Michigan's All-Spring Game Team, 2009-Present: Defense
An attempt to answer the question: is the Spring Game informative?
SITE STUFF: We were planning to discuss this series of posts in the free podcast. Instead, we went so long with takeaways from the Spring Game that we saved the All-Spring Game Team discussion for next week’s episode. Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts:
I went through Michigan’s recent era of holding actual Spring Games, which began when Rich Rodriguez took over for Lloyd Carr in 2009, and attempted to pull the best performances from each position. Part one, covering the offense, went up on Monday.
In doing this, I tried to answer a simple question: do eye-grabbing Spring Game performances translate to the season? Let’s see if the defense provides clarity.
This post got long, so there’ll be a part three with special teams standouts and the big-picture lessons we can take away from this exercise coming next week.
Defensive Tackle: Maurice Hurst (2014-15), Will Campbell (2012)
Maurice Hurst came out of high school as a three-star DT whose incredible first step would need to maintain its quickness after he added the considerable weight required to play in the Big Ten. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he showed that burst held up to a year of bulking, but he was still a year away from earning significant playing time on a deep defensive interior.
So, the next year, Hurst spent seemingly every snap in the backfield. If the performance weren’t so promising, it would’ve been annoying — let us see the offense, man!
Was it legit? Oh, yes. While Hurst only started four games over his third and fourth years in the program, he became the most impactful “backup” DT in country, building from 6.5 TFLs in 2015 to 11.5 on the vaunted ‘16 line. Finally a full-time starter as a redshirt senior in 2017, he posted 14.5 TFLs and five sacks to earn consensus All-American honors.
Michigan lost D-line stalwarts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, plus starting DT Will Heininger, heading into the 2012 season. The fanbase hoped that this would finally be the year for former five-star prospect Will Campbell. While skeptical, MGoBlog’s Brian Cook acknowledged Big Will appeared ready this time:
Well… there's no denying he looked a lot better. …
You know all those runs Rawls had where he had to abort mission and find another hole? Most of those were headed at Campbell. Since we got a baseline for Ricky Barnum in the time he got before his ankle injury last year—decent Big Ten player even then—that's a hopeful sign.
This occurred before hope abandoned the program for a few years.
Was it legit? Unfortunately, this was a sign that the running game was sliding from its RichRod-led apex. Campbell started 11 of 13 games and was fine, not great — all-conference honorable mention from the media was the extent of his postseason accolades. He moved to offensive tackle before a nomadic pro career that included stops at multiple NFL practice squads, the Toronto Argonauts, and the XFL.
Defensive End: Mike Morris (2022), Chase Winovich (2016-17), Taco Charlton (2012)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mike Morris capped off a noteworthy spring with an outstanding performance on Saturday. For this exercise, though, we don’t have the part where we know how it turns out.
Much like Hurst, Chase Winovich faced a difficult path to playing time in his first couple seasons. Jim Harbaugh even moved him to H-back in 2015, a challenge Winovich took on despite knowing his home was on defense:
I always joked, I said, “they named me Chase, they didn’t name me Block or something else.”
After getting moved back to defense in 2016, Winovich dominated the edge for consecutive Spring Games.
Was it legit? Yes. Winovich had to wait his turn to start until 2017, then earned first-team all-conference in both ‘17 and ‘18. He outproduced his more heralded DE counterpart, former #1 overall recruit Rashan Gary, and was named team MVP in 2018.
After a major rise in his senior year of high school, Taco Charlton arrived at Michigan in 2013 with the reputation of an athletic marvel at his size. It didn’t take long for him to display his uncommon combination of size, speed, and strength:
Regardless of the quality of O-line or quarterback play, that’s an eye-opener.
Was it legit? Soon enough. Charlton saw the field on defense as a true freshman, then progressed from 3.5 to 5.5 to 9.5 sacks over his final three seasons, earning first-team All-B1G as a senior.
Linebacker: Khaleke Hudson (2017), Mike McCray (2016), Jake Ryan (2011)
Khaleke Hudson had a straightforward task as a sophomore in 2017: replace Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers as the defense’s hybrid space terror. Hudson came as close as anyone could expect to a Peppers-like Spring Game performance, tallying a sack, a pass breakup, and a rib-rattling hit on John O’Korn to save a touchdown at the goal line.
Was it legit? Yes. Even if Minnesota’s don’t-block-Hudson strategy caused him to be a little overrated after an NCAA-record eight TFLs in a single game, he played a critical role on three excellent defenses from 2017-19. Hudson was an excellent run defender in space and added considerable value as arguably the best punt-blocking specialist in program history.
With Michigan needing to replace Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden, Mike McCray thumped his way to spring stardom in 2016:
Mike McCray is obviously the story of the spring here, and it was appropriate that he was one of the main reasons his team stuffed Henry Poggi on the goal line to end the Spring Game. McCray brings a load. At Ford Field he hammered a number of lead blocks like James Ross playing a Penn State OL. He is a tough customer.
What remains to be seen is whether he's a two-down backer or if he's fast enough to be an asset in coverage. Noises coming out of practice are positive.
