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How Michigan’s defense could be great, despite losing almost everything

The Wolverines have questions to answer in the secondary, but they’re still set up well.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game
Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2016.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Defense is not what brought the Brady Hoke era at Michigan down. But under Jim Harbaugh, the early returns on that side of the ball have been great. The Wolverines finished in the top three in Defensive S&P+ in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons. The 2016 unit had a richly talented secondary and several draft picks, including linebacker Jabrill Peppers, in its front seven.

Now, almost all of Harbaugh’s starters on defense are gone. The secondary is starting over with every starter departing. Two-thirds of the linebacker corps is gone, and only DT Maurice Hurst remains from the first-team line. Altogether there are nine starters leaving, with only two remaining for coordinator Don Brown.

Yet despite all of those heavy losses, there still might be enough pieces in place for Michigan to field another top-10 defense. Here’s how it could work.

For starters, Michigan had a ton of depth up front last year.

The Wolverines were dominant along the line in 2016, and a big reason was depth. Hurst was a spot starter at tackle, and Michigan was actually two-deep everywhere.

The area where Michigan is particularly excited about what’s returning up front is with their tackle-end combo of Hurst and Rashan Gary, the onetime no. 1 recruit in the country. Brown thinks they could be the best combo in the nation, and their pairing puts opposing teams in a tough spot when trying to scheme either their run blocking or their pass protections. Here’s how this could look:

Hurst lines up as a three-technique DT to the TE side, while Gary lines up as the “anchor end” to the same strong side. On the weak side they’d use their weak-side end/linebackers like Taco Charlton or now Chase Winovich. Runs to the strong side have to deal with Hurst’s explosiveness off the ball and Gary’s size (6’5, 300 pounds) on the edge, as well as the Sam or “Viper” linebacker hanging out over there.

Hurst’s quickness and Gary’s overall excellence also make for some tackle-end stunts on third down that can be a real load for opponents to handle.

The Wolverines did pretty well here, especially considering that one of their LBs forgot he was supposed to blitz the edge. You can see Hurst (No. 73) and Gary (3) working the tackle-anchor stunt and Gary working his way to daylight even as the Seminoles shade their protection over. The interception here came courtesy of weak-side linebacker Mike McCray, the other returning starter besides Hurst.

With all of that talent shaded to the strong side in Michigan’s “Over” defensive front, many teams choose to target the weak side with plays like “counter.”

This is your 2017 first-team DL in the game, with Winovich and Mone on the weak side opposite the dreaded Hurst-Gary pairing. Florida State runs a QB counter play at them, with a jet sweep to motion the safety out of position and eliminate the threat of backside penetration by Hurst or Gary.

That’s the first problem trying to run away from Michigan’s new strong side rather than running at them. Both Gary and Hurst are dangerous as backside pursuit players. You might win at the point of attack, only to see one of them make an ankle tackle from behind after blowing past a lineman who couldn’t get over quickly enough to seal them off. But even with the WR sweep accounting for that danger, Winovich plays the kick-out block with excellence and forces a wider path by the pulling H-back. Meanwhile, McCray scrapes, flies past the helpless H-back, and arrives to make the tackle for no gain. A decent plan has fallen apart for the offense.

Michigan’s going to need even more depth behind this crew, but the Wolverines could field as good a defensive line as anyone. That’ll make life easier for everyone behind it.

Michigan can survive the loss of Jabrill Peppers at linebacker.

All four of the Wolverines’ starting defensive backs — five if you count the versatile Peppers — are gone next year. That’s a difficult thing to overcome. Recall that Peppers and Jourdan Lewis were elite college players, and it seems even harder.

The obvious area of concern will be replacing Peppers at the “Viper” hybrid position after his productive 2016 campaign. However, the irony here is that the position doesn’t demand the full array of skills that Peppers brought. The primary responsibility for the Viper is playing the edge against the run, which is largely about having lateral speed to handle the spacing of spread formations. It has less need for a big, traditional Sam linebacker, because the position is protected by the anchor-tackle combo up front. That’s how Peppers was able to hold up there despite his smaller frame.

After that, there are some coverage requirements at the spot, but they generally consist of covering underneath zones or manning up a tight end. It’s not common that the Viper is asked to carry a vertical route or play without help over the top.

In 2016, Peppers had 66 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, three sacks, an INT, and a pass break-up playing this position. In 2015, when Brown was at Boston College, the Viper was Matt Milano, a 6’1, 221-pound space-backer who had 58 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and three pass break-ups.

Milano didn’t have anything like Peppers’ coverage ability or overall athleticism, but he was arguably even better at playing near the box than Michigan’s Heisman finalist. In fact, if Michigan had another player in 2016 that could handle the diverse roles of the position, Brown probably would have used Peppers at safety instead, like the Cleveland Browns will do in the NFL.

Next year, Brown will most likely play either Khaleke Hudson or Jordan Glasgow (third in a line of productive brothers to walk on in Ann Arbor) in Peppers’ place. Both of them are physical, speedy, undersized linebackers in the mold of Milano, who should fit the position’s requirements and potentially reduce the stress of replacing Peppers.

There are more pressing concerns in the secondary.

Man-coverage DBs Lewis (CB), Channing Stribling (CB), and Delano Hill (SS) were all key players on this defense, too. Brown has talent to replace them, but not much experience.

Michigan had the best defense in the country against the pass last year, according to S&P+. It limited explosive plays better than anybody. Repeating that will be a tall order in a league with multiple returning QBs and an increased emphasis on spread passing.

Brown has a lot of bracket coverages he can use to help his young players out, but unless someone proves up to playing on an island without safety support, there’s only so much he can do. That’s something Lewis gave Michigan.

The difficulty is replacing a bunch of DBs, not Peppers.

Michigan is going to be strong up front again in 2017 and perhaps get even more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than in 2016. Peppers was superb, but this defense doesn’t depend on having a player like him. The losses of Lewis, Stribling, and Hill could prove more difficult to overcome.