Following a 45-6 loss to West Virginia in Morgantown, W.Va., Maryland (2-2) returns to College Park, Md., for its first conference game, an 8 p.m. primetime bout against Michigan (3-1). The Wolverines lost the first game of the Jim Harbaugh era, but have since rattled off three straight victories against Oregon State, UNLV and, most recently, BYU, 31-0.
After that opening-week road loss, UM has been humming in front of the Big House faithful. The blue and maize won’t have home support this time around, but fact is Harbaugh’s crew has been scary good defensively. Through four games, the Wolverines are ranked second nationally in total defense, allowing a total of 38 points. Offensively, the Wolverines won’t remind of Baylor, but they’ve still managed 27.8 points per game and 396.2 yards per outing.
Last year, Maryland trekked up to Ann Arbor, Mich., and pulled off a 23-16 victory. This is a much different Michigan squad, however -- if not in terms of personnel, then in how well they’re coached. From Harbaugh on down, the staff has already instituted wholesale philosophy changes that have readily taken hold.
Granted, the Wolverines aren’t expected to rise to the top of the Big Ten just yet, but they’re way ahead of last year’s pace, namely in regards to their running game; defensive pressure; and secondary play.
Technically, first-year offensive coordinator Tim Drevno -- who has worked with Harbaugh for 11 years -- is the play-caller, but, in reality, it’s a collaborative effort. Drevno, Harbaugh and passing-game coordinator Jedd Fisch all have input, hashing out the plan of attack each week. But regardless of who’s formulating the game plan, Harbaugh has always insisted on a physical style centered around a downhill running game. That’s clearly what the Wolverines have established thus far.
With the passing game lagging, UM has been utilizing multiple tight ends and fullbacks to spur its backfield. Typically, Michigan will employ either a traditional pro-set or I-form, with some two tight-end looks also thrown in.
It’s nothing flashy, but it’s produced the desired results. Through four games, UM is averaging 202.2 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry, statistics that don’t rank among the nation’s elite but belie the ground game’s effectiveness.
Michigan isn’t a team of speedsters who can rip off 80-yard runs; the offense is predicated on grinding down the defense before breaking their will late. It’s old-school power football, harkening back to the Big Ten’s good ‘ol days.
Not that Michigan can’t stretch the field from time to time. When the defense bites in, the Wolverines can take advantage (194 passing yards per game).
Moreover, they’re converting a respectable 46 percent of third downs, and have scored on 13-of-14 of their redzone opportunities, including 11 touchdowns in 14 attempts. That said, UM has been hurt by penalties (54.2 yards per game) and turned the ball over six times, including five picks.
Ideally, Iowa transfer Jake Rudock (Gr., 6-3, 203) would be a true game manager in the mold of an Alex Smith. Make smart decisions. Hand the ball off. Complete the slants, screens and dump-offs, with an occasional bomb when there’s single coverage.
But fact is Rudock has drawn the staff’s ire on more than a few occasions, suffering from more mental lapses than his five picks would indicate. He doesn’t have an especially strong arm, nor does he have Peyton Manning-like precision, so the coaches would rather Rudock attempt safe throws than take chances.
At this point, anything more than 22-25 throws per game probably means the Wolverines are in trouble, because they can’t rely on Rudock to anchor the offense.
For the season, Ruddock has completed 73-of-116 passes for 776 yards (194 per game) and four scores against five interceptions. He’s coming off of a 14-for-25, 194 yards, one-touchdown outing against BYU; he added in two rushing scores.
But while Rudock has had his ups and downs, he’s basically cemented as the starter, barring injury or a catastrophic meltdown. Backup Wilton Speight (So., 6-6, 239) has seen some time this year, but hasn’t shown enough to earn the starting gig. Meanwhile, the plan is to redshirt Shane Morris (So., 6-3, 208), so Harbaugh will probably only play him in case of emergency.
The lifeblood of Michigan’s offense, the Wolverines employ three or four different runners, in addition to a fullback or two. None of UM’s backs can be considered a “game changer,” but they’re all fairly solid, and fairly similar, across the board.
The breadwinner, De’Veon Smith (So., 5-11, 228), packs a punch at the point of attack. He’s a run-you-over type who gets downhill in a hurry -- the perfect grinder in Harbaugh’s I-form offense. Smith isn’t going to burst into the third level, but he can make the first defender miss and possesses some quickness too. Now, Smith did just suffer an ankle injury during the BYU bout, so his status is in question for the Maryland game.
