Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2015 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2016. In this edition: defensive backs.
When Michigan emerged from its so-called “submarine” training camp in August, no one was entirely sure what to expect out of its secondary. Most expected redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers and Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons to be welcome additions, but were not sure how the returning Wolverines would filter out.
Michigan was heavy on safeties with Lyons, Peppers, senior Jarrod Wilson and redshirt junior Jeremy Clark. But cornerback was a question mark, as Blake Countess had transferred to Auburn, which meant only redshirt junior Jourdan Lewis and error-prone junior Channing Stribling were bringing back starting experience.
The Wolverines — who finished 21st in pass defense in 2014 — were expected to be strong in the secondary once again, but with new faces and a new coaching staff, nothing was certain.
With the 2015 season in the books, it’s safe to say that any uncertainty about Michigan’s pass defense was squashed early and often en route to a truly special year.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines led the nation in passer rating allowed (95.0) and yards allowed per attempt (5.4), while finishing third in passing yards allowed per game (158.8), total touchdowns allowed (7) and completion percentage (48.0) allowed throughout the season.
Individually, Lewis was the star of the defensive backfield, earning first-team All-Big Ten and All-American honors, and forced three turnovers while setting a school record with 21 pass breakups. Peppers was not too far behind, totaling 10 pass breakups, All-American honors and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award.
Beyond Peppers and Lewis, Clark made the journey to cornerback, Stribling tied or set career highs in every category, and Wilson — along with junior safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill — was so consistent that Lyons barely saw the field.
High Point: It’s hard to imagine a secondary at any level having a better five-game stretch than Michigan did from Week 2 to Week 6. Against Oregon State, UNLV, then-No. 22 BYU, then-No. 13 Northwestern and Maryland, the Wolverines allowed just 60 completions on 143 attempts, 483 yards and eight interceptions, compared to just two touchdowns.
To put that into a per-game perspective, an average quarterback performance against Michigan in that stretch was 12-of-27 passing for 97 yards, 1-2 interceptions and no guarantee of a touchdown. Perhaps just as notable is that only BYU made it through a game without resorting to a backup quarterback.
Low Point: Allowing a touchdown in consecutive weeks usually is not a low point for a team’s secondary, but Michigan’s slip-ups from defensive backs were few and far between. The only time a quarterback seemed in control over the Wolverines occurred when Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner combined to throw for 645 yards, including several big plays and two touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.
Teams also began to find success on the ground against Michigan late in the season, but it’s hard to pin that on a secondary that took passing almost out of the equation for most offenses.
The Future: The future looks bright — maybe even brighter — for Michigan’s secondary next fall. Lewis, Peppers, Stribling, Thomas and Hill will all return next season, and Clark could as well if he chooses. Assuming Clark stays, Wilson is the only departing starter, and Thomas and Hill looked ready to fill his void late in the season.
With no high-profile commits at safety or cornerback in the 2016 recruiting class yet, it appears that freshman Keith Washington and sophomore Brandon Watson could be the lone new contributors in the stacked position group next fall.