Michigan Wolverines: Jabrill Peppers

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
4:30
PM ET
Enjoy all the spring games this weekend. We'll recap each early next week.

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To the inbox ...

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: While watching March Madness, I couldn't help but notice how full the stands were for semis and finals. One of the arguments against the college playoff was that fans wouldn't travel on short notice. Why? I never understood that argument. March Madness has been in play for more than 75 years and the less popular college basketball with smaller fan bases have been traveling to game sites for under a week's notice for years.

Adam Rittenberg: Ethan, the concern isn't so much that fans would travel to a national semifinal but whether they could travel to both a semifinal and the championship game the following week. Are Ohio State fans going to attend the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and then head back to Arlington, Texas, the following week for the championship game? Would Oregon fans make two potentially long trips back to back? The nice thing about basketball's Final Four is that both the semis and title game are at the same site. Remember, you're filling much larger stadiums for football, and you ideally don't want the title game to just feature a corporate crowd.

 




LoveLikeLacey from Chicago writes: What are your thoughts on how the backup QB situation will work out at MSU? There are a great deal of implications if either Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor transfer, since Sparty didn't take a QB in the 2014 class. I realize Terry has a great skill set and might even see the field this year in certain packages, but O'Connor was fairly highly recruited himself and I believe he also has some skills.

Adam Rittenberg: Love the name, Lacey. It will be interesting to see how that competition unfolds. Before Connor Cook became Connor Cook, some folks criticized the staff for not giving O'Connor much of a chance to prove himself in games. O'Connor seemed to perform well in last week's jersey scrimmage (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD), and he has created some separation with Terry since the start of the spring. It might be a case in which MSU uses Terry in different ways to keep him involved this year, but Cook still has two years left, so a true O'Connor-Terry competition might not take place until 2016. It's not ideal, and it could result in one player leaving.

 




A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: Adam, I love how Gary Andersen tries to adapt his schemes to the personnel he has. What has been driving me nuts, however, is the continual position switching of players back and forth. I get that he wants to maximize the talent on the field, but doesn't it hurt the development of the players? If you want to get the best players at the positions, part of that is learning technique and scheme, which seems difficult to do if guys keep getting moved.

Adam Rittenberg: A.J., it could come back to hurt Andersen, and as he told me this week, the switches don't always work, but you never know if you don't try. The good thing is Andersen has a track record for moving players around on defense and making it work. He did it at Utah State, which typically has less talent than Wisconsin, and produced strong defenses. There's definitely a big emphasis on technique as well, but the coaches need to see how a player looks at a certain position before making their determination.

 




Bob from Virginia writes: I didn't think you were fair with your comments about Julie Hermann and the Star-Ledger's campaign against her, specifically Steve Politi. I'd like to see you tell her face to face that you actually believe she was glad those people lost their jobs. You know it's not true. Have some integrity and stand up for what's right, Adam, not for a has-been columnist who had more to do with his paper's demise than anything else. Here's a different point of view of what happened in that classroom: Last I heard it was a free country, and if Julie felt the way she did about a newspaper, she had a good reason for it.

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, whether or not she's actually glad to see the newspaper struggling, she should have been more careful with her comments. Stand up for what's right? How about showing some poise despite the pressure? That's what other Big Ten athletic directors do. I understand there are discretion policies about comments made in classroom settings at Rutgers, but the risk of something like this getting out outweighs the potential benefit (is there a benefit?) of making that comment.

I doubt you're the only Rutgers fan who feels this way, but I look at the bigger picture. Very few people are fired up about Rutgers in the Big Ten. A lot of Big Ten fans strongly believe Rutgers doesn't belong. The events of the past year at Rutgers only reinforce this perception. It's up to Hermann, with help from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, to change the perception. This didn't help.

 




Mitch from Massachusetts writes: With Michigan's relatively new tradition of giving the numbers of great players from the past to current stars, do you see them ever giving out Charles Woodson's number 2? If so, who (besides Jabrill Peppers) has a shot of wearing it?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, Mitch. Most of the legends Michigan is honoring played a long time ago, such as Tom Harmon (QB Devin Gardner wears his No. 98) or Bennie Oosterbaan (LB Jake Ryan wears his No. 47). I'm not sure how Michigan would feel about doing the same thing for a fairly recent player like Woodson, who is still active in the NFL. My sense is the program would rather wait and honor other players who might be lesser known by most younger fans. While Peppers could be a star, I'd be shocked if he received such an honor early in his career. Veteran CB Blake Countess would be a better bet.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
10:15
AM ET
Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Average distance from the goal line after punt returns.