Through four games, Smith has 331 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, to go along with four receptions for 35 yards and a score. Smith toted the ball 16 times for 125 yards and a touchdown last week.
The current No. 2, Ty Isaac (Jr., 6-3, 228), has flashed some burst and runs with good vision/patience, but the jury’s still out on how effective he can be. He’s a better cutter than Smith, but is not as powerful.
Isaac has 20 total carries for 170 yards and one touchdown so far. Last week, he produced just nine yards on two touches.
The runner who could supplant Isaac, Drake Johnson (Jr., 6-1, 210), may be ready to emerge now that he’s healthy. Johnson was a Harbaugh favorite during camp, but had been slowed during the early going.
He’s the most complete runner Michigan has, displaying breakaway speed; athleticism; strength; and make-you-miss moves. Johnson probably isn’t a threat to Smith just yet, but he’s in line for more touches going forward. He had five carries for 26 yards and one catch for 14 yards against BYU.
With Johnson back in the fold, expect Derrick Green’s (So., 5-11, 225) carries to decline even more. Team media have suggested Green is in Harbaugh’s “doghouse,” but he did see his carries increase against BYU (10 for 30 yards). He has 74 yards on 23 touches this season.
At fullback, Joe Kerridge (Sr., 6-0, 248) did suffer an ankle injury against UNLV, but he’s typically the main cog. If healthy, Kerridge has shown he can do a little of everything. He’s not outstanding in any one area, but he’s a reliable blocker; possesses soft hands; and packs some pop. When not opening holes for Smith, Isaac and Co., look for Kerridge to flare out as an outlet receiver (he’s had a couple third-down conversions thus far in 2015).
Kerridge has rushed the ball five times for 16 yards, while hauling in four passes for 35 yards.
If Kerridge isn’t available, Sione Houma (Jr., 6-0, 242) is a very similar fullback. There isn’t much, if any, dropoff when he enters the game.
It’s difficult to produce with an inconsistent quarterback, but Michigan does have a couple intriguing wideouts to account for. First and foremost, there’s Amara Darboh (Jr., 6-2, 215), who has added a step since 2014. Darboh has taken the top off the defense a couple times this season, something he failed to do last year. But Darboh does most of his damage on screen passes, using his quicks and start-stop-speed to accelerate after the catch. Moreover, Darboh’s a proficient blocker, which is a valuable asset on a team that loves the ground game.
In four games, Darboh has 20 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, he hauled in four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
The second wideout, Jehu Chesson (Jr., 6-3, 200), has better wheels than Darboh. He has been known to both stretch the field and take a handoff before sweeping around end. He’s not as shore-handed as his fellow wideout, but Chesson’s hardly a liability, showing some ability to make tough grabs. Again, blocking is a major asset; in fact, Chesson is considered the most effective skill-position blocker on the squad.
Chesson’s tallied seven receptions for 65 yards so far; he pulled down two passes for 17 yards against BYU.
Two other receivers to note are Drake Harris (So., 6-4, 181) and slot Grant Perry (Fr., 6-0, 184), who haven’t seen many looks in a vanilla offensive scheme, but could make plays in the right situation. Both are Harbaugh favorites who figure to become more involved against Big Ten defenses, which are better equipped to stifle the Wolverines’ ground game.
If Michigan goes with a three-wide set, expect Rudock to hit Perry on a short slant, taking advantage of his open-field quickness. Harris, meanwhile, is a bigger target who poses a matchup problem against smaller defenders.
One of the top athletes on the team, Jake Butt (Jr., 6-6, 250) sees more targets than any receiver outside of Darboh. Combining size, speed, soft hands and blocking proficiency, he’s a future NFL tight end. In fact, some around Ann Arbor have taken to comparing him to Rob Gronkowski.
Butt’s not quite at that level yet, but he is the team’s second-leading receiver with 15 catches for 173 yards and a score. Butt recorded one reception for 41 yards last week.
Considering Michigan employs plenty of two tight-end sets, the backups see lots of field time. Typically, the Wolverines rotate through two of their better blockers, A.J. Williams (Sr., 6-6, 275) and Henry Poggi (Jr., 6-4, 266), the latter a former Gilman (Baltimore, Md.) star. Neither are considered threats in the passing game, but on third-and-short situations, and when Michigan wants to grind out tough yards, both hold up at the point of attack.
