Thursday, August 16, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 4: Defensive Line

The NFL is often said to be a quarterback’s league.  Certainly it takes much more than a good quarterback to compete for championships (as the plenty of Detroit Lions fans reading this post have undoubtedly observed). But in the NFL, without a good QB you don’t even have a chance.  A quarterback has won the AP Most Valuable Player award in ten out of the last eleven seasons, and 41 times overall (in the 60 seasons the award has been given). Only eight active QBs have won Super Bowls (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, and Nick Floes), and two others have reached Super Bowls (Matt Ryan and Cam Newton); all of those players have been Pro Bowl selections and four have won MVP awards.  

Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison
A good quarterback is important in college football too.  But unlike pro football, where an elite QB is essentially a prerequisite for championship contention, a college team can win with a run-first option QB or an athletically-limited “game manager.”  What a college team cannot thrive without, however, is a quality defensive line.  A team that plays a two-gap defense needs stout linemen to keep its linebackers clean, or the scheme quickly breaks apart.  A team that plays a one-gap defense, like Michigan, needs ferocious linemen to penetrate and disrupt the offense—or will find itself bleeding yardage and wearing down against increasingly confident opposition.  

Michigan by-and-large has had those linemen in recent seasons.  For all of M’s struggles elsewhere the defensive line has at least been solid dating back to the end of the Hoke era, and since 2015 has been among the best units anywhere in the nation.  The pinnacle of M defensive lines was the 2016 group, which boasted an all-American anchor (Chris Wormley), a first-round draft pick at WDE (Taco Charlton), another all-Big Ten player at NT (Ryan Glasgow), a future all-American at 3T (Maurice Hurst), and then a second-stringthat would itself have been among the better B1G defensive lines (WDE Chase Winovich, anchor Rashan Gary, 3T Matt Godin, and NT Bryan Mone) alone. 

Despite losing three starters to graduation, M featured another beastly defensive line in 2017—and heads into 2018 with prospects of a unit to rival the fearsome 2016 squad.  Anchor Rashan Gary, the #1-overall recruit in the 2016 class and projected top-10 NFL draft pick, is now a true junior and one of the most fearsome defensive players in the college game.  Winovich has returned for his fifth year at WDE; he’s pre-season all-B1G and projected as a second-day draft pick.  Behind those headliners, sophomore NT Aubrey Solomon is on the star track, playing in the regular DL rotation in 2017 as a true freshman.  

That leaves only 3T in question among the starting DL positions.  The expected starter there is redshirt sophomore Michael Dwumfour, a 285-pound penetrator in the Mo Hurst mold with a quick first step who the coaches have been hyping up ever since the since the end of last season.  He’ll undoubtedly be a downgrade from the player he’s replacing—Hurst, a consensus all-American who was projected as a first-round NFL draft pick until a heart condition diagnosed in the scouting process kicked him to the fifth.  But on a line with Gary, Winovich, and Solomon, all M really needs Dwumfour to be is healthy and okay.

Probably the more interesting aspect of Michigan’s 2018 defensive line is the second string. This is only partly because the heavy rotation of defensive linemen means second-string DL play significant snaps. Winovich’s eligibility expires after 2018 and Gary, as a sure-fire first-round draft pick, will likely leave as well.  That means this year’s second string gives us a preview of what to expect at the defensive end spots in 2019 and beyond.  There are quite a few young players to watch.

Kwity Paye is the 6’4” son of Liberian refugees who Don Brown found playing tailback and competing on state champion 4x100 team in Rhode Island.  Now he’s a 240-lb. defensive end.  Think Frank Clark without the DV.  Paye got into eight games last season and should see more action in 2018 as the staff gets him ready to take over for Winovich at WDE next year.  

At anchor, the awesomely-named redshirt freshman Luigi Vilain will compete with true freshman Aidan Hutchinson for snaps and the inside track on the starting role Gary is expected to vacate after 2018.  Vilain, who came to Ann Arbor as a WDE prospect and bulked up to ~ 260 lbs., should be the more pass-rushy of the two and has a year in the system.  But Hutchinson, with a bigger frame and the son of former Michigan star Chris Hutchinson, may develop into the better all-around player.  

The second-string NT is the veteran Bryan Mone, now a 335-lb. fireplug who will likely be deployed mostly in short-yardage situations.  Injuries have kept Mone from developing into the star player he appeared likely to become as a freshman, but there’s always a role for a big-bodied run-stopper on a defense.  

The other backup NT is another new face, redshirt freshman Donovan Jeter.  He signed with Michigan as a 250-lb. defensive end prospect, and is now listed at 309 lbs. and playing on the interior.  Between the massive weight gain, position change, and spring game cancellation, trying to predict Jeter’s style of play or level of performance would be utter folly.  But good NTs are hard to come by, so let’s all hope he does well.

