I am sure this year’s Michigan defensive players have heard some variation of the phrase, “Big shoes to fill,” more times than they can count this off-season. But you know what? This team brought their own shoes to the party.
The country has every reason to believe Michigan will not have the dynamic defensive front it had in 2016. It lost 10 of its 11 starters. It lost one of the most electrifying defensive, or offensive for that matter, players in Jabrill Peppers to the NFL. It is replacing all four starters on its defensive line, which enjoyed a season of 120 tackles for loss, 46 sacks and was the 15th ranked rushing defense in the country. It is losing both corners AND both safeties, a group that allowed a nation’s best 142 passing yards a game. The two starting linebackers it is replacing had a combined 31.5 tackles for loss.
Needless to say, Harbaugh’s Year 3 team has some big shoes to fill. Will they fill them? Put the breaks down. Michigan’s defense will be just fine and here is why:
#1 A Reloaded Defensive Line
All of last year, Michigan’s defensive line was throwing 8 or 9 different defensive linemen out there, all of them almost interchangeable. In the 2017 Orange Bowl vs Florida St, Michigan’s starting defensive front certainly showcased its ability, but one of the absolute monsters of that game was actually Mo Hurst. Listed on ESPN as the #46 best overall player in the country entering the 2017 season, he was almost unblockable in Michigan’s bowl game. And he probably won’t be the best defensive lineman on the team! Nobody is receiving more hype on the Michigan roster than man-child wonder Rashan Gary, who’s action as a capable backup behind mentor Chris Wormley may have been just what the doctor ordered for a breakout sophomore season (Really great video on Gary and Hurst’s bond). He’s ranked #38 best player in the country in the same list as Hurst.
Not to mention Chase Winovich, whose knack for getting into the backfield led to 5 sacks and 9 solo tackles for loss in very limited playing time. DT Bryan Mone has been hampered by injuries and the depth chart, but his 6’4’’, 310 pound frame is not going to be hidden this time. He’s poised for a breakout season.
#2 A More Athletic Linebacking Trio
Yes, Michigan had one of the best linebackers and Swiss army knives in the country in Jabrill Peppers, but touted of a group as its defense was, Michigan was repeatedly victimized by slow linebackers, particularly with running backs in the passing game. More importantly, the moments when LB’s Gedeon and McCray lost running backs in the secondary came in pivotal moments. Against Michigan St, Michigan gave up 47 receiving yards on just two catches to LJ Scott, both leading to crucial first downs. Wisconsin’s only TD against Michigan was with a running back in the flats against Gedeon. Saquon Barkley had more receiving yards (77) than he had rushing yards against the Wolverines.
Iowa’s only TD in its upset of Michigan was with RB Akrum Wadley in the passing game (Wadley ended up being the lead receiver at 5 catches and 52 yards.
Do I even have to bring up the play of the linebackers vs Dalvin Cook in the Orange Bowl.
It’s safe say, our linebackers were a liability on the edge and in the passing game. Enter sophomores Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush, Jr. Originally quoted in an article by the Detroit Free Press, lone returning starter Mike McCray had a lot to say about these two:
“Khaleke, I call him Mike Tyson. One, because he looks like him, and two, because he’s big and strong and he’s fast. Khaleke is really athletic and he’ll do a great job for us. Devin, I call him my son. I’m just messing with him. He’s going to be really good. Great talent, athlete, fast, physical, strong, all the linebackers we have are really good.”
If the spring game is any indication, these two guys are going to be good. Real good. McCray had some low moments, but finished last year very strong with 9 tackles against Ohio St and a pick six to turn the tide in the Orange Bowl. This could very easily be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten, age out the window.
#3 Michigan’s Past Secondary Had Limitations
Michigan had one of the best secondarys in the nation as far as passing yards allowed. However, it struggled to force turnovers. Many remember the incredible one handed interception by Jourdan Lewis to seal the game against Wisconsin, but do you realize that was only one of two for the year for Lewis?
Do you also realize the Michigan secondary only had 8 picks in 2017? No Michigan defensive back was in the top 50 in INT’s for 2017. You know who was? Players from playoff teams like Alabama (#24 in Passing Yards Allowed), Clemson (#14 PYA), and Washington (#15 PYA). Ohio State had the 4th best passing defense in the nation and they got blown out by Clemson in the playoff.