Much of Michigan’s rushing prowess can be attributed to the big uglies up front. The veteran unit has paved the way for a rushing unit that sits 10th in the nation. On top of that, the Wolverines have surrendered a total of three sacks in 2015.
Their relative success has been a pleasant surprise. A question mark entering the campaign, especially with the starting center quitting the team and a new starter at left tackle, the unit -- which goes seven deep -- has not only jelled through five weeks, but they’ve become a potential force.
At left tackle, Mason Cole (So., 6-5, 305) was an early enrollee out of high school and played right away as a freshman. He performed decently last season, but this year has gone through a bit of a sophomore slump. Cole’s surrendered some pressures and hasn’t displayed as much point-of-attack power, but he’s still been adequate. He’s fully expected to rebound and develop into a top-level blocker once he works through the fundamental kinks.
Left guard Ben Braden (Jr., 6-6, 322), meanwhile, has readily taken to the transition from tackle to guard. He didn’t move well enough to hang as a blindside blocker, but has found a natural home on the line’s interior. Braden’s ability to knock his man off the ball and push to the second level are major reasons Michigan’s been running the football.
Even more impressive has been the emergence of center Graham Glasgow (Sr., 6-6, 301), perhaps the best O-Lineman Michigan has. Glasgow was thrust into the starting role during camp, and responded like he’d been atop the depth chart the last two years. He’s done well identifying defensive fronts, making line adjustments and, of course, drive blocking. Glasgow gets off the ball quickly, maintains leverage and can occupy multiple defensive linemen.
At right guard, Kyle Kalis (Jr., 6-5, 305) had some breakdowns early (he’s not great in pass protection), but has improved during recent weeks. Kalis is considered another strong run blocker, who works well with both Glasgow and the right tackle, Erik Magnuson (Jr., 6-6, 305).
Speaking of Magnuson, he’s not going to make an All Big-Ten team, but hasn’t committed any glaring mistakes either. Magnuson has mostly held up in pass protection, while he’s flashed enough power to knock defensive ends off the ball. He isn’t especially fleet of foot, however, so quick-twitch edge rushers/blitzing linebackers may be able to beat him from time to time.
Rotating in behind the starters are left guard David Dawson (Jr., 6-4, 316) and right tackle Blake Bars (Sr., 6-5, 290). Both are capable replacements, who can spell the starters without a dropoff.
Under first-year coordinator D.J. Durkin, who coached with Harbaugh at Stanford (2007-09) and spent the last two years as Florida’s defensive coordinator, the Wolverines employ a variable 3-4 with plenty of wrinkles. UM actively morphs into a 3-3-5 and a 4-3 throughout any given game, giving offenses a variety of looks.
On top of that, Durkin loves to blitz, implementing a potpourri of packages designed to disguise rushers, who close in from all angles. Even when the Wolverines don’t reach the quarterback, they’ve been generating pressure, forcing quick throws and, ultimately, incompletions and turnovers.
So far, so good. This deep, experienced unit ranks second nationally in total defense, has surrendered 9.5 points per game; has allowed just 55 total first downs; and is giving up about 204 total yards per outing and a measly 3.5 yards per play. The Wolverines have produced eight sacks, allow an average of 2.6 rushing yards per game and are limiting passing games to 122 yards per.
Yet another much-improved unit, Michigan’s defensive line has accounted for most of the Wolverine’s pressure this year. Rotating between three- and four-down linemen on any given series, UM’s tackles and ends have been winning their one-on-one battles; breaking through double teams; and collapsing the pocket. They’ve forced quick throws from quarterbacks, corralled running backs and just been all-out disruptive in the gaps.
At defensive end, Maurice Hurst (So., 6-2, 282) took over for demoted starter Willie Henry (Jr., 6-3, 307) last week. Henry wasn’t performing poorly -- he mostly held up at the point of attack, although he wasn’t getting much of a push -- but Hurst potentially offers a faster first step and more explosiveness. Hurst will have fundamental issues every now and again, but his upside and physical abilities earned him the right to start. (Note that Hurst was slotted to play nose tackle, but when defensive end Bryan Mone went down with a season-ending leg injury it forced some reshuffling).
Through four games, Hurst has eight tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks. He had two stops and a sack against BYU.
