock down a linebacker spot for the coming years. Keep a particularly close eye on Singleton in what figures to be a heated position battle moving forward.
2. Can the defense carry the team while the offense plays catch up?
This is a ‘big picture’ question for both the defense and the team as a whole. In the ‘16 season, the defense was a known commodity from week one. The offense was (usually) good enough to carry the load if need be, but it was the defense that ensured we were in every game.
This season, the offense might need some time to get rolling with so many new faces on the o-line and in the receiving corps, and the defense may need to carry the team during this adjustment period.
The lack of returning starters is evident and unavoidable. New guys are going to play. There is, however, just enough playing experience coming back to make it possible for the defense to be the stronger of the two units.
Mo Hurst and Bryan Mone have played a lot of football, and are athletic upgrades from Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin. Hurst in particular has a lot of upside, with a quick first step and a nose for the backfield, he is in good position for an All-Big Ten type of season.
Last year the Wolverines had a true eight-man rotation, and could cycle guys in and out of the lineup without much drop-off in production. The 2017 team likely will not have that kind of luxury.
The linebackers have a good mixture of experience and young upcoming talent. The secondary is almost exclusively young, unproven, but once again enticing talent.
The fact that so much is riding on the success of the defense will force them to come together quickly or face being exposed against an improving Florida offense in week one. If the defense is once again the strength of this team, it will set Michigan up for another solid season.
1. Who steps up in the secondary?
This might be the biggest question facing the team as a whole going into 2017, as there are really no proven options at any position in the secondary, and your last line of defense is not the place you want to lean on inexperience.
Tyree Kinnel would be the closest thing to a known commodity, having seen playing time in all 13 of Michigan’s games last year at safety. He will have no choice but to step up and be the de-facto captain on the back end, whether he is ready or not. Kinnel has flashed good speed in the run game, especially tackling on the edges, but has not been tested much in coverage yet.
The “viper” position made famous by Jabrill Peppers last season is asked to do a lot in coverage as well as in the box. This spot could be manned by a few different guys, led by Josh Metellus who stepped in for Peppers during the Orange Bowl and played well. Khaleke Hudson looks like the type of rangy, athletic player who could thrive there as well.
Look for Hudson to see time at one of the safety positions if not at the viper, he is too athletic to keep off the field for long. Another option at safety could be early enrollee Jaylen Kelly-Powell, a hard nosed player out of Detroit that Don Brown seems to love.
Jordan Glasgow of the fighting Glasgow clan is in play at safety as well, and as a rule I never bet against a Glasgow. He could help provide some depth.
Cornerback is the one position that could, and probably should, keep Michigan fans up at night for the time being. Not only do we lose one of the best to ever do it in Jourdan Lewis, we have no ready-made replacements coming in to save the day.
Junior Brandon Watson also saw time at corner in all 13 games as a backup. He will likely get the first crack at one of the corner positions, his ceiling appears to be lower than a lot of the young guys though. The other junior corner Keith Washington is interesting because of his length, but we haven't seen much from him yet.
The guys to begin pulling for are David Long and Lavert Hill, two highly rated ‘16 recruits who saw some action last year. Neither one got anywhere near the kind of test they are going to get next season though, so spring will be incredibly important for both. Both of these guys have the potential to be great, they just have a lot to learn.
Talented true freshman Ambry Thomas is an early enrollee, which is good because he will probably need to play. The same for the rangy Benjamin St. Juste, who could end up being a better version of Channing Stribling with time.
The fact is, anyone and everyone wearing maize and blue is a possibility for minutes in the secondary this year, and spring ball is going to be a proving ground with a lot of jobs up for grabs. If we cannot find reliable play on the back end, it could severely limit the potential for this team.