USA Today Sports Images
The Michigan defense will have quite the task trying to replicate the success they had on the field in 2016, with key guys at every position moving on to the NFL. Though the Wolverines return a few leaders at each level of the defense for the 2017 season, the players surrounding those pillars will have very little on-field experience.
“The youth on our team, you can look at it and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a long way to go,’ which we do,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said. “But, it’s just such an energizing feeling when you go out there and you’re actually walking off the field going ‘Damn, we functioned pretty well today.’ I’m excited about it. It’s a good group.”
Brown has the most returning experience in his defensive line, but after the first spring practice he noted that of the eight players they regularly used on that front line, he will only have four returners to work with this year.
With that being said, Brown is excited about having the tandem of freshman Rashan Gary and fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst working together on the same side of the line. Both players have shown extraordinary talent in bursts for the Wolverines, but each of them will be asked to do more than ever on this defense. Brown also highlighted the progress senior defensive end Chase Winovich has made over the last year.
Brown had good things to say about the youth at the position as well.
“I thought Donovan Jeter, just raw ability today, I thought he showed some really good signs,” Brown said.
With the inexperience on the defense, Brown will have to lean on leaders like Hurst and fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray to bring the younger guys along.
“It’s kind of an interesting blend,” Brown said. “There’s enough guys that have been around that will demand execution and demand effort and energy, that I feel like we’ll be in great shape.”
The leadership role is one that Hurst and McCray will have to get used to. Both are reserved and quiet off the field.
“Me and Mike were a little bit quieter kind of guys, but this year we kind of had to step up and be more vocal leaders and just lead by example,” Hurst said. “I think we’re both trying to be on the same page with a lot of stuff and we’re just making sure the young guys get it and making sure they understand how the work is supposed to be done and make sure they do it the right way. I think we’re both two people just trying to make this team as good as it can be.”
Though it is early in spring practices and more incoming freshmen will join the team later in the year, Brown is already trying to sort things out at linebacker. McCray, fifth-year senior walk on Mike Wroblewski and sophomore Devin Bush will be the players Brown looks at to fill the MIKE and WILL positions. Brown will also have to put more thought into the balance of playing a SAM linebacker and his VIPER position, with Jabrill Peppers going on to the NFL. In bigger packages Brown be looking at senior Noah Furbush and sophomore Josh Uche, while sophomore Khaleke Hudson and junior Jordan Glasgow are Brown’s leaders at VIPER.
In the defensive backfield, Brown highlighted junior safety Tyree Kinnel as a leader amongst an extremely young secondary. At the moment, the rest of the corner and safety positions are being fought for by sophomores and early-enrollee freshmen.
“The nice thing is, I don’t think there’s guys that are misplaced,” Brown said. “They’re in the right place in terms of the level of competition.”
Competition and the drive of the younger players will have to power this defense through spring ball and into the 2017 season as the team tries to get back to its 2016 level.
“Every day competition’s a beautiful thing, and we have several battles going on, so it’s exciting, too,” Brown said. “You know, young guys are hungry. They just seem to be hungry, and I don’t think that’s ever a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a great thing for our defensive football team, because everybody’s trying to make plays, which isn’t a bad thing.”