NCF Nation: Channing Stribling

Seven cornerbacks were voted first- or second-team All-Big Ten from the coaches and the media in 2013. Only one of them returns this season.

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Blake Countess, who had six interceptions in 2013, wants to be the Big Ten's best cornerback this fall.
That's Michigan junior Blake Countess who, by process of elimination, could inherit the title of league's best corner. Don't think that hasn't crossed his mind.

"If I'm not in that role next year, then I'll feel like I have taken a step backwards, which just cannot happen," he told ESPN.com. "So that's definitely a goal in the back of my mind. Last year is over and done with, but moving forward means taking the next step."

While Countess had a solid 2013, finishing tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions, he knows he still has room to improve. And the Wolverines could be asking more of him as they try to tighten up their defense this fall.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made becoming a better blitzing team one of this spring's priorities. Michigan gave up far too many big plays in 2013, in part because it didn't do a great job bringing pressure and in part because the secondary struggled to contain wide receivers. Mattison hopes his front seven can do a better job getting to the quarterback this fall when he dials up a blitz. That means the corners have to be ready, too.

"That's where we're at now in our defense," he told reporters last month. "As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get more pressure, we've got to play more aggressive on receivers, tighten the coverage up."

Countess said he's spent a lot of time this offseason working on press and man-to-man coverage. It's a more aggressive approach than some of the zone coverages he's played in the past, and he relishes it.

"All DBs love to play press," he said. "I've never met a DB who says, 'Nah, I don't like to get up there and press.' It puts you close to the receiver, and if we give the receiver space, that's what [he wants]. So it puts you in a better position to make plays.

"A lot of guys played press all throughout high school, and then they get here and are forced to play a little bit more zone than they may have in high school. So it's kind of like getting back to what we've done in the past."

The Michigan cornerbacks have a new position coach this spring, as Roy Manning is now overseeing that group after coaching outside linebackers last season. Manning, a former Wolverines linebacker, has brought some new ideas on technique, Countess said. But his biggest contribution so far might be his attitude.

"He played here, so he knows what it means to play here," Countess said. "He's pushing us. He's done a great job of staying on top of us."

Countess is also trying to take charge of the secondary as he enters his fourth year in the program. He and senior cornerback Raymon Taylor are now the veterans of the group, and they'll need to lead guys like sophomores Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas. Heavily hyped recruit Jabrill Peppers arrives this summer and could play anywhere in the defensive backfield.

"I'm helping out a lot more with the younger guys this spring than I have in the past," Countess said. "I'm here to get the younger guys settled, because that's the future. The cornerback position has a lot of guys who have had significant snaps and game-time decisions so that's going to create a lot of competition."

Countess and others had strong moments last season, but the secondary as a whole didn't deliver as much as hoped for Michigan, which finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. There's no sugarcoating the performance in Ann Arbor.

"You have to look at it as a team, and as a team we were 7-6," Countess said. "That's not good enough at all. We definitely didn't play well enough as a team and looking at our position, we didn't play well enough. I don't think anybody on the team, as far as their positions, are happy with the outcome."

The improvement, they hope, begins this spring. And a great place to start is with arguably the top returning cornerback in the Big Ten.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- No. 17 Michigan had a shaky start with an interception from quarterback Devin Gardner on the Wolverines’ first offensive drive, but came back and rolled to a 59-9 season-opening win over Central Michigan. It wasn't all pretty and the Wolverines will definitely have some game film to study, but it seems as though they've found some kind of an identity as an offense as they head into their big matchup with Notre Dame next weekend.

It was over when: it started. Yes, Gardner threw an interception, but even when the Wolverines weren’t looking spectacular, there was never really any serious worry that this would be anything other than a blowout. Central Michigan running back Zurlon Tipton (who was held to just four carries for 10 yards) exited the game during the first quarter and QB Cody Kater followed his running back to the sideline not long after. With their biggest offensive threat and their first-string quarterback on the sideline, the Chippewas really didn’t stand much of a chance.

Game ball goes to: Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. The senior had only four catches, but this game proved his prowess in this Michigan offense. While he’s not exactly the fit the Wolverines want at WR (he’s only 5-foot-8 … on a good day), he proved to be Gardner’s security blanket with glue for hands and a vertical that few defensive backs can match. He accounted for one 16-yard touchdown reception before exiting the game with a big Michigan lead.

Stat of the game: 35-point run. From the beginning of the second quarter until the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Wolverines went on a 35-0 scoring run. The Chippewas’ scoring drought lasted 27:24 and was a combination of Michigan’s defense (the Wolverines accounted for three sacks, one interception and one QB hurry during that drought) and a struggling CMU offense, devoid of its starting quarterback and running back (backup QB Alex Niznak was 5-of-8 during that time but CMU only accounted for 10 rushing yards).

Unsung hero: Kyle Kalis. In his first start at right guard for the Wolverines, the redshirt freshman excelled. Michigan accounted for 242 rushing yards -- much of which was behind the 302-pound guard while he was in.

What Michigan learned: It’s hard to really say too much considering one of the biggest takeaways from this game is that the Wolverines were able to beat a team they should beat. But in a game that gave the Wolverines the ability to get younger, inexperienced guys on the field, they were able to figure out that some of those guys might be able to be contributors this year. Shane Morris looked serviceable as a backup QB. Dymonte Thomas blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown on the opening series. Derrick Green looked solid in the run game. Channing Stribling appeared stout in the secondary. These are all guys who can use this kind of experience to build on as the season goes on.

What Central Michigan learned: Life’s hard without Eric Fisher. The No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NFL draft gave the Chippewas a continuity and strength on the offensive line that just isn’t there this season. Central Michigan only accounted for 144 passing yards and 66 rushing yards and much of that came after the Wolverines began to call up their second- and third-string guys.
Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

What are the main things you're looking for this spring?

Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.

Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.

You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?

BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.

Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?

BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.

Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?

BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.

What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?

BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.

Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.

Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?

BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.

How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?

BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.

We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.

So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.

Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?

BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.

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