That is the first thing that comes to mind when describing this year’s Michigan football team, and especially so when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.
The Wolverines return just one starter — fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray — from last year’s No. 1 defense. After being one of the most experienced teams in all of college football last year, it will be amongst the youngest this year — although that isn’t a problem for defensive coordinator Don Brown.
Entering his second year at Michigan, Brown took some time yesterday to reminisce, one day before the official start of spring practice.
“I went back and watched practice No. 3 of spring last year,” Brown. “I was like, ‘Holy moly! What was that?’ We’re just so different.”
Speaking with the media Friday night shortly after the conclusion of the first spring practice, Brown was clearly enthused about the potential of his young defense. He singled out players from every defensive unit, from freshman defensive end Donovan Jeter, to senior linebacker Mike Wroblewski, to sophomore defensive backs Khaleke Hudson and Josh Metellus.
The latter two, along with junior Jordan Glasgow, figure to play important roles in replacing one of the main cogs of Michigan’s defense last year: Jabrill Peppers.
Peppers was the starter at the VIPER position last season — a hybrid linebacker-safety role of sorts that involved attacking the line of scrimmage while occasionally taking on coverage responsibilities. He enjoyed a breakout season at the position, racking up 72 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss and four sacks while earning a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Replacing Peppers will be a two-fold problem for Brown and Michigan.
On one hand, Peppers happened to be one of the “brightest” players Brown has ever been around. “I’d see the hand go up, and I’d know, ‘Hey, you better have your stuff together because this question’s gonna have some substance to it,’ ” Brown said. “So he’d have his couple questions and when you told him once, it was over, it was done and it was handled. We really asked a lot of him mentally.”
Brown also praised the athleticism of Peppers — who wowed evaluators with his testing numbers at the NFL Draft Combine earlier this month. Brown specifically cited head coach Jim Harbaugh’s description of Peppers as the “best tackler in the country” as one of the traits that made him so special to his defense.
“You know how many calls I’ve gotten this winter?” Brown said. “ ‘I’m the next Jabrill Peppers!’ No, you’re not. … He’s a unique talent, and I thought we did as good a job as possible trying to use him as much as we could. Like I told you before, we just gave him a bunch of jobs, moved him around and tried to complicate people’s worlds, and I thought that was fairly effective for us.”
While Brown acknowledged there would be “tweaking” to the VIPER position as he compensates for the lack of Peppers’ physical and mental acumen, he was clear in stating the importance of the position in his scheme. Brown pointed out that Michigan’s schedule next year is laden with teams that employ spread offenses, and in his defense, the VIPER plays a large role in slowing down such attacks.
In Hudson, Metellus and Glasgow, Brown has a trio of young but talented players who may fit the bill at Peppers’ vacated spot.
According to Brown, Hudson played at the VIPER during the first practice Friday, while Glasgow had some time at the spot as well. And Metellus, who started in place of an injured Peppers against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, may yet receive his shot at earning this year’s starting job.
“I’m going to let (Metellus) look at it, and we’re going to rotate through it,” Brown said. “… When Khaleke is there at the VIPER, we leave Josh at the strong safety position and Jaylen (Kelly-Powell is) with him. I’ve even toyed with the idea of giving Jaylen some work there (at VIPER) but his world right now, things are happening so fast, let’s get him comfortable and settled at the ROVER position. But I can rotate those guys and feel pretty comfortable with it.”
Similar to last year’s third practice, there will undoubtedly be rougher moments in the future that cause consternation. But Brown is pleased with the combination of talent and youth that he has seen so far — such as in players like Hudson, who he described as having an arrow pointing up — as he continues to look for replacements for Peppers and the other vacated spots left by graduating seniors.
“We’ll be settled and we’ll have our packages down and we’ll have a very, very solid group that’ll be able to compete at a high level despite the age,” Brown said. “I’m not worried about that at all. I’d rather be talented and young than the alternative — have a bunch of veterans and you’re going, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ So I’ll take the alternative and be happy with it.”