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Drew’s mailbag: Peppers’ position, Hoke’s headset, and captains

July 14th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


It is time for another edition of Drew’s Mailbag, which will run frequently throughout the offseason as Maize and Go Blue prepares for and previews the 2014 Michigan football season. The topics will cover more than just football, though. I will address any questions regarding Michigan athletics, including basketball, recruiting, etc., you may have. So fire away on Twitter (@DrewCHallett) or via email (drew.maizeandgoblue@gmail.com).

Where do you see Jabrill Peppers in the cornerback mix this upcoming season? –Steve (@SteveCKays)

Well, to tell the truth, I do not think Jabrill Peppers will really be in the mix at cornerback this season. Remember in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan’s depth at cornerback was abysmal because it seemed like every player at the position either suffered a season-long injury, transferred, was kicked out of the program, or denied admission? Those days are long gone.

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Look for Peppers to start out at nickel but end up at strong safety this season

Michigan finally is loaded with depth at cornerback. And talented depth, too. The Wolverines return their two starting cornerbacks in Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor—both of whom have two years’ worth of starting experience. Countess was one of the best corners in the Big Ten last season. Not only did he consistently execute his assignments, his six interceptions were tied for the most in the conference and matched the most by a Wolverine since Charles Woodson had eight during his Heisman-winning season. Accordingly, Countess was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. Lining up on the other side of the field will be Taylor, who has proven to be an above-average Big Ten cornerback as well. He was more prone to mistakes and mental mishaps than Countess, but he excelled in man coverage, nabbed four interceptions of his own, and led the team in tackles. Given the experience of and production from both Countess and Taylor, there is little chance that Peppers cracks the starting lineup at field or boundary cornerback.

The only chance Peppers has to be truly in the mix at corner will be at nickelback—the third corner who enters when the defense deploys a nickel package. Head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison prefer to insert their talented but inexperienced corners at nickelback before shifting them to the outside. At nickelback, these budding stars have an easier time acclimating to the speed of college football and more room for error. This would be the perfect position for Peppers to make his debut. Even Hoke agrees. However, this spot likely will be manned by Jourdan Lewis. Lewis flashed great potential in eight games as a true freshman last season and signs of improvement this past spring. There were even rumors that he was challenging Taylor to be the starting boundary corner. Although Peppers has arrived on campus with arguably more hype than any previous Michigan recruit, Countess, Taylor, and Lewis appear to have locked down the three starting corner spots. At these positions, Peppers likely would be nothing more than a reserve along with Channing Stribling and Delonte Hollowell.

However, just because Peppers may have a minimal impact at cornerback this season does not mean he will have minimal impact overall. Michigan is not in a position where it can keep a consensus five-star recruit and the highest-rated Michigan signee in the recruiting-services era on the bench. Peppers will play, and he will see the field a bunch. One of the strengths of Peppers’ game is his versatility. He has the size, body, and athleticism to play multiple positions. Consequently, even though Peppers will first play nickelback according to Hoke and is projected to be an NFL corner in a few years, Peppers will make his mark as Michigan’s strong safety this season.

Whereas Michigan is stacked with talented depth at cornerback, the Wolverines’ depth at safety is shakier. Free safety likely is set with Jarrod Wilson resuming his role as the starter, but, with Thomas Gordon graduating last season, there is an opening at strong safety. In the spring, players like Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas competed to become the starting strong safety. However, no one emerged, and the competition will continue into fall camp. A strong safety must be a pseudo-linebacker that can play closer to the line of scrimmage to provide run support, as well as drop back into coverage in the middle of the field. Essentially, strong safeties need to be physical, tackle well in space, and have the athleticism to cover lots of ground in a hurry. Peppers has all of these attributes and would fit into this role wonderfully. Because he is only a true freshman, Peppers may make his debut during the non-conference slate as a reserve nickelback to get his feet wet, but, by no later than Michigan’s Big Ten opener, I expect Peppers to be named Michigan’s starting strong safety for the remainder of the season.