The guy you’re probably the most familiar with, junior Carlo Kemp, was Rashan Gary’s backup in 2017. But now he’s up to 280 lbs. and has reportedly moved to 3T behind Dwumfour.  If he’s viable there, even as a reliable, Matt Godin-level backup, that would be great news.  M has plenty of DE prospects, athletic interior DL are hard to find, and Kemp did not appear headed for stardom at the anchor position anyway.

So, based on the above, Michigan’s anticipated 8-man rotation for the base 4-man DL would look like this:

Rashan Gary
Michael Dwumfour
Aubrey Solomon
Chase Winovich
Carlo Kemp
Kwity Paye

That’s not a bad lineup, especially if the unproven players at 3T and in the second string work out. But it’s also worth noting that M played a fair amount of 3-3-5 defense last season, which involves taking an interior DL off the field (typically the NT) and replacing him with another linebacker. While this concept sacrifices size, it adds a bit of speed to the defense and, more importantly, better enables the defense to confuse blockers because any of the nominal LBs can rush (and effectively become the fourth DL).  It just so happens that M has a number of linebackers they might rather have in the game this season than an unproven role player at 3T.  So don’t be surprised if we see a fair amount of three-man lines with Gary, Solomon, and Winovich, joined by physical ILBs like Noah Furbush or Joss Rosh as the fourth effective DL.  Indeed, unless Michael Dwumfour proves to be everything the coaches say he is, do not be surprised to see the 3-3-5 even more than Don Brown’s traditional 4-2-5 base.  And that’s, well, pretty much fine

Defensive Line: Bottom Line

Probable starters:Rashan Gary (Anchor), Chase Winovich (WDE), Aubrey Solomon (NT), Michael Dwumfour (3T)
Key backups:Carlo Kemp, Kwity Paye, Luigi Vilain, Bryan Mone, Donovan Jeter 
Other possible options: Ronald Johnson, Rueben Jones, Lawrence Marshall
Position grade:A-
One defensive end is an all-American, the other could be one, and the NT is a budding all-star.  This is another kick-ass DL that Mattison has put together.  Only the lack of a proven 3T and some unproven players entering the rotation keeps this from being a solid A. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018-- Part 3: Running Backs

One thousand yards.  

This common mark of rushing production carried little significance for Michigan running backs in past eras, who could realistically be expected to eclipse 1,000 yards by around the seventh or eighth game.  Since 1970, four Michigan backs (Mike Hart, Anthony Thomas, Jamie Morris, and Tyrone Wheatley, plus Denard Robinson who I am not counting because he did it at QB) have finished their careers with more than 4,000 yards and eighteen have finished with at least 2,000 yards.   School-record holder Tim Biakabatuka put up 1,818 yards in one season alone (1995), while Chris Perry won the Doak Walker with 1,674 yards in 2003—only the fifth-highest rushing total in Michigan history.  One thousand yards?  For any of these guys, a 1,000-yard season would have been a disappointment.

Things are different now. 

Since Mike Hart graduated after the 2007 season, a Michigan running back has broken the 1,000-yard barrier precisely once.  That happened in 2011, when Fitzgerald Toussaint edged over the mark with 1,041 yards. But in the other nine seasons since ’07, Michigan has had dreadful rushing offenses (2008, 2013-14), one outstanding rushing offense (2010), and plenty in-between.  So, does having a running back hit the 1,000-yard milestone really even mean anything?  

In 2008, 2013, and 2014, Michigan did not have 1,000-yard rushers because its offense was generally atrocious.  So one could perhaps deem a 1,000-yard running back as a proxy for “rushing offense not atrocious,” that perhaps makes some sense.  But that seems to be about as far as the statistic can be taken.

In 2010, Michigan did not have a 1,000-yard running back but the quarterback (Denard Robinson) ran for an incredible 1,702 yards.  Michigan’s top two running backs that year (Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw) combined for barely over 1,000 yards between them (1,003 to be exact), and it took them 211 carries—a pedestrian 4.75 ypc average.  Yet the 2010 rushing offense was nationally elite, ranking  #13 nationally in rushing yards and #8 in total offense.  A more middling example comes from 2009, when no single running back carried the ball more than 96 times (Brandon Minor).  The top three running backs by carries that season—Minor, Carlos Brown (81), and Vincent Smith (48)—accounted for 1,258 yards on 225 carries (5.9 ypc), which compares favorably with Hart’s 1,000-yard season in 2007 (1,361 yards on 265 carries, or 5.1 ypc).  And that’s without taking into consideration an additional 600+ yards from the quarterbacks (Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson).  

