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Roundtable: Position groups with the most to replace in 2017

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

Ed: Hey, guys. Just a couple weeks from Florida. If Harbaugh would give us a little more access to fall camp, we may have clear-cut answers here — but since that's not the case, we’ll have to rely on what we do know.

The last couple roundtables we previewed the offense and defense in the big picture, but I want to focus this one a little more. Looking at all the position groups, despite losing a ton of starters from last year, there is some serious talent ready to step into those vacancies — we all know that by now. But there are a couple position groups that concern me a bit. Let’s start with the secondary.

According to Pro Football Focus, Michigan only returns 12 percent of its snaps from last year in the defensive backfield. How do you see this unit shaking out having to replace all of its starters? Is this a unit opponents can exploit, or will they be okay?

Nick: Well, generally you’d say that’s a big concern, but we have a very good staff that’s been well-organized in bringing young (competitive) guys in who are mature and talented enough to play early.

Everybody’s said it before, but the secondary will give us ulcers on game day against the good passing teams — luckily only Florida falls into that category over the first month of the season. (Sorry, Purdue.) I’m less worried about the linebackers and defensive line, though. Those guys are going to attack all day long, and guys like McCray, Bush and Khaleke can cover the pass. With Don Brown and Greg Mattison covering the front seven, and the still-underrated Mike Zordich and Brian Smith covering the back end, I think we’ll be just fine.

Von: I don’t know, Nick, I’d say David Blough at Purdue is more of a passing threat than any quarterback at Florida right now, including former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire.

Anyways, I am a bit concerned, but specifically with the corners. I am quite confident in the abilities of Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel at the safety spots, but who is going to step up at corner? Everyone envisions Lavert Hill and David Long as the starting two to begin the season, but Hill had an injury during spring practices and Long had an injury last season. Hopefully these aren’t trends, but it is still a little concerning.

If Long and Hill are fully healthy and ready to go, I think they can perform well enough to win games, especially with how beastly U-M’s front 7 is going to be.

University of Michigan v University of Central Florida Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Colman: I definitely agree with Nick on the front seven and with Von that within the secondary, it’s the corners to worry about. Metellus is Don Brown’s savant and Kinnel is the guy we’ve seen enough to know he’s pretty good. He can shoot into the backfield quickly, is a sure tackler, and has pretty good ability in coverage as well. As the oldest and most experienced he’ll be relied upon heavily to help these younger guys come along and communicate during the game. Metellus has already gotten a reputation amongst the team that he’s a hitter so I’m not worried there either.

I’m not discounting Washington or Watson to grab ahold of a starting job on the edge. Watson is the leading returning tackler in this group with 20. Washington has 3 by comparison. Hill has 2. That’s it. It doesn’t seem like any CB as separated himself from the pack which is a little troublesome at this point. It looks like we have 5 guys vying for two spots plus a nickel and it doesn’t seem like any of those spots are locked in.

Luckily I don’t think they’ll have to cover too long, too often. We’ll be able to get after the opponents’ QB with our front 7 and hopefully by the Big Ten season the secondary will be solid.

Dan: I’m going to disagree with Von that Zaire is not a legitimate threat. If he’s the starter, and word down here is that Del Rio is in the driver’s seat, he will present a ton of problems. His prior game tape speaks for itself. If we are blessed with witnessing Jack Del Rio’s kid try and throw against a D1 defense without Antonio Callaway, Michigan’s secondary should be fine.

As a whole, I really don’t know what to expect from the unit. Young secondaries without much experience tend to be incredibly vulnerable. Look how long it took Channing Stribling to come into his own. The lack of legitimate passers until Indiana, or more likely Penn State, should allow the guys to get their feet wet before really being tested, but it’s hard to say since there’s so little D1 film on these guys.

Jared: I love the confidence some of my colleagues have in Hill and Long at the corner positions, but that worries me right now as we sit two weeks out. We legitimately have no idea how these guys are coming along in camp and if they are ready to be put on an island. I am not saying we’re doomed by any stretch of the imagination, these guys might come in and be all-conference players immediately. Chances are they are not, which is why having Metellus and Kinnel on the back end is crucial.

I am also really concerned with the depth at the corner position. Say, god forbid, somebody like Lavert Hill goes down against Florida, what does our depth chart look like then? I am really high on the potential of guys like Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St. Juste, but I would also probably be a nervous wreck every time the ball was put in the air. It is by far our most uncertain and thinnest position group.

Chris: There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been commented above, but I’ll try to highlight some other aspects of the secondary that stand out right now.

