2016 season preview: Michigan Wolverines

Michigan's dominant defense could take the Wolverines all the way to the national title.

| 11 months ago
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

2016 season preview: Michigan Wolverines

With Jim Harbaugh entering his second season in Ann Arbor as the head man, and a defense loaded with NFL-caliber talent at all three levels, the Wolverines are generating a considerably amount of excitement nationally. Here is a preview of what to expect from Michigan in 2016:


The line remains largely intact from last year, as the only major departure is center Graham Glascow, who was drafted in the third round by the Lions. Mason Cole, who started at left tackle in 2014 and 2015, will be moving inside to center, while sophomore Grant Newsome will take over for Cole outside.

All major skill players from last year’s squad return, led by WR Jehu Chesson and TE Jake Butt. Chesson had the third-highest WR rating last year among 2016 returnees at the position, and Butt had the highest receiving grade of any returning TE in FBS last year. De’Veon Smith is a solid starting RB who broke 44 tackles on 180 carries in 2016, and Drake Johnson survived getting run over by a forklift this spring, and should also be a significant contributor.

QB is the biggest question on the entire roster, as 2015 starter Jake Rudock is also now with the Lions. John O’Korn (who transferred from Houston after being benched in 2014 by the new regime looking for a more athletic option) and Wilton Speight (64 snaps last season) will compete for the starting position throughout this month and while the winner will be afforded some margin of error with what appears to be a relatively easy schedule early, if the Wolverines expect to win big road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State, they will need quality play from the new signal caller.


The defensive side of the ball is absolutely loaded, and could be the best in the country. The defensive line is particularly stocked with talent, as Maurice Hurst, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow ranked second, third and 16th respectively last year among returning defensive interior players in FBS. Bryan Mone missed 2015 with a broken ankle, but is now healthy and is also expected to make a significant contribution inside along with Rashan Gary, the consensus number one overall prospect from the 2016 class.

While the LB corps was turned over completely due to graduation, none of last year’s crew graded overwhelmingly positively and this year’s version of course has the benefit of playing behind likely the best defensive line in the country. It will also be boosted by the official addition of master-of-all-trades Jabrill Peppers, who was listed at safety last year but lined up all over the back seven. He is a dark-horse Heisman candidate, as he should not only be a productive player on defense but will again handle punt returns and contribute on offense.

Jabrill peppers montage

The secondary is also one of the top units in the country, headlined by CB Jourdan Lewis. Lewis was our top-overall graded CB last season, after yielding just 33 receptions on 90 targets and a NFL QB rating against of just 46.3.

Star player 

While many schools may have just one true superstar, Michigan has at least six on the defensive side alone, making the task of highlighting just one quite difficult. This being said, it’s hard to argue with the importance of Lewis. Having a legitimate shut-down CB allows Michigan to open up the rest of the defense and be more aggressive, and allow the rest of playmakers to attack going forward.

Breakout player to watch 

DE Taco Charlton played only 389 snaps last year, but finished with the country’s highest pass rush productivity, and is clearly Michigan’s most explosive player on the edge. He should see a significant uptick in playing time this year, and will benefit greatly from the considerable amount of talent around him throughout the defensive line.

Bottom line 

On paper, Michigan looks like one of the best teams in the country. With so much top-end talent on defense, the offense won’t be required to be as explosive as many others around the country. Also, with its first major road test not until October 29th in Spartan Stadium, the new QB will have considerable time to gel with the rest of the offense. If the Wolverines can merely get efficient play from the QB position with limited turnovers, the clearly have the roster required to compete not just for a Big Ten title, but a national championship as well.

| Analyst

Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.

  • John Gerwig

    I’m a Michigan fan but Ohio st beat them easily and it took a goal line stand to beat Indiana. Having a hard time believing that another year and they are transformed to dominance. They were a bend don’t break defense with low stats in int, sacks, and tfl

    • brian coburn

      Bend but don’t break? That is totally ignorant. Watch games because you’re bad as surmising things from stat sheets.

    • William

      Ohio State beat them easily because their top two players at Nose Tackle went down with injuries and they couldn’t stop runs up the middle. The Indiana game was only close because of the exact same reason.