Another counterpoint comes from Jim Harbaugh’s 2016 and 2017 offenses.  Quite the opposite from the Denard-run spread & shred, the Wilton Speight-led 2016 offense netted a whopping -29 yards rushing from the QB position.  Yet the team rushed for 213.3 yards per game—very respectable production at #32 nationally.  But that team’s leading rusher, De’veon Smith, had just 846 yards on the season. This time, the carries and yards hadn’t gone to the quarterback, but to other running backs and even wide receivers—Smith was one of six Michigan players with at least 100 rushing yards that season, and one of ten players with at least 10 carries.  Michigan didn’t spread the rushing offense around quite as much in 2017, with the top two backs (Karan Higdon and Chris Evans) splitting 299 carries between them.  But Higdon’s team high 164 carries still paled in comparison to the 220+ carries a Carr-era feature back could expect in a season, and thus Higdon didn’t break 1,000 yards even though he posted a stellar 6.1 ypc average.

All this suggests the reasons M did not have a 1,000-yard RB in the Rich Rodriguez era and has not yet managed to produce one in the Harbaugh era have had more to do with scheme, philosophy, and supporting cast than running back skill.  Rodriguez’s scheme featured a large number of QB runs and divided carries among multiple backs.  Harbaugh uses few QB runs but divides carries among even more running backs—and has also faced limitations with the quality of his offensive line. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the only coach since the Carr era to produce a 1,000-yard RB was Brady Hoke, an old guard loyalist who clung to the philosophy of feeding a single featured running back.  Toussaint posted his 1,041-yard campaign in 2011 on 187 carries—or 137 more carries than the next highest rusher (Vincent Smith, with 50 carries).  And even then, Denard outshined Toussaint with 1,176 rushing yards from the QB spot that season.  

This tour of the recent evidence leads inescapably to the conclusion, then, that having a 1,000-yard rushing season is a completely arbitrary number with little meaning for a running back—especially one who plays for a coach who rotates multiple backs and spreads carries around.  Indeed, were football fields measured in meters rather than yards, it does seem likely a “1,000-meter season” would become the comparable standard, even though such an accomplishment would require nearly 1,100 yards.  So there is really no reason any actual, college football-playing running back ought to attribute any genuine significance to having a 1,000-yard season.  And that’s why I was a little taken aback earlier this summer when I saw this quote from Karan Higdon at the Big Ten media day:

“I was very close. If I touched 1,000 [yards], I was leaving.”

Higdon was indeed very close to reaching 1,000 yards in 2017.  He finished with 994 yards, just one more carry from 1,000 at his 6.1 ypc average.  It wouldn’t have meant anything, really.  But Higdon is the most complete running back on M’s roster.  If those last six yards would truly have prompted him to declare early for the NFL, then 1,000-yards would have meant a great deal indeed. 

Higdon came to Michigan from Sarasota, Fl., in the 2015 class, a late flip from Iowa who Harbaugh signed after touted Cass Tech RB Mike Weber opted for Ohio State.  Not many had high expectations for Higdon, a three-star prospect ranked just inside the top -500 on the 247 Composite.  But he got his feet wet as a true freshman, matured into a significant contributor with 72 carries as a sophomore, and then established himself as Michigan’s top standard running back with his breakout 2017 season. Now that he’s back for his senior year, Higdon looks to take what’s already been a solid college football career and put the exclamation point on it.  One thousand yards?  Sure.

After all the years of watching various M backs run straight into piles or rival The Matrix for their ultra-slow motion effects, Higdon’s a breath of fresh air.  He runs north-south, keeps his shoulders square to the line-of-scrimmage, and finds the freaking daylight.  He  runs violently,and makes tacklers pay Higdon has plenty of speed, and his best trait is probably the quick acceleration that enables him to probe small creases and then suddenly explode into the second level for big gainers.  He’s even shown some handssome protection chops, and some improvisational skills in the passing game.  All in all, Higdon’s a legit player, and more than adequate Big Ten back.

What Higdon is, not, however, is large.  Listed at just 189 lbs. last season, a good 25 lbs. lighter than the average NFL running back (214.9 lbs), turning pro this spring could have been a disastrous decision for him because NFL scouts like their measurable and that’s a big one Higdon didn’t have.  So he smartly stayed in school and hit the weights hard this past off-season; Higdon rolled into fall camp listed at a cool 202 lbs., and the photographic evidence did seem to corroborate.  

So while Higdon still may not beast out the yards like De'Veon Smithbefore him, hopefully we’ll see him run with a bit more power in 2018, get his 1,000 yards, and hear his name called at the 2019 NFL Draft. 

Higdon’s still not going to get 225 carries though—probably not even 200. That’s because Michigan has another proven back on the roster, junior Chris Evans.  

