We begin Part 2 of the 2019 Michigan Football Season Preview
Alex: We’re back for Part 2 of the Michigan Football Season Preview on WCBN Sports. Part 1, which focused on the offense, was published late last week and can be found here. Today we will be looking at the defense and special teams.
Evan: I have a lot more questions to ask of the defensive side of the ball than I did of the offense. Can the linebackers replace Devin Bush? Who’s playing DT? Who are the slot and weak-side corners? Is there a game-changing DE among a crowded and deep group of players at the position? Will Don Brown adjust in big games? There is obviously a lot of talent on the defense, but whether it will all come together in a rebuilding year like it did in 2017 remains to be seen.
Alex: I feel most okay about linebacker. Nobody is going to be Devin Bush but there is a ton of talent in that group. After splitting snaps with Devin Gil a year ago, Josh Ross seems primed for a breakout as a full time starter. He’s not as fast as Bush but he’s still a darn good athlete and has the size to be a thumper in the middle, more so than Bush, who was undersized. At the other spot, I hope that former borderline 5* Jordan Anthony pulls through and wins the job, though Cam McGrone and Devin Gil are still options. An LB group of Ross and Anthony could be the most athletic in Michigan’s history. And then Khaleke Hudson is a star.
Evan: I agree that the group is extremely athletic. Hudson had an incredible 2017-18 season, but his production dropped a bit last year. Ross and Anthony/McGrone/Gil will need to work to cover the field together like Bush did alone. He can’t be replaced as you mentioned, but the scheme will obviously be different without him. One thing I’m going to be very curious about is how this group is used in the pass rush. Towards the end of the season, Brown stopped bringing blitzes, and that proved to be fatal against Ohio State. I anticipate a lot of Khaleke Hudson in the backfield but other than that I’m not sure.
Alex: Brown’s decision to rarely blitz last year was fine until late in the season when opponents realized that they could single-block Michigan’s DT’s and double the DE’s and completely eliminate any pass rush. That will more or less be true again and I think Brown will have to blitz to generate pressure, risking the potential of being burned downfield. That may be a good idea if Michigan’s safeties are more athletic than in the past. On that note, Daxton Hill and … Brad Hawkins?
Evan: Dax Hill is very, very fast. He’s also going to be very, very important to this defense. He has to be good in coverage immediately, both as a safety and playing in the slot against slot WRs, TEs, and RBs. He joins Josh Metellus who had an… interesting season last year. He was usually excellent in coverage but made a few awful reads and had a few terrible mistakes including a pair of ejections for targeting. The two of them make up an athletic back line that should give Brown flexibility with his front seven. The emergence of Brad Hawkins as being a playable defensive back could be significant. I’ll let you talk more about that.
Alex: The Hawkins buzz is just that: buzz. We don’t know if it’s a lot of smoke or if there’s actual legs to it, but if Hawkins is an asset in the DB group, it allows Dax Hill to slide to slot corner and use his speed there to form a far better matchup than Tyree Kinnel in the slot from last year. It also bolsters depth in case of injury. That’s especially important because Michigan is replacing a lot at the CB position. They had three guys play pretty much every snap and two of them are gone. Ambry Thomas should be good, if healthy, but his off-season bout with ulcerative colitis seems to have set him back. The hope is he’s back by Wisconsin though. Outside of Ambry and Lavert Hill (who’s an established star), things are very interesting. Vincent Gray? Gemon Green? DJ Turner? We get to find out.
Evan: The lack of depth at corner definitely scares me. Whether one of the guys you mentioned steps up or not, the corner play will certainly take a step back from how elite it has been recently with the Jourdan Lewis-Channing Stribbling and David Long-Lavert Hill duos. This is probably the position that concerns me the most on the entire team. Another interesting question scheme wise is whether Brown plays more zone. After his defense got torched in Columbus, questions were raised about the viability of his man-press scheme against teams that have elite receivers and are able to get the ball out fast. Now with questionable depth at corner, he may be forced into playing more zone whether he likes it or not.
Alex: I have long been a proponent of Brown playing more zone, and they may need to out of necessity. I think Brown got stubborn in Columbus and stuck to his guns because the defense was so successful that year up to that point. He got outfoxed schematically and they need to come up with an answer, but as we saw last year against Penn St, Brown has had good answers to disastrous performances the preceding year. Things could get a lot better if Michigan can develop an impact guy on the interior of the line. Michael Dwumfour?
Evan: Cornerback may be the position that concerns me the most, but DT is probably the most important for the defense this season. Stopping the run will be critical against early opponents Army (literally runs the ball more than anyone else in the country) and Wisconsin (Heisman contending running back Jonathan Taylor). But maybe more importantly, Michigan plays its three rivals late in the season at home. In all likelihood, all three opponents (ND - Oct. 26, MSU - Nov. 16, OSU - Nov. 30) will seek to establish the run in the cold Michigan winter. In short, the run defense will be critical all season long. Michigan needs Michael Dwumfour to be healthy. They also need freshmen Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton to develop quickly. I just wish some of the depth at DE could be translated to DT.
