Michigan Football Preview 2015

2015 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 115 of 163

114 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2015 FOOTBALL PREVIEW DEFENSIVE BACKS can do a lot of things for us with his speed and awareness, and he understands the game pretty well. "Why leave a guy like him outside to just play one man — that's a hard position. You want a guy that can control the defense back there at safety, and someone that can make plays, and we felt he is the guy that can do that. "He has a presence. He makes the players around him better, and if you have two or three guys like that, you want them in the middle of the defense where they can impact sideline to sideline." The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers assumed leadership responsibilities in the spring de- spite his overall lack of experience — he played in three games last year before an injury ended his season and earned him a redshirt. "I am surprised that at such a young age he commands the locker room like he does, but great talents have a way of competing beyond their years, and teammates take no- tice," Jackson said. "When you have someone like that, you need to put him at safety because it's a natu- ral leadership position." Jackson has an affinity for Clark too, believing his best days are coming, but acknowledged that with Blake Countess' decision to leave Michigan as a grad-transfer (transferring to Auburn), U-M might discuss the idea of moving Clark to cornerback. "If you put him in a coverage where he can turn and run — he's 6-4, 205 pounds, and has a professional cornerback body and skill set — I think that might suit him better. The hitting part, the vocal part, of being a safety doesn't seem to come naturally," said Ray. "And they need him at corner." The Maize and Blue could use Clark at corner because Countess' departure leaves them low on experience at that spot. Junior Jourdan Lewis has seven starts among 25 appearances, and grad-transfer Wayne Lyons has 22 starts among 43 games, but the rest of U-M's cornerbacks — redshirt junior Terry Richardson, junior Channing Stribling, redshirt sophomores Reon Dawson and Ross Taylor-Doug- las, redshirt freshman Brandon Watson and true freshman Keith Wash- ington — have combined to see the field 47 times, with almost half of those appearances belonging to Stribling (23). "Michigan is now in a position where it only has two true corners, Jourdan Lewis and Wayne Lyons, and in this league you need 3.5," Ray said. "You need three that can start, and the half is a guy like Pep- pers that can do both. "I don't think Michigan has the roster to successfully survive without Blake Count- ess. What if Lyons or Lewis goes down with an injury? What's the plan? I don't like their options." Every team faces worst-case scenarios. Best-case is Lewis and Lyons stay healthy and mature into the strong one-on-one cor- ners observers believe they can be. For the 5-10, 176-pound Lewis, he has fought the stigma he is too small to be a dominant coverman, and he might have overcompensated in 2014, playing too physical. "Jourdan Lewis is a natural, but he needs to play the ball better in the air and he needs to learn when his aggressiveness is an asset and when it hurts him," Ray said. "I told him, 'When you have great coverage and the ball is in the air, your job is done. You don't have to grab his jersey or push him or interfere. That's when you go attack the ball.' "He wanted to use his hands instead of his feet. He needs to be ag- gressive at the line of scrimmage, and the deep ball is where he made the most improvement this spring. He began to figure out that if he's in the right position, and he did his job early in the route, he can cut off the wide receiver, pin him to the sideline and go make a play to get his hands on the ball. "I like this kid. He's tough. He tackles well, he's smart, and he can run. Those underneath routes — the comebacks, the curls — he's all over it. He really wants to be great." The 6-1, 193-pound Lyons was recruited by Jim Harbaugh when he was a high school junior, eventually landing at Stanford even after Marcus Ray Mentors Jabrill Peppers On Safety Tradition "We have some guys right now that really could be good. They're not there yet, but coming out of spring they showed me some things that were exciting. I'm eager to see what's in store this season because they're really hungry." U-M SAFETIES COACH GREG JACKSON Ask Marcus Ray about the safety tradition at Michigan, and he can scroll through a list of names he emulated when he first began to follow the Wolverines in the early 1990s, while making a name for himself in the Columbus, Ohio, prep circles. Ask him to name the great safeties that wore the winged helmet since he graduated in 1998 and Ray changes expressions, displaying a restlessness over what's missing. Ray was a first-team all-conference safety in 1996-97, Tommy Hendricks (1996-99) earned All-Big Ten notice in 1999, and Ernest Shazor (2002-04) picked up the same recognition in 2004. Since then, no one at Michigan has. Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers might be the Maize and Blue's best hope to end that famine, and Ray, feeling it is his duty, has taken Peppers under his wing. "Jabrill is an elite football talent, but in his 19 years on earth, he hasn't seen what a great Michigan safety is supposed to look like," said Ray. "He was born the year before our national championship in 1997, and now, he's try- ing to uphold a tradition of safety play he's never seen with his own eyes. "When I went to Michigan, I was coming right after players like Tripp Welborne [1987- 90], Vada Murray [1987-90] and Shonte Peoples [1990-93], and I had grown up with Brad Cochran [1982-85] and Garland Rivers [1983-86] at Michigan. "What I'm trying to get Jabrill to understand is I'm the last guy at the safety position that Michigan fans can point to, and I told him he can be the guy that Michigan fans look to going forward. The exciting thing is he wants to be that guy." Peppers arrived with incredible hype, a five-star ranked the No. 3 recruit in the 2014 class, but three games into his rookie year he was sidelined with a knee injury that knocked him out for the rest of the season. In the aftermath, Peppers' role in the U-M defense has been dissected relentlessly, but the coaches settled on the 6-1, 205-pounder at safety, giving greater purpose to Ray's mentoring. "When you look at body type, he's an in-the-box guy," Ray said. "Run support, playing zone, reading tight ends and in-men on the line of scrimmage; turning and running athletically to the half field and deep third — he can do it all. "He has enough athleticism to play corner, but corner is a different animal. You're on the outside, you play more man-to-man, and man-to-man is not easy. It's hard to play bump coverage, but you look at how he can hit you with a head start, and the fact that he can match up with big tight ends, and when the ball goes up, he has the speed and the desire to go after it. "What I love about him the most is just his swagger. He talks some trash, but it's that confidence he plays with. A defense needs that. It needs someone that thinks he's the best player on the field. The entire defense plays off that energy and confidence." Peppers was a high school phenom on both sides of the ball, and he could see some snaps this fall offensively. He is competing to return punts and kickoffs, and while Ray admits there is a part of him that would like to see Peppers with the ball in his hands, he's more hopeful the redshirt freshman will step into the safety void that has lasted for 10 years. "Michigan needs Jabrill Peppers to be great — he's the one we've been waiting for," Ray said. "It has to be him because if it's not, I don't think they'll get another talent like him." — Michael Spath

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