The top item on Jim Harbaugh’s to-do list likely involves finding Michigan’s starting quarterback as soon as possible. But have no fear: The Wolverines defense is capable of leading the way to a Big Ten championship, regardless of who is at quarterback.
In fact, Michigan’s defense – which was very good in 2015 – could be even better this year.
How good were they? The Wolverines ranked fourth in total defense (280.7 total yards allowed per game), sixth in scoring defense (16.4 points allowed per game) and third in pass defense (158.5 passing yards allowed per game).
So how does a unit that was elite a year ago improve the following season? It’s easy to explain how it could happen.
Michigan returns six starters from last year’s phenomenal group, including All-American defender Jabrill Peppers. The athletic linebacker and occasional defensive back could play a different role in 2016 under new defensive coordinator Don Brown.
Michigan fans may remember Brown as the man Harbaugh hired away from Boston College after D.J. Durkin left abruptly to take the head coaching job at Maryland in December. The Wolverines couldn’t have found a better replacement for Durkin. In fact, they might have actually made an upgrade.
The Eagles ranked No. 1 in total defense (254.3 yards allowed per game) and fourth in scoring defense (15.3 points allowed per game) last season. There’s no reason why Brown’s aggressive tendencies shouldn’t achieve similar success in Ann Arbor, with more athletes and better talent.
Brown will bring an element of surprise to this unit. His schemes thrive upon a variety of blitz and stunt packages that keep opponents guessing and allows superior athletes like Peppers to thrive. The Wolverines likely will have a little extra bite defensively.
Peppers will get plenty of help from pass-rushing defensive ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton. Cornerbacks Jeremy Clark, Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis are likely starters as will interior linemen Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst.
Michigan fans are also excited about the arrival of defensive lineman Rashan Gary, who will arrive in Ann Arbor as the nation’s top recruit. Gary should see the field right away.
The main concern will be Michigan’s run defense, which ranked 16th in the country, but crumbled down the stretch. The Wolverines allowed an average of 189.3 yards per game on the ground during their final six contests and were gouged for more than 300 yards twice during that span. A new scheme plus some experienced returning players should mitigate that flaw.
Michigan must find a suitable replacement for starting quarterback Jake Rudock, but a dominant defense will take at least some of the pressure off of Harbaugh’s offense. Defense still matters in college football and a defense this good could carry the Wolverines to their first Big Ten championship game in school history, and perhaps to the College Football Playoff.