3 reasons why Michigan could have the top defense in the country

Jeff Dooley breaks down why the Wolverines project to be dominant on the defensive side of the ball.

| 1 year ago
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3 reasons why Michigan could have the top defense in the country

The Michigan Wolverines are being considered a legitimate national title contender in their second season under head coach Jim Harbaugh, after his debut 10-3 campaign in 2015. They will need to succeed on both sides of the ball to get into the playoff race, but one thing is clear entering this season: The Michigan defense could be dominant.

In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Michigan has the best defense in all of college football.

That’s not to say that Alabama and others won’t put a stop unit on the field that is plenty dominant in its own right, but as things stand right now, there is reason to believe that Michigan is the No. 1 defense in the country.

Here are three big reasons why:

1. They don’t have to replace nearly as much talent as some of the nation’s other top defenses.

Here are the top five defenses from last season in overall PFF grade, in order: Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, Ole Miss. Of those teams, only the Wolverines didn’t have a defensive player taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

Bama has to replace four in D-linemen Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson, LB Reggie Ragland and CB Cyrus Jones. Ohio State has to replace four as well, including No. 3 overall pick and PFF’s top-graded edge defender two years in a row in Joey Bosa. Florida State is replacing No. 5 overall pick Jalen Ramsey, and Ole Miss is replacing Cardinals first-rounder Robert Nkemdiche, one of the better interior defensive linemen in college football last season.

The Wolverines only had one player drafted at all – defensive lineman Willie Henry, who went to the Ravens in the fourth round. That’s not to say they don’t have to replace some very productive players. Henry was PFF’s No. 34 interior lineman, LBs Desmond Morgan and Royce Jenkins-Stone both produced at a high level (linebacker in general is a bit of a question-mark position for Michigan), and SS Jarrod Wilson ranked No. 29 at his position after grading well in both run and pass defense.

But those holes aren’t quite as gaping as the ones mentioned above, which is why the returning group of Michigan defenders appears loaded.

2. Their pass rush should be excellent…

As good as Henry was for Michigan last season, he was only the fourth-most efficient rusher on the Wolverines’ defense. Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst formed the most efficient interior pass-rushing duo in the nation, with Wormley ranking first among defensive tackles in pass-rush productivity (45 total QB pressures, including seven sacks) and Hurst ranking third (30, including three). Hurst only saw 418 snaps last season, so the ability of both he and Wormley to stay productive and on the field will be critical to the Wolverines’ defensive success.

On the edge, Taco Charlton ranked sixth among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity, generating 41 total pressures including six sacks.

Those three up front give the Wolverines one of the best returning defensive lines in the entire country, as they are stout against the run in addition to their ability to get after the quarterback.

3. …and they are as good if not better in the secondary

No cornerback – not even Ramsey, the fifth overall pick of the Jaguars – earned a higher PFF grade in 2015 than Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. He allowed just 37 percent of targets into his coverage to be caught – a top-5 mark – and had a position-leading 15 passes defensed to go with his two interceptions. The likely starter opposite Lewis, Channing Stribling, graded well in limited snaps a year ago.

The Wolverines are strong at safety as well, led by Jabrill Peppers, who earned the 17th-best grade at the position a year ago and excelled versus both the run and the pass. The other two likely major contributors at the position, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, also graded well last season, with Hill in a far more prominent role.

Peppers is reportedly going to play in something of a hybrid linebacker-safety role, taking advantage of his combination of strength and speed to allow him to come down into the box more frequently and also serve as a coverage linebacker in obvious passing situations.

Bottom line

No team is returning more production on defense than the Wolverines, and with their ability to both shut down the run and regularly get after the passer, teamed with a true shutdown corner in Lewis and a potential star in Peppers, they could be the best defense in college football in 2016.

They have a very favorable early schedule, not having to leave Ann Arbor until Week 6 (Oct. 8 at Rutgers), giving whichever quarterback earns the starting job (the buzz out of spring practice indicates 6-foot-6 sophomore Wilton Speight has the inside track) time to get himself and the offense up to speed. The closing stretch looms large – three of their last five games are on the road, at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State – but there’s no reason to think the Wolverines shouldn’t enter November in the thick of the playoff race. And their defense will likely be the biggest reason why.

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

  • Paul

    Who the heck is Willie Young? Willie Henry….

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  • crosseyedlemon

    As a Wolverines fan I feel very confident that this team is headed for a big year. Last season ended with a very dominate bowl win against a good Florida team. Not sure how the defense can improve on a year where they had 3 consecutive shutouts. Hoping that if nothing else, Harbaugh at least manages to find someone who can punt when we meet Michigan State again.

    • medusa little

      It could improve by not getting ass rammed by OSU. Beating a terrible Florida team blinds your fan base to the fact it was embarrassed at the big hole, and needed an interim coach to screw the pooch to beach Minnesota. And you almost lost to Indiana too, in double overtime. My god you guys see 3 straight shut outs against first year QBs and get hard and forget you didn’t steam roll every team,

      • quiverfull

        Get help.

