Alex: We are back for part two of the series, today looking at the Michigan defense. A lot fewer questions on this side of the ball, but a lot more fun! Are you as excited to watch the Michigan defense as I am?
Evan: I don’t think there are words to describe how excited I am. Admittedly, I prefer defense over offense in general, but this Michigan defense has a chance to be an all-timer. Just think, a year ago at this time, we were talking about replacing 9-10 of 11 starters, depending on if you counted Hurst or Godin as a 2016 starter. Now this year, we are returning 9 of 11 starters from a defense that was already elite. I don’t know that there has been a Michigan unit I was more sure of in my lifetime. I don’t even know where to start, so I’ll let you choose.
Alex: Let’s begin by saying that Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are going to be very, very good. The only real question is whether Rashan Gary ascends to an Ndamukong Suh caliber player, where’s he dominating every single game. The real questions on the D-Line lie with Aubrey Solomon and Michael Dwumfour. Solomon broke into the starting rotation in the middle of last season, and he looked like a true freshman with gigantic potential, which he was. Dwumfour didn’t see many snaps because he was behind Mo Freaking Hurst, but we’ve heard great things about him for two straight offseasons. First off, do you buy the Dwumfour hype?
Evan: I can’t believe Winovich came back, and I don’t think B1G Ten East offensive coordinators can either. What are defenses going to do? Double Rashan Gary? Use running backs to slow down Chase Winovich? That would leave the middle susceptible to Solomon, or the blitzing linebackers we will get to in a moment. To answer your question, yes. A couple years ago, heck maybe even last year, I would’ve been hesitant to anoint a guy who hasn’t done anything noteworthy on the field as a good defensive tackle. But I just can’t doubt anything Don Brown does. Will Dwumfour be as good as Hurst? Probably not. Will he be good enough to allow the three superstars he lines up with to have All American level years? Probably yes. Let me throw a question back at you now: has former number 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary somehow become slightly underrated due to the play of Nick Bosa and *insert any Clemson D-linemen here*?
Alex: I don’t think he’s underrated per se. If you look at NFL mock drafts for 2019, he is regularly listed as a top 10 guy because of that potential. He may be underrated in terms of production, because players like Khaleke Hudson, Devin Bush, and Chase Winovich were regularly stealing his sacks last season. I think if he begins to scrape the ceiling of his potential this season, he will firmly jump ahead of Bosa and those Clemson linemen. He’s that athletic.
Evan: That’s a fair assessment. Regardless, the defensive line should be a terror for opposing offenses. And that’s before we even look at the monsters behind them. I have to say, Devin Bush is well on his way to becoming my favorite Michigan player ever. I loved watching Jake Ryan play the linebacker position because he was so smart and such an effective tackler. Bush has those same good instincts and fundamentals, but he pairs it with freakish close-out speed for a guy his size and unbridled aggression that Don Brown must regularly dream about. And don’t forget about Khaleke Hudson. As electric as Jabrill Peppers was, I think we can agree that he was never meant to play Viper. Hudson, on the other hand, was born to play the position. The only question is who will man the weak-side next to these two killers.
Alex: The competition is between Sophomore Josh Ross, brother of former Michigan LB James Ross, and RS Sophomore Devin Gil. Ross was definitely the higher touted recruit and he was the only linebacker out of Michigan’s excellent 2017 recruiting class to not get redshirted, while Gil obviously is more experienced and was part of the same HS team as Josh Metellus and Devin Bush, so he has extra chemistry with the defensive players. Is it fair to say that whoever wins this job will probably be really good - and dare I say, an upgrade over Mike McCray?
Evan: I’d be surprised if the WLB position doesn’t produce more this year regardless of which player is there for the majority of snaps. Ross and Gil are both talented players and have had the opportunity to learn under Brown. I ultimately think Gil’s experience with Bush and Metellus that you mentioned will lead to him starting, but I could be totally wrong. Either way, that isn’t a position I’m worried about. How confident are you in this front 7 overall as both a run-stopping and pass-rushing unit?