2013 review: We looked at this quite in depth yesterday when examining the Wolverines’ kickoff returns of 2013. The general conclusion is that while a yard here and there on a kickoff return doesn’t seem like a lot, it really is, and the same is true with punt returns.

[+] EnlargeDennis Norfleet
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsReturn man Dennis Norfleet could be pushed for playing time by freshmen.
Michigan returned 18 punts last season at an average of 6.3 yards per punt return (89th nationally). Neither one of those numbers are very encouraging, however both are areas in which different facets of the team must improve in 2014. The number of punts is a reflection of the defense, which was up and down all season. Other Big Ten teams forced opponents to punt far more often (Michigan State: 36, Ohio State: 30, Wisconsin: 28). The return is a reflection of the special teams, which is the focus today.

The punt return is an opportunity to gain great field position. North Carolina led the nation with an average punt return of 18.1 yards. Iowa led the Big Ten in the same category with 14.0 yards per punt return. The national average was 8.7 yards, meaning the Wolverines were more than two yards behind the national average.

Only twice all season did Michigan break off a return of 20 or more yards (Utah, North Texas and Duke led the FBS with eight apiece). Now, Michigan played some pretty tough teams when it came to punt returns. Michigan State’s special teams gave up just 6.7 yards per punt return while Iowa gave up just 4.9 yards per punt return, so the Wolverines’ 6.3 yards per return doesn’t look too bad in either of those categories. However, punt returns are a part of the game in which Michigan could (and should) take a step forward in 2014.

2014 preview: Like kickoff returns, this will likely be Dennis Norfleet's job, though there should be an opening for anyone else who makes a name for themselves this spring or during fall camp. Jabrill Peppers would be an obvious candidate if the coaches allow him to play outside of the secondary considering his athleticism and nose for finding holes in defenses.

Norfleet is another year older and wiser, so in the perfect world he’d be harder to stop in 2014 than he was in 2013 (read: not hard to stop). There isn’t a concrete statistic that Michigan needs to hit in punt returns, but the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games averaged 10.4 yards per return during the 2013-14 season. In that group there were outliers each way with Alabama and Oklahoma both averaging 14.2 yards per return while Stanford and Ohio State averaging 8.2 and 8.1 yards per return, respectively.

So in that general statistical look, the Wolverines would want to boost their yards per punt return by at least 2.5 yards per return in order to be in that same general range. Whether another year of experience can boost Norfleet’s production by nearly 40 percent will be tough to say until 2014. However, if he can make that kind of a jump it would be a huge help to Michigan’s field position.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten Championship game.

Stat: Average distance from goal after kickoff returns (tomorrow, we’ll look at punt returns).

[+] EnlargeDennis Norfleet
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Wolverines don't need to turn their return game upside down, but Dennis Norfleet's success on kickoff returns has a big effect on the offense's success.
2013 review: Coach Brady Hoke has made it very clear that he sees the special teams as the third facet of his team. Sometimes coaches focus on offense and defense and barely give a second thought to special teams. However, Hoke has personally worked with the kickers, given scholarships to long snappers and put emphasis on the return game.

But in 2013, the return game was a big issue for the Wolverines. On average, Michigan was 73.6 yards from the goal line after kick returns (80th nationally). With the Wolverines averaging 5.4 yards per play, that means that it would take 14 plays to reach to the end zone if they met that average. However, the Wolverines only had 22 drives this season (of their 167) that were at least 10 plays. That means most drives ended in Michigan not reaching the goal line. Of Michigan’s 167 drives last season, only 40 gained for 60 yards or more, and only 11 gained 80 yards or more.

