Previewing Michigan's biggest strengths and weaknesses entering the 2016 season.
|Strength on strength, this.|
There are a million ways to preview an upcoming season. Offense, defense, specials teams, breakout players, new players, returning starters, schedule, coaching schemes. But most breakdowns come down to two things...a team's strengths and it's weaknesses.
Every team has both. It all comes down to how you manage them...which in of itself is a strength and/or a weakness.
We're heading down the rabbit hole here. Let's go.
Strength: Defensive Line
No doubt the biggest and most impressive strength on this Michigan squad will be it's defense. Most notably the defensive line. The Wolverines ranked 4th overall nationally in defense last year and that all started up front. By the end of the year, however, injuries and depth became a problem. That should not be a factor again this year.
Not only does Michigan bring almost everyone back along the defensive front...Willie Henry moved on to the NFL...it welcomes in a couple fresh faces as well who will be big contributors immediately. Back from injury is Bryan Mone, who missed all of last season with a broken leg in fall camp. The redshirt sophomore will re-assume his position as a starter in the interior line this fall.
And of course all eyes will be on 2016 signee Rashan Gary. The 6-5, 300 pound freshman has been impressing everyone so far in summer workouts, and is expected to be a potential starter in week 1.
Also back are seniors Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst and Taco Charlton. Everywhere you look along the D-line, you see talent and experience. That will certainly make Michigan's already stout defense that much stoutier in 2016.
Perhaps not a weakness per se, because of all of Michigan's weaknesses this is likely the one that could most easily turn into a strength by the mid-point of the season or sooner...but the quarterback position at Michigan going into 2016 is probably the biggest question mark of all, which I guess makes it a weakness by definition.
Conventional wisdom says that Jim Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch will be able mold and grow any one of Michigan's warm bodies into a "Jake Rudock or better" type of passer and game manager by the start of the season. Houston transfer John O'Korn is the likely starter at this point, but you will undoubtedly hear about Wilton Speight, Shane Morris and Brandon Peters throughout fall camp from the coaches.
At this point, it's O'Korn's job if he can keep it.
Strength: Defensive Backs
Easily a strength that can rival that of the defensive line.
It all starts with cornerback Jourdan Lewis returning as one of the best DB's in the country. His 20 pass break-ups last year were the most of any Michigan player ever...which is some pretty good company. Also back are Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling on the corners as well.
At the safety spot Michigan has experience as well with seniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas returning. Gone from the safety spot but not from pass coverage will be super-star Jabrill Peppers as he moves to the linebacker position. Odds are he'll spend quite a bit of time in pass coverage, but given Michigan's lack of experience and depth at LB, his ability to be effective anywhere on the field...the LB role might just be the perfect place for him on this defense given the abundance of depth and experience in the defensive backfield.
As we just mentioned, the weak spot on this Michigan defense is the linebacker spot. Even with Jabrill Peppers, he can't do it alone. Joe Bolden, James Ross and Desmond Morgan are all gone, but stepping into their spots will be guys like Mike McCray, Ben Gedeon and of course Peppers.
New Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is known for his hybrid linebacker roles...thus the move of Peppers from safety to the SAM. Brown loves to blitz...so expect to see Peppers all over the field. But until this group can gel, the middle of the field will be a work in progress for this unit.
Strength: Receivers & Tight Ends
Not since the heady days of 2006-07 has Michigan had such an abundance of exceptional receiving targets on one roster. No other unit on the offense has as much experience returning as the receivers and tight ends.
All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson had a breakout year in 2015 as Rudock's favorite target. The senior combo of Chesson and Darboh both had very good seasons a year ago. The two combined for 108 catches, almost 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns. Michigan also welcomes back All-American TE Jake Butt, who is easily in the conversation as the best tight end in the country. The trio of pass catchers are well established and should provide whomever the Michigan quarterback is in week 1 with a number of solid targets to pick from, and give opposing secondaries plenty of headaches.
Weakness: Running Game
It's become the Achilles heal of the Michigan offense over the years, but it is certainly not because of neglect. Whatever the reason, lack of proper OL recruiting years ago, poor coaching, no development...the Michigan running game has not been the threat it once was.
De'Veon Smith is Michigan's leading rusher from a year ago, 180 carries for 727 yards and 6 touchdowns, but certainly not the only option for 2016. Along with Smith, who should be healthier this year after battling ankle issues a year ago, Michigan would love for Drake Johnson to step up...and most think he has the tools to do so. Another back most thought would contribute more is Ty Isaac. No question his 2015 was a disappointment.
Things are looking up though as the offensive line returns 4 starters, Smith is healthy, Isaac had a productive spring, and Michigan welcomes Kareem Walker to campus as the nation's #1 running back recruit in the 2016 class.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to coaching. Michigan brings back all but one coach from the 2015 staff, their lone departure...defensive coordinator DJ Durkin who left to take the HC job at Maryland. Michigan replaces him with DC Don Brown who led the #1 defense in the nation a year ago at Boston College. He brings his blitz-heavy aggressive approach to a defense full of returning starters.
Not that it needs to be mentioned, but there's just something about having Jim Harbaugh as your head coach. Say what you want about his recruiting antics and brash demeanor...the guy just knows how to coach football. He understands the game on a level I've never seen before. There is no doubt his 10-3 season a year ago was impressive, but nowhere near where he wants this program to be.
With Harbaugh at the helm, Michigan finds itself right in the preseason discussion for the Big Ten title and one of the favorites to make it to the college football playoff. No question he elevates the status of the program by just being here. But, as any great coach knows, all this talk in July and August means nothing once a toe meets leather at noon on September 3rd.