Previously: Podcast 9.0A. Podcast 9.0B. Podcast 9.0C. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams. 5Q5A Offense.
1. HOW ARE WE GONNA SURVIVE MAN? THEY'RE ALL GONE!
the dearly departed [Eric Upchurch]
Survive is easy. See Gary, Rashan. Thrive is harder. Michigan's talent drain has been significantly overblown in the national media, a land where Mo Hurst isn't a starter and there are significant question marks about Gary and Chase Winovich, but... uh... there was still a lot of it. See last year's NFL draft.
The main thing offsetting the talent drain is the Don Brown effect. His defenses have taken significant steps—sometimes massive leaps—forward in year two:
[metrics are yards per play, FEI, and S&P+; national ranks are presented. final column is the average of the three. Bolded years are Brown years.]
Forward motion for Michigan is impossible after last year's elite outfit, but the table makes it clear that imbibing Don Brown's defense is a multi-year process. Michigan has a bunch of new starters; none are freshmen, so they're actually more experienced in Brown's defense than the departed were. This resulted in a lot less pointing during the spring game, and an absence of the big safety busts that cropped up at inopportune times last year. (Except for that walk-on against Gentry.)
Bill Connelly's 2016 defensive radar tells a hell of a story:
That slice out of the circle of excellency is yards per completion. You'll note that Michigan was fantastic at preventing 20 yard passes, and just average at preventing 30 yard passes—the implication is that when Michigan busted they busted huge, as they did against Colorado early and FSU late. The above is what the platonic opposite of a bend-but-don't break defense looks like statistically.
Getting a little bit more bend in the defense will help. Michigan's going to lose ground everywhere else but if they can pull that yards per completion number up 60 or so spots that'll go a long way towards treading water. This is in fact the pattern Brown's defenses follow:
And though the Eagles had been vulnerable to giving up big plays on the back end in Brown’s first few seasons in Chestnut Hill, by Year 3 they got the personnel and the scheme to the point where they were solid on both ends. In 2013, Brown’s first year helming the defense, BC gave up 47 passing plays of more than 20 yards (tied for no. 97 nationally); in his last year, it gave up just 29 (tied for no. 10).
Michigan isn't going to be bend-but-don't-break, but they'll be moreso than last year, when they were awesome... and brittle.
The other arrow pointing in the right direction is turnover acquisition. Michigan was unlucky last year. They generated a ton of sacks (5th nationally) but did not see that pay off with a lot of turnovers. Despite having that defense above Michigan only managed 13 turnovers acquired, 67th. That's just bad luck, not dependent on coaching. Brady Hoke's first defense recovered 20 fumbles; Harbaugh's first team recovered 2. QED. They should expect to be favored by the turnover gods more this year, he said for the 100th straight time.
The rest of it is having a lot of talent. Michigan has two certain first round picks on the DL and three more guys who are highly likely to be drafted just in the front seven. The other six are too young to tell but are mostly tracking well outside of corner. These previews aren't afraid to hand out 1s and 2s when the situation appears to warrant it; Michigan is not in that situation. Some units will be average; some will be excellent, and Michigan will mostly maintain as they shift into a mode where consistency of approach and recruiting allows them to expect top defenses annually.
[After THE JUMP: solve your problems with...]
2. Does the structure of the defense change at all, post-Peppers?
safeties everywhere [Patrick Barron]
It doesn't look like it. Michigan stuck the most Peppers-shaped object they had in the Peppers-shaped hole, for one. Rumbles about Khaleke Hudson coming out of camp are so positive, and so overwhelm any as-yet-hypothetical chatter about his backups, that it seems highly likely that Michigan is just going to roll with their viper, waves of opponent fullbacks and tight ends be damned.
The second thing that Peppers and Delano Hill—a third round pick himself and the guy who won the 2015 Indiana game by clobbering a slot receiver—provided the defense was a certain symmetry. If Peppers was over the slot and that guy went in motion across the formation it was a simple matter to send Hill down into the gray area on the other side of the field
This prevented Michigan from getting flanked on jet sweeps or unbalanced by motion. It was simple. It didn't tip man or zone. The interchangeability of the viper and the strong safety was a fundamental tenet of last year's defense.
It will be a fundamental tenet going forward. Brian Smith:
What prompted that move with Josh? Last year [he was] working with the linebackers.
“Like I said, they’re kind of interchangeable and there are certain guys who have that skillset where they can move back and forth and he’s one of those guys that can do that.”
Metellus was the viper in the bowl game; Hudson was a backup safety for his first year. Now they've switched, except when Metellus spins back down to viper in practice. Jordan Glasgow was a viper this spring and is now Metellus's backup; Jaylen Kelly-Powell has practiced at both spots, along with a little nickel corner. Every last box safety/spacebacker type on the roster has crosstrained at both viper and SS. This is a bonafide 4-2-5 defense.
And when Brown can get away with it he likes to have the free safety involved in these shifts as well. Smith on Kinnel and Metellus:
“Right now they’re in specific spots. Josh has been playing more Rover, Tyree’s been playing the free, but last year both of them played both positions, so they’re smart enough guys where they can go in and play both. So that helps us out. And actually, Josh, he can go and play VIPER as well.”
Down the road this an excellent fit with Harbaugh's nerd-brain recruiting. It should even be fine this year; Kinnel is a junior and Metellus has been drawing praise for his advanced mental understanding of the game since his arrival.
Three safeties who trend towards one thing—blitzing, man coverage, and centerfield are the three rough categories—but are relatively capable of executing two, if not all three, aspects are the past, present, and future of this defense. Also college football in general.
3. How is Don Brown going to solve his problems?
dripping with contempt! [Fuller]
Another frequent question on the alumni association tour was "with a shaky secondary, shouldn't Don Brown dial it back this year?" Ed brought up something similar on WTKA this week. This is a moot question. Don Brown's mustache veritably drips with contempt for such notions. See that Boston College stat above where they were horrible at giving up long pass plays in year one. Brown probably knew that was going to happen and didn't care. Whether it's a good idea or not, Brown is going to solve his problems with aggression. It's on the quote board and everything:
Historically, it has been a good idea.
And it's a good idea this year, right? If the quarterback can't stand in the pocket he can't survey for coverage breakdowns; if young corners are prone to mistakes putting them nose-to-nose with an outside receiver and daring them to run a fade is a relatively safe option. Michigan's linebacker corps consists of one proven top-notch blitzer in Mike McCray and two new faces designed by the heavens above to be flung at high speed across the line of scrimmage. Sending five or six means Hurst, Winovich, and Gary get single blocking.
This is indisputably a young defense. It is also an attack defense. Everyone in the front seven other than Bryan Mone is (probably) at his best when he's charging pell-mell into the fray. Asking them to slow their roll will be counterproductive. Meanwhile, Brown's defense has been honed over 20 years to be what it is; asking him to be a little bit more like Iowa is like asking Rich Rodriguez to run a pro-style offense. It defeats the purpose of bringing the guy in.
This will be a hell for leather defense that presses you and blitzes you until Don Brown returns to his home planet of hardboiled cops who don't give a damn about the rules. The end.
4. Aren't we going to get hammered by an inevitable injury?
prepare for fffffffuuuuu [Bryan Fuller]
Probably. It's tough to not give Mo Hurst's position a 5 but boy howdy would I feel better about it if they had another year's worth of experience on some of the backups. The defense is in a superficially excellent but in fact amazingly precarious position right now.
Woo hoo: Ten of eleven starters should be between okay and amazing, and it's 11 if David Long doesn't hit the bottom end of his projection. The DL is a lock, the two new starters at LB are being praised to the moon, the safeties are tracking well, and Lavert Hill is probably about to be a dude this year or next.
Ack: at literally every position the backups are either freshmen—some of them coming off a redshirt, yes—or walk-ons. Some of these gents are comfortable backups. None would be comfortable starters.
Last year Michigan barely noticed major injuries to Bryan Mone and Jeremy Clark, along with lesser issues for Taco Charlton and Jourdan Lewis. This year two significant injuries to starters threaten to... well...