From an efficiency standpoint, there’s a general stat in football that every offense wants -- to have more drives that end in a touchdown than drives that end without a touchdown or first down. Michigan didn’t achieve that last season. Of their 167 drives, 54 ended without a first down/touchdown and 48 ended in a touchdown. By comparison, Florida State, which had 176 drives, had 84 of its drives end in a touchdown and only 38 end without a first down/touchdown. Obviously not all of these drives begin after a kickoff return, but improvement certainly can be made in the return game.

On 15.7 percent of kickoff returns, the Wolverines gained at least 30 yards (eight of the 51 returns). TCU led the nation in this statistic, returning one-third of its 39 returns at least 30 yards. Future Big Ten member Maryland finished in the top 10 nationally, returning 23.5 percent of its returns at least 30 yards. Ohio State finished 34th nationally (17.2 percent) and Nebraska finished 35th nationally (17.1 percent).

Only 43 teams this season scored on a kickoff return. Michigan wasn’t one of them. The Wolverines averaged 22.1 yards per kickoff return (49th nationally). Wisconsin led the Big Ten in kickoff returns at 23.1 yards per return.

On the surface, one yard isn’t a lot of difference, but wouldn’t that one extra yard have been nice against Ohio State this season? Or where would the Wolverines have been in the past few seasons against Notre Dame if they were moved back a yard on certain drives?

2014 outlook: Dennis Norfleet is back and will be looked to in these situations. But he’s going to need to be much more productive than he was last season. As a whole, the Wolverines weren’t super efficient in this category. Norfleet didn’t break many tackles and never found the open field in the return game.

This is certainly an area in which Jabrill Peppers could make an impact if the coaches allow him to play something other than defense this season. Other candidates include Jourdan Lewis or Da'Mario Jones, quick-footed receivers who could make an impact. Field position is so crucial, and this is where it starts.

• Most of the teams that started at or fewer than 70 yards from the end zone were teams that did well last season: Stanford, Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA. So what does Michigan need to do to get to that 70-yard mark? Averaging 22.1 yards per return isn’t going to do it. If the Wolverines can improve that by one yard, they’d be in the top 30 nationally. If they could improve it by two yards, they’d be in the top 15. That’s the difference between a player holding a block for half a second longer or the returner falling forward. Little things make a big difference. A block here, a yard here and a step there can be the difference between a touchdown and a punt.
Seven cornerbacks were voted first- or second-team All-Big Ten from the coaches and the media in 2013. Only one of them returns this season.

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Blake Countess, who had six interceptions in 2013, wants to be the Big Ten's best cornerback this fall.
That's Michigan junior Blake Countess who, by process of elimination, could inherit the title of league's best corner. Don't think that hasn't crossed his mind.

"If I'm not in that role next year, then I'll feel like I have taken a step backwards, which just cannot happen," he told ESPN.com. "So that's definitely a goal in the back of my mind. Last year is over and done with, but moving forward means taking the next step."

While Countess had a solid 2013, finishing tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions, he knows he still has room to improve. And the Wolverines could be asking more of him as they try to tighten up their defense this fall.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made becoming a better blitzing team one of this spring's priorities. Michigan gave up far too many big plays in 2013, in part because it didn't do a great job bringing pressure and in part because the secondary struggled to contain wide receivers. Mattison hopes his front seven can do a better job getting to the quarterback this fall when he dials up a blitz. That means the corners have to be ready, too.

"That's where we're at now in our defense," he told reporters last month. "As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get more pressure, we've got to play more aggressive on receivers, tighten the coverage up."

Countess said he's spent a lot of time this offseason working on press and man-to-man coverage. It's a more aggressive approach than some of the zone coverages he's played in the past, and he relishes it.

"All DBs love to play press," he said. "I've never met a DB who says, 'Nah, I don't like to get up there and press.' It puts you close to the receiver, and if we give the receiver space, that's what [he wants]. So it puts you in a better position to make plays.

"A lot of guys played press all throughout high school, and then they get here and are forced to play a little bit more zone than they may have in high school. So it's kind of like getting back to what we've done in the past."

The Michigan cornerbacks have a new position coach this spring, as Roy Manning is now overseeing that group after coaching outside linebackers last season. Manning, a former Wolverines linebacker, has brought some new ideas on technique, Countess said. But his biggest contribution so far might be his attitude.

