2014 Depth Chart Preview Part 2: Defense

Posted on Posted in Michigan Football

Hello again, Michigan fans.

After the awesome shellacking of MSU today, I figured everyone would be in the mood for as much Michigan-related content as possible. So, I’m back with part 2 of my depth chart preview series. Same rules apply as in the last one: This preview is for Fall 2014, not spring practice. If a guy is hurt right now, I’m going to include him if I think he’ll be 100% healthy by the time fall rolls around.

Come with me through the jump to see what I think the defensive two-deep will look on August 30th…
Note: Jake Ryan has moved to MIKE linebacker. The defense looks to be taking on a bit of a different look this spring, and although I don’t know all the details, I think I have a pretty good guess. It sounds like it’s going to be more of a “hybrid 4-3 under”, if such a thing even exists. Essentially, it looks like bigger guys are going to be in the middle (Ryan), with more tweener guys playing on the outside (SAM), like James Ross. This makes me think that the SAM spot will now be more of a “spur” position, a la Stevie Brown, as opposed to a true SAM position (as Jake Ryan was). The changes more or less seem to be concentrated on getting the best players in the best positions, which is obviously a good thing. Here we go:

Weak-Side Defensive End (WDE)

Frank Clark (Sr), Mario Ojemudia (Jr)

Get. To. The. Quarterback. And. Cause. Havoc. In. The. Backfield. Please.
Frank Clark had a solid season in 2013, but it wasn’t the “breakout performance” that everyone was seemingly calling for before the games began. He’s definitely a helluva athlete, but Michigan is going to need that athleticism to translate into more production in 2014, and by production I mean sacks and tackles for loss. It’s true, stats don’t tell the whole story. Quinton Washington was a pretty good player for Michigan, but he hardly put up noteworthy stats. I think, for a weak side end, that Clark does a pretty good job against the run (I’m hardly a football scout though), but he needs to be more effective in getting to the quarterback. Plain and simple. Ojemudia is a nice pass rushing option, but he’s simply not big enough to hold up against the run. He’s more of a role player. Lawrence Marshall could factor in here, but I’m leery of counting on true freshman on either line.

3 Technique Defensive Tackle (3DT)

Willie Henry (RS So), Chris Wormley (RS So)

God. I still have fantasies of Mike Martin being able to play here instead of the nose. He would have destroyed people (he did anyways). Jibreel Black did a nice job here a year ago, despite being undersized. Willie Henry is a helluva football player in the making, and he showed it last year. He’s insanely strong, has excellent size, is pretty quick, and overall just has a nose for the football. He also showed just how raw he is, technique-wise. If he takes another step forward this spring/summer, watch out. He could be excellent. Wormley is a bit of an enigma to me. The ACL tear was bad, but I think it could be a blessing in disguise for him as he needed to put on weight, get stronger, and overall work on technique. He’s very athletic, and if the reports of him moving to 3DT permanently are true (it seems like they are), then he could very easily wrack up quite a few sacks from this position. Ryan Glasgow and Henry Poggi are also names to keep an eye on here.

1 Technique Defensive Tackle (Nose Tackle) (NT)

Ondre Pipkins (Jr), Maurice Hurst Jr (RS Fr)

Granted, I don’t know if Pipkins will be 100% healthy and ready to go after tearing his ACL. I just don’t know, but I’m operating with a sense of optimism in this spot. Ideally, he can come back stronger, but it will certainly be tough for him to keep his conditioning up. In that case, I think you’ll see a ton of rotation in this spot. Hurst got rave reviews during the 2013 season as he was redshirting, and you could definitely see Henry or Glasgow play here in spurts. Mattison likes to rotate his defensive line a ton, which we all know. I’ll be interested to see if Bryan Mone gets time here as well. This spot has the widest variance of the whole defense, in my opinion. If Pipkins comes back healthy and in shape, and the reviews on Hurst are true, this could easily be a position of strength. However, if Pipkins can’t come back effective, and Hurst isn’t as good as advertised, this could just as easily become a spot of weakness on the defense. I’ll be very interested to see who plays here during spring ball, with Pipkins being out.