Evans came to Ann Arbor in 2016, carried the ball 88 times as at true freshman, and put Michigan ahead of Florida Statewith 1:57 remaining the Orange Bowl (the Peppersless defense couldn’t hold it, but that’s another story).  This impressive debut had many expecting Michigan to feature Evans as their main RB in 2017.  That didn’t exactly happen, but Evans did get over 150 touches (135 rushing carries and 16 receptions), and he and Higdon formed a solid 1-2 punch.

Evans’ game is built on three key components: speedelusiveness, and versatility.  With both a quick initial burst and a breakaway top gear, Evans has the ability to beat defenders around the corner and the wheels to pull away when he gets a step.  He’s hardly a physical runner, but is shifty and hard to tackle.  Defenders rarely get a clean shot on Evans, and he does have a bit of a stiffarm when he needs it.  But he prefers to juke or jump cut or jab step his way down the field—or just jump right over that ass.  A true all-purpose back, Evans will run outside, he’ll run inside, he’ll dive over a pile at the goal line, he’ll go out for a pass, he’ll give the QB a checkdown option.  He does it all, he does it well, and now he’s an upper classman.  Can you say two 1,000-yard running backs?  If you count Evans’ receiving yards, then probably, yeah. Just as long as he doesn’t turn pro because of it.

With Higdon and Evans as proven commodities, probably the only real question pertaining to Michigan’s running backs this season is, which of several young RBs will emerge as a viable third option and likely replacement for Higdon in 2019?  That answer was supposedto be Kareem Walker, the former 5-star New Jersey running back who famously committed to Ohio State during halftime of the 2014 national championship game, only to later flip to the Wolverines.  But Walker struggled with injuries and the academics at Michigan, and despite showing a good deal of promise in limited action never surmounted the off-field obstacles.  He’s left the Michigan program, and we wish him well in future endeavors—but we still need to find a new back.

That back could be sophomore O’Maury Samuels, a Higdon-like ball of muscle who dipped his toe in the pool of Big Ten football with eight carries last season.  Granted, he managed just13 yards on those carries and generally looked like he didn’t belong.  But the same was basically true of Higdon when he was a freshman (19 yards on 11 carrries, and a very poorly-timed slip & fall in the dying minutes of the 2015 Michigan State game).  Samuels supposedly hulked up from 192 to 205 lbs. over the off-season—if that’s true, then together with another year of acclimation Samuels is a good bet for 60+ carries and an eye to starting in 2019.

While Samuels works on becoming Karan Higdon 2.0, three true freshmen arrive in Ann Arbor this fall with great aspirations of their own.  Hassan Haskins is bigger prospect M hopes to develop into an A-Train type.  Christian Turner is another smaller back who looks destined for the Higdon track.  And then there’s Michael Barrett, one of the more intriguing prospects Michigan has signed in recent years.  Barrett is a highly-regarded athlete who chose M over an offer from Georgia Tech to play QB in their triple option, and at 6’1’ and 224 lbs., he already brings good size to the position.  But Barrett played QB in high school, and may have a steeper learning curve in terms of footwork, blocking, receiving, and other non-ball-carrying RB duties.  Even so, he remains EGD’s pick as the most likely contributor among the three freshman backs.

Running Backs: Bottom Line

Probable starters: Karan Higdon, Chris Evans
Key backups: O’Maury Samuels
Other possible options: Michael Barrett, Hassan Haskins, Christian Turner, Kurt Taylor, Tru Wilson
Position grade: B+
Michigan may not have one back as good as Wisconsin’s Johnathan Taylor or Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins. But Higdon and Evans are two quality college running backs, and both are upper classmen who should add poise, leadership, and consistency.  M lacks quality depth behind them, but should at least be able to find a role-player for a third RB spot from among the various available candidates.  

Monday, July 30, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 - Part 2: Inside Linebackers

The 2017 Michigan Defense was elite by standard statistical measures.  The unit finished third nationally in total defense, allowed only 120.9 rushing yards per game, and ranked fourth overall in opponent passing efficiency.  And at times during the 2017 season, the Defense did indeed seem every bit that dominant.  But not always.  And standard football statistics are seldom reliable and often downright misleading. So that’s why you need to look at the advanced stats.

Here, the 2017 Michigan Defense still rates very highly—ninth overall in defensive FEI, tenth defensive S&P+, and holding the country’s #2 overall opponent success rate.  Top-10 (out of 120 FBS teams) is still “elite” by most reasonable definitions, even if perhaps a shade below the dominance suggested by the standard statistics. And that feels a little more on-point with the eye test, though ultimately saying M had the ninth-best or tenth-best defense in 2017 still doesn’t quite capture it.  