"He played here, so he knows what it means to play here," Countess said. "He's pushing us. He's done a great job of staying on top of us."

Countess is also trying to take charge of the secondary as he enters his fourth year in the program. He and senior cornerback Raymon Taylor are now the veterans of the group, and they'll need to lead guys like sophomores Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas. Heavily hyped recruit Jabrill Peppers arrives this summer and could play anywhere in the defensive backfield.

"I'm helping out a lot more with the younger guys this spring than I have in the past," Countess said. "I'm here to get the younger guys settled, because that's the future. The cornerback position has a lot of guys who have had significant snaps and game-time decisions so that's going to create a lot of competition."

Countess and others had strong moments last season, but the secondary as a whole didn't deliver as much as hoped for Michigan, which finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. There's no sugarcoating the performance in Ann Arbor.

"You have to look at it as a team, and as a team we were 7-6," Countess said. "That's not good enough at all. We definitely didn't play well enough as a team and looking at our position, we didn't play well enough. I don't think anybody on the team, as far as their positions, are happy with the outcome."

The improvement, they hope, begins this spring. And a great place to start is with arguably the top returning cornerback in the Big Ten.
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.

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers will get a chance to show he's worthy of that five-star ranking early at Michigan.
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:
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Blake Countess, Armani Reeves, Adrian Amos, Ibraheim Campbell, Mark Murphy, Dymonte Thomas, Jarrod Wilson, Cam Burrows, Raymon Taylor, Gareon Conley, Doran Grant, sojourn shelton, Jabrill Peppers, Vonn Bell, Daniel Jones, Nick VanHoose, Chris Ash, Eli Apple, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, V'Angelo Bentley, Zane Petty, Dezmen Southward, Kurtis Drummond, Dwight White, Corey Cooper, Josh Mitchell, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Landon Feichter, Tim Bennett, Michael Caputo, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Austin Hudson, Jesse Della Valle, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, Tyvis Powell, Cedric Thompson, John Lowdermilk, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Darius Hillary, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leo Musso, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Nadir Barnwell, Nate Hammon, Nico Law, Peniel Jean, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?
Earlier today, we listed 10 incoming Big Ten recruits -- five here and five here -- who we think could make an immediate impact during the 2014 season. Part of this is based on talent and part on position need, as projecting how first-year players perform can be somewhat of a crapshoot.

You've heard from us. Now it's time for you to pick the player most likely to impact his team this season.

Here are the choices:

SportsNation

Which incoming Big Ten recruit will make the biggest impact in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,447)

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: Godwin and other incoming wideouts have a chance to contribute right away, as Penn State brings back only one receiver (Geno Lewis) who had more than 15 receptions in 2013. Has good size and strength to transition to the college level.

Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: Has a proven player in front of him in 1,200-yard rusher David Cobb, but Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and adds another weapon to an offense that needs more of them.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: The top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 class (No. 13 overall), he plays a position of significant need for the Buckeyes, who lose All-American Ryan Shazier.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Highest-rated Big Ten player in the 2014 class (No. 2 overall by ESPN RecruitingNation). Could contribute on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams, and brings a playmaking presence to the Wolverines secondary.

Damian Prince, OT, Maryland: True freshmen rarely make an impact on the offensive line, but Prince isn't an ordinary freshman. Highest-rated offensive line recruit in the Big Ten -- No. 26 overall in the 2014 class -- and could help a Maryland offense transitioning to a more physical league.

Those are the choices. Time to vote.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:00
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.
Charles Woodson, Jabrill PeppersGetty Images, ESPNJabrill Peppers shares some characteristics with former U-M great Charles Woodson.
Signing day is over. Spring football starts in a few weeks. At least we have the Olympics to keep us company.

Here’s our Friday Michigan mailbag.

John Ghawi: Is Jabrill Peppers the next Charles Woodson?

A: OK, let’s look at the measurables first. In 1995, when Woodson was a freshman, he was listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds on the roster. Currently, Peppers is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. Peppers’ 40-yard dash time is 4.4 seconds. In a 1996 Sports Illustrated article about Woodson, I also found his time to be 4.4 seconds. So, clearly the extra 20 pounds that Peppers has on Woodson hasn’t affected his speed.

