Michigan's 2016 Defense Could Be One of College Football's Best Ever

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterMay 26, 2016

Oct 10, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines cornerback Jourdan Lewis (26) celebrates with teammates after he scores a touchdown on an interception in the second quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking to reporters following one of the final practices of Michigan's spring, Jourdan Lewis wasn't shy about sharing the expectations he has for the Wolverines defense in 2016.

"Be the No. 1. The undisputed No. 1," the All-American corner said. "Our secondary was the No. 1 secondary in the country [in 2015] and that's what I'm looking for: Our unit being the best, winning some of those awards and getting a national championship. That's where my mindset is and all of our mindset is."

Why stop there?

Between its returning talent, an innovative defensive coordinator and a ready-to-play recruiting class, Lewis' lofty goals for the Michigan defense certainly appear attainable. Last season, the Wolverines ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, sixth in scoring and, to Lewis' point, third in defending the pass.

With the standard improvement one could expect from six returning starters, it would hardly come as a surprise if new defensive coordinator Don Brown once again directed the nation's top-ranked defense, just as he did at Boston College a year ago.

But even that would undersell the talent that exists on this Michigan defense.

Better than Alabama, LSU, Clemson and Wisconsin? Perhaps. But even comparing this Wolverines defense to its contemporaries may not do it justice.

From a talent standpoint, this is a unit capable of competing with the likes of the Brian Bosworth-led Oklahoma Sooners, the 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide, Nebraska's blackshirts of 1995, Miami's All-Pro pipeline in the early-2000s and Nick Saban's recent NFL factory in Tuscaloosa for consideration of being one of the top defenses in college football history.

Don't believe me? Just take a look at Michigan's returning roster.

Nov 21, 2015; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) runs with the ball as Michigan Wolverines cornerback Jourdan Lewis (26) and safety Jabrill Peppers (5) attempt to tackle during the third quarter at Beaver St
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As Lewis alluded to, it starts at the back end, with the Detroit native who could make a case for being college football's top corner. In 2015, Lewis finished second in the Big Ten and third in the nation, with 22 passes broken up, before he passed on entering the NFL draft in order for one last go-round in Ann Arbor.

"If he had come out [in 2016] he'd have certainly been one of the top corners," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Lewis last month. "Next year's draft, if you look at the top five right now and you look at a corner, you'd have to put him in there."

Opposite Lewis, Jeremy Clark returns the most experience, but Channing Stribling appeared to pass the 6'4", 210-pound senior on the Michigan depth chart in the spring. "He's a starter," Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh said of Stribling during an interview with The Michigan Insider at the end of the spring. "It's in stone."

Clark's versatility—and size—may ultimately be better utilized at safety alongside experienced seniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, especially now that Jabrill Peppers finds himself featured in a more prominent role in Brown's defensive scheme.

That's right, after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a safety in his redshirt freshman season, Peppers is moving to outside linebacker, although he could still see snaps at safety depending on Michigan's coverage. But as a linebacker, the former 5-star prospect will be able to make a greater impact while playing a position where Brown has developed pro prospects and stat-sheet stuffers in previous stops at Connecticut and Boston College.

"He's playing at a high level there," Brown said of Peppers at the end of spring practice. "The last three guys are in the NFL that I've coached that have played that position. You expect a lot at that spot, so we're going to get what we expect."

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

While Peppers' new role will give him the freedom to play linebacker, safety and nickel corner—all from the same spot—the two more traditional linebackers on the Wolverines defense will account for most of the unit's inexperience. But expected starters Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray were each 4-star prospects coming out of high school and both have received praise from Harbaugh throughout the preseason.

And should either Gedeon or McCray prove ineffective, Harbaugh could turn to his nationally fifth-ranked 2016 recruiting class, which included 4-star inside linebacker and early-enrollee Devin Bush Jr.

One Wolverines freshman who's all but guaranteed to see the field this fall is the nation's top overall prospect, Rashan Gary. The 5-star talent's size, agility and overall natural ability should allow him to play anywhere on the Michigan defensive line that the Wolverines deem necessary as soon as he arrives on campus.

And while Gary will certainly be in Michigan's rotation—if not the starting lineup—sooner rather than later, the Wolverines line already appeared to be a strength of the defense before his commitment this past February. With the returns of Taco Charlton (5.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss in 2015), Ryan Glasgow (20 career starts), former 4-star prospect Bryan Mone and NFL draft prospect Chris Wormley, Michigan's front four should help open up lanes for Peppers and neutralize any possible deficiencies from the Wolverines' two other linebacker spots.

"We were up there [in 2015]," Wormley told reporters of the U-M defensive line, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. "Without question, we could be the best defensive line in the country."

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Should the Wolverines' highly touted secondary and defensive line live up to their self-imposed expectations, the potential is there for Brown to go back-to-back when it comes to possessing the nation's top defense. Add in the upside of its linebacking corps and the unit's overall talent—Gary and Peppers account for Michigan's two highest-ranked recruits in the 247Sports era—and the already-high ceiling of the Michigan defense only rises.

Where it could wind up from a historical perspective is still yet to be determined, especially in a sport where opposing offenses have evolved at a rapid pace, making statistics much more difficult to compare. A national title would likely be necessary, as well as a season's worth of dominating performances—something the Wolverines showed flashes of being capable of a year ago—in order for the U-M defense to maximize its potential.

But with nearly three months to go until the start of the season, the pieces already appear to be in place for the 2016 Wolverines defense to be one of college football's all-time greats.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruit rankings and info courtesy of 247Sports.

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