Will Brady Hoke be wearing a headset on the sidelines this year? –Henry (@henry_bouldin)

Yes. Will Brady Hoke wear his headset on the sideline at all times this year? No. As he has the past three seasons, Hoke will only wear a headset when he feels he needs to wear one. In all likelihood, this will be on critical third and fourth downs, as well as key drives in the fourth quarter of competitive games. Otherwise, Hoke will keep the headset off, so he can spend more time coaching his players directly on the sidelines rather than worrying about the play-calls.

And I am totally okay with this. It is not as if Hoke is completely out of the loop with regards to Michigan’s play-calling or gameplan during the game. This could not be further from the truth. Hoke has a member of the staff that relays every play to him. He knows every play that has been called before it is executed on the field. If there is a play or scheme that Hoke does not like, he will throw on his headset and make his concerns known, whether it be to counsel with his coordinators or to overrule them. And, this year, if Hoke does have a problem, both of his coordinators—Doug Nussmeier and Greg Mattison—will be on the sidelines next to him.

Plus, why is it necessary for a head coach to don the headset at all times if he still has the play-calls relayed to him? A head coach hires an offensive and defensive coordinator to organize the schemes and call the plays with his input. But it does not mean that the head coach must micromanage every single detail about the gameplan during the game. A great head coach must be able to trust his staff to execute their assignments and responsibilities. Hoke demonstrates that he has that trust in his staff when he does not wear the headset. This has the potential to backfire by placing too much trust into a member of the staff (See: former offensive coordinator Al Borges). Nonetheless, I have no problem with a head coach trusting his staff to do what they are supposed to do, so he can be more effective coaching, inspiring, and motivating his players on the sideline.

And the funniest thing about this topic to me? In 2011, Michigan fans did not care one iota about Hoke not wearing a headset. Why? Because Michigan had an 11-2 record and won the Sugar Bowl. In fact, fans praised, calling him a throwback coach that had faith in his coaching staff. However, after the past two seasons, fans have begun to blame anything they think may be contributing to Michigan’s struggles, including Hoke’s headset. It is amazing how that works.

Who do you think will be this year’s football captains? –Tanya (@ilah17)
Jake Ryan is the obvious choice; could Frank Clark join him?

Jake Ryan is the obvious choice as captain; could Frank Clark join him?

Let’s start with the obvious: linebacker Jake Ryan will be elected as a Michigan football captain for the second straight season. It was a surprise to the public when it was announced that Ryan had been voted a captain last season. The surprise was not because Ryan was not talented or because he was not capable of being a leader. The surprise was because Ryan had suffered an ACL injury in the previous spring, and there was uncertainty about when he would return to the field and how effective he would be. Yet, despite all of this, Ryan’s teammates still viewed him as one of their best leaders and named him a captain as a redshirt junior. There is no doubt that Ryan will be asked to resume his duties as captain now that he is 100-percent healthy and ready to regain his All-Big Ten form from 2012.

The offensive captain likely will be fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner. First, he is the only senior on scholarship that competes on the offensive side of the ball. Generally, the players named captains are seniors and, in some cases, juniors. It is difficult to see the most experienced player on the offense not named a captain. Second, Gardner is the quarterback, which implies that he must be a leader in the huddle and on the sideline. It would be somewhat concerning if it was announced that Michigan did not elect its redshirt-senior starting quarterback as a captain, even if Hoke continues to claim that there is quarterback competition for some reason. Third, Gardner, along with departed wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, carried the entire offensive load last season. Gardner had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Michigan quarterback while taking an endless pounding behind a sieve-like offensive line. I just cannot see a player with the experience and production of Gardner, especially at quarterback, not be named a captain.

After Ryan and Gardner, it becomes tricky. In the past three seasons under Hoke, Michigan has had two, three, and four captains in one of those years. In 2012, there was a clear leader on offense and on defense: Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs. The question is whether the Michigan roster feels similarly about Gardner and Ryan this season. I think they might, which is why I believe that Michigan will have only two captains this season. If Michigan was to elect one or two more captains, they would definitely come from the defensive side of the ball. The options would be senior defensive end Frank Clark, senior linebacker Desmond Morgan, senior cornerback Raymon Taylor, and redshirt junior cornerback Blake Countess. If I had to pick two of those options, I would pick Clark and Countess. But this is all moot because I expect Ryan and Gardner to be the only two Michigan captains this season.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Don’t be surprised if Jim Harbaugh becomes the U-M football coach.