College football: Michigan has almost total reboot for No. 1 defense heading into 2017
Jabrill Peppers' early departure for the NFL always seemed like a formality.
He arrived in NFL shape and spent his two full years on the field showing off NFL skills.
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Practically, Peppers played all over the field and covered many positions, filling gaps wherever necessary with his incredible mental acuity to learn each spot's game plan quickly.
Symbolically, his departure reminds of the gaping holes across the defense.
The Wolverines now will open next season on Sept. 2 against Florida at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with one returning defensive starter.
Unless he's supplanted by someone younger, linebacker Mike McCray will be the only U-M player in a familiar place, and he may not even be at the weak-side position where he played this past year.
The combination of 10 senior starters (McCray was in his fourth year) and Peppers is what created the No. 1 defense in the country for much of the season.
Even with the third defensive coordinator of their careers, the veterans were able to process game plans and the pressure defense quickly and execute all game, having built their bodies over three and four years.
Now, defensive coordinator Don Brown — whose defenses now have been No. 1 two years in a row after achieving that a Boston College in 2015 — is essentially starting over with a new starting unit.
"If you look at Ohio State, they didn't have too many returning starters," departing U-M All-America cornerback Jourdan Lewis said of the Buckeyes, who were good enough to reach the College Football Playoff and tie for the Big Ten East Division title.
Michigan may have new starters, but the backbone will still be the same, with the defensive line.
That will be the most experienced group, with redshirt junior Chase Winovich on one end, redshirt junior Bryan Mone and fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst in the middle. Plus the most talented player on the defense, sophomore end Rashan Gary.
"I tell him every day how much of a bright future he has if he continues to work hard and do what he needs to do," U-M defensive end Taco Charlton said before the Orange Bowl. "He's a guy even after I leave I'll probably stay on and continue to push because I want him to be as great as he can be, and I believe he can be great."
There's confidence in that group because they rotated in regularly through this year when the game was still competitive.
Their success may be essential to the entire defense because a sustainable pass rush can ease the pressure on the back end.
The questions come in the back seven, where there was very little rotation during the season, mostly because the starters were so solid and able to be left trusted in their matchups.
Surrounding McCray at inside linebacker will likely be talented sophomore Devin Bush Jr., who saw some action (Brown estimated 20-25 snaps behind McCray in the regular season) but was primarily a special teams player. At the strong-side linebacker spot, where Peppers became the "viper" in Brown's defense, there will be a competition between sophomore Josh Metellus, a safety with a similar body type around 205 pounds, the bigger redshirt junior Noah Furbush, closer to a traditional backer at 240 pounds, and maybe walk-on Jordan Glasgow, similar to Metellus.
But, as the Orange Bowl showed, none of them can fill Peppers' shoes alone.
He filled so many gaps and was such a presence, that it's a challenge to envision a successful Michigan without him.
By shifting Peppers around to linebacker, safety, nickel, Brown didn't have to substitute packages and tip off the opponent what was coming with different personnel.
"Just so valuable to us," Wolverines linebacker Ben Gedeon said before the bowl. "To see a guy that's undersized playing linebacker, going out and covering wide receivers, you don't see that around the country at all, and he does that for us. So he gives us so much versatility."
In the secondary, with four new starters, they'll be living with risk for much of the early season.
Safeties Tyree Kinnel and Khaleke Hudson played in spurts but hardly enough to feel comfortable with their coverage. And, unless cornerback Jeremy Clark is given a sixth year, there will be sophomores LaVert Hill and David Long Jr. and little-used senior Brandon Watson thrown in immediately.
"They've come along a great deal," Lewis said. "It's really exciting to see those guys mature and go out there and practice the way they are at a high level. I'm just excited to see those guys play."
Losing two All-Americas in Peppers and Lewis, plus a likely first-round pick in Charlton, would be a massive blow for any defense.
Losing almost all the starters around them will make Michigan's defense the great unknown entering the off-season and into next fall.
This article is written by Mark Snyder from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.