First and foremost, I am not too worried about our safety position. Both Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus look to pick up right where Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas left off. Kinnel will be the leader of the secondary and has shown in game play, both on special teams and as a backup, that he is a ball hunter and a reliable tackler. Metellus probably has the highest ceiling of anyone in our secondary this season. I would not be surprised if he is an All-Big Ten caliber player by the end of the year. However, our cornerbacks is the positional group I am most concerned about as of now.

As mentioned above, we are two weeks out and really don’t know who our starters will be or how anyone will perform. We keep hearing out of camp that there is a great competition going on. But does that mean there’s a competition because the whole depth chart could start or because no one is ready yet? I fear it’s the later.

Luckily, apart from Florida, we will not be facing teams with an offense that relies on an elite passing game until much later in the season, which will buy us some time. And I do sleep easier knowing all three members of our linebacking corps are capable of dropping back to provide coverage support. The Florida game will teach us a lot.

Ed: Now let’s shift over to the offense. Much like the secondary, the wide receiving corps is going to be missing a ton of its production from 2016 — more than 72 percent. I won’t pretend there isn’t a ton of young talent with high expectations, but can a bunch of freshmen and sophomores really make up for what was lost without much of a setback?

Nick: Well, going with conventional wisdom again, I think it’d be fair to expect some explosive plays (they’re athletic monsters, after all) and also some interceptions caused by dumb mistakes and youth. And you know what? That sounds about right. I’m not going to pretend that Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones will know everything they need to know heading into Florida. So, there’ll probably be some mistakes within the offense, and that’s fine.

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

Von: And let’s not forget Grant Perry, Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom (easily the best name on the team). Crawford and McDoom are still only sophomores, but they are going to be just as vital to the offense as the freshmen are.

Crawford has the skillset to be the type of receiver that Jehu Chesson was with Michigan. With the speed of McDoom and Perry coming from the slot, I could see the younger, bigger receivers like Tarik Black (6-foot-4) and Nico Collins (6-foot-5) getting some deep ball opportunities early on. Sprinkle in the top receiver coming out of high school, DPJ, and you’ve got yourself some amazing, but young talent in the receiving game.

Colman: Yes, our young receivers can make up for what was lost. Wide receiver is one of the easiest spots to come in and make an impact early. In the end, if a guy is faster and more athletic he’s going to beat his opponent often even if it’s a bit unrefined talent. A fly pattern is a fly pattern — if you can run faster than the DB, you’ll likely be open. We don’t just have a lot of talent coming in either, we have an embarrassment of riches.

I think Crawford has a spot and one of the freshman will start on the other side. Slot snaps likely go mostly to McDoom and Perry who have both already proven they can play. My feeling is that with some really good returning guys and a ton of new talent, Harbaugh will treat these positions more like he does with his running backs. I bet we’ll see a ton of rotation here.

Harbaugh and Co. are really good at giving specific plays and sets to certain guys especially when they are young and/or new to his system. They’re finding out what these guys can do now and will have a good plan to make sure our passing game continues to get better and certainly more dynamic.

Dan: I’m all-in with Nick on this one that the receiving corps is going to be the most up-and-down unit on the team. The amount of talent in the ‘17 class alone is something you don’t see very often on one team, and I expect a handful of highlights from Collins, DPJ, and Black especially.

Florida has a defensive backfield that’s always talented, but this year is replacing both corners and both safeties. Their only returning “starter” is Duke Dawson, who is a top-end nickel but lacks the tools to play on the outside. I think the Michigan offense is going to be predicated a lot on the run game with deep throws to the athletic freak beasts outside trying to use their athleticism to beat one-on-one coverage. If anyone breaks out from the pack as a more polished, consistent threat similar to Darboh last year or Chesson in ‘15, I’d venture to guess it’s probably Kekoa Crawford.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Jared: As my associates already touched on, this is probably going to be a boom & bust type of a unit, in that they will make a ton of plays but also might look lost at times. I do not need to talk on the talent we have coming in, but I think it is going to be Crawford and McDoom who are the steady hands here. The man with the comic book name showed in flashes last season that he could do more than just run the jet sweep. I like Dan’s comparison of Crawford to a Darboh/Chesson type player in the coming years. I think he will be a player.

I am surprised nobody talked up Oliver Martin after that ridiculous catch that was making it’s way around the interwebs. I thought he would be a prime candidate for a redshirt, but he looks ready to contribute. Black and DPJ will make mistakes, but I expect them to make them at a million miles an hour. By next year, this will be one of the top position groups in the country though, you heard it here first.