    • johnnyv123

      We changed defensive coordinators, one who won’t be so tactically dumb against Ohio State, and all the players coming back have an increased year under Harbaugh and staff. Ohio State lost a TON of players to the draft and graduation and Michigan State lost a good amount of talent too. Hard to be confident considering recent history but if we are ever going to beat both of those teams at their place in one year this seems like the year to do it.

    • Seth M. Fisher

      You’re drawing an incorrect conclusion from stylistic stats. They were a Cover 1 defense (harder to get INTs if your corners are constantly in trail position) that didn’t blitz often and lacked a true weakside pass rushing threat. Calling that “bend don’t break” confuses them with, for example, the base Cov 2 defenses Mattison ran in 2011-2013.

      As posters below noted, the drop-off from Glasgow at nose with Hurst backing him up to full-time Hurst with Strobel and Pallante backing him up was severe, and exacerbated when the latter two were trapped on the field by OSU and Indiana’s tempo. Those teams (and Penn State until they shelved it because James Franklin is a bad football coach) actually took advantage of Michigan’s *aggressiveness*, running stretch plays that punished Hurst and Willie Henry for getting too vertical off the snap.

      Statistically they finished 2nd in defensive S&P+ but 18th in ISO PPP+ (which measures explosiveness), whereas the hallmark of BDB defense would see those flipped. They weren’t Bend-Don’t-Break. They were a very good Cover 1 team that played aggressively up front and man behind.

    • Duane Rose

      It actually took two goal line stands. Let us not forget MN. That is not a bad thing, however. It shows M, in J.H.’s initial season took care of the games it should have won while it also exposed our weaknesses, both in depth and talent. I don’t think there are too many fans who were not aware of our lack of athleticism at the lber unit in ’16. When the D line started taking hits they were no longer to mask the lack of speed by both middle backers who were solid at plays run from tackle to tackle but lacked the mobility to get to the edges and were questionable in pass coverage as well. However, bend but don’t break was not part of the equation. Assignment football is a better way to describe the D imo. It is difficult to send your middle backers when they must get there quickly or risk the middle part of the field at the second tier.
      As to OSU, you will see a typical OSU team by time we play them and MSU, under Dantonio, as difficult as it is to like the man, will plug the best they can. He has been very good for the program and came along at the perfect time, after LC had taken his foot off the pedal in his final three seasons, thus the dearth on both sides of the ball. Rest assured though that this year’s D will have more speed in the middle but will need to grow up fast.
      Brown’s defense will give any opposing offense fits, as proven against the heavy hitters in the ACC with nowhere near the talent he has this season. Our ?s remain mostly on the qb position and whether or not the OLine play in the bowl game was a mirage or signaled they had finally grasped the Drevno/Harbaugh scheme. They will be a year more experienced. If qb play is adequate the O will improve and was a threat toward season’s end. Do not forget a large portion of the OSU game was played w/o our mvp of last season which would have mitigated the large differential in the scoring column of that contest.
      The players are in year 2 under Jim and it will show. They are confident for a very good reason. They know that the best plan available will be given to them weekly. D.J. was severely limited with what he could do against the spread and that is why the edges were so ripe for the opposition in both games you reference. Whether or not we beat either or both teams will be answered defensively, but caution should be applied. Many people forget last season was one of the best coaching jobs in the country, especially they way the offense had to be brought about week to week. This program, under Harbaugh is still in its infancy but a big step forward will be realized this season. We have our man and the talent gap is closing rapidly. You will not be disappointed at the improvement you will see this season.

    • crosseyedlemon

      So if 3 consecutive shutouts = bend don’t break, how many are needed to indicate dominance?

  • Zen

    As a Michigan fan I’m excited about our chances in the B1G this year, but partly because our rivals lost so much experience, but they do have the capability of reloading by the time we play them at their place. I’m glad Harbaugh is excited about the challenge though and I’m very excited about what Brown and Gary along with the other recruits will bring to our defense.
    I’m tempering my expectations a little, but am excited about the possibilities. Can’t wait for some Michigan football….Go Blue!!!

  • John Gerwig

    Great points on here i did watch every game, guess I’m cautiously optimistic. Hopefully new coordinator blitzes more and we get those sacks. Peppers at linebacker should bring the speed we were missing. Can’t wait for the year to start. GO BLUE

  • crosseyedlemon

    The excitement is back and it’s going to be a fun ride this year. More than enough talent to make a serious run at a championship. I’ll still probably close my eyes each time we have to punt late in the game though.