Alex: I would say very confident. There was never really a time last year when the front 7 got beaten up, outside of the disaster in State College against PSU, but that was as much a football failure as it was Joe Moorhead being an offensive genius. Outside of that, this group was pretty lock down against the run and the pass last year. And then a lot of these guys return, only losing Hurst and McCray. There were occasionally moments when things would pop up, keeping contain against more mobile QB’s like Lewerke...
Evan: You mean #disrespekted Heisman contender Brian Lewerke? That guy? Sorry, go ahead.
Alex: ...Barrett/Haskins, and McSorely come to mind, as did the occasional linebacker coverage bust. But those instances were so infrequent that we can remember specifically the couple times they happened! With most all the dudes back and most importantly, a year older and more experienced, many of those issues should solve themselves. Oh and just like with the offense, a lot of these guys got thicc. They’re bigger, faster, and stronger. Before we move onto the secondary, I do think we should mention the amount of depth behind these starters. So if you want to talk about that for a minute, go ahead.
Evan: I’m glad you brought that up. The last couple years, the defensive line depth has been absurd. And while there is talent behind the starters, it is mostly young and raw. The linebacker depth this year is… extraordinary. Whoever loses the battle between Gil and Ross is sure to see the field a lot. Noah Furbush saw time last year, and while he wasn’t a world beater he was very solid. Jordan Glasgow has been a special teams stud for a couple years, but when he comes in at safety or Viper, he can be effective. Josh Uche has also seen playing time, most memorably at Viper in place of Peppers in the Orange Bowl against Florida State in 2016. Guys like Jordan Anthony and Drew Singleton haven’t even been mentioned this offseason and they are both highly touted recruits. I think it’s safe to say that even if Bush and Hudson both turn pro this year, the middle of this defense should be sound for years to come. Now for that secondary you were talking about, Don Brown has depth to work with as well. But we would be remiss if we didn’t start about by highlighting all-world corners David Long and LaVert Hill.
Alex: Did someone say depth? Because the depth at corner is better than it is at linebacker! Yes, David Long and LaVert Hill were excellent last season. They don’t get the respect they deserve from conventional sources, with David Long not even getting an All-Big Ten spot last year and Hill being stranded on the second team. Thankfully, the analyst types notice it, and Pro Football Focus has written quite a bit about how good this tandem is and Phil Steele ranked Michigan’s secondary as the #1 secondary in the country. A good deal of that is about depth. Ambry Thomas is probably now ready to go. He was a high 4 star recruit and he’s now in his second year. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s where Long and Hill were last season and they turned into elite corners immediately. If Ambry Thomas makes that same jump, and CB Coach Mike Zordich mentions him in the same way he mentions Long and Hill…… oh boy. Brandon Watson was a really solid nickel in 2017 and he’s back. Oh and Michigan inexplicably picked up transfer Casey Hughes, a cornerback who started 11 games on Utah’s #14 ranked S&P+ passing defense last season. How are all these guys going to get snaps?
Evan: Here is what I hope is the answer to your question: Thomas and Hughes steal snaps from Tyree Kinnel and Metellus. Now let me acknowledge that I feel bad for both of the returning safeties. Put them on 90% of defenses in America and they look like studs. But on Michigan’s wrecking crew, they stick out like sore thumbs as the least consistent players. Imagine this: Gary and Winovich coming off the edge, Solomon and Dwumfour pounding the middle, Devin Bush shooting a gap, Hudson and Gil covering the flats, Long and Hill locking down the outside receivers, and Hughes and Thomas manning the slot. That sure sounds like a recipe for disaster… for opposing defenses. I’m fascinated to see how Brown and Zordich balance the snaps of all of this talent in the secondary. We haven’t even mentioned Jaylen Kelly-Powell who could make a significant leap this year as well. And again, even if Long and Hill go to the NFL after the season, the guys waiting in the wings are sure to be up to the task of filling their shoes. Man oh man am I excited to watch this unit play.
Alex: I hope you’ve lightened up on Kinnel and Metellus, because you were a bit rough on them in the spring. They had a rocky end to the season, and Metellus certainly had a tough OSU game, to say the least. But they were overall pretty fine in 2017. They got beat on the occasional route and there were certainly a lot of circus catches made against Kinnel, a handful in that PSU game alone. It’s important to remember though that they were both first year starters last year, and they will have more experience. They should be fine.
