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Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill is one of four returning starters in the secondary for the Wolverines. Hill was named second-team All-Big Ten last season as a sophomore.

Michigan secondary is primary to Wolverines defense

Kevin Goheen

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What do you think about the secondary this year? The line and backers are solid, but the secondary? — Steve Nebus, via Facebook

Michigan returns all four starters from its secondary last season, five if you count junior viper Khaleke Hudson, and has back all its top reserves. Depth in the secondary should be increased as 2017 freshmen become sophomores who have experience on top of their talent.

Michigan’s secondary should be one of the team’s strongest position groups in 2018.

It was one of the big question marks heading into 2017. The situation was a complete 180-degree turn in regards to returning starters, as all four starters from 2016 — cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, and safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas — had to be replaced. Viper Jabrill Peppers also left early for the NFL draft, where he was selected in the first round by the Cleveland Browns. The only defensive back who had started a game for the Wolverines entering 2017 was safety Josh Metellus, who replaced an injured Peppers against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Metellus, Hudson, safety Tyree Kinnel, and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long each earned All-Big Ten accolades. According to Pro Football Focus’ analysis, the combination of Hill, Long and Brandon Watson didn’t allow a single touchdown reception in the regular season. Watson was the main defender in coverage for one touchdown in the 26-19 loss in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. Metellus, Hudson, Hill and Long are juniors. Kinnel is a senior, while Watson is a fifth-year senior.

Sophomores Ambry Thomas, Benjamin St-Juste, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, J’Marick Woods and Brad Hawkins played various backup roles, with Thomas getting the most defensive snaps. The Wolverines also have added Utah grad-transfer cornerback Casey Hughes, so they will have quality depth this season.

Michigan finished No. 4 in the country last season in defensive pass efficiency behind Wisconsin, Alabama and Boston College. It was first in the country in passing yards allowed, giving up an average of just 150.1 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s aggressive scheme that includes a lot of man-to-man coverage will give up a big play here and there, but Michigan wins the majority of its defensive matchups.

There is an area where the Wolverines can show improvement.

Michigan’s defense produced just 17 takeaways last season, including just 10 interceptions. No player had more than 2 interceptions. There are several factors that go into producing takeaways — pressure on the quarterback, good timing and some luck always help — but Michigan ranked No. 81 in producing takeaways and No. 67 in interceptions. The Wolverines faced 328 pass attempts last season, the 12th fewest in the country, so they didn’t have as many opportunities to get interceptions as other teams. That’s a byproduct of leading the nation in third-down defense (26.1 percent allowed), but they’d like to turn a few more of those 53 pass breakups they had into interceptions.