So Let's Talk About the Defense

Looking ahead to Florida, the defense, attrition and what to expect on September 2nd.

Photo: Paul Sherman

I've been thinking of ways I could jump back into posting (semi) regular content around here and aside from the many, many, many offseason fluff Harbaugh-related topics I could pick from, we're going to choose a different tack and head directly into the wind.

In 53 days, Michigan heads back to Arlington to try to avenge their 41-14 season-opening blowout loss to Alabama back in 2012. My gut tells me this trip won't result in quite the same outcome. Florida, also, is looking to avenge their 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan from a couple years ago.

I should note right up front that this post was somewhat inspired by a preview for this game by a Florida blog In All Kinds of Weather...who's name I assume has some sort of meaning (I mean, right?), but which is completely lost on this blogger. But I digress. The author had a number of interesting takes...but none better that this one about Michigan's defense heading into this matchup...
Defensive grade: C-. And that’s only because D and F grades are reserved for the Troys and Citadels who finish dead last in their mid major conferences. At least Michigan recruits well, and good thing they do, so there’s hope for the future. But faced with filling virtually every possible hole a team could have to fill in an offseason will at the very least make for a rough September for defensive coordinator Don Brown.
I don't claim to have any great insight into the 2017 edition of the Michigan defense other than what's been widely reported, because I don't. But I get it, Mr. SEC tennis player turned football blogger guy, Michigan has to replace a good amount of talent, especially in the secondary, but a C-? 

And where's the minus coming from? Don Brown alone is worth a C+, no?

C-. Michigan's defense.

/heavy sigh

I remember back in 2012, previewing Michigan vs Alabama and having enough delusional optimism to write this...
When Michigan has the ball Alabama gets a ton of credit for their dominating defense. While, yes, I do agree that they were amazing last year, they only return 4 starters. The big question mark is can this talented, but inexperienced as a group – gel fast enough to stop one of the most prolific play makers in college football?
The answer, of course, was yes. They gelled just fine.

See, what I didn't understand back then and what young Mr. Florida Football Blogger doesn't understand now is that, despite appearances, Michigan 2017, much like Alabama 2012 isn't in a rebuilding mode. Like Ohio State last year and many other powerhouse programs who send gobs of talent to the NFL draft but retain their elite coaching staffs to mold the top flight recruits from down on the depth chart...Michigan is now one of those programs.

Michigan is not rebuilding. I don't mean to sound pompous or anything, but year three of Harbaugh doesn't exactly inflict the same feelings of self-doubt that year three of Rich Rod or Hoke did. Of course I understand that Michigan does have some holes to fill (spoiler: so does everyone else) and of course not everything is going to resemble mid-season form on September 2nd. But whether I say it or not...Michigan is entering year three of Jim Harbaugh and also year two of Don MF-ing Brown and his defensive system, so I'd like to think I'm not totally off my rocker here.

Also, it's important not to let the number returning starters cloud preseason prognostications too much. Sometimes, for example Michigan's linebacker corps going from 2015 to can have addition by subtraction. Recruiting and player development can quickly alleviate concerns over lack or returning starters. And it just so happens, two key things Jim Harbaugh has become well known for are recruiting and player development.

And let's not forget about guys like Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich, Mike McCray, Noah Furbush, Tyree Kinnel, LaVert Hill, David Long and Khaleke Hudson are back for 2017...not to mention incoming recruits like Ambry Thomas, who should factor into the lineup immediately. No, these guys aren't all-Americans like Wormley, Peppers, Charlton and Lewis...but neither were any those guys before Harbaugh and Don Brown showed up.

Florida is going to be a good squad in 2017, no doubt. And they will be a big test for this Michigan team on both sides of the ball. They have a great defense, which they rode to back-to-back SEC East titles. The kicker is the offense...which was a juggernaut back in the days of Steve Spurrier. Under McElwain...not so much. They need a QB, for starters. Hey, Malik Zaire! They also need to shore up turnovers. They just need better output, to put it simply. More points.

Phil Steele likes the Gators this year, making them his sleeper for national title contender.
“When I look at Florida this year, here’s what I like about them, start on the defensive side of the ball. These guys are always good on defense, right? Well last year they lost quite a few guys to injury in the second half of the year, they had to play a lot of freshmen, guys like Jabari Zuniga up front at the defensive end spot, they gained experience. So even though they lose a lot of talented players off the defense, a lot of guys only started seven or eight games. They have a lot of the guys that gained experience back, I think they’ll be strong.”
That's bold. But hey, last year he picked Washington as his darkhorse and they ended up in the playoff, so maybe he's onto something? Florida's a solid pick on paper.

I think this game, in some ways, will determine what kind of season both Michigan and Florida are going to have. Much like early season duels with Notre Dame, which resume next year, the winner has a leg up on a successful season...while the loser, not mathematically eliminated from any title discussion, simply just has more work to do to get there. A Michigan loss in this game, while a set back, isn't the end of the world. Their schedule is most certainly back-loaded with big games like at Penn State, at Wisconsin and of course Ohio State. That gives this group time to mesh over the course of a first 6 or so games.

I think this game will be close, the line is hovering around Michigan -3 right now. It'll be a defensive battle, for sure. And in 53 days it will be here. Summer goes fast around this part of the country...and it'll be here before you know it.

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