As a freshman, Woodson played only on the defensive side of the ball, recording 45 tackles and five interceptions. It was in his sophomore year that he started returning punts/kicks and playing on offense (including one pass as a sophomore during the Alabama game). Coaches have said they just want Peppers to get to Michigan first. They’ll begin with him defensively and as he’s ready to play elsewhere and as the team needs it, they certainly won’t hold him back. So, all of that brings me to your question as to Peppers’ potential. Does he have the physical ability and attitude to be the kind of impact player Woodson was at Michigan? Yes, I think he does. However, a lot of that will depend on how he acclimates himself to college life, the choices he makes, avoiding injury and how much freedom he’s given on the field. Not all of that is in his control, and we’ve seen some of the best athletes fall victim to those things. So, is it possible? Yes. Would it be good for Michigan? Absolutely. Having a player like Woodson would be good for Michigan in every way.

David, NYC: If Peppers comes in ready to start do we move Blake Countess inside to the nickel? Raymon Taylor is strictly a boundary CB, right?

A: Honestly, I think the better place to put Peppers would be free safety, both because of his skills and the lack of depth for the Wolverines there. It will give him the freedom to roam the field a little more and make big stops. I could see Countess moving to the nickel, though his biggest asset next season will be off the statistics chart in the leadership category. It’ll be a very young secondary group and the Wolverines will need a vocal upperclassman leader. And yes, Taylor is a boundary corner -- you’re answering your own questions here -- and will be used in that same position next season. The field corner position will likely be a battle between rising sophomores Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
AP Photo/Tony DingShane Morris completed 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards in Michigan's bowl game.
Patrick, Florida: How open do you think the quarterback battle really is?

A: I said this earlier this week, but I do believe there was a decent amount of coach-\speak in that sentiment. People would’ve gone crazy if Hoke had said “Yep, Devin Gardner is definitely still our quarterback,” considering Gardner is still injured and Shane Morris played well in the bowl game. But I think it’s Gardner’s job to lose. He has the experience factor. He has an ability to extend plays. And with an offseason spent really focusing on his footwork and decision making, I think some of those mistakes we saw this year (throwing late over the middle is NEVER a good idea) will disappear. But Morris is right there, champing at the bit. If Gardner doesn’t improve in his decision-making, then perhaps Morris’ ability will trump Garner’s experience and play-extension skills.

Timothy: Your early favorite for MLTF (Most Likely To Flow) in the 2014 LB class?

A: The Wolverines signed four linebackers: Michael Ferns, Chase Winovich, Noah Furbush and Jared Wangler. Easy. Wangler. His hair is already a little bit longer and seeing that his father played and his older brother plays for Michigan, he has clearly heard of the legendary flowful Wolverines. He went to Catholic school, where flow was probably looked down upon, so maybe by the time he gets to Michigan he’s going to want to let it grow out. Plus, look at photos of John Wangler when he was at Michigan … that man had some flow. Jared has genetics on his side. Ferns, Winovich and Furbush all seem like they’d be ones to keep a short, clean haircut.

Signing day wrap: Big Ten

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
8:12
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video

Signing day certainly lived up to the hype. With commitments, decommitments and drama across the board, there was a ton of action throughout the day within the Big Ten.

The biggest news on the day was when ESPN 300 defensive lineman Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) committed to Michigan State, but never sent in his national letter of intent. Before the announcement, McDowell's parents were open about the fact they did not want their son to pick the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeMalik McDowell
John Albright/Icon SMIESPN 300 DL Malik McDowell picked Michigan State, but his parents aren't happy with his decision.
When he did commit to Michigan State, the parents refused to sign the letter of intent. While that document isn't completely necessary for the No. 60 ranked prospect to attend Michigan State, he does need to sign his Big Ten tender. That document ensures his scholarship and also needs a parent's signature.

The Spartans' coaching staff has been working feverishly to get the parents on board, but it has been an uphill battle.

B1G surprises

Amidst the McDowell drama, Ohio State snuck in and was able to get three-star defensive end Darius Slade (Montclair, N.J./Montclair) to flip from Michigan State.