Chris: I can’t disagree with what’s been said above. I also think we will see a great rotation in our receiving corps this season. Because of that, I don’t foresee any player having an absolute breakout, 1000-yard year. Maybe Kekoa Crawford. But, I do think we will see Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton design plays to highlight each receiver’s skillset and minimize their likelihood of underclassmen mistakes, just like our running back group last year.

Because of that, I think every one of our freshman receivers will break the 300-yard season threshold, and we will have a good idea of who our star players are heading into 2018.

Ed: We’ll talk more about this over the next couple weeks leading up to the opener, but I’ll ask it now anyway. I think most Michigan fans see the coaching staff’s player development ability to erase much of the shortcomings in experience for all this young talent after a few games, but when you face a tough SEC opponent in the first week, there’s not much time for development. These guys will have to be ready the first snap on September 2. How do you see these freshmen and sophomores handling their new roles in Dallas?

Nick: Well, you know what they say about fist fights? Everyone has a plan until they get hit. I think this group is young, but they’re going to be pretty well acclimated to a fist fight. Doesn’t mean they’ll win it, though.

It’s weird that both Michigan and Florida fans are weirdly confident that they’ll win, but I am not convinced either way. I respect the hell out of Florida, though. This will be tough. Ask me after the game is over and I’ll tell you who’ll win.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Von: I think they will be ready for the challenge at hand. The only way to be the best is to beat the best. Not saying Florida is particularly the best, because they aren’t, but they will be the best opponent Michigan plays that week and a challenge like that to begin the year will help prepare the team, especially the younger players, for the rest of the season.

That’s why this first game against the Gators is so important. If Michigan can get out of Arlington with the W, it would be a huge confidence boost for a team that lost so many starting players from last season. It would prove to people that Michigan, even with a bunch of underclassmen getting significant playing time, can hang with just about anyone.

Colman: With the type of young talent we have coming in and a coaching staff that is easily among the best in college football I think we’ll be surprised at how quickly many of them make an impact. I see freshman impact early at wide receiver, defensive tackle and possibly corner and offensive line. The rest of the positions have enough experience returning that snaps maybe few and far between. The sophomores have at least been in the system for a year, even if they all haven’t had that many snaps, and that alone will give them a leg up as the season begins.

You just never know until they get challenged over and over in a live game. By game 5 light bulbs all over will be on and rotations will be weeded out a bit more. Beginning the season with Florida in a giant neutral venue on national television will show us quickly what we have.

Dan: I think Michigan lucks out in playing another team that’s returning very few starters. Florida doesn’t have the experience (or the play-calling, Doug Nussmeier somehow manages to hold onto that job despite all evidence to him being terrible) to take advantage of Michigan’s lack of experience on the back end. If Luke Del Rio is the starter, his lack of arm strength and anticipation should give whoever ends up starting plenty of opportunities to jump routes and get their hands on the ball.

Offensively, I’m going to say that we get at least a touchdown from either Collins, Black, or DPJ. Florida’s secondary is young and their experienced vets lack prototypical size. If the running game can pull the safeties down, I expect to see a handful of opportunities for the kids to go make a play. I think this game could turn into a route if Michigan can limit the early mistakes opening up more and more chances for the young guys to get in the game.

Jared: Let’s not forget what happened the last time we played these dudes, as it was not that long ago. I fully understand that these are two radically different teams, but it still gives me confidence. Florida is not Alabama, LSU, or even Texas A & M; they have weaknesses and talent deficiencies on their roster. That was before they suspended 7 players for the opener, now I think Michigan has a clear advantage talent wise.

The defenses will almost be a wash, as we are both replacing a lot of talent. On offense, you almost have a wash again, but I give the nod to Michigan due to our depth at running back and the fact that The Accountant (Speight) is back with another year under his belt to guide the offense. I think he is a better quarterback than Zaire, who will still be adjusting to the playbook in week 1. The more I think about it, the more I really believe we find a way to start 1-0. Go Blue.

Chris: Alright, I will be the way over-confident guy of the group. I think we go in and beat Florida pretty handily.

It will not be a perfect game by any means. Expect Florida to have some highlight reel passes against our inexperienced secondary. But I do not think either Del Rio or Zaire will be capable of having a consistent game to keep up with our offense, especially with our front seven going at them all day. The only matchup I am worried about is their defensive line against our offensive line. But, our line and Speight have faced a better front before, specifically in OSU and Florida State. I think we see Speight step up as more than a game manager and really lead this young team. And our running game will be the deciding factor.

Yes, we will be young, but we have enough match-ups in our favor to win the game with breathing room. Final score prediction: 28-17.