Football games are most often not won in the clouds. They are won on the ground in the trenches and Michigan’s front 7 will be one of the best. The likely starters in the secondary will be Sophomore CB David Long, Sophomore CB Lavert Hill, Sophomore SS Josh Metellus, and Junior FS Tyree Kinnel. All four saw playing time last year and Metellus filled in very nicely for the injured Peppers in the Orange Bowl. They don’t have as big of shoes to fill as people think. They can give up yards as long as they make plays and force turnovers- something young and confident guys are apt to do. Give me an elite front four and an average secondary over an average front four and an elite secondary any day.
#4 2nd Year in Don Brown’s System
If you didn’t know, continuity is important. And the Michigan Defense hasn’t had a lot of it. By the end of 2016, they had three different Defensive Coordinators in as many years. No, it is certainly not as big a deal as a head coaching change, but it still matters. Greg Mattison, DJ Durkin, and Don Brown were not just different coaching styles, but different people entirely. They do have the advantage of Mattison staying with coaching staff to oversee the defensive line, but 2017 will actually be the first year almost every defensive player has had the same Defensive Coordinator. Don Brown’s resume was excellent before Michigan and it is definitely outstanding now. The man made Boston College a defensive powerhouse in the ACC with far less talent and no offensive help. He does have a system and needs his players to understand that system. That is only going to get better in 2017.
#5 A Very Talented Freshman Class
Did you know Michigan gets new freshman every year? Michigan’s recruiting classes have steadily improved under Harbaugh, which is quite a tall order since Brady Hoke’s classes were not slouches. This year’s freshman class has been hailed for its speed and number of high profile prospects. Ranked #4 in the country, a record 11 of them enrolled early and have been practicing with the team since February.
You can have all the talented starters you want, but injuries still happen, fatigue will set in, and substitutions will be in order. If Michigan’s freshman class does not have at least a handful of standout guys ready to go, they may be looking at a beat up, fatigued, and possibly depleted defensive group come November.
There are a number of guys expected to make an immediate impact and everyone knows how Harbaugh loves playing freshman. The top of the list is Aubrey Solomon at Defensive Tackle. Much of his readiness is yet to be seen, since he just arrived with most of the rest of the incoming freshmen last week for Fall Camp, but he should be a capable backup behind Hurst or Mone. 4 star recruit Donovan Jeter will likely have an early impact as well. He’s put on about 20 lbs of muscle just since the spring and certainly passes the eye test. 4 star CB out of Martin Luther King in Detroit, Ambry Thomas, will likely get a shot at contributing in the secondary as well as the long, athletic Canadian Benjamin St-Juste. 4 star Luigi Vilain will also likely get some playing time at DE.
#6 The Difference Between Eligibility and Draftability
Michigan did not just lose 10 defensive starters. They sent 10 outstanding defensive players to the NFL. In 2014, Ohio St fielded a team with only four returning offensive and seven defensive starters. Almost all their previous graduates had gone to the NFL and many of their fans were very apprehensive about their youth. They ended up winning the national championship with a third string, sophomore QB who literally only played the final two games.
My point is, backups behind average players are probably less talented players that will hurt your team without a lot of improvement. Backups behind NFL talent could be ANYBODY. They could be the next rebuilding project, but they could also be All-Americans buried under a depth chart. Players who leave because it’s the end of their eligibility don’t usually leave behind the talent of those who leave because of NFL draftability. Remember that.
#7 A More Focused Viper Role
It would have surprised most fans that a sophomore who saw no action last year was going to replace Jabrill Peppers at the Viper linebacker role... until you saw him. The previous quote from Mo Hurst draws physical comparisons with Mike Tyson. The 5’11’’, 200 lbs was a pulverizing figure in the spring game. It has probably been several years since Michigan has had a linebacker with his kind of athletic prowess who didn’t play a different position (no offense, Peppers). He is not quite as fast as Peppers, but he is bigger, stronger, and can commit his full time and attention to the role. This is a guy who won’t have to think about offensive plays or punt return moves. He will just need to play one role and it is a role he looks perfect for. Only time will tell.
Michigan fans have legitimate concerns about the team’s youth and depth. However, there is a lot to look forward to in the 2017 season. Logic would tell you the bread and butter of the Michigan team has always been its defense and it is simply replacing too much talent to be what it was a year ago. I reject this notion. I am sure this Michigan team has heard the phrase, “I hope you know you have big shoes to fill,” a hundred times up to this point. To this I believe they’re thinking, “Thank you, but we brought shoes of our own.”