Slade initially said he wanted to wait on signing with the Spartans and visit the Buckeyes after signing day. The Michigan State staff spoke with Slade and decided to move on once Slade said he wanted to take the trip to Columbus.

The Buckeyes reaped the rewards as Slade then sent in his letter of intent to the Ohio State fax machine and is signed for the 2014 class.

There must have been something in the water with Big Ten defensive end commits as former Nebraska commit Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) flipped to South Carolina.

The three-star defensive end had been committed to Florida State at one point, then decommitted and chose the Cornhuskers. All seemed to be well until signing day when McClain flipped to the Gamecocks. It is a significant loss for Nebraska at an inconvenient time.

B1G movers

Michigan State saw a huge rise in the class rankings, moving up 10 spots to No. 29 overall. A big part of that increase was due to McDowell. If the Spartans can keep him on board it will be a huge coup.

Michigan State also landed three-star athlete T.J. Harrell (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Catholic), giving the coaching staff 14 three-star commits to go along with eight four-stars in this class. Defensive tackle Craig Evans (Sun Prairie, Wisc./Sun Prairie) didn't commit on signing day, but he was a late flip, switching from Wisconsin.

Northwestern dropped four spots, but that was essentially due to the lower numbers in the class and the fact that the Wildcats had closed out their class.

Future is bright at Penn State

The Nittany Lions picked up a commitment from linebacker Torrence Brown (Tuscaloosa, Ala./Tuscaloosa Academy) to cap off James Franklin's first class as Penn State's head coach.

Franklin was not only able to keep the class intact, but added some outstanding prospects.

ESPN 300 defensive tackle Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) did decommit, but the addition of ESPN 300 wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) and three-star athlete Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif./Notre Dame) helped Penn State finish No. 24 in the class rankings.

Franklin and his staff have already hit the ground running for the 2015 class as well and several junior prospects reported the Penn State coaches even spoke with them on signing day. There are apparently no brakes for this staff as they look to start building their first full class at Penn State.

Impact signings

Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) faxed in his letter of intent to Michigan on signing day. On the surface that might not seem like much, but right up until the night before signing day Peppers had been contemplating holding off on putting ink to paper.

The nation’s No. 2 prospect had heard from a few other schools, but ultimately decided Tuesday night that he would sign with the Wolverines.

That was a crisis averted for Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who brought in the No. 18 class in the country. The Wolverines hadn't landed a commitment in the 2014 class since August and most recently fell from No. 12 overall. That is significant given the fact that Michigan at one point had the No. 1 ranked class for 2014.

Minnesota was also able to hang on to its biggest commitment with running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn). The ESPN 300 prospect had been wavering and hearing from a few schools, but announced he would stay committed with the Gophers during a ceremony at his school.

That is as good a commitment as coach Jerry Kill and his staff have landed. Jones is an explosive back.

All in all it was an exciting day for the future of the Big Ten. The conference ended with 34 ESPN 300 prospects and three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State -- ranked in the top 25 of the class rankings.
Brady Hoke will sign his fourth Michigan recruiting class Wednesday. Currently, the class sits at 16 commitments and the only real question mark still out there is defensive end Malik McDowell, who will chose between Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State.

Hoke will address the media at 2 p.m. Wednesday, the first time he’ll be able to discuss these players publicly. Follow along on Twitter for updates throughout the day. Until then, here’s a primer to tide you over in your day-before-signing-day wait.

THE 2014 CLASS

Current ranking: No. 12 (16 commits)
Big Ten teams ahead of Michigan: Ohio State (No. 6, 22 commits)
Big Ten teams in the top 40: Penn State (No. 22, 24 commits), Wisconsin (No. 31, 27 commits), Northwestern (No. 35, 15 commits), Michigan State (No. 39, 20 commits)

Commits by position:

Quarterback: 1 | Wilton Speight*
Running back: 0
Wide receiver: 3 | Drake Harris*, Maurice Ways, Freddy Canteen*
Tight end: 1 | Ian Bunting
Offensive line: 2 | Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Mason Cole*
Defensive line: 3 | Bryan Mone*, Lawrence Marshall, Brady Pallante
Linebacker: 4 | Michael Ferns*, Noah Furbush, Chase Winovich, Jared Wangler
Defensive back: 2 | Jabrill Peppers, Brandon Watson
*denotes early enrollee, already signed letter of intent

WHAT TO KNOW

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNThe Wolverines have been able to hang on to top cornerback Jabrill Peppers, which is no easy feat.
Dry spell: Michigan hasn’t received a commitment since Aug. 8, 2013 (Wangler). At that point, the Wolverines recruiting class was ranked No. 6 in the Recruiting Nation rankings. Between the on-field play during a 7-6 season and other teams stepping up their recruiting games, the Wolverines missed out on several top targets.