        • crosseyedlemon

          He goes on about Michigan playing inexperienced QBs but ignores the Wolverines themselves had a first year coaching staff….lol.

          • medusa little

            yeah and now you have (another) 1st year defensive coach. hoke won more games his first year and a bcs bowl. and that was with RR recruits everyone hated. why is everyone so impressed harbaugh did less than hoke did with higher rated classes?????

      • James Allison

        state fan is a troll / msu glory days are behind them, no national championship !!! get over it michigan on top again . looking down on state . this is now MICHIGAN

        • medusa little

          hahaha you sound like every um fan every year “little run is over!”, etc. no national championship? ums last half title was ’97 before that it was pre 1950. talk about a shit program, scumbelcher would win (or tie) for the b1g in the big 8 little 2 days then go get his shit pushed in in a bowl. 5-12 all time bowl record, but you losers made a statue of him – that is MICHIGAN. scUMs glory days were when yost was there at the turn of the century

      • Chaps1956

        You need to get laid perverted boy!

  • medusa little

    Shitty linebackers, and peppers had 45 tackles no picks last year. why is he so hyped? Yawn. Delano hill isn’t good, Lewis has 2 bad years vs 1 good year. This is all nonsense, but enjoy the clicks it generates pff

    • Jordan Krumrey

      I agree that the linebackers were iffy at best. Though, if McCray stays healthy and with Peppers at linebacker (which he often played last year as the nickle back) that unit should be improved. At the very least, it will be a much more athletic bunch than last years unit.

      As for Peppers hype, you clearly did not watch him very much if you thought he was overhyped. He did drop two INT’s (both would have been pick 6s had they been caught) but his defense against screen passes is some of the best I have ever seen, especially from such a young player. Kid is instinctive and has an incredible football IQ plus elite athleticism. And stats don’t tell the whole story either. Especially for a player that moved all around the defensive backfield. I mean, normally you don’t even want a player in his position to have a high number of tackles (that is usually a bad sign for your defense!).

      Lewis was good as a sophomore and played little as a freshman. Then was a unquestionable first team All-American last year.

      • medusa little

        how the hell do you not want a LB/safety to have tackles? that is good if they do because it means they fly to the ball….thats retarded logic. so he has bad hands (2 dropped picks) and can’t make any more than 45 tackles on the field as much as he is. and im supposed to buy into his hype?

        lewis wasnt that good as a soph and he played little as a freshman because he wasnt good enough. unquestionable AA last year, but no reason to think he’ll keep improving at all 2 bad years vs 1 good year

        • Cromulent

          First half of ’15 our LBs didn’t have many tackles because the DL did the work for them. Much better to have DL tackle guys in the backfield.

          • medusa little

            yeah that would make a lot of sense if you werent so damn wrong. michigan was 41 in TFL and 35 in sacks (behind a LOT of B1G teams even). so your dline obviously wasnt that great at getting the guys in the backfield, and worse your nickle/safety couldnt even come up to fill consistently. wow.

            lb is going to be a very soft spot after losing so many guys, and yyou have secondary who cant come up to fill. d line will need to be 100x better than last year to cover for them. oh sure don browns blitzes will help some, but if you blitz every play youre going to get burned too

          • Cromulent

            You really are a moron. The DL was lights out before Glasgow went down. Do you watch tape bro?.

          • Jordan Krumrey

            Michigan offense was 9th in time of possession last year which meant less time on the field for the defense, which means lower statistics (common sense there). If you read this article you would see that the DL was rather impressive.

    • Floridawolve

      Really a stupid post. Every major college football publication has Michigan in the hunt. This isn’t rocket science. They’ll be damn good. You just don’t like them and make uneducated posts as a result. But, thanks for the laugh.

      • medusa little

        they also had them in the hunt last year. speaking of rocket science, popular science called utah cupcakes – and even sent them the baked treat too! – but um LOST. just like osu kicked the shit out of michigan

        • Tim Sullivan

          although you’re correct about what popular science published you’re totally wrong that anyone else had them as a contender last year,everyone had UM going 8 or 9 wins at best last year. I think you’ve been eating a little too much “baked” treats get a clue

          • Scot

            Vegas had UM at 7.5 wins before the 2015 season.

    • Cromulent

      Lewis had 2 bad years?

      Step away from the crack pipe. Just step away.

      • medusa little

        nobody knew his name before last year, so yeah

    • Adam Fogarty

      You don’t need to have a lot of interceptions to be good

      • medusa little

        had hardly any tackles either. so all you need is hype to be good?

        • Adam Fogarty

          He’s versatile, he is this year’s Jalen Ramsey but he’s better in coverage, plus he can return kicks as well and plays offense so he can basically play 4 positions that’s pretty good to me

        • Jordan Krumrey

          Lol Peppers was 6th on the team in total tackles

          • Scot

            Yeah, but he is leading the team now and leads the entire country in tackles for a loss.

    • Trenton Tyler Rains

      Joey Bosa had a down year and went 3rd overall. But you’d probably hype him up because PFF loves him but hate any Michigan player when PFF loves them.