What does, I think, is to say that Michigan’s 2017 defense was generally quite formidable, but limited by a couple of key vulnerabilities.  Most opponents proved unable to take advantage of those Achilles’ heels and were mercilessly crushed at the hands of Don Brown and his minions. But the few teams that could capitalize on Michigan’s soft spots found varying degrees of success.  

One of Michigan’s major defensive shortcomings in 2017 was an inability to consistently defend vertical passes to slot receivers, a problem that will be covered in an upcoming post on safeties.  The other was Mike McCray in space.  

Now, let me begin by saying that Mike McCray was, overall, a very good player for Michigan who filled a much-needed role at WLB after Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan graduated and left a giant, flashing ?at the position heading into 2016.  My take on McCray then was competent and physical, and I dare say he generally lived up to that billing in his time as a starter.  He excelled as a run defender and performed exceptionally well against north-south offenses like Michigan State and even Ohio State.  He was also a team captain and thus undoubtedly contributed leadership and other intangible benefits to the program as well.  But man, did McCray struggle badly at times covering releasing backs in space—especially on the accursed wheel routes.  

As is the way of football, once opposing offensive coordinators detected this weakness, those with the ability to exploit it (e.g., those having speedy RBs with receiving chops) did so over and over and over and over again.  Probably on account of this critical flaw in his game, the NFL passed on McCray in the 2018 entry draft—and though McCray signed a free agent contract with the Dolphins, he announced his retirement (likely from playing, but leaving the door open to a coaching career) before training camp opened this summer.  

As for the Michigan Defense, McCray’s departure re-opens that void at WLB that #9 himself filled two seasons ago.  But back in 2016, the only real candidates to fill that hole were unproven positional misfits like Noah Furbush or Jared Wangler, some true freshmen, Mattison’s old hat rack, a warehouse dolly, and McCray.  Though some indications made McCray the natural favorite—being he was a former 4-star recruit from power Ohio high school program Trotwood-Madison and the son of Ohio State star Mike McCray, Sr., and the right size and shape for the position—he had also suffered a significant knee injury earlier in his career and hadn’t even seen the field on special teams in 2015.  Nobody outside the program really knew whether McCray still had it, until he served notice by thumping fools in the 2016 spring game. Things are different at WLB now.  As the team heads into fall camp, at least four (non-true freshmen) players will vie for the starting nod at the open WLB position, possibly as many as six.  

The three most likely candidates are probably Furbush, now a fifth-year senior with experience in 32 games and seven LB starts, redshirt sophomore Devin Gil, and true sophomore Josh Ross.  Furbush saw extensive action last season as an outside linebacker in Michigan’s 3-3-5 stack package, where he was probably best known for being the guy who leapt on the free ball in the end zone to seal the Florida game after a Chase Winovich strip-sack.  At 6’5” and nearly 240 lbs., Furbush played a versatile role—blitzing frequently, lining up as an end, dropping into coverage.  But his main role seemed to be occupying blockers so as to keep Michigan’s star middle linebacker, Devin Bush, Jr., free to wreak his sideline-to-sideline terror.  While Furbush’s best position fit is probably as a Jake Ryan-style SAM linebacker, his game isn’t much different from McCray’s (for better or for worse).

Josh Ross before the red turf at Orchard Lake St. Mary's
Josh Ross is essentially a bigger-and-faster version of his older brother (and four-year M starter at WLB) James “Biggs” Ross—a fierce and instinctual run defender with the athleticism to succeed in space.  Ross could provide a talent upgrade to the position, but this would come at a significant pricetag in terms of experience.  Ross did get into all 13 games last season, but most of his action was limited to special teams—and as we saw in the McCray clips above (not to mention over several seasons of Jonas Mouton), no amount of athletic ability can compensate for late reads, false steps, and wrong angles at the linebacker position.

The third candidate, Devin Gil, committed to Michigan as a 206-lb. safety back in 2015, part of the Flanagan High School trio of Gil, Josh Metellus, and Devin Bush Jr.  Though Gil had been previously committed to Miami (Fl.), which should say something about his physical ability, the recruiting sites had listed him as an anonymous two-star player and he was widely-believed a pot sweetener signed to draw Bush up north.  So lots of people were surprised to see Devin Gil on the field in the season opener against Florida last season, looking like a competent linebacker.  He went on to play in all 13 games, and Don Brown has since deemed Gil a “dude” (Don Brownese for “significant contributor”). 

