Michigan Football Preview 2019

Digital Edition

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 22 of 179

THE WOLVERINE 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 21 A ttention has been fix- ated on the wrong Michigan unit this offseason. The talk has been mostly about the Wolverines' of- fense. For the past three years, U-M has seen its elite defenses spoiled by its lack- luster offenses. The Wol- verines were no worse than eighth nationally in yards al- lowed per play, but no better than 42nd in yards per play each of those seasons. So with Jim Harbaugh's decision to hand the keys to new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, questions have been flying about how the Wolverines will look when they have the ball. How much control over the play calling will Harbaugh delegate to Gattis? How many times will senior quarterback Shea Patterson throw? Will Michigan primarily deploy three-wide sets to get juniors Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and redshirt sophomore Tarik Black on the field at the same time? Will the offense elevate like Alabama's did under Gattis? They are valid questions, and with the fre- quency that they are being asked, one would think that the answers would be the deter- mining factor of whether Michigan wins a national championship. However, the old adage that defense wins championships still rings true. Of the last 13 national champions, 11 were seventh na- tionally or better in Defensive S&P+. On the other hand, five of the last 13 national champions were ranked outside the top 10 nationally in Offensive S&P+. In particular, it's not just any defense that wins championships. It is pass defenses. Twelve of the last 13 champions were at least eighth in Pass Defense S&P+ and 15th in pass efficiency defense. The only excep- tion is 2010 Auburn, so unless you have a quarterback who's about to post one of the best seasons of all time, you need a prolific pass defense to be a true contender. Michigan had or was on the verge of hav- ing such a pass defense the past three sea- sons. In 2016, the Wolverines were second in pass efficiency defense and fifth in Pass Defense S&P+. In 2017, they were fourth in pass efficiency defense but 15th in Pass Defense S&P+. In 2018, they were at the top of the list in both pass defense metrics until Ohio State unleashed all the crossing routes. However, it is not a given that Michigan will have a top-notch pass defense this sea- son because the Wolverines suffered a sig- nificant amount of attrition on that side of the ball. Decorated stars Rashan Gary, David Long and Devin Bush Jr. declared early for the NFL Draft. Fellow standout Chase Winov- ich, along with other key pieces like Tyree Kinnel, Brandon Watson and Bryan Mone, graduated. Former five-star recruit Aubrey Solomon decided to transfer closer to home. Due to those losses, Michigan is returning only 50 percent of its defensive production in 2019, which is 106th out of 130 teams, and there are questions about how U-M will replace the other 50 percent. Michigan will need its defensive front to pressure the quarterback. Senior linebacker/ defensive end Josh Uche and redshirt junior nose tackle Michael Dwumfour are proven pass rushers after combining for 10 sacks last year, but the defensive line appears to lack depth. There are no known commodities behind Dwumfour and senior Carlo Kemp at tackle, and Michigan may need to rely heavily on sophomore Aidan Hutchinson and Central Michigan gradu- ate transfer Mike Danna at defensive end. This may be a considerable issue because the defensive line is a unit that coaches would like to rotate and keep fresh. What is even more difficult to replace than the defensive line is the secondary. SB Na- tion's Bill Connelly has found that the two stats most corre- lated with Defensive S&P+ are returning defensive back tackles and returning defen- sive back passes defended. Continuity in the defensive backfield is critical, and rep- licating lost production there is not an easy task. Michi- gan fortunately will have se- nior corner Lavert Hill — a third-team Associated Press All-American in 2018 — and free safety Josh Metellus — an All-Big Ten second-teamer by the media and coaches in 2018 — to secure half the secondary. How- ever, the Wolverines will need junior corner Ambry Thomas to fill Long's big shoes, and they may need former five-star and true freshman safety Daxton Hill to be the last line of defense immediately. For the first time since Don Brown ar- rived, there are many unknowns on the de- fensive side of the ball. Brown may be a wizard, but it doesn't mean it's a guarantee that the Wolverines will thrive on defense again. There's a very real possibility the defense takes a step back this year and fails to qualify for the top eight in Pass Defense S&P+ and top 15 in pass efficiency defense. Therefore, more questions need to be asked about Michigan's defense and how the successors to those who left are prepared for the big stage. Because the answer to whether Michigan can truly compete for a national title won't be found on offense. The answer will be found on defense. Particularly when the opposing quarter- back drops back to throw. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS DREW HALLETT (Pass) Defense Still Wins Championships Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan ath- letics since 2013. Contact him at drew.c.hallett@ gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. One common trait 12 of the last 13 national champions have shared is an elite pass defense. Senior leaders and proven standouts at safety in Josh Metellus and cornerback in Lavert Hill (above) give Michigan a chance at having that. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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