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May 29, 2014

Maize 'N View: Keeping an eye on

The summer has just started, and much can change between now and Aug. 30 when Michigan opens the season against Appalachian State, but here are a few storylines and players that will bear watching once camp starts Aug. 3.

S Delano Hill: Everyone is asking what will Michigan do with five-star freshman Jabrill Peppers, and a lot will likely depend on whether Hill or one of his challengers at strong safety show enough early in camp to give the coaches' confidence that position will be solid.

Hill finished the spring with the ones, and the sophomore will likely start fall camp a starter too. He began to separate himself from a pack that also includes redshirt sophomore Jeremy Clark and true sophomore Dymonte Thomas, and if he can build on his spring, and give U-M the dependable and sometimes dynamic play required from a strong safety that makes his living in the box, Peppers will almost certainly compete at nickel.

DB Jabrill Peppers: While we in the media, and Michigan fans, may be debating where the rookie phenom will line up, the coaches must look at need and opportunity, and where he can impact the most. That's not cornerback. Not in 2014 anyway, with so many viable and experienced athletes already competing for playing time there. It may be at safety, but, again, that will depend largely on the play of Hill or Clark or Thomas.

Peppers' best position this fall could be nickel. Last season, U-M played in its sub-package, with a fifth defensive back, plenty, and this year, with more spread offenses on the schedule, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Michigan operate in a 4-2-5 base. If that's the case, it needs a physical nickel that can operate as a hybrid coverman/linebacker, and the 6-1, 210-pound Peppers might be the best combo defender the Wolverines' roster features.

Cornerback Competition: It may sound silly, but if you asked me today who is the one cornerback I guarantee starts on opening day, I'd say Lewis ahead of senior Ray Taylor or redshirt junior Blake Countess. In the spring, Lewis showcased everything the coaches want out of their cornerbacks - tight, aggressive, physical coverage with ball-hawking skills. They didn't get all of that from Taylor and Countess last season.

Lewis will almost certainly start, and if Peppers plays nickel, then it leaves either Taylor or Countess on the sidelines, and that would be unexpected to many but proves how far along the competition has grown in the past few seasons.

Interior Defensive Line: Michigan coaches have to be laughing at the luxury of depth and talent they have along the defensive line. While it is strong at end, tackle is on another level, with eight players (seven on scholarship) competing to play the 3-technique D-tackle and the nose tackle.

Out of those eight, three emerged in the spring that will likely at least begin fall camp ahead of the rest - redshirt sophomores Matt Godin, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow. It would not be a surprise if the starting two come from that trio, with Glasgow the lone nose. Junior Ondre Pipkins will be one to watch also, but coming off ACL surgery last October, he wasn't 100 percent in the spring and may not be when camp begins.

There are a slew of other players challenging for time, but those three seemingly have the edge at the moment.

More Reps For Best Players: A year ago, and even the last two years, Michigan employed a heavy rotation amongst its defensive players, with the Wolverines noting they were 'three plays and off the field' before another defender subbed in. At positions like SAM linebacker, U-M rotated between three defensive players - Cam Gordon, Jake Ryan and Brennen Beyer - until moving Beyer to strongside end late in the 2013 year.

This season, the rotation should not be as exact. Players like senior end Frank Clark, senior middle linebacker Ryan, and others will likely play five, six, seven snaps in a row, maybe even more before they're taken out of the game for a breather because a year older, stronger, more experienced, they should be able to sustain their play for longer stretches. And also because Michigan wants its best players on the field more often.

LB Joe Bolden: Sometimes the light bulb goes on at different times for different players, and the junior seems to be someone that began figuring it out in the spring, putting together such an impressive effort that he stepped clearly ahead of senior Desmond Morgan in the battle to start at weakside linebacker.

Again, like the other players mentioned in this column, he has to sustain that effort through three weeks of fall camp and then an entire season, but Bolden plays with the type of physical consistency that Michigan sorely lacked from its interior linebackers a year ago, and the physicality the Maize and Blue want to be known for in 2014.

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