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Michigan Sports Roundtable: Michigan’s defense will have to prove itself against Florida

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Gentlemen! I’m getting déjà vu, didn’t we do this already?

James: Make a mediocre movie about time travel with Denzel Washington?

Nick: I just want to know the jerk of a boss that scheduled us here when we could be getting real work done.

James: Well, you know what the kids say. If you point one finger at me, there are three pointing back at you so...

Will: We talked a good bit about the offense last time. Plenty of pieces that should provide some continuity on offense (e.g. Speight, Evans, Cole, etc.). But what about defense? The defense was dominant last season, enough so that give or take five points and we’re undefeated, Big 10 champs and a playoff team. What about this season, y’all? Can the youth catch up in a hurry and be dominant again?

James: Thankfully while the defense isn’t returning a lot of starters, it is returning a fair bit of depth - particularly up front. Guys like Rashan Gary, Mo Hurst, Chase Winovich, and Bryan Mone can provide leadership. They weren’t starters last year but they are rotational players that should be able to step into the starting role.

Nick: Yeah, I think this defense has a lot of athletic freaks and while this amount of turnover is never ideal, I’m feeling weirdly optimistic that the young guys will be able to fill their roles pretty well. It is tougher for young, first-year starters on defense, though.

Will: I think the defensive line can mask the learning curve the linebackers and secondary will face. The question is, how much can they mask it and how long will it take for the rest of the defense to catch up. You don’t replace Lewis and Peppers quickly, if ever. I predict the defense will get exposed on occasion, at least early in the season. But the defensive line will certainly wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Nick: So you’re pretty bullish on the defensive line as a way to protect this defense from falling too far. Me too, I think the starters will be great and guys like Carl Myers, Michael Dwumfour and Carlo Kemp will give us enough depth to be satisfied this year. James? What do you think?

James: I do think the the defensive line can help out the LBs and DBs while they develop, but there’s still going to be a lot of exposure - especially right off the bat against Florida. The DLine won’t be able to get to the QB all the time, and, while hurries can be just as disruptive as sacks, there will 20-30 times a game when the secondary will have to defend against pass progressions. There’s a lot of talent, but mistakes will be made and that will lead to points on the board.

Nick: So what do you guys think about the back seven? I mean, we only have one returning starter in that whole group, and while I think that Mike McCray is really sliding under the radar here (I made a comparison once to Raekwon McMillan, and I still think that’s accurate), there’s just so much turnover.

Very little’s been spoken about Mike McCray this offseason, but the lone returning starter on Michigan’s defense will take a key leadership role on the field.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Will: Agree on McCray being an under-the-radar player. He’s going to anchor what is an insanely inexperienced back seven. I’ve said this before, but I wish they had a warm-up game or two to get their sea legs under them. The linebackers and secondary are talented enough, but there’s just no replacement for time on the field. Also, I’m not convinced Michigan did a good job in rotating the younger guys onto the field enough last season, at least in the back seven. The D-Line, definitely. Would have liked to have seen more of that with the rest of the defense, though.

James: The secondary is going to be a concern and while guys like Lavert Hill and David Long did see the field last year, the playing time was often inconsequential or only for short durations. Hill recorded something like two or three tackles and a similar number of pass breakups last year and Long did little more with three game appearances at CB and one on special teams.

Nick: I really liked what I saw from Lavert Hill in the spring game - he really is like a young version of Jourdan Lewis, he’s really good with his technique and the staff is putting him out on the wide side like they often did with Jourdan - and I think we’re in much, much better shape at corner in terms of depth than we thought we would be at the start of the off-season. David Long, Keith Washington, even St-Juste looked pretty good out there, so I’m kind of coming around to feeling okay about things back there. (Having the starting safety spots locked down helps, too.) But you’re right, this is a lot of inexperience.

James: Right, and it is the inexperience and youth that is the question - not the talent. That’s one thing that has really improved during Harbaugh’s short tenure. The cupboard is not bare by any measure, what’s there is just not tempered.

Devin Bush, Jr.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Nick: Which kind of leads to the question of how - reasonably or unreasonably - bullish you are for this season when everybody around the country and common sense says this team is going to take a step back.

Will: In the spirit of true cowardice, I’m going to take the middle ground on this. I don’t think this is Michigan’s year, so to speak, but I do think they can and will exceed expectations. I look back to Harbaugh’s first season, and he was a freak play short of knocking off Michigan State and clobbered Florida in the bowl game. And none of that was supposed to happen; it was a rebuilding year with a new coach. Point being, coaching and talent are irreplaceable and can overcome a lot of inexperience. I just don’t know that we can - reasonably or otherwise - expect them to reach an elite (e.g. conference title and playoff berth) level this season.

James: I’m very bullish on this season, specifically because the common sense would dictate more down to Earth expectations. This team is young, but it’s freakishly talented. If Harbaugh & Co. can get things to click - and I’ll concede they would have to click early with the opener against Florida in Dallas - but if things click for this young team, they could develop a swagger and surprise people. A B1G Championship would not surprise me, a playoff berth would not surprise me. But I do think a National Title would be a tremendous reach. There are some quality teams out there this season that I think could wear Michigan down in a final (Alabama, USC, Clemson, to name a few).

