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Wojo: Fresh faces flash promise for Michigan's 'D'

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
University of Michigan player Brandon Watson runs for the end zone.

Ann Arbor – Logically and numerically, you assume there will be a drop-off. You look at Michigan’s defense and see precisely one returning starter. You inspect NFL prospect lists and see as many as 10 Michigan defensive players potentially drafted.

Then you look at the field and see young players everywhere, including true freshmen, and you realize the Wolverines have a ridiculously daunting rebuilding job. Or do they?

There’s no way this defense can instantly be as good as last year’s group, which finished tied with Alabama at No. 1 in the country, allowing 261.8 yards per game. But there are ways it can be faster, more aggressive, perhaps even more disruptive.

Anything that happens in a spring game should stay in a spring game, so we’re not drawing bold conclusions. But the 57,418 in Michigan Stadium Saturday saw plenty of big defensive plays, which pleased coordinator Don Brown. Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush was a quarterback-chasing blur, and sophomore end Rashan Gary looks poised to fulfill his No. 1 recruit billing.

Of course, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno couldn’t have been giddy with his side, as quarterback Wilton Speight threw two bad interceptions and completed only nine of 26 passes. Speight has to improve his decision-making and cut down on mistakes, but remains the prospective starter, although the battle isn’t over. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters played well, scrambling 12 yards for a touchdown and completing a 55-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Gentry.

Something to prove

The backbone of Michigan’s team again will run right through the defense, especially the defensive line. And for virtually every departing star – Taco Charlton, Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Channing Stribling – there’s a promising player waiting for a shot. The question isn’t raw ability, it’s readiness.

While Michigan’s defensive line left almost intact for the NFL, senior Maurice Hurst’s decision to return was a boon. The chance to make a bigger impact, while playing with guys like Gary and Bush, made it an easier choice.

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“I think we’re faster, but there’s a lot we have to work on to be as good as last year,” Hurst said. “I think we can be as good, if not better, honestly. Rashan’s done a great job being more of a leader, and Bush as well. I think they’re both gonna be amazing this year. It’s really impressive at times to see the type of plays that are made in practice.”

Young guys made those type of plays in the spring game. Freshman Benjamin St. Juste picked off one Speight pass, and junior Jordan Glasgow (the latest from the famed Glasgow family) took an interception 100 yards for a touchdown.

Bush burst through the offensive line several times for apparent sacks (quarterback contact wasn’t allowed), and Gary and sophomore Carlo Kemp possess havoc-wreaking ability, which is key. As staunch as Michigan’s defense was, it tied for 67th in the country in forced turnovers with 19.

“We’re young, we’re hungry, we got a lot to prove,” Gary said. “Everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder because last year’s defense was great. No doubt, we can be better than that.”

The standard for Michigan’s defensive line has grown in two-plus seasons under Jim Harbaugh and assistant Greg Mattison, and Gary has the ability to back it up. He was the coaches’ No. 1 pick in the spring-game draft and doesn’t shy from expectations.

Next in line

That’s good, because even as young as it is, the defense might have to carry the offense early. The offensive line returns only two starters and the top three pass-catchers departed. And Speight can’t remain prone to what he called “boneheaded decisions.”

Touting unproven players is a risky proposition, and there’s a reason most prognosticators rank Michigan outside the nation’s top 10. But Harbaugh landed the fourth-ranked recruiting class, which includes top defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, and has been stockpiling talent. The lone returning starter on defense, linebacker Mike McCray, scoffs at the notion of a step back.

“Lack of experience doesn’t mean anything,” McCray said. “If you can play, you can play.”

The Wolverines must find out quickly who can play. Juniors Tyree Kinnel, Keith Washington and Brandon Watson (who returned a Peters interception 32 yards for a touchdown Saturday) are among the few with any experience in the secondary. Sophomores LaVert Hill and David Long are expected to rise, and freshman Ambry Thomas and St. Juste have impressed in practice.

Versatile sophomore Khaleke Hudson could shine at the viper position, and sophomore safety Josh Metellus showed similar skills when he assumed Peppers’ role in the Orange Bowl. The defense has capable holdovers in Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich and Noah Furbush, but it’ll be the fresh faces and fast legs required to make up ground.

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“I’m really happy with our young guys,” said Brown, in his second season here. “Devin Bush is exactly what we knew he’d be in this environment. I teased him when he didn’t have a shirt on the other day and I said, ‘Last year I remember you were a short, pudgy guy.’ He’s chiseled now. We’ve got him playing two (linebacker) positions and he has huge shoes to fill.”

You can say that about practically every member of Michigan’s defense. It’s a tough problem to have, but based on the touted talent, those shoes could be filled by more big feats.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski