2014 Michigan Football Preview: The Defensive Backs

Offense: Offensive Line, Running Backs, Receivers/TE's
Defense: Defensive Line, Linebackers

There was a time, not that long ago, that I would basically just skip previewing the secondary in the hopes that you, loyal reader, wouldn't notice. Michigan's defensive backfield was in such disarray that simply blogging about it would cost you at minimum 2 days of your sanity.

Thankfully, those days of just a few years ago are over. Michigan's defense as a whole had become the strength of the team and the secondary is a big part of that resurgence. Last year, Michigan's secondary was decent to good with a generally absent pass rush against a lot of teams that favor spread passing attacks. Kansas State shredded the entire defense, but the secondary looked particularly lost.

Tyler Lockett…whatcha gonna do? He's good.

While the prognosis going forward for Michigan's secondary is strong to quite strong, there are some bodies missing that need to be replaced quickly. Safety Thomas Gordon and nickel/corner Courtney Avery are gone, with Gordon being only one of two starters on the entire defense that need replacing (Jibreel Black being the other). Avery, once upon a time was a starting corner and primary contributor for Michigan, but last year saw his role diminish in favor of talented youth on the depth chart.

So, speaking of talent on the depth chart, let's break this down by position.

Blake Countess finds himself on the Thorpe Award watch list for this season, as he is Michigan's top corner coming back. He and Raymon Taylor bring 10 combined INTs to the table and a season's worth of experience against good passing offenses. Both of these guys are good, so that's a nice baseline to start from. They can't all be Charles Woodsons, but as long as we aren't recreating the BWW Bowl and Michigan can add in a much needed pass rush...now you're talking about a whole new level of upside.

Also an upside…press man coverage. We saw it this spring and even heard about it from guys like Jourdan Lewis who saw good action this spring (starting over Countess and picking off Gardner on the first play) and was well being praised by those in the know.

“It’s huge, just getting hands on guys and trying to intimidate them," Lewis said. "That’s our key point right there -- being physical. That’s what (defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison is always talking about, being a physical defense.”

That’s a change from last season, according to Lewis.

“I’ve always been physical, we just didn’t emphasis being physical,” the Detroit native said. 
Not exactly sure where Lewis fits in with Countess and Taylor being trusted commodities, but if he's good enough he'll find the field in nickel packages, substitutions, etc. Also in the mix on the depth chart is Channing Stribling. He saw moderate action a year ago and could see more this season. Competition is good and it seems the cornerback position is well stocked for the time being.

Like we said, the Thomas Gordon-sized void in the secondary needs to be filled. Jarrod Wilson lives on the other side and will likely remain so.

To replace Gordon, you used to have Josh Furman before he decided to transfer. Now you have Delano Hill, Jeremy Clark or Dymonte Thomas. Hill saw action against Ohio State, which wasn't really a positive as the coaches were just looking for capable bodies that resisted the urge to get torched.

The spring didn't really reveal anything clear as far as who Gordon's replacement is. As far as a hypothetical depth chart or order of preference, those are mysteries too. Clearly the biggest question mark on this defense and maybe the whole team is who will play strong safety. But there may be one certain guy who's up to the job and that's...

Jabrill Peppers
You didn't think we could preview Michigan's secondary without giving Peppers his whole section did you?

You may have seen this already...

Not playing defense in that clip, but dayyuumm.

To put it simply, because the NFL requires you to be at least 3 years removed from high school before entering the draft, Jabrill Peppers is going to college to play football. It just so happens that he's going to Michigan. The ONLY flaw with Peppers right now is how to realistically exploit his best abilities in a proper manner. You don't just take a Ferrari out for a spin and slam on the gas.

Gurus say he can realistically play 5 positions. I can safely bet that Hoke and Mattison don't want that. The same gurus are comparing Peppers to Woodson which probably doesn't do Peppers any favors because Woodson is only remembered as a cornerback and Peppers has only played mainly safety.

Charles Woodson was elite because he was a true lockdown corner. He won the Heisman because he moonlighted quite successfully as a receiver and Heisman voters just loved that. Its also worth noting that Woodson wasn't really Woodson™ until his junior year, which he dominated en route to a Heisman trophy and a national title ring.

Its fun to speculate about what all Peppers can do, but when you're team is on a downward trajectory the last 2 seasons, all you really want is for the guy to step in and do what he can to start filling the win column. If he can step into a nickel package and make some plays here and there, maybe some kick returning duties, that would be an ideal start. Then you can start to tinker with safety/corner/receiver/running back/savior.

Odds are, in a best case scenario and things are looking good, he'll find himself lining up opposite Jarrod Wilson at safety. Should you be excited for the best case scenario to be a real possibility? Absolutely.

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