As the final days count down until game week — starting Aug. 29 before the Michigan football team opens the 2016 season against Hawaii on Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium — the Daily breaks down each position group heading into the upcoming season. We continue with one the few positions where the Wolverines are inexperienced: Linebackers.
The Michigan football team may well have the best defensive line and secondary in the Big Ten. Between them, though, are three big question marks.
The Wolverines graduated all three starting linebackers from last year’s team, leaving a shroud of uncertainty around who will man the middle of the Michigan defense. The group will have one returning starter, though — redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers is moving to the strong-side linebacker position after starting at safety last season.
Here’s how the group stacks up this year:
Who’s back: We’ll throw Peppers in here, even though you could also count him as new. His role this season should still have him blowing up screens and getting to the backfield, and we expect to see him in coverage as well. Besides, trying to pin one position on him seems fruitless.
Beyond that, redshirt junior Mike McCray and senior Ben Gedeon return and should be favored to start, though Gedeon is the only one who has started a game. Redshirt junior Wyatt Shallman, redshirt sophomores Noah Furbush, Jared Wangler and Alex Kaminski, sophomores Cheyenn Robertson, Jameson Offerdahl and Jack Dunaway and redshirt freshman Reuben Jones are also back for the Wolverines.
Who’s not: Joe Bolden, James Ross III and Desmond Morgan are all gone after starting a year ago, and Nick Benda, Allen Gant and Dan Liesman also ran out of eligibility.
Who’s new: A huge freshman class of linebackers is vying for depth chart position through the fall, with Devin Bush being the most heralded. Joining him are Devin Gil, Josh Uche, Elysse Mbem-Bosse, Peter Bush and DE/LB Carlo Kemp.
Stats in 2015:
Peppers: 45 tackles, 5.5 for loss
Gedeon: 34 tackles, three tackles for loss
Furbush: four tackles
Outlook: Peppers is a lock, with the caveat that he will also be moved around on defense. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples examined Peppers’ hybrid position earlier this summer, and even when his shifts aren’t borne of simple utility, it seems likely Michigan would want to use him at safety in a pinch as well. Furbush and safety Khaleke Hudson could be options in his stead.
And even though he’s not likely to start, Furbush should get some reps either way. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound redshirt sophomore had just four tackles last season while playing largely on special teams, but if he can add depth, that would be a big boost to a unit that has to be considered among the most uncertain for the Wolverines.
At the other two slots, Gedeon and McCray will be looking to show that their game experience gives them an edge. There was significant hype surrounding Bush when he committed to the Wolverines, and fans would no doubt love to see him on the field early. At 5-foot-11, 232 lbs., Bush is indeed sturdy enough to grab playing time. Whether he can grasp the concepts sufficiently and actually get out there remains to be seen.
Edge/Prediction: The easy answer here is probably also the right one — at least to start the year. Peppers, McCray and Gedeon have superior experience, and should be able to ride that to a starting job to open the year. But with time, Bush could also make a case for playing time, and there will be plenty of opportunities for the other freshmen to stand out in a young group. Furbush is also one to watch, but it’s hard to pick against the experience to open the year.