So that’s already three plausible choices, and then there’s pass-rush specialist Josh Uche.  While Uche probably fits best at a traditional SAM position or possibly as a small WDE, Michigan doesn’t really have a SAM in its defense (and instead has the Viper position, manned by Big Ten DPOY candidate Khaleke Hudson) and is pretty well-stocked at WDE as well (with another Big Ten DPOY candidate Chase Winovich starting and several highly-touted reserves). So Uche has reportedly been practicing at WLB (and probably other places as well) in an effort to get him onto the field.  That’s because Uche has the uncanny ability to “dip & bend”—that is, to beat pass protectors around the corner on a speed rush, then curl around them to the QB at just the right depth.  Used effectively, Uche could be a sack machine—but on the flip side, Uche also has yet to show he can be an effective run defender or handle any kind of pass coverage.  Until he does, Uche ‘s utility may remain limited to obvious passing downs

Josh Uche demonstrates the "dip & bend"
Especially with the 2018 Michigan Spring Game having been canceled for inclement, weather, trying to guess which of these guys[1]is on top of the heap at WLB would be a futile exercise in hubris.  But it’s quite logical to expect at least an even performance from the WLB position in 2018—and probably a slight upgrade over McCray.

Probably the guy you most want to see as the WLB starter is Josh Ross.  Gil and Furbush are both proven contributors, but neither is likely to emerge into a bona fide star.  Ross could, as the player who brings the most complete physical package to the role.  Just getting snaps means he’d have earned some measure of trust from the coaches; if he passes both Gil and Furbush for the starting gig then he’ll have really proven something on the mental side of the equation, especially considering the guys he’s competing with.  

But while Ross is the player you ultimately want to see, he’s also a true sophomore with very little defensive experience.  So, chances are he won’t start in 2018 and if he does, it probably won’t be until later in the season.  And that’s fine, because both Gil and Furbush are fine.  All three players are likely to see a significant amount of action regardless, and Uche will undoubtedly get his share of passing down snaps.    

There is little question as to will be manning Michigan’s other inside linebacker position in 2018. Sophomore Devin Bush Jr. thundered onto the scene with two sacks against Florida in Michigan’s 2017 opener and never looked back, posting 9.5 TFLs on the season and finishing as the coaches’ selection for All-B1G first-team, a Butkus Award finalist, and a second-team Associated Press All-American. named him the top LB prospect to watch in 2018, and CBS Sports projects him as the #3 ILB and a second-round draft pick. Get ready to watch Bush wreck more offenses in 2018, because he unfortunately might not be around A2 much longer. 

What makes Bush so good is an uncommon ability to attack at full speed, yet remain under control and change direction as needed. QBs simply cannot sidestep Bush as they can with most rushers.  Bush is also a phenomenal sideline-to-sideline defender, with very good closing speed, and effective coverage skills.  His athleticism and total package of skills, coupled with the advanced football I.Q. that comes from being the son of a seven-year NFL player who was also your high school coach and now lives with you and is an analyst for your college team, makes Bush a leading candidate for defensive player of the year in the Big Ten.

Despite his outstanding season, Bush was not a finished product in 2017.  He struggled with misdirection and could get overpowered by blockers when his defensive linemen (and Furbush, whom mgoblog called “Bush’s fullback”) were unable to keep him clean.  I would not expect Bush to exhibit those same shortcomings in 2018.  

MLB prospect Drew Singleton
As for Bush’s backup, look for Michigan to get game reps for a couple freshmen in the (sadly, probable) event of an early Bush exit.  The first one is Drew Singleton, a top-100 recruit out of the same Paramus, N.J., pipeline that brought Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary to Ann Arbor.  Singleton tore his ACL as a high school senior, redshirted in 2017, and then the Spring Game was canceled—so there isn’t much to go on with him but scouting reports and high school film.  He’s got more traditional LB size, at 6’2” and headed for ~ 235 lbs., and looks to be more of a thumper in the Mike McCray mold.  The other is true freshman Cameron McGrone, another five-star from Indiana whose game is more in the Devin Bush rocket-missile category.  Since these reps are largely about 2019, though, don’t look for Bush to come out in a competitive situation.  Don’t be surprised if a guy like Gil or Furbush turns out to be the guy who comes in for Bush in the event of injury, targeting suspension, or other tragedy.

MLB prospect Cameron McGrone
Inside Linebackers: Bottom Line

Projected Starters: MLB Devin Bush Jr., WLB Devin Gil/Noah Furbush/Josh Ross
Key Reserves: Gil, Furbush, Josh Uche (pass rush specialist)
Other possible options: Drew Singleton, Cameron McGrone, Jordan Anthony
Position grade: A- 

Bush is already an established B1G star, and will look to make first-team All-American and improve to a first-round draft grade.   The WLB position should be solid, if unspectacular, and there is plenty of overall depth.  

[1]In addition to these four guys, two other linebackers could potentially get into the mix for WLB. One is Drew Singleton, a borderline five-star recruit at the MLB spot, who will be discussed below.  The other is another highly-touted prospect, Jordan Anthony, who is likely slotted for Khlaeke Hudson’s viper position and will be discussed in with vipers.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

EGD’s Michigan Football Preview 2018 - Part 1: Cornerbacks

On April 28, 2017, Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis became the 92nd overall selection in the NFL Draft, going to the Dallas Cowboys in the third round.   A day later, the New York Jets drafted fellow Michigan cornerback Jeremy Clark in the sixth round.  Within another week, a third Michigan cornerback, Channing Stribling, would sign a contract with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent   And just like that, one of the best coverage units in Michigan history was off to professional football.  

Lewis, the best of the bunch, made first-team all-American in both his junior and senior seasons and holds Michigan’s school record with 21 PBUs in a single season.  He’d have a solid case for being the best CB in school history, had he not attended the alma mater of one Charles Woodson. Paired with two NFL-caliber boundary corners, Lewis led Michigan’s pass defense to a top-15 performance in 2015 (#13 to S&P+), and the unit became the nation’s top-ranked passing defense in 2016.  That’s what graduated from Michigan and migrated to the NFL the following spring.

In the more distant history of Michigan Football, the graduation of even such accomplished players as Lewis, Clark, and Stribling would generally have been met with the mildest of consternation, in the assumption that whoever ascended to their starting roles would surely perform adequately enough.  But Lewis had come to Michigan in 2013, the year the Brady Hoke experiment had truly begun to unravel.  That season wasn’t far removed from the gloomiest days of his predecessor, the luckless Rich Rodriguez, whose legendarily incompetent pass defenses linger in the darkest reaches of Wolverine memories.  So Lewis’ departure, and that of his veteran teammates, was a fearful occasion for some—met with anxiety and Bormir memes.  One does not simply replace the #1-ranked pass defense on S&P+.

Or maybe one does. Lavert Hill, a coveted high school cornerback prospect in the 2016 class out of Detroit MLK, had pledged his services to James Franklin and the Penn State Nittany Lions until the combined labors of Jim Harbaugh, Tyrone muthaf***in Wheatley, and probably Hill’s brother (former Michigan safety Delano Hill) set him straight.  Hill quickly proved those efforts worthwhile, showing promise in limited action as a freshman and staking a strong claim as heir apparent to Lewis’ field corner position.    
Across the gridiron, Harbaugh had inked an even more highly-touted 2016 prospect for the rough-and-tumble boundary corner position.  Los Angeles prospect David Long, at 6’ tall and with electronically-timed 4.4 speed, was ranked well within the top-100 on every major recruiting website, and consistently praised for his coverage, tackling, and general play-making ability.  Mgoblog declared him a lock, and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to agree.  But Long missed almost all of the 2016 season with an injury/redshirt, so while Hill had shown some talent at the field spot, the boundary corner position loomed as a total question mark headed into fall 2017.  And that’s when the interview happened.

Sports coaches are notorious for answering media inquiries with clichés and worthless information. Michigan secondary coach Mike Zordich is not most coaches.  Asked how “those young corners [were] coming along” as his first question at a press conference less than two weeks before the team’s 2017 opener, Zordich’s answer was blunt. “Not fast enough.”  The surprised reporters gave him several chances to retract or hedge his statement, but Zordich only doubled down.  “It’s just not happening,” the coach lamented. “Hopefully somebody will [emerge] in the next five to seven days because we’ve got to get ready for a game … I don’t want to sound like the sky is falling, but there is an eclipse.”

The eclipse must have passed quickly, however, because once the season started, the sophomore duo proved lights-out.  Michigan finished the 2017 season ranked #3 in pass defense (per S&P+), and opponents generally avoided testing Michigan’s corners—preferring instead to attack safeties and linebackers when they did go to the air.  Long and Hill held the Big Ten’s best receiver, Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs, to just four catches for 39 yards, while holding OSU star Parris Campbell to just 12 yards on three receptions.  Perhaps most impressively, Long posted the lowest opposing passer rating (11.9) and fewest yards allowed per coverage snap (0.36) of any corner in the nation, while Hill did even better against Big Ten opponents—leading Big Ten corners with just 0.26 yards per coverage snap in conference play.   

Hill’s forte, like fellow Detroit product Jourdan Lewis before him, is man-to-man coverage. Despite his small stature, Hill uses exquisite technique, phenomenal agility, and an impressive vertical leap to frustrate and shut down receivers who often tower over him. Here Hill dominates a route against battlemech-style IU receiver Simmie Cobbs, skying for the interception over the 6’3” star.  Here, Hill bursts from a trail position to PBU a crossing route—ordinarily a very difficult route to cover man-to-man.  Long, on the boundary side, plays a more physical style than Hill—but that can work in coverage too, as you see here against Purdue and here against South Carolina.  Oh, and here’s some more Cobbs frustration.  Both are adequate run defenders.  And both can make something happen when they get two hands on the ball. 

