- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season, and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season. So, to look forward to next fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.
Prediction No. 2: Jabrill Peppers will be starting by the conference opener
Why: The Wolverines secondary struggled in 2013. Blake Countess returned from injury to play the way he did as a freshman, which was impressive, and he was probably the most consistent defensive back Michigan put on the field. He’ll return and lead the secondary, both on and off the field, but the Wolverines will need to replace Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon.
As Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis both got looks at cornerback last season, they’ll likely be the ones competing for the starting spot opposite Countess this spring, but there's no reason why Peppers wouldn't be included in that conversation starting this fall. Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson seem to be the front-runners for the starting safety spots this spring, but Peppers could force his way into that competition as well.
With the change in the coaching staff (Curt Mallory now just coaches the safeties; Roy Manning moved from linebackers to cornerbacks), you can also expect that the players will have a bit of changeup. The Wolverines will likely play more nickel than they did last year, especially because Greg Mattison said he plans to play more over defense this upcoming year, which means the Wolverines will need to feature a talented nickel. Peppers could play there as well.
Realistically, Peppers is the kind of talent who could really play anywhere in the secondary (also at wide receiver, returner... heck, put him on the basketball team next season, too). But with a defense that is looking to build depth, Mattison can’t put all his eggs in Peppers’ basket. They'll likely give him one spot (though that still seems up in the air right now), and by giving him one position to focus on, he can excel there and the coaches can add more to his plate as he grows more accustomed to college football.
Stats to know: The Wolverines’ secondary struggled last season. Statistically, it was the worst that it has been under Brady Hoke. Michigan allowed 231.3 passing yards per game (No. 7 in the Big Ten, No. 66 in the nation). That number was more than 60 yards worse than the previous season and 40 yards worse than the 2011 season.
The Wolverines allowed 42 completions of 20-plus yards (69th in the nation) and 23 passing touchdowns (tied for 83rd in the nation). Nearly half of opponent's completions gained at least 10 yards (49.8 percent, 87th in the nation).
One of the few bright spots of the secondary was the number of turnovers forced and the number of near turnovers the Wolverines accounted for -- Stribling, Lewis and Taylor were close on quite a few and though football doesn’t give “almost” points, it still means something when we’re breaking down a position group.
There isn’t an easy fix. However, there is a way to make quarterbacks hesitate on longer or more difficult throws: Put in a playmaker. The Wolverines really haven’t had one in quite a few years. And though it’s not realistic to say that Peppers is definitely going to be that guy for Michigan (he’s not even on campus yet, folks), he certainly has the potential.
Don’t expect Peppers to be the MVP next season. Don’t expect him to singlehandedly make Michigan the best defense in the nation. Don’t expect him to be Superman. But he might show shades of that every now and again, and that will give fans something to be excited about. And, based on how much the secondary struggled last season and knowing how serious Peppers is about wanting to contribute early, expect him to be a starter by Sept. 27, when Michigan opens the Big Ten season against Minnesota.
Other fall predictions: