ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One player in Michigan’s secondary drew all the headlines and all the attention prior to the start of the 2016 season.
It wasn’t Channing Stribling.
Stribling didn’t get angry, however. And he didn’t resent his teammate who was getting all that attention, All-American CB Jourdan Lewis — not at all. Instead, the senior cornerback from North Carolina remained patient.
He knew his role with the Wolverines. He studied the playbook. He attached his nose to the grindstone and knew that if he simply did his job, he would be effective.
Then Lewis suffered a back injury prior to the start of the season. That injury, which would cost Lewis this season’s first three games, became Stribling’s opportunity to shine and gain his own attention. He simply had to continue to do what he had been doing.
While nobody enjoys seeing a teammate injured, it suddenly opened a door for Stribling, who spent the summer focusing on what he could do to strengthen his own game. He carved time into his day to study the playbook. He concentrated on what he called the “simple things,” the fundamentals he believed would help him improve, not just for the upcoming season but for the length of his football career.
And in the season opener against Hawaii, preparation and opportunity intersected, and Stribling crossed that threshold. Now, entering No. 3 Michigan’s game Saturday against Illinois, Stribling is sixth in the Big Ten with 8 passes defended (5 breakups, 3 interceptions) in Michigan’s first six games.
Increased opportunity, increased production, increased attention. And Stribling isn’t letting any of it inflate his ego. He knows where he came from and what got him to this point.
“All throughout my life, I’ve been the third-tier or fourth-tier best player on the team,” the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Stribling said. “But it doesn’t really matter to me. I do my job, and make sure the team wins.”
Lewis, meanwhile, offered a candid evaluation of Stribling.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Lewis, who returned for Michigan’s Big Ten Conference opener Sept. 24, a 49-10 win against Penn State. “Nobody’s really seen that out of him. He didn’t have as many opportunities as I did, but he’s always been a playmaker. People don’t see that as one of his strong suits but I’ve seen that, since he’s gotten here.
“I keep telling everybody that he’s been one of the top guys I’ve ever seen, definitely. He’s a ball hawk. You can see that right now, this season.”
Earlier this month, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made a bold prediction regarding Stribling — and Harbaugh isn’t one to shy away from bold predictions when it comes to his players. He’s already said of LB Jabrill Peppers: “In my humble opinion, you’re looking at a Heisman Trophy winner and a candidate.”
“He’s not in the limelight as much as some other players across the country, but people should not sleep on Channing Stribling,” Harbaugh said Oct. 6 on Detroit’s WXYT-FM (97.1). “This player will have a fine future. This guy will probably play 10 years in the NFL. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s steadily, consistently good. People talk about being consistent, but consistently good is what you’re looking for.”
Channing Stribling’s career statistics at Michigan:
While much of the attention on Michigan’s defense has gone to its defensive line, the secondary has held its own, even with the three-game absence of Lewis and the loss of cornerback Jeremy Clark, who is out for the year with a torn ACL.
Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) has the top pass defense in the nation (113.7 yards a game). In three games without Lewis, Michigan allowed an average of 156 passing yards, and Stribling and linebacker Mike McCray combined for 13 passes defended, including Stribling’s 51-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 63-3 Sept. 3 against Hawaii.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” Stribling said. “Jourdan’s an All-American, a well-needed player on the team, but we had to focus. We couldn’t dwell on it. We had to maintain our confidence and make sure other teammates had our confidence in them. It was just making sure the team knew we came together even though he was out, and that when he’d come back, we could keep it going.”
Lewis had no doubt Stribling had a chance to make his impression upon Michigan’s defense, and that the opportunity would come for Stribling to stand out. He also knew Stribling would emerge as a pivotal part of Michigan’s defense this season.
As Michigan makes the turn into the second half of the season, Lewis made a projection for Stribling.
“People don’t see how much of a playmaker and how much of a difference-maker he is,” Lewis said. “I’m pretty sure that he’s going to change everybody’s mind these upcoming weeks.”