Both Hill and Long will be true juniors as they head into the 2018 season, and this year the question won’t be whether Michigan will still have reliable corners with Lewis & Co off to the League.  Rather, the more likely question will be whether 2018 is the last season we’ll see either player in the winged helmet.  Both are currently projected as late-round picks, were they to declare early after the 2018 season, and could move up by adding strength and size in the weight room, further refining their technique, and producing another year of strong play on the field.  

Michigan’s reserve corners for 2018 will almost certainly be sophomore Ambry Thomas on the field side, and fifth-year senior Brandon Watson on the boundary.  There were some who thought Thomas, another Detroit King graduate and top-100 recruit with an electronically-timed 4.43 forty and elite ball skills, would rocket past Hill or Long to start as a freshman at Michigan. But one look at Thomas in his Wolverine uniform dispelled that illusion.  Listed charitably at 170 lbs., Thomas arrived in Ann Arbor rail-thin and clearly not a viable option for holding an edge against Big Ten rushing attacks.  He still got into all 13 games, mainly as a kick returner, and his talent is undeniable. Look for Thomas to appear more regularly on defense this season as the staff grooms him for a starting role in 2019.

Watson is the practical antithesis of Ambry Thomas, being an unheralded three-star recruit Brady Hoke dug up from the now-defunct Eastern Christian Academy (a bizarre “high school” in which the students took an on-line curriculum while focusing on football).  While lacking in speed, Watson was not lacking in size—and tended to play defense by using his ridiculously-jacked arms to club receivers into submission before they could even get started on their routes.  Of course, that’s the type of thing that works well in high school but gets one’s ass kicked in college, so Watson not surprisingly disappeared for his first three years at Michigan.  

Those who hadn’t forgotten about Watson’s presence on the roster thought he was too slow for cornerback, and urged a move to safety or the hybrid S/LB “viper” position.  When he didn’t, the widespread expectation was, frankly, that Watson would quietly play out his fourth year in 2017 and move on to a career in something other than sports.  But then the season started, and in the first half of the first game, Watson came and in a PBU'd a fade route along the left sideline.  The play showed Watson had enough speed to be a useful piece after all; he continued his contributions as a reserve corner (and special teams demon) throughout the season, and what do you know?  He’s back in 2018 for year 5.  

Probably the last cornerback with any realistic hope of contributing in 2018 is another guy with an unlikely path to glory, redshirt sophomore Benjamin St. Juste.  Most Michigan fans first heard St. Juste’s name on June 23, 2015, when Michigan Insiderreporter Bruch Marich announced that Jim Harbaugh had accepted a commitment from the unranked (and basically unknown) cornerback prospect out of Montreal.  This news sent the Michigan comment boards into a meltdown, as recruiting stargazers lamented that only a team comprised of guru-approved four- and five-star talent could hope to compete with the likes of Ohio State.  Nondescript three-stars wouldn’t get the job done, let alone random nobodies from Canada.  Why, they furiously wondered, was Jim Harbaugh settling for such players. When St. Juste tore his ACL a few months later, many of those same voices undoubtedly expected the obscure prospect would soon be back on the market.

But Jim Harbaugh did not “process” St. Juste, as his doubters may have hoped.  And when he returned the field, St. Juste quickly began showing the scouts the same things the Michigan staff had seen in him.  Former Michigan corner and technique guru Todd Howard called St. Juste “a legit corner” and praised his footwork.  St. Juste competed at the prestigious Nike camp, The Opening, where he posted an elite (3.93) shuttle time and made the “Dream Team,” gaining recognition as one of the best corners in attendance.  As the months grinded on, St. Juste steadily climbed the recruiting rankings.  By national signing day, St. Juste finished as a four-star prospect on both Rivals and 247 Sports, a top-20 corner prospect on both sites and a top-100 overall player to 247.  So yeah. Rankings.

Thing about St. Juste though, is he’s still a 6’3”, 195 lb. corner from Montreal.  He enrolled early and played in the 2017 spring game, where he quickly proved he was…not ready—not strong enough, and in need of much technical development.  So he took the obvious redshirt and now, a year-and-half later, Michigan just might have something.  Anytime your coach is Jim Harbaugh and you’ve got a 6’3” cornerback on the roster, a certain kind of potential is going to beckon.  Nah. Maybe!  But nah.  Right?

Cornerbacks: Bottom Line
  • Projected Starters: Lavert Hill (field), David Long (boundary)
  • Key Reserves: Ambry Thomas, Brandon Watson, Benjamin St. Juste 
  • Other possible options: Jaylyn Kelly-Powell, Myles Sims, Gemon Green, Sammy Faustin, German Green
  • Position Grade: A, should be one of the best units in the country, probably the best in the B1G, and a key strength of the 2018 team.

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 4: Defensive Line

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