The Wolverine

October 2011

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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W By Michael Spath hen Mike Harden made his first career start at safety in 1977, Bo Schembechler���s famous mantra ���the expectation is for the position��� really was true. Harden was filling in for Jim Pickens, who would earn firstteam All-Big Ten honors that season. A year later, Harden, in his junior campaign, became the seventh Wolverine safety in the 1970s to garner first-team all-conference recognition. In the 1980s, three Michigan safeties picked up first-team all-league accolades while five Wolverines were honored with Big Ten distinction in the 1990s. Since 2000, there has been ��� one. Once a tremendous source of pride tone defensively, gave the defense its personality. ���You expected that guy to be a playmaker, whether taking someone���s head off or coming up with a critical interception. You just expected a Michigan safety to be outstanding year after year.��� After enduring three of the worst seasons of safety play in program history from 2008-10, U-M is optimistic it has turned a corner behind the coaching of Curt Mallory, and the play of redshirt junior Jordan Kovacs and redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon. ���So far, our safeties are playing really well,��� said fifth-year senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk, who started six games at safety in 2009. ���Jordan and Thomas have the potential to be great. Safety Struggles Michigan Is Working To Dramatically Improve The Play Of Its Final Line Of Defense for the Maize and Blue, the safety position has turned into a wasteland of unfulfilled potential. U-M has recruited four- and five-