Nick: So, let’s talk about Florida, because that is going to be a real measuring stick. I don’t think we’ve really delved into the possibility that, even if this Michigan team ends up being in the top five by the end of the year, a loss to the Gators is a real, real possibility. Their team is built really similarly to ours, they’re similarly athletic but have an edge in experience, and they’re versatile on both sides. McElwain’s even had a similar start as Harbaugh to his tenure, going 10-4 and 9-4 in his first two years there. What say you?

James: It is a real possibility because Florida is a talented team. And I for one won’t be drawing many conclusions from the game other than the outcome. I’m looking at it as a March Madness game. Survive and advance is all I want. There are going to be stumbles on defense, Florida will be able to exploit youth on both sides of the ball. But I still think this Michigan team can pull it off, likely in a messy hard-fought game that will be closer to a slugfest against Wisconsin than a track meet with an SEC team.

Will: You had me at slugfest, James. I can’t wait for this game. I’m with Nick that Florida is built a lot like Michigan. Both teams running games last season did very well - against inferior opponents. Florida’s run game was abysmal against stronger teams (and Vanderbilt???). And we know they have a huge question mark at quarterback. I like Michigan to win this because of our defensive line’s ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

My only concern is the back seven getting exposed if Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt Freshman Felipe Franks turn out to be strong out of the gates, but that’s rare for a quarterback taking the helm for the first time with his team.

Nick: Haha, Vanderbilt was alright on defense last year. Derek Mason’s been slowly turning those guys around.

Will: Whatev. It’s Vanderbilt. Though I hear they have a good business school or something.

NCAA Football: Florida Spring Game
Franks is the Brandon Peters at Florida’s program; Malik Zaire is the little-used but talented transfer from Notre Dame.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

James: One factor that could be in Zaire’s/Frank’s favor is the return of their top receiver from last year Antonio Callaway who had about 750 yards and four or five TDs last year. I understand there may be an off-the-field question involving Callaway but whether there’s anything to that is for someone more informed on such matters than I am.

I do think that the return of Jordan Scarlett at RB (~900 yards and five or six TDs last year) will help out Zaire or Franks, and could open up the pass game - which is why it’s going to be important for the DLine and LBs to step up and deliver the goods in the box.

Nick: Yeah, I think Callaway is a really dangerous weapon for them potentially, but Scarlett worries me the most. He’s probably not going to be one of the three or four best backs in the country, but somewhere in that top ten, yeah, I think he will be. He’s a really good interior runner - reminds me a little of Marshawn Lynch with how he picks his way through a crowd - but he also has speed to get outside.

Will: Zaire actually worries me more than Scarlett. Whoever the quarterback is, they are going to get forced out of the pocket. And Zaire is dangerous with his feet, something that a young defense could struggle to contain.

James: What could tilt the game in Michigan’s favor is the fact that Florida will be dealing with a youth problem in their secondary as well. Teez Tabor (now with the Lions) and, I think, most of his fellow starters in the secondary are gone. That could open things up for Wilton Speight (or Brandon Peters) down the field, not to mention the sort of havoc the offense could create if Chris Evans and crew can be productive running the ball.

What do you guys think the outcome of the Florida game will be? Will it set the table for a run of success through the regular season for the Wolverines or will it be an early opportunity to grow via some hard lessons for the youngsters on the roster?

Will: Given their question marks at quarterback and the offensive line, I think Florida struggles to put up a lot of points in this one. I like Michigan to win, though as James stated earlier, it could get messy, which can be fun, so bring it. As for setting the tone, I still think this is a game where we’re figuring out who we are, so it doesn’t necessarily predict success or failure moving forward (think Utah in Harbaugh’s first season).

Nick: I am simultaneously more bullish about how Michigan will do and more bullish about how Florida will do. I think Harbaugh will get this team ready for Florida enough to where they know exactly who they want to be and what to do, but I think Florida will be ready to hang with them blow-for-blow. I think the quarterback situation and offensive line are coming around for the Gators, and they’ve got some awesome defenders who will make life difficult for Speight.

So I agree with Will that it will be like Utah - possibly a close loss against a physical, veteran team (and the Gators are a lot faster than the Utes were), but both these teams will end the year in the top ten, so it won’t be a black mark in any way. I do think Michigan has a great chance to make the playoff, even if they do lose.

James: I agree that it will be close, but I can’t seem to get an image out of my head. And that’s Donovan Peoples-Jones streaming down the sideline late in the fourth quarter being trailed by a couple Gator defenders. 27-21 good guys win.

Nick: I’ll say 31-25, SEC team wins. (*spits on ground*)

Will: 24-14 Michigan. And Rashan Gary and Mo Hurst are declared demi-gods by game’s end.

Nick: I’m the contrarian again! Hopefully I’m proven wrong - I am not looking forward to starting 2017 from behind.

Poll

Does Michigan start off 1-0?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Yes, they’ll beat Florida by a ton
    (204 votes)
  • 69%
    Yes, but this will be a really close game til the end
    (709 votes)
  • 10%
    No, they’ll lose
    (103 votes)
1016 votes total Vote Now