Strong-Side Defensive End (SDE)

Brennan Beyer (Sr), Taco Charlton (So)

I think that this is the best spot of the front four, personally. Brennan Beyer isn’t a playmaker, but I do think he does a good job holding up against the run. If he can turn into what Craig Roh was as a senior, then you’re looking a pretty damned good player at this position. Charlton is the wildcard here. His athleticism and raw tools have no match on the defensive line, but his technique obviously needs refining. He’s a huge human being, and a freak of athleticism. If he can be coached up, he could very easily become the best defensive end since Brandon Graham. He could also, very easily, lead the team in sacks. Beyer is the steadier, more consistent player (right now), but Charlton’s ceiling is that of a 1st round draft pick. I’m not expecting him to become a true stud right away, but on passing downs he could be the true pass rush presence we’ve been aching for since Graham left. With Heitzman moving to tight end, I believe you’ll see Tom Strobel here as well. Matt Godin is another possibility, but I think he’s more of a 3DT. Spring practice should tell us a good amount about who is playing where.

Weak-Side Linebacker (WILL)

Joe Bolden (Jr), Ben Gedeon (So)

Under the old system, this would be James Ross’s job, no real questions asked. But it seems that he’s moving to the SAM spot, and last season Joe Bolden was the primary backup at both the WILL and MIKE spots. I don’t know exactly what the system changes will do to the WILL position, specifically, but Mattison has always operated a defense with 2 more “normal” linebackers, and 1 “weird” linebacker. It seems that even with the changes, the WILL and MIKE spots will remain the “normal” spots, with the SAM still being the “weird” one, just it’s weirdness will change some. Bolden was accoladed for his excellent instincts coming out of high school, and those instincts have shown up at Michigan, albeit with maddening inconsistency. He could easily be Michigan’s best “true” linebacker, but the inconsistency has killed him. Gedeon showed really nice things last year as a true freshman, and I believe he’s the most athletic of the bunch. He could very easily surpass Bolden, but for right now, we’ll stick with Bolden 1 and Gedeon 2. Others to consider in this spot would be Royce Jenkins-Stone and potentially Michael Ferns, but we’ll see, obviously.

Middle Linebacker (MIKE)

Jake Ryan (RS Sr), Desmond Morgan (Sr)

So here’s where the big change really shows up. Quite frankly, I really love Brady Hoke’s rationale for making the switch. He doesn’t want opposing offenses to be able to scheme away from his (arguably) best defensive player, so he’s going to stick him right in the middle and let him make plays. Desmond Morgan is a solid middle linebacker, but he’s nothing overly special and his athleticism leaves something to be desired. Jake Ryan is the opposite of that. Jake Ryan is a playmaker, with speed and athleticism and a football-headiness that cannot be taught about him. I’m really, really excited to see how he looks at the MIKE spot, especially when Mattison inevitably gets him involved in the blitz game.

Strong-side Linebacker (SAM)

James Ross III (Jr), Allen Gant (RS So)

Here’s where I’m just not sure what the hell is going on. Hoke mentioned that Ross will move to the SAM spot, and it will take on a different look than it has in the past. Jake Ryan at the SAM spot was basically a hybrid defensive end, who was responsible for setting the edge, playing in space, and rushing the passer. Not really a true “linebacker” in the traditional sense. So that, to me, tells me that the SAM position will be played a bit differently. Jake Ryan is much bigger than Ross (6’3″ 245 vs 6′ 225), so I don’t think Ross will be asked to set the edge in the same way Ryan was. It looks like, and I’m just speculating here, that Ross will be asked to set the edge using his quickness -OR- the SAM position will be more of a “spur”, kinda like Stevie Brown was back in 2009. I don’t really know enough about defensive schematics to give you an X’s and O’s breakdown here, but obviously if the changes are being made, that means Hoke and Mattison are confident that they will be effective. Under the old defense, Chase Winovich looked like a full on SAM 100%, but I don’t know how this change will affect his positional assignment. Allen Gant is the only other “SAM” on the roster (I don’t know what Mike McCray is playing), and he definitely fits the mold of a “spur” versus the Jake Ryan “SAM”. So, we’ll see in spring practice, obviously. But for now, until I know more, this is what I’m going with.