Nose tackle Ryan Glasgow (Jr., 6-4, 300) has had a productive year pushing the pocket too. He can line up at various spots along the line, allowing him to rush from a 3-tech or a 5-tech, exploiting mismatches up front. Glasgow will also sit directly over the center in a 3-4, using his power and leverage to eat up multiple blockers.
Glasgow has recorded 10 stops and four tackles for loss thus far. He’s coming off a three-tackle, two tackle-for-loss effort in Week 4.
The stat stuffer in the trenches, however, has been defensive tackle Chris Wormley (Sr., 6-5, 303). Far exceeding expectations, Wormley at one time ranked second in the nation in tackles for loss. A pure playmaker who rotates in at nose as well, Wormley has violent hands and long arms, which allow him to easily disengage. Combine that with standout quickness and a terrific get-off, and it’s little wonder Wormley’s lived in opposing backfields this year.
Wormley’s picked up 14 stops, seven tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble in 2015. He had two tackles last week.
The aforementioned trio are the listed defensive line starters, but since UM uses various fronts and brings in fresh bodies, there are at least two more names to know.
At defensive end, Taco Charlton (So., 6-6, 285) needed time to pack on pounds, but is now coming into his own. A former hoops star, Charlton has above-average athleticism and fast feet. He should see even more action heading into the heart of the Big Ten schedule.
Charlton’s recorded nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble so far. He had one stop last week.
Meanwhile, defensive tackle Matt Godin (Jr., 6-6, 288) has developed into a key piece off the bench. He subs in for Wormley and sometimes Henry, flashing solid moves as a situational edge rusher.
Godin has tallied 10 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in four games. He had two stops against BYU.
While not a weakness per se, the linebackers have still been the defense’s most disappointing group. Basically, it’s been a slow transition adjusting to Durkin’s multiple 3-4, which employs a “Buck” linebacker (a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker). Furthermore, the returning inside linebackers haven’t been as effective as expected, primarily in coverage.
Speaking of that Buck spot, Mario Ojemudia (Jr., 6-2, 245) is still growing into the position. He’s struggled at times lining up with his hand in the dirt, failing to gain consistent penetration or fend off blocks. Ojemudia has also looked a bit timid setting the edge from the outside linebacker spot.
Not that he’s been a major liability. Ojemudia does tackle well, while he has the size; power; and speed to succeed. Now, he just needs to master the fundamentals and mental parts of the position.
Ojemudia has racked up 14 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2015. He had three stops and a sack in Week 4.
With Ojemudia sometimes struggling, UM often rotates in Royce Jenkins-Stone (Jr., 6-2, 245), who could eventually take over the starting gig down the road. He has similar physical traits to Ojemudia, although isn’t quite as quick.
Through four games, Jenkins-Stone has 10 tackles and a sack. He picked up three stops last week.
The opposite outside linebacker, James Ross (Sr., 6-1, 241), has excelled coming downhill. With a fast initial step and active hands, he does well filling the gaps; corralling backs in space; and shedding blocks. Ross isn’t the best cover linebacker out there, however, and opposing quarterbacks could expose him by flooding his area with tight ends and receivers.
So far, Ross has nine stops, two tackles for loss and a sack.
At inside linebacker, Desmond Morgan (Sr., 6-1, 244) is another standout run stuffer. He tackles well in the box and is seemingly always around the football. Like Ross, Morgan’s not the greatest with his drops, nor does he excel to the point where he’ll be a top Big-Ten tackler, but he gets the job done.
Morgan has 21 tackles, 1,5 tackles for loss and a sack, to go along with a breakup and a forced fumble. He tallied two tackles last week.
Fellow inside backer Joe Bolden (Jr., 6-3, 237), meanwhile, is Michigan’s defensive captain. A heady, vocal leader, Bolden’s relied on to call out the plays; switch the schemes; and line up his teammates. After the snap, he does his best work moving downhill, filling the A-and B-gaps, while occasionally busting up the backfield. That said, Bolden hasn’t always lived up to expectations this year, missing a couple tackles and failing to make plays in space.
Even so, Bolden has filled up the stat sheet with a team-leading 26 stops, including one for loss.
The surprise unit of the season, Michigan’s secondary has improved dramatically under defensive backs coach Greg Jackson. After a lackluster 2014, the corners and safeties have bounced back to the tune of 8.3 yards allowed per catch and 122 yards surrendered per game, while they’ve given up just two receiving touchdowns.
