Defensive back and return man Jabrill Peppers already stands out among Michigan's freshmen. (Tony Ding / Associated Press)
Marcus Ray is uniquely qualified to offer valuable insight into the Michigan football program. Ray played for the Wolverines from 1995-98 and was a starting safety on the 1997 national championship team.
After a brief NFL career, Ray moved into high school and college coaching for 10 years before settling in at the Big Ten Network as a college football analyst.
He spoke with The Detroit News recently about the 2014 Wolverines.
Question: What are your impressions of Michigan heading into this season?
Ray: “I think Michigan is the most dangerous team in the Big Ten, and I say that because you don’t know which Michigan is going to show up. Any time you have a quarterback who can put the cape on and do something special, that always gives you a chance. Every week, Michigan is going to have a chance to have the best player on the field (Devin Gardner).
“They’re going to play better defense this year. They’ve made changes (to the staff), and they’re not going to give up as many points this year. On offense, they’re going to find a way to run, and I don’t think the offensive line is as bad as people think. I think Michigan can be as good as they want to be if they play football consistently and take care of turnovers.”
Question: Will new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier make a difference?
Ray: “Yeah. I think Nussmeier is going to make a difference from a mental standpoint. When Michigan’s offense gets stalled or stuffed, he’s not going to make excuses -- Doug Nussmeier is going to find something that works. That’s the key difference from last year’s offense. He brings that youthful energy, and he’s fun to be around. He’s smart. He understands offensive football, and he’s been there eight months and understands Michigan football.
“He wants an every-down back, but he’s going to use every skill set he has available. You’re going to see several players touch the ball. I think their identity is going to be run-first but line up in formations that force defenses to defend the whole field. I think Nussmeier is that new chess player on the block and no one knows what his move is going to be. He believes in explosion plays. He wants to get those points early and often. If he has guys who can hit the home run, he’s going to use them.”
Question: Is freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers the real deal?
Ray: “Jabrill Peppers is everything you’re looking for coming out of high school. He is a much better football player than Charles Woodson was coming out of high school by leaps and bounds. Charles was a free safety and a running back. He was a great athlete, but this kid can cover. He’s a true cornerback coming out of high school. He has hands, he’s fearless. He’s a smart football player, too. He can pick up the defense, and he looks like a Masters of the Universe action figure when he takes his shirt off. I think he should be a starting safety. He brings that nastiness the defense has been missing. I’m glad the defensive backs are getting shaken up a little bit. After a 7-6 season, getting beat deep by Penn State and Akron having you biting your nails, that secondary needed an injection of urgency and toughness, and if it comes from a freshman, so be it.”
Question: Will Michigan’s run game be better?
Ray: “I think it’s going to be a lot better, because they’re putting more emphasis on it. But I’m not sold on any of the running backs just yet, because I’m used to Michigan having a beast, and if he went down, we had another one behind him. I think Michigan’s running game will be better because the blocking scheme will be simpler, and they have enough weapons on the outside, and they’re going to put guys out there so that they loosen up the defense.”
Question: Do you think Michigan coach Brady Hoke is feeling hot-seat pressure?
Ray: “I don’t think Brady is feeling heat, and if he is, (he’s putting) pressure on himself. He knows what Michigan represents. Eight, nine wins, I think he’s safe. If they go 7-6, I don’t know. He’ll get the benefit of the doubt with that road schedule, because next year you get those games (Michigan State and Ohio State) at home. This season is an important year because it sets you up for 2015, and I think 2015 is the year Michigan is going to explode. He knows we’re supposed to be better than we are. He knows they have to finish games. I think he and (athletic director Dave) Brandon have an understanding, and when you look at their roster, they have too much youth, they’ve got Peppers in, and they’ll bring in a few more young guys, and they’re going in the right direction.”
Question: So can Michigan be a contender for the Big Ten title?
Ray: “I think so, because like I said, they’re the most dangerous team in the Big Ten. The Big Ten East is going to beat up on each other, and if you can win the crossover games, that will be important. They have a legitimate chance to be as good as they want to be. No one is talking about them. They have a chip on their shoulder, and they’re offended.
“They can be as good as they want to be as long as they don’t get caught up in who gets the most press, who gets the accolades. If that team decides they want to be Big Ten champion, it’s out there for them. It’s no easy task.”
Question: What’s your prediction?
Ray: “Nine and three. Real safe 9-3, second place in the East behind Michigan State.”