Alex: We’ve heard hype in camp about Donovan Jeter and Carlo Kemp, and Michigan probably needs one of those two guys to be a plus run stopper this fall. As for Dwumfour, he was by far the closest to being a complete threat, as he was already strong at pass rushing. If he can become playable in rushing downs, suddenly the whole Michigan defense changes. Smith and Hinton will be great players down the line but I’m unsure if that will happen in year 1. The learning curve at DT is quite steep for true freshmen.
Maybe the biggest question at DE is what the snap breakdowns will look like?
Evan: We know that Central Michigan transfer Mike Danna is going to play quite a bit once he learns the defense fully. We know that sophomore Aidan Hutchison has a shot to start at SDE. We know that Josh Uche is going to get a lot of action in pass rushing scenarios. Beyond that, it’s hard to predict (in a good way). Kwity Paye is going to see action, and Luiji Vilain is a name that keeps popping up. Again, the question is, will any of these guys become a star? Danna had excellent production against bad competition last year. Hutchison was excellent in limited action. Uche had excellent production in the middle of the season. But who can emerge as a game-changer?
Alex: Maybe the biggest question is how Michigan consistently gets Josh Uche on the field, because he may honestly be the best per-snap pass rusher in college football, with 7 sacks last season in only a meager amount of snaps. The problem is that he can’t cover anyone and he also can’t set the edge in rush defense. Or at least he couldn’t last season. Is that going to change this year? And if it doesn’t, Michigan will still have to figure out how they can use him more consistently without exposing those deficiencies. Does that mean going with a 3-3-5 look? And if it does, can they defend the run in it (which was the problem when it was tried in 2017)?
Beyond that, Danna was a machine at CMU last year, but he was facing MAC competition which is totally different than the B1G East. Paye added run defending and but was largely ineffective as a pass rusher. We’ve heard a lot of Kwity Paye praise in the offseason. Does that transfer over? I’m definitely of the belief that Aidan Hutchinson is going to be a star at Michigan, but the important question is can he be that in 2019? I have hope.
Evan: My overall expectation for the defense is that they’re a top 20 unit nationally that struggles against teams that are balanced. A team like Wisconsin that can’t really throw the ball shouldn’t have much success against this defense. As far as I know, Michigan doesn’t currently have any opponents that can throw really well but can’t run it. But those opponents wouldn’t have much success either… in theory. Can they have a consistent pass rush? As we’ve hit on, that’s probably the biggest key to this season.
Alex: The baseline expectation should be top 20. Even with some impact players being gone, there’s still a ton of talent, more than most other teams in the country. Let’s be real here: Don Brown made his living early in his career stichting together top tier defenses with very little talent out in the northeast. He got Boston College’s defense into the top 5 and UCONN’s into the top 10. If he could do that with those groups of players, the bare minimum should be a top 20 group, if not more. He had a lot of different wonky schemes back in those days and again it felt like he tried to win with talent alone last year. He’ll need to scheme some more this year but the talent is there.
Evan: Shall we discuss special teams then?
Alex: Sure. A lot more continuity than this time last year, eh?
Evan: Yep. While there appears to be battles for both the punt and kickoff return jobs (freshman WR Mike Sainrisitil may win one or both), the kicker (Jake Moody) and punter (Will Hart) spots will remain in the hands of the men who last held them. Hart was very solid throughout the season and should be among the best punters in the conference. Moody was sold as an extremely consistent kicker inside 40 yards with potential to become a great all around kicker. Both should have successful seasons, although it’d be nice if we saw a lot more Moody than Hart. One thing is for sure, whoever wins the return spots is going to be very fast and very good. Stealing the job from either DPJ (punts) or Ambry Thomas (kickoffs) would require a heck of a camp performance. I’m optimistic that Michigan will have a couple kicks at least taken to the house this year. Oh and don’t forget about returning long snapper Cameron Cheeseman.
Alex: This definitely has the potential to be a great special teams unit because Will Hart was an All-B1G punter last year seemingly out of nowhere (and an SI All-American (!)). While he had issues last season with puting it too far (outkicking his coverage), that’s a better problem to have than constant shanks, which was the case in 2017. The word in camp is that there may actually be a legit competition at kicker between Jake Moody and Quinn Nordin, but I agree that the expectation is that Moody wins it. Consistency is the most important thing in a kicker and Moody brings that to the table, while Nordin … doesn’t, to put it lightly. And yeah, Peoples-Jones and Thomas were both electric returners last year and with Sainristil mixing in, Michigan has big play threat on special teams. On the topic of Cheeseman, this is actually his senior season and Michigan recently picked up a long snapper recruit recently.
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