In a normal year, this would be about the time Michigan would hold a coordinators’ press conference. Don Brown would stand in front of reporters, be his normal, animated self, and speak to the issues facing the Wolverines’ defense this season.
But COVID-19 has changed all that. A press conference in the time of stay-at-home orders is both unwise and illegal. Instead, with no live sports left to speak of, we’re forced to speculate on the answers. In light of that, The Daily analyzed some of the unknowns surrounding the defense and where the solutions could come from:
Who will be the third corner?
Last year, Michigan had a steady cornerback rotation of Lavert Hill, Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray. But with Hill graduated and on to the NFL, there’s an opening.
Thomas has already announced his return and Gray will presumably start opposite him. But behind those starters, the Wolverines’ depth is murky. The favorites to see playing time seem to be redshirt freshman DJ Turner and redshirt sophomore Gemon Green. Both played a limited role last season — Green played in 11 games on special teams and had one garbage time appearance at corner, and Turner played in four games on special teams — but coaches spoke highly of both.
Redshirt sophomore Hunter Reynolds, who appeared in two games at corner and eight additional games playing special teams last season and had a tackle-for-loss against Maryland, could also be an option. As could redshirt freshman Jalen Perry, who did not see game action in the fall but was a four-star recruit. Sophomore Daxton Hill, a five-star recruit at safety, can also play nickel corner, but moving there seems unlikely as Michigan also lacks depth at Hill’s natural position. Instead, expect him to start at safety alongside senior Brad Hawkins. Both were Pro Football Focus All-Big Ten selections last year and should prove steadying forces in the secondary.
Can Cameron McGrone build on a breakout season?
After losing All-American Devin Bush — a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018 — Michigan faced plenty of questions at the MIKE linebacker position. The spot originally went to Josh Ross, who did a fine job. But when Ross went down with an injury, McGrone stepped in and became a revelation.
In his sophomore season, McGrone had nine tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup while showing flashes of the sideline-to-sideline speed that made Bush so great. He also made his fair share of rookie mistakes. McGrone isn’t Bush, but the extent to which he can build on his All-Big Ten honorable mention season could determine how good the Wolverines’ defense can be.
With longtime stalwarts Jordan Glasgow and Khaleke Hudson graduated, McGrone will have to step up as the leader of the linebacking corps. A vocal player last year, he’ll be tasked with keeping his unit motivated and providing a steadying force at a position in the center of everything.
Is Michael Barrett ready to step up at VIPER?
The VIPER is a key position in Brown’s defenses. Jabrill Peppers spent two years manning the position, then Hudson took over for the next three. Together, the two have provided the kind of positional stability most teams would long to have. Now, though, Hudson has graduated and Michigan needs to find a new answer at the position.
The ideal solution is redshirt sophomore Michael Barrett, who has spent the last year being groomed as Hudson’s replacement. A former high-school quarterback, Barrett has already shown some of Hudson’s special-teams prowess, with two fake-punt conversions in 2019. But whether he can match what Hudson could do at the VIPER position remains to be seen.
Barrett seems to have all the tools to succeed, but he’s seen very few actual reps at the position. He appeared at VIPER in just three games in 2019, mostly in garbage time. Spring camp was supposed to help with that inexperience, but all spring football activities have been canceled in the wake of the pandemic. Now, the Wolverines just have to hope that the work Barrett put in last year pays off and he’s ready to fill the big shoes Peppers and Hudson left behind.