Jourdan Lewis (So., 5-10, 175), the lead corner, is already being projected as an early-round draft pick. He was under-recruited coming out of high school, but has developed to the point where opposing quarterbacks shy away from him. He’s not the tallest corner, but Lewis is quick; instinctive; physical at the line; and active in the air. Lewis did suffer a concussion earlier this season, but returned two weeks ago and picked up where he left off.
He has tallied 10 tackles and six breakups in 2015. He had one stop against BYU.
The second corner, Channing Stribling (So., 6-2, 181), is in his first year starting, and has naturally made mistakes. He’s in the process of learning the position’s finer points, from recognizing routes; to keeping his eyes out of the backfield; to switching on and off wideouts. For now, the Wolverines shade protection to Stribling’s side in case he has a major breakdown and gets beat deep.
But Stribling should be successful as he gains experience. A former basketball player, he’s tall; fast; and athletic, posing a matchup problem for opposing wideouts. And, indeed, Stribling has made a couple impressive plays in the air, using his outstanding vertical leap to come up with a breakup and a pick overtop a receiver.
Stribling’s recorded 10 stops, a pick and two pass defenses through four games. He racked up four tackles last week.
At safety, Jarrod Wilson (Sr., 6-2, 210) is one of Michigan’s more consistent performers. He’s not going to wow you with physical feats or game-changing plays, but he doesn’t get taken to task either. Wilson is one of those safeties who simply does what’s asked -- keeping plays in front of him, offering over-the-top help and wrapping up in space. He’s considered the secondary’s signal caller, the veteran leader on the back line.
Wilson has 15 tackles so far.
The strong safety, Jabrill Peppers (So., 6-1, 208), was a hyped recruit coming out of high school, and he’s beginning to meet the expectations. Peppers has had a few mental lapses that have resulted in big plays downfield, but the physical upside is clearly evident. A hard-hitting thumper with sideline-to-sideline range, Peppers is one of the team’s best open-field tacklers. He has a rapid-fire get-off, can fight through blocks and takes tight closing angles.
The sophomore has 14 stops, three tackles for loss and a breakup in four games. He’s coming off a two-tackle, one tackle for loss day against BYU.
Besides the starters, expect third corner Jeremy Clark (Jr., 6-4, 210) and backup free safety Delano Hill (So., 6-0, 212) to see field action in nickel and dime packages. A developmental veteran, Clark has matured considerably since arriving in Ann Arbor. He isn’t ready to start yet, but matches up well with taller receivers. Hill, meanwhile, is breaking out during his third year on campus. He’s often the first defensive back off the bench and is primed to assume a starting role next year.
There’s one primary concern surrounding Michigan’s special teams, and it happens to be at the unit’s most important spot: Kicker. Former walk-on Kenny Allen (Jr., 6-3, 210) beat out a scholarship kicker during camp, but so far the jury’s out on what the new No. 1 can do.
Allen seems to have a strong leg considering he’s placed 11-of-22 kickoffs into the end zone, but he hasn’t been tested in pressure field-goal situations. During camp, Allen had some accuracy troubles, and it remains to be seen if he’s ironed those out.
Through four games, Allen has converted 4-of-5 attempts, with a long of 40 yards. His lone miss came from 44 yards out in Week 1, but he was kicking in less-than-ideal conditions (swirling wind).
Meanwhile, punter Blake O’Neill (Sr., 6-2, 212) is one of the Big Ten’s best. A potential NFL booter, O’Neill has a strong leg and can drop the ball wherever he wants. Note that Oneill’s a former Australian rugby kicker, using that in-vogue end-over-end technique, which has resulted in a couple coffin-corner punts and balls deadened near opposing goal lines.
O’Neill has averaged 41 yards per boot this season, placing nine inside the 20-yard line. He had four punts and averaged 41 yards per against BYU.
As far as the return game is concerned, the Wolverines have tabbed their starting safety, Jabrill Peppers, as the primary kick and put returner. Peppers is practically a Will Likely clone -- without the touchdowns.
He doesn’t have 4.3 40-yard-dash speed, but Peppers has terrific field vision; deft moves; and solid acceleration. His specialty is returning punts, on which he is averaging 7.2 yards per bringback, with a long of 24 yards. Peppers is no slouch taking back kicks either, with a 26.0 yard average (and a long of 36 yards).