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Roundtable: Defensive storylines to watch in 2017

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NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Hey, guys. Is it me, or does it finally feel like football is right around the corner?

Let’s talk a little bit about the defense this week — Michigan’s strongest unit last season and one with several question marks heading into 2017. One of the biggest storylines this offseason has been about the defense now needing to replace 10-of-11 starters. Even with some raw talent waiting in the wings, the plug-and-play notion can be tough with a young group of guys. Will Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown keep this defense at or near where it's been the last couple years, or is this going to more of a building year for the future?

Jared: Football is imminent gentlemen, the anticipation is growing rapidly. Call me a homer if you want, but I am incredibly high on the potential of this defense. We all know about the turnover and what we have to replace on that side of the ball, but I believe the incoming wave of talent has the potential to exceed last year's unit. They might not be ready for that kind of leap in 2017, but we will be able to see the groundwork for something special.

What stands out to me is the upgrade in athleticism across the roster. Outside of Jabrill Peppers, nobody on last year’s defense flashed the kind of in-game speed as a Rashan Gary, Devin Bush or Khaleke Hudson. Those guys look like they can flat out play, and now that they will be relied upon for starter minutes, I think that athleticism is going to really flash. This defense might not be statistically better, but it could be faster and meaner.

What I believe will hold this unit back from being as good as last year’s defense is the inexperience in the back end. Having unproven freshmen and sophomores as your last line of defense does not instill a ton of confidence. There are likely going to be some busted coverages leading to some bigger plays than we were used to the last couple years, especially early on in the season as guys like Ambry Thomas, David Long and Lavert Hill are getting their feet wet.

All in all, I trust Harbaugh and Don Brown as much as you can trust two men you’ve never met. This will be another top 10 defense, mark my words.

Von: There’s no doubt the defense is going to look a hell of a lot different this season, but I do believe this defense has potential to be great right off the bat this year.

Jared nailed it with the athleticism that Harbaugh and Brown have brought in over the past several years. The fact these guys are faster, stronger and overall better football players than Hoke’s recruits really shows how much potential this defense can have. Plenty of sophomores had extensive playing time last season (Gary, Bush Jr., etc.) so I don’t expect this defense to miss too much of a beat. I do expect some hiccups every now and then, but this should be a well-oiled machine by the time the team travels to Penn State.

Colorado v Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Josh: My thoughts are similar what Jared and Von said. I don't expect them to be too far off from where they were last year. The d-line, in my opinion, is just as talented, they just aren't as deep as last season. If they can get a few guys to step up (Solomon, Hudson, Dwumfor, Vilain) they can be a steady force throughout the season. My only concern is a small one, and that is that the secondary may need a few weeks to get rolling.

The talent is there in the backend to be an upper tier unit in not only the conference, but also the nation. The schedule sets up perfectly since they won't be facing a QB with every down deep shot abilities until Penn State, and I think they'll be rocking and rolling by the time week 8 rolls around. I don't have many concerns at all with this defense, simply because I don't see them as rebuilding, I see them as reloading.

Ed: Let's narrow the focus of the young defense and look at one of the most talked-about players in the country this offseason: Rashan Gary. His breakout seems inevitable this year, but there are still skeptics about just what his impact will be on such an inexperienced defense — even though there’s some serious talent surrounding him on the line. How do you see his season playing out?

Jared: Ah yes, it wouldn’t be a defensive roundtable if we didn’t talk Rashan Gary at length.

I’ll make no bones about it, I am sitting first class on-board the Rashan Gary hype train. Whether or not you buy into his outlandish Spring Combine numbers (6’5’’ and 287 pounds, 4.57-second 40 with a 31-inch vertical) is irrelevant, because he is coming for opposing quarterback souls regardless. Gary is the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that could literally be as good a player as he wants to be. We haven’t had a pass rusher like him since Lamaar Woodley, so sit back and enjoy the next two years. My prediction for his season: 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, 42 tackles, and a lot of opposing players with hurt feelings.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Von: Choo-choo, the hype train is rollin’ through your town. All aboard!

Rashan is a special player. I talked a bit about him on the first episode of Victors Valiant and I think he is one of the most mature sophomores this football program has ever had. After being taken under Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley’s wings last season, he has already done the same with some of the defensive linemen from the freshman class. His ceiling is sky-high.

I expect him to have a monster season and lead the entire defense out on the field every time they are called upon. I feel like he and Mo Hurst eat offensive linemen and quarterbacks for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in preparation for the season. But in all seriousness, I’d expect around 7-8 sacks this year, even with the depth the line is starting to build.

Josh: Is it really a hot take to suggest that Rashan might be the best player in the nation this season? I don't think so at all. He has all the tools, the talent, the mental fortitude, and the drive to be an all-time great here.

I see his season total for sacks around 10. As Von said, the sky's the limit for Rashan, and playing next to a star like Mo Hurst will only help his numbers climb and his impact on the game to be larger and larger.