That's me and you and everybody if the wrong guy goes down holding his knee, and they're all wrong guys. Football teams do not escape full seasons without suffering slings and arrows; it is downright probable that Michigan's defense takes a hit it cannot sustain, a la Grant Newsome a year ago.
This is the gap between Michigan 2017 and programs stacked to the gills like Alabama and (sigh) OSU. This is year three of Harbaugh and he was not preceded by an excellent coach. There are eight seniors on the roster. Of the 11 redshirt juniors we are currently projecting four back next year, with the rest offered firm handshakes. The top of end of this roster is 404 file not found. Michigan's put together just enough talent to have kickass starting lineup; the cliff is unlike any in recent Michigan history.
The previous question and its answer make Michigan's defense tough to project. If they skate through injury-free it's going to be elite—as in top 5—again. If they take the right kind of hits they'll probably be a shade below. If Hurst or Gary or Kinnel or McCray gets hit, ugh.
The middle of the distribution is a still-excellent defense that is more prone to fading late as they rely more heavily on their top DL; their cornerbacks are significantly more liable to bust or plain ol' get beat than last year's set. They still pile on the pressure, create more havoc than anyone in the league and maybe the country, and linger at the top end of the flashy sack and TFL stats.
Also they linger at the top end of fancystats, claiming another top-ten spot. They won't battle all year with Alabama for best defense in the country; they will throttle almost everyone they play all the same. Unless the wrong injury happens.
- Don Brown year two >> year one
- Mike McCray > McCray's first go-round
- Mo Hurst == Mo Hurst
- Rashan Gary == Chris Wormley
- Tyree Kinnel == Dymonte Thomas
- Devin Bush == Ben Gedeon
- Khaleke Hudson == Jabrill Peppers
- Kemp, Solomon, Dwumfour, Paye
- Devin Bush
- Lavert Hill
- David Long
- Josh Metellus
- Bryan Mone
- Chase Winovich
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Jabrill Peppers has 15 TFLs, three forced fumbles, and 6 sacks. He has three INTs.
15, 1, 3.5, and 1. Half point.
Nobody has double-digit sacks because five different players have more than five.
Charlton got exactly ten. Wormley and Winovich had 5.5; Hurst, Gedeon, and McCray had 4.5, Glasgow 4, Peppers 3.5. This is technically incorrect but spiritually dead on since guys were stealing sacks from each other all year. One point.
Rashan Gary is a double-digit TFL guy with six sacks.
Last year's preview had Wormley at 3T and Gary starting at SDE, FWIW. In backup snaps Gary had one sack and 5 TFLs. If he'd started he likely gets to double digit TFLs. Sacks probably would have come too. Still, bzzzt.
Dymonte Thomas has a breakout year and gets drafted in the fourth round.
I spelled "Delano Hill" funny. Thomas was solid and only that and didn't get drafted. Bzzzt.
Clark and Stribling spend the whole year trading snaps between each other; both are good.
Would have been the case if Clark hadn't torn his ACL. Both were good; Clark got drafted. One point.
Khaleke Hudson ends a dude, probably on special teams. That dude is ended. He is no longer.
He blocked two punts and ended John O'Korn. One point.
Michigan holds OSU under 25 points and under 4.0 YPC.
17 points in regulation and 4.1 YPC. 3/4th of a point.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Gary and Winovich have 16 sacks between them.
- I've said this several times so I'm putting it on the record: there is minimal dropoff from Peppers to Hudson on D. He matches Peppers's TFLs.
- Turnovers gained shoot up due to nothing more than luck; Michigan was short last year and can expect to get a bunch more with a rampant pass rush.
- David Long does win the second corner job and maintains it through the season; he is pretty good with some early hiccups.
- Hurst is a first rounder; McCray goes in the 4th.
- Tyree Kinnel is pleasantly, amazingly, wonderfully boring.
- The defense sticks in the top ten of the S&P+ rankings, clearly a step down from last year but also clearly Michigan's second best D since 2006.