Boundary Cornerback (BCB)

Raymon Taylor (Sr), Channing Stribling (So)

I don’t have a real firm grasp of the innate differences between the boundary cornerback position and field cornerback position, but this is what I do understand: 1) Mattison’s defense utilizes both, 2) boundary corner is expected to be better against the run/better tackler/a bit bigger, 3) field corner is expected to be the better cover corner, and is expected to be more of a “clean up” guy, meaning he won’t have to come up and support the run in an alley by himself very often. So that being said, I believe Taylor will hold onto his starting spot at BCB for now, with Stribling (who I believe will be pretty damned good in time) backing him up. I thought Taylor was pretty good last year, despite seemingly the entire fan base wanting to send him to Bolivia every week. It’s one thing to see a guy give up a long pass on one play and say “he’s terrible fire Leyland”, but another to watch him on every play and see if he’s doing his job. Yes, Taylor got beat way more than he should have last year. No, he’s not a great 1 on 1 coverage cornerback. However, he’s a good tackler, is solid against the run, and holds his own in pass coverage. He’s not a star, but he’s an upgrade (I believe) over the last boundary corner we had (JT Floyd), and I think he does a solid job overall. That being said, Stribling may very well come into camp and take the job away from him. He was beyond raw last year, but his tools are exemplary and he could be really special, despite what the recruiting rankings said.

Field Cornerback (FCB)

Blake Countess (RS Jr), Jabrill Peppers (Fr)

Take a deep breath, Michigan fans. I believe in my heart of hearts that Jabrill Peppers will be on the field a ton in 2014. I believe that Mattison will have him out there blitzing, covering, you name it. I think he’s the “3rd cornerback” already, and he hasn’t graduated high school yet. Michigan plays a lot of nickel, and last year that’s where they tried Dymonte Thomas at first, and eventually where you saw Countess slide to in certain instances. This season, I think Countess will stay on the outside, and in nickel packages you will see Peppers come in and cover the slot guy. He’s quick, fluid, fast, and athletic enough to do so. It’s also not uncommon for Mattison to rotate his cornerbacks, although not with the same frequency that he does with the D-line. You saw Countess, Taylor, Jourdan Lewis, and Stribling all in the game at various times last season, and it won’t be a shock to see that again in 2014. With all that being said, Peppers will play quite a bit. It just might not be at a “depth chart starter” position right away.

Strong Safety (SS)

Dymonte Thomas (So), Delano Hill (So)

I’m really, really excited to see Dymonte Thomas back at strong safety. He was athletic enough to give him a try at the nickel cornerback spot last year, but he didn’t really see the field. I expect him to grab ahold of the strong safety position and not let go when spring ball starts. He’s fast, athletic, strong, and has a nose for the football. I believe he could be a helluva linebacker if he was 30 pounds heavier. Jordan Kovacs was the steady presence at SS when he played–the safety net, so to speak. Thomas won’t be that 100% safety net right away, but his ceiling blows Kovacs’ out of the water. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word, and although there will undoubtedly be some growing pains, he could be very special. Delano Hill is more athlete than football player at this point, in my opinion. He’s fast, he’s strong, he has good size, but I think he’s still learning how to play the game the right way. In a certain sense, he’s the exact opposite of Jordan Kovacs. He’s kinda like how Josh Furman was, but hopefully he ends up learning how to play, unlike Furman. Helluva special teamer, at least.

Free Safety (FS)

Jarrod Wilson (Jr), Jeremy Clark (RS So)

Wilson has been in the defensive backfield since he walked on campus a couple years ago, and in 2014 I expect him to take the proverbial “leap forward” to becoming a legitimate plus player. He’s that “center fielder” that Michigan hasn’t really had at the free safety position in a long time. He’s rangy, can make a hit, and is solid in coverage. I don’t think he’ll be the “head hunter” people like to see, but he’ll be a damned good player. Clark is a wildcard. I really don’t know where to slot him, as he’s been talked about as a FS, a SS, and an OLB at times. It’s going to depend on just how big he’s gotten, which we should have a good idea of in a few days when spring practice kicks off. Reon Dawson has supposedly moved to FS from cornerback, but other than him there’s not really a whole lot of depth back here.

That’s all for now, folks. I hope you enjoyed this little preview series. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below in the comments section, or you can follow me on twitter @B_Sakowski_PG and ask me there.

Go Blue!

Derek Devine
Institutional voice of Alma College during the day, Michigan fanatic at night. Taking TBHR to the next level one post at a time.