When looking for statistics to explain the Michigan football team’s success in 2015, a few jump out right away: Three straight shutouts. Fourth-fewest total yards allowed in the nation. Only one touchdown conceded in a 41-7 Citrus Bowl victory over Florida.
There’s no question the Wolverines’ biggest strength was their defense, led by then-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who has since parlayed that success into a head coaching job at Maryland. To replace him this year, all Michigan did was hire former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown, whose 2015 defense was the best in the nation.
Under Brown’s leadership, the Wolverines believe they have a chance to be just as good — or better — in 2016. Nearly the entire defensive line will return, as will most of the secondary. Even the departure of hard-hitting defensive tackle Willie Henry, who forwent his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, could be offset by the arrival of No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary, who plays the same position.
However, one looming challenge remains for the defense. With the graduation of linebackers Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan and James Ross, Michigan’s most experienced position group suddenly becomes its least.
In order to maintain the level of performance it enjoyed last season, the defense will have to find a way to replace a trio that accounted for 758 career tackles — 189 last year alone. To do so, the Wolverines will need to rely on a combination of returning talent and fresh blood.
It will also have to do so under new leadership, as Chris Partridge replaces Durkin as linebackers coach.
Five practices into Michigan’s spring season, Partridge is well aware of the challenge, but he doesn’t seem worried at all. In fact, he’s enjoying the experience.
“It’s awesome,” Partridge said. “And then Coach Brown is there with me, with the backers, and he’s a seasoned, veteran coach that understands how to get guys ready to go. So, it’s been pretty smooth. They’re working hard.”
Even the Wolverines’ most veteran backers — senior Ben Gedeon and redshirt junior Mike McCray — have very little starting experience this late in their careers.
Though Gedeon has made 42 appearances and registered 70 tackles over the last three years, he has started only one game. McCray, on the other hand, has appeared in just 11 games and recorded two tackles. He didn’t see the field at all last season because of a shoulder injury.
Despite their meager career statistics, though, both players turned heads last week with their play during Michigan’s practices at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“Ben Gedeon has stepped in and been an incredible leader right off the bat,” Partridge said. “(McCray) has been incredible the first five practices. He’s a pleasant surprise. You kinda knew he had it in him, and his first five practices have been phenomenal.”
If Gedeon and McCray are as good as advertised, the remaining challenge will be to get some of the younger players acclimated.
Partridge said that all freshman recruits will have the opportunity to compete for a job, citing linebacker Devin Bush — a 6-foot, 200-pound freshman from Pemberton Pines, Fla. — as a player who has adjusted well to the college environment so far and will be “looked highly upon” to contribute this season.
And if that doesn’t work out, the Wolverines even seem willing to play their ever-present wild card: do-it-all safety Jabrill Peppers, who played multiple reps at linebacker in Bradenton last week.
Replacing last year’s linebackers is no easy task, but it’s one Michigan is already willing to tackle head-on, even if it has to get creative to do so.
“It’s what I live for,” Partridge said. “I love it. When I came in here, it was a challenge. I’m a competitor — I wouldn’t want it any other way. We’ll get those guys going, we’ll take on the challenge and we’ll make it work.”