No. 1 at one time: Last April, when the 2014 class rankings debuted, the Wolverines were ranked No. 6. In May, Michigan climbed to No. 1. At that point, Michigan had nine commits, eight of whom were ranked in the top 150. Since that point, several Wolverines commits dropped in the rankings, and now they have nine commits in the ESPN 300. And when Michigan was the No. 1 class, the Wolverines were still in on several top recruits in the 2014 class. Of those big-name prospects, the only one to commit to the Wolverines was Peppers, the No. 1 cornerback in the country.

The players who chose other schools over Michigan were defensive end Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama), wide receiver Corey Holmes (Notre Dame), Alex Bars (Notre Dame), wide receiver Artavis Scott (Clemson) and defensive back Parrker Westphal (Northwestern). The most troubling part of that is how the Wolverines had personal connections with so many of those players. Holmes grew up a die-hard Michigan fan. Bars’ older brother is on the Michigan roster. Scott is best friends with Cole. Westphal’s high school position coach played at Michigan. And yet, the Wolverines missed on all of them.

Top commit: Peppers. Not only is he the most important commit from an on-field standpoint -- he should be an immediate contributor for a struggling secondary -- but the fact that a 7-6 Michigan team could keep the commitment from the No. 1 cornerback in the nation says a lot about the relationships that were formed. He had offers from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and almost everywhere else. He could have left for any school. But the fact that the Michigan coaches were able to keep Peppers during a tumultuous season can be considered more of a coup than getting Peppers committed in the first place.

Lineage: Wangler. The name should sound familiar to most Michigan fans. John Wangler was a quarterback for Michigan (1977-80) and is most remembered for his 45-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Carter that gave the Wolverines a victory over Indiana in 1979. Jared’s older brother Jack, a walk-on wide receiver on Michigan’s roster, will be a sophomore when Jared enrolls.

More and more depth: Linebackers. It looks as though the Michigan linebackers group is going to get stronger. This season, that group was the most consistent defensive position group for the Wolverines, and now they’ll add four more quality players. Among Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, James Ross, Joe Bolden and Ben Gedeon, there won’t be much playing time for the taking, which means these players are going to be able to learn behind some very talented guys while also competing against them in workouts. Greg Mattison just keeps adding talent to the well he already has at linebacker, so look for this group to continue being the most consistent for the Wolverines in seasons to come.

[+] EnlargeBryan Mone
Courtesy of IntersportBy enrolling early, defensive tackle Bryan Mone could be in line for early playing time.
Early enrollees: 6. This is the second season in a row that Hoke has had six early enrollees. Last season, offensive lineman Kyle Bosch, offensive lineman Logan Tuley-Tillman, tight end Jake Butt, defensive end Taco Charlton, defensive back Ross Douglas and defensive back Dymonte Thomas enrolled early. Of those six, three were big contributors this past season, which bodes well for the six who came in early this year. Speight adds solid depth at quarterback, but he likely won’t need to contribute next season. Cole and Ferns are in similar positions in that they’re both talented, but because of the depth in front of them, it could take them longer to earn playing time. The two guys who could be the quickest to see playing time would be Harris or Mone, as both come in at positions that could use more bodies and talent. Both will have extra time with their position coaches and with the playbook.

No commits: Running back. The fact that the Wolverines aren’t bringing in a running back in this class isn’t a huge concern. Between Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith (and Drake Johnson, assuming he recovers well), the Wolverines are in good hands for the next few seasons. However, after losing the commitment of running back Damien Harris, the No. 1 running back in the 2015 class, there's a bit of a concern considering he was going to provide depth. Including Harris, Michigan has offered scholarships to three running backs in the 2015 class.

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Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
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