About that last bit…
Was it legit? Mostly? McCray was a good run defender on some really good defenses. He also tended to get exposed in coverage, though some of the blame for that falls on Don Brown’s schemes leaving him out to dry against the likes of Saquon Barkley.
Jake Ryan wasn’t a highly touted recruit and took a redshirt year in 2010. The next spring, he had a sack, a pick-six of Devin Gardner, and multiple appearances in the backfield at strongside linebacker. New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison had found an edge rusher out of seemingly nowhere.
Was it legit? In-MF-deed. Whether lining up as an outside linebacker, defensive end, or — in his final season — middle linebacker, Ryan was a top-tier playmaker, particularly on the blitz. He grabbed a starting role in his redshirt freshman season, made all-conference second-team as a redshirt sophomore, and earned first-team honors as a senior after missing part of his junior year to a torn ACL.
Cornerback: Mike Sainristil (2022), Keith Washington (2017), Jourdan Lewis (2014)
Cornerback is a position where the starters often sit out the Spring Game; with top receivers also taking it easy, it can be difficult to come away with well-founded opinions on the secondary. We’re often left to make do with a flashy play or two.
That describes the reaction to Mike Sainristil’s debut as a nickel on Saturday. He looked relatively comfortable out there and had a nice-looking pass breakup. Same goes for five-star freshman Will Johnson. Since we don’t have a season upon which to judge either’s spring legitimacy, I’ll mention that Jabrill Peppers played over the slot in the 2015 edition and looked like Jabrill Peppers.
The coaches sat David Long and Lavert Hill for the 2017 game, which allowed Jim Harbaugh favorite Keith Washington a chance to shine, and he took advantage:
Amongst folks who played a bunch Keith Washington stood out. I was watching him during a brief period where he was matched up on Donovan Peoples-Jones. He had good coverage on an incompletion, made a tackle after a drag route for two yards, and generally looked in DPJ's league. He added an impressive downfield pass breakup and a couple of "who is that?!" edge tackles when Michigan tried to run it to his side of the field. He was credited for half a TFL on one of those.
As evidenced by the DPJ mention, Washington didn’t just stand out against deep bench guys — he was holding his own against projected starters.
Was it legit? Mostly, but not at Michigan. Before the fall, Washington chose to transfer, landing at West Virginia after a year in junior college. He started 17 games in two seasons for the Mountaineers and as best I can tell is looking for an NFL home after getting cut from New Orleans’ practice squad.
It’s hard to remember after Jourdan Lewis beget Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, but there was a time when “Cass Tech cornerback” meant a touted recruit who didn’t pan out because they weren’t tall enough to ride the Millennium Force.
After a freshman year in which his spot appearances were marred by opposing receivers making spectacular catches on his great coverage, Lewis picked off two passes in the 2014 Spring Game and spent the afternoon locked up with receivers — even his pass interference penalties held promise.
Was it legit? Hoo buddy. Lewis moved into the starting lineup three games into the 2014 season, immediately picked off a pass, and progressed into a first-team All-American corner by 2016. The hard-nosed coverage he showed in that Spring Game became his signature. He also showed 2013 was an anomaly by making some incredible plays on the ball during his time in college, especially his one-handed pick to seal the 2016 Wisconsin game.
Safety: Jordan Glasgow (2017), Dymonte Thomas (2016)
We knew by 2017 never to doubt a Glasgow, though Jordan Glasgow was a very different player from his beefy older brothers. Instead of playing in the trenches, Glasgow was safety-sized.
Michigan had two excellent safeties to replace following the 2016 season, Delano Hill and the next player on this list. With a 101-yard pick-six of incumbent starter Wilton Speight and some solid open-field tackling, Glasgow earned the walk-on safety comparison:
Those legit safety options are Josh Metellus and Jordan Glasgow, both of whom showed well. Both guys got over the top of sideline fade routes to get or assist on PBUs. Glasgow stepped in front of a Speight pass for a 101-yard pick six. Less spectacularly but probably more importantly, both guys tackled with authority when called upon to do so. There was one particular open-field Glasgow tackle that was Kovacsian in its textbook solidity.
Was it legit? Sorta. Glasgow didn’t have the speed to stick at safety and his contributions from 2016-18 were mostly limited to special teams, where he excelled. In 2019, though, he emerged as a surprise starter at weakside linebacker, and in Glasgowian fashion became one of the team’s most reliable players. Never doubt a Glasgow.
Dymonte Thomas was the other safety in the aforementioned 2016 tandem. An Army All-American from Ohio, Thomas hadn’t delivered on the high school hype through his junior year in 2015, starting a handful of games but never sticking in the lineup.
I needed one play from the 2016 Spring Game to be convinced Thomas would take a senior-year leap. Watch the top middle of the screen at the beginning of this GIF and look at how much ground Thomas covers:
He caught that.
Was it legit? Yup. While the safeties were overshadowed in 2016 by the cornerbacks and defensive line, Thomas quietly broke up ten passes and provided strong run support. As a deep safety, he rarely allowed a player past him. While not the superstar many anticipated as a prospect, Thomas ended his college career on a high note.
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