Evan: Yeah, you’re probably right. The only thing I associate Josh Metellus with is dropping an interception against Ohio State at the 5 yard line that I firmly believe would have led to a Michigan win.
Alex: DON’T BRING THAT UP
Evan: Ok, ok. Remember that Jourdan Lewis interception against Wisconsin? That was more fun. Anyways, let’s wrap this up with some closing thoughts and superlatives. If this defense performs at the level I expect them to, the offense only needs to be above average for Michigan to be a CFP team. The only reason I could see them not performing is if offensive coordinators somehow figure out how to catch Joe Moorhead’s lightning in a bottle from that thrashing the Nittany Lions delivered. I just don’t see Don Brown letting that happen. My superlatives:
DPOY: Take your pick between Bush, Hudson, Gary, or either of the corners. I’ll go with Bush. I might be a bit biased (as I already admitted) because I enjoy watching him play so much. The only risk factor here is if he gets suspended for a game or two due to targeting penalties.
Breakout player: Aubrey Solomon. Playing next to Rashan Gary would probably make any DT look pretty good, but Solomon is a former 5 star, #1 overall DT, and #19 overall recruit. He has the talent to make a major sophomore leap.
X-Factors: The safeties. Whether its covering the middle of the field, the slots, or being the last line of defense against the run, the safeties were a liability last year. I’ll admit they were generally solid, but they allowed too many big plays. Let’s see if they can fix that.
Potential disappointment: Chase Winovich. Sorry. I know the fans love him. His hair, his pass-rushing aggression, etc. I just see him as more of a pass-rushing specialist than an every down DE. Hopefully, he makes me sound foolish.
Alex: Why do you always get to go first and make me come up with the contrarian/dark horse selections?
Evan: You can go first on Special Teams. That’ll give me a real challenge.
Alex: Here’re mine:
DPOY: I’m saying Hudson. He has the ability to be really special if he takes his coverage up another notch. He’s lightning quick, hits hard, and we saw glimpses of his ultimate potential a year ago, most notably the Minnesota game, where PJ Fleck decided to leave him unblocked all game long. Row the Boat! But anyways, Hudson could end up leaving after the season to go the NFL if he hits his ceiling and I think he gets there this year.
Breakout player: It’s gotta be Dwumfour, right? He’s been talked about so much and I think Michigan’s defense has reached the Alabama/Clemson/OSU status where we can just conclude that whoever is getting to start has probably beaten out a bunch of talented dudes and we can assume they’re going to be good. But the way they talk about the guy is incredible. Jim Harbaugh probably would have agreed to co-author this piece with us if it meant he could rave about Mike Dwumfour some more. With that kind of hype, I’m buying in.
X-Factor: It’s gotta be slot corner right? You said safeties, which is a similar idea, but slot corner was the one routinely weak spot in the defense a year ago, even if some of the times it got exploited was insane circus catches/certain left-handed Wisconsin QB’s making inexplicable NFL throws in gusty 38º weather. If that gets shored up, there ceases to be no real weak spot and any other complaining is just spoiled fans nitpicking.
Potential disappointment: IDK… Winovich was the only logical pick, simply because if Gary makes the jump he would steal Winovich’s sacks, but you already took him. So like, Aubrey Solomon if he’s not quite ready to be a star? Ambry Thomas if he isn’t quite at Hill/Long level yet? It’s basically pulling straws and the definition of disappointment on this side of the ball is “good but not great player who makes one or two notable mistakes over the course of a whole season”, which is a pretty ridiculous standard. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Image Credit: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Rashan+Gary+Cincinnati+v+Michigan+m4eMbQGGEcfl.jpg
That concludes Part 2 of our season preview series. Thanks to all those who read part 1, we got lots of great feedback, which is always appreciated! Join us next week for the special teams preview which is us getting the Wild Thing haircut and then proceeding to walk around the Diag until we can find someone who can punt a football more than 30 yards.