With 17 defensive players who started a game and 68 percent of its tackling production from last season back for this fall, the Michigan football team has no shortage of defensive depth and experience on its roster.
But with just 10 days before the Wolverines’ season opener at Utah, Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is eyeing the next step in improving a defense that was already among the best in the nation last season: versatility.
“The best part is that we have competitors,” Durkin said. “We know it’s good competition, so we move guys around and try different looks, and we see the guys who thrive in different environments.
“It’s a great time of year to find where our strengths are, and I think across the board we’ve got great depth at all positions right now.”
In developing versatility, Durkin and his staff have been open to moving players around from position to position. Senior Jeremy Clark, who played safety for three seasons, took first-team reps at cornerback during Saturday’s practice that was open to students. Sophomore wide receiver Freddy Canteen is also rumored to be taking reps at corner.
As for the rest of the team, Durkin noted that no one is safe from being moved around at this point.
“It’s really a matter of who haven’t we (moved),” he said. “We like to play multiple packages on defenses, so we’re trying to find out who can do what for us. If you go through a season, guys will get banged up, and it’s good to know a certain guy who’s playing corner can also play safety or vice versa, so we’ve bounced them all around at some point.”
Among those who may already be banged up is sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone, who was expected to see plenty of action anchoring the unit’s interior line. Big Ten Network reported Mone suffered an ankle injury, and the sophomore was nowhere to be found during Saturday’s practice.
If that practice was any indication, Mone’s absence could mean the use of more four-man fronts instead of the 3-4 defense the Wolverines were expected to show at times. Without Mone, Durkin has put more people on the move up front, noting junior Mo Hurst and seniors Willie Henry and Chris Wormley as players who have shown promise at both end and tackle.
“It’s been good bouncing guys around, mixing things up,” Durkin said. “I think we’re versatile up front, I think we’re deep up front, and that’s going to allow us to do some different things.
“It helps guys learn the defense, moving them around. … You won’t make it through a season without guys getting banged up, so now’s the time you find out who can do it mentally and physically, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”
The position shuffling also includes arguably the most versatile player on Michigan’s team, sophomore defensive back Jabrill Peppers. Peppers saw work at safety and nickel Saturday, but coaches have said throughout the offseason that the once highly-touted recruit could see time on offense, special teams or even elsewhere on defense.
“It’s an ongoing discussion amongst the staff (where to put him),” Durkin said. “He’s been great about it. Every day we give him something to do and he goes and does it 100 miles an hour. He doesn’t ask why or how or anything, he just goes and does it, and he’s very talented.
“There’s a lot of things he can do to help our team, and it’s a matter of us figuring out where we need him most or where the best parts are for him to help us.”
Regardless of where they end up playing in the opener, Michigan’s defensive players will be battle-tested not only from last season, but from a training camp where they not only prepared for their positions, but for other positions as well.
“A lot of the things we’re doing here are being done differently than anywhere else,” Durkin said. “So far it’s been all positive. Our guys have responded really well.
“We’re just trying to find the best fit for everyone as a team. That’s what this time of year’s for, and we’re doing it.”