Michigan opens its season on Thursday, Sept. 3 at Utah. Here are five key issues facing the Wolverines' defense.
A little help, please
Michigan was near the bottom of the national rankings in turnover margin at minus-16 last season. No team can win that way. The Wolverines were guilty of 18 interceptions and eight fumbles. "Our turnover ratio was God-awful," senior linebacker Joe Bolden said. While most of the errors came from Michigan's offensive play, the defense didn't do much to produce turnovers. That's been a focal point for the defense since spring practice. Bolden said the defense wants to set the tone, and that starts by pressuring quarterbacks and forcing mistakes the defense can pounce on. The Wolverines missed many of those moments last year, and while coughing up the ball certainly hurt and put the defense in challenging field-position situations, the defense didn't answer with many of its own turnovers.
New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had worked since the spring with changing fronts to take advantage of Michigan's defensive depth and give the Wolverines versatility. Durkin feels good about the depth of the defensive line and also has the benefit of working with line coach Greg Mattison, the defensive coordinator the last four seasons. "He's as good as anyone in the country," Durkin said of Mattison. Senior linebacker James Ross III said the Wolverines' experienced line will help the linebackers, a veteran group that will feature Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan along with Ross. "I feel like everybody has a good amount of experience," Ross said of the line. "It helps everybody out." Overall, the defense, which is expected to be the strength of this team, will have an "attitude," Ross said. "I believe it's going to have a lot of urgency, a lot of running to the ball, a lot of big hits, a lot of guys celebrating with each other, just a band of brothers going after it on the field day in and day out," he said.
Full speed ahead for Peppers
Defensive back Jabrill Peppers hasn't received as much attention as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, but he's probably No. 2 on the Hype-Meter. And Peppers is as eager as the fans himself to see what he can do after missing most of 2014 with injuries. Harbaugh has said Peppers might play on offense a bit and should be a factor in the return game. But it's in the secondary where Peppers should be a difference-maker. His position coach, Greg Jackson, likes that Peppers talks a lot, because that motivates Peppers and his teammates. Even as a redshirt freshman, Peppers has commanded respect and is considered a leader. Jackson said everything Peppers does is at "full speed" and his challenge will to keep the youngster's mind clear. "He's young, and he's going to have to stay on it mentally, and I'm going to have to make sure he stays on it mentally," Jackson said. "The thing is, he plays so fast and at such a high speed, like I told him, 'I don't want to take any of that away from you, all I want you to do is to start thinking clearly.' If he can do that, I think the sky's the limit for him."
Lyons slides in
Blake Countess has transferred to Auburn, and to shore things up at cornerback, Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons is expected to fill in nicely. Lyons was versatile at Stanford and can play nickel or corner. What Michigan's defensive staff liked about him is he's a big corner at 6-foot-1, 193 pounds and moves and changes direction well. Lyons, a fifth-year senior graduate student, picked up the defense quickly. With the Cardinal last season, Lyons had 30 tackles and forced a fumble. He is expected to play at Michigan opposite Jourdan Lewis. "Wayne Lyons is going to be a big plus for us, because he brings talent and ability we're looking for," assistant coach Greg Jackson said.
Overall, Michigan's defense will be the strength of the team and within the defense, the linebackers, even with the loss of Jake Ryan, the team's top linebacker and team MVP last season, are the most seasoned and experienced position group. The linebackers are led by senior Joe Bolden, who had 102 tackles last season. Joining him are veterans James Ross III and Desmond Morgan, who missed all but the opener last season because of an arm injury. Working behind an experienced defensive front, the linebackers have said they relish the opportunities that will be provided. Michigan was 15th nationally in rushing defense last season. There is depth at linebacker, as well, with Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray and Royce Jenkins-Stone. With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin having the Wolverines running different sets, the players said they like the versatility and challenge. Ross, for instance, played WILL the first two years and SAM last year, and this year he will be playing both. "I'm excited about it, because I know a lot of good will come out of it," Ross said.