This is part six of our Michigan Football 2014 season preview series. This edition will take an in depth look at the defensive backs, a group that will rely on a pair of true freshmen to provide much-needed stability. Part Four of the series focused on the linebackers and Part Five focused on the running backs.
What we know
The defensive backs took much of the blame for the defensive struggles in 2013, and rightfully so. Per game, the Wolverines defense ranked 87th in opponent passing touchdowns (1.8), 68th in opponent first downs by passing (10.6) and 65th in passing yards allowed (231.3).
It appears that Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, who combined for 10 interceptions in 2013, will return to their starting roles at cornerback, but there are three guys who will be chomping at the bit to earn the starting job as the season progresses. Sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who began to impress the coaching staff in spring practice, is on the cusp of overtaking the injury-plagued Countess. Now that he has developed some familiarity with the defense, Lewis has become more comfortable playing physical and fearless. Sophomore Channing Stribling will also be in the mix at corner.
Jarrod Wilson has a grasp on the starting job at free safety after making eight starts at the position in 2013 and continuing to impress the coaching staff throughout the spring. Prior to suffering a broken jaw before fall camp, Delano Hill was set to take over the strong safety position. Now that Hill is out indefinitely, Jeremy Clark, Dymonte Thomas and Brandon Watson will battle for the starting job.
Blue-chip recruit Jabrill Peppers could start find himself a starting job (at either safety or corner) by season’s end, but for now he will be primarily focused on the nickel position.
Areas of concern
Although Michigan will only have to replace one starter in the defensive backfield from last season, safety Thomas Gordon, the group as a whole lacks experience. The main area of concern for this group is to avoid rushing any of these young guys into full playing time. If Michigan loses one of their experienced starters due to injury or poor performance, the unit would suffer a major setback if anyone is inserted into the starting lineup without proper development.
Michigan’s roster is loaded with undersized corners that are forced to play physical at the line of scrimmage due to the lack of speed in the defensive backfield. It’s going to be tough to hold Lewis and Peppers out of the starting lineup until they are properly groomed, but it’s what is best for Greg Mattison and his defense.
Potential breakout player
Jabrill Peppers is the obvious choice here. He was a top-five national recruit and his 4.4-speed makes his potential contributions limitless. However, I’m going to go in a different direction. Brandon Watson is a player to be on the lookout for, but my potential breakout player is Jourdan Lewis.
Lewis has all the makings to become a great man-coverage corner. He is one of the few corners on this roster to possess high-end speed and he doesn’t shy away from physicality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wants his corners play press coverage and make a play on the ball, two characteristics that Lewis’ fearless style of play contains.
CB: Blake Countess (RS Jr, 5-10, 180)
CB: Raymon Taylor (Sr, 5-10. 184)
SS: Dymonte Thomas (So, 6-2, 193)
FS: Jarrod Wilson (Jr, 6-2, 205)
Nickel: Jabrill Peppers (Fr, 6-1, 202)
Key reserves: Delano Hill (injured), Jourdan Lewis, Delonte Hollowell, Brandon Watson, Jeremy Clark, AJ Pearson, Channing Stribling
Incoming freshmen: Joe Hewlett, Jabrill Peppers, Brandon Watson
It’s going to be important for Michigan’s experienced defensive backs to perform at a higher level than they did a season ago, especially in the early stages of the season. This group doesn’t have to be the strength of the defense but if they can force some turnovers and limit their oppositions’ success on third-down conversions, the defense as a whole will experience a great improvement from 2013.
Side note: As much as I don’t want to see Peppers rushed into large amounts of playing time, I fully expect him to be a starter by October.
Check out our Michigan Football team page as we continue to preview each position group.
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