Interview by Sam Webb
Story by Josh Henschke
One of the major storylines for the Michigan football program heading into the 2017 season is the amount of experience and playmakers the coaching staff must replace on both sides of the ball.
Luckily for the Wolverines, the coaching staff has done its job identifying future talent in both the 2016 and 2017 classes that will surely see the playing field next season. Just because U-M has some work to do to replace some starters doesn't mean it's devoid of talent. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth.
A newcomer to the full-time coaching ranks himself last season, U-M linebackers coach Chris Partridge returns after having a successful year on the recruiting as well on the field. Walking into a coaching staff position that contained a player like Jabrill Peppers can be considered a bit of a luxury. For Partridge, he will be coaching arguably one of the more experienced groups the defense will return with the linebackers.
That group is led by Mike McCray who, finally, reaped the benefits of a full season being healthy. What he was able to contribute on the field last season was a pleasant surprise for Partridge.
“[McCray] had a heck of a year," Partridge said. "I think above and beyond what we even could expect out of him because we really did not know. He hadn’t played the year before and then really hadn’t practiced much. Then he kind of came out last spring…he’s a worker. He is deceivingly fast and athletic and he is 250 pounds, 255 pounds and can run now. He had a heck of a year and he is the veteran there. He understands what we’re asking and he is going to be like another coach out on the field for us this year because he’s smart, savvy and the experience will be big.”
Another player many are expecting to make a leap now that a path to playing time is much more clear is sophomore Devin Bush Jr. Despite playing in mainly a special teams role for the Wolverines, he was able to see some snaps on the defensive end. With him being a player that has experience on the defense compared to others at the same spot, surely that means Bush is locked in as a starter, right? Not so fast, says Partridge. Like everyone else, Bush has to earn his place as the starter.
“I’m not ready to say that," Partridge said when asked if Bush was a clear-cut starter on defense. "I think there are a lot of next guys. Bush, Jr. is expected to come in and contribute. Shoot, he was on the field last year, so he better come in and make some waves and do what he is supposed to do, but I’m not going to say he has arrived yet. He’s got to work his butt off and he will. He’s a guy that looks great in the workouts right now. He is a hard worker. So we’re excited about him too.”
With Peppers unable to play in the bowl game against Florida State, true freshman Josh Metellus was thrown into the mix at the VIPER position early than some on the coaching staff would've liked, considering who he had to replace. Albeit the inexperience factor looming large, Metellus played admirably in Peppers' absence, which has the coaching staff extremely excited about what he can bring to the table this upcoming season.
A common misconception with Metellus that he isn't a fast enough player to be able to replace Peppers full-time. Far from it, says Partridge. Despite the naysayers downplaying Metellus' speed, the coaching staff
“I don’t know who a lot of those people are because it wasn’t us that thought he was a slow guy," Partridge said. "Shoot, I remember watching him live down in Florida saying this guy is going to be a dude now. Again, we knew what we were getting. We felt good about it and coming into camp, he had a learning curve early but then he took off. He is savvy, he’s smart, he can run. He’s fast enough to play big time football. I don’t know a 40 with him. Josh is such a savvy football player, I don’t care what he runs, he’s going to take the right angles and put himself in the right positions. He’s fast on the football field. He probably runs a 4.5. He’s in that range.”
With the competition at the linebacker position still in the beginning stages, the coaching staff does not have a clear idea on who will fit where on the field next season. Spring practices will be a good measuring stick of how far some players need to be in order to compete and it can also show early signs of what's to come.
At the end of the day, the players the coaching staff deem the best will play. Like it always has been, one thing everyone can predict will never change.
“I think that’s hard to say right now because were just going in," Partridge said regarding situational depth charts. "We’ve got our thoughts but ultimately we’re going to coach who the guys are and if the best guy is a guy that emerges and stays on the field, then he is going to stay on the field. If it is a situation where we have to go situational to protect maybe a smaller younger guy at times, then yeah we’ll put a bigger body on the field. I think we’re going to coach to who we see coming out of this spring and seeing guys developing and getting better. We’ve got a lot of young players on this team but guys become a lot better football player from their freshman to sophomore years and from their sophomore or redshirt freshman year to their redshirt sophomore year. These guys, we’ve got to get out and see them play in the spring before we make any assumptions on what we’re going to do going forward.”
Stay tuned to the Michigan Insider for details on the "Viper plan" this spring, the growth of Josh Uche and Elysee Mbem-Bosse, and more. In the meantime, for more of Partridge breaking down the linebacking corps press play below.