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ed: Now let's shift to the secondary — a unit that’s losing plenty of talent as well with guys like Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Dymonte Thomas, Jeremy Clark and Delano Hill all moving on. This is an area that Harbaugh has recruited particularly well the last couple years. Inevitably, this will be a young group in 2017. How do you see them competing this season, and who do you see standing out among the unit?

Jared: I kind of touched on it earlier, but this is the unit that could make or break the defense as a whole. If they are able to mature in a hurry, the defense is going to be in great shape. If not, well then things may get a little bit dicey. I would ensure any object that could potentially be thrown at a television is far away from your reach during the Florida game.

The good news is that Harbaugh and company have recruited the position well, and reinforcements are waiting in the wings — they are just very young reinforcements. The closest thing to a known commodity in the secondary is Tyree Kinnel. He and Josh Metellus are probably your starting safeties, with Khaleke Hudson at the Viper position.

The ones that we need to be as good as advertised are David Long and Lavert Hill. They are sophomores now and will be expected to at least provide depth along with Brandon Watson. Incoming freshman Benjamin St Juste and Ambry Thomas are also probably too valuable to redshirt, and I’ll bet we see them a bunch this season.

Just writing about it right now reinforces my level of concern for this position group. There is almost no returning production to speak of, and everyone is going to have to make huge strides to help keep us afloat. Moving Drake Harris to defensive back is an interesting move, and I hope it works out for him. He is long and athletic, which Harbaugh loves in his secondary. If he can stay healthy I could see him getting significant playing time later on in the season.

Von: This is where I expect most of the hiccups to come from defensively this season.

Losing these four guys hurts, but the young talent in the secondary is also there. But the thing that may end up helping the secondary the most is the defensive line and the amount of blitzes Don Brown draws up. We saw it all throughout 2016 — Brown would draw up a blitz with just about everyone, the opposing quarterback has little time and ends up throwing it away or into heavy traffic. If the secondary can hang with the pass catchers and realize their assignment, everything should be in order. But again, I do expect some hiccups to occur mainly from the secondary this season.

Josh: Adding to what I mentioned at the onset, I really don't see this unit rebuilding at all. There will be hiccups as Von mentioned, especially when Don Brown’s defense puts the cornerbacks on somewhat of an island. But the good news is that they won't be tested deep 1-on-1 very often to start the year. Not until the Penn State game in week 8 will they face an offense that throws the deep ball on a regular basis. I believe that by then, they'll be gelling quite well and will be an unexpected surprise of this defense.

Ed: Good stuff, guys. I agree with you on the secondary, but what do you think about the linebacking corps? This has been a strength of Michigan's the past several seasons, but with Jabrill Peppers leaving early for the NFL and Ben Gedeon graduating, only Mike McCray returns to this unit. How do guys like Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow — among others — fill the void?

Jared: I am actually bullish on the linebacking corp, despite their relative inexperience as a unit. Mike McCray is back after a solid season last year and will look to take the next leap in his development. Khaleke Hudson at the Viper is an incredibly exciting situation. I expect him to make some highlight reel plays this season. He could ultimately be a better fit in that role than Jabrill Peppers — there, I said it. Devin Bush is a heat-seeking missile that is going to ruin a lot of running backs’ afternoons. I think he will be one of our better players by the end of the year.

Those guys are probably your starters, with Jordan Glasgow and Josh Uche providing some depth. That is a lot of talent, and that is without mentioning the ridiculous freshman class of linebackers that are now on campus. All in all, the linebacker corp is in good shape for the foreseeable future.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Von: Hudson may be better for the Viper position than Jabrill ever was. There, I said it, too.

The linebacking crew this season is interesting to me. McCray is obviously the only “returning starter” but Devin Bush Jr. at the MIKE is going to be amazing to watch. The speed and intensity he played with in the spring game made me want it to be September already.

I also re-watched several games from last season not too long ago and Jordan Glasgow kept popping out to me. He plays a hard-nosed game, much like all his older brothers, so I would expect him to get some solid playing time this year as well and perhaps even turn some heads. He may have some time at the Viper as well.

And let’s not forget the incoming LB class, which is absolutely loaded. Jordan Anthony, Drew Singleton and Josh Ross are all hungry and looking to make an impact immediately. Singleton tore his ACL during his senior year of high school, so it’ll be interesting to see how much playing time he gets, if any. Regardless, I expect some contributions from the freshmen, even if it’s just special teams for the majority of the season.

Josh: Yeah, I agree with what the guys said. This unit is LOADED. Whether it's the guys who’re returning or this insanely talented freshman linebacker class, they're stacked top to bottom.

As I mentioned in a couple of my other articles, I fully expect Mike McCray to be an All-B1G player this season. They have finally recruited guys who can cover sideline to sideline, so losing their man on end-arounds and jet sweeps should be a thing of the past. Devin Bush Jr. will be a force to be reckoned with this season as well.

I'm in agreement with what Von said — I think Khaleke is better suited to play Viper than Jabrill was. I'm expecting a monster year from Hudson. Between the talent and the coaching staff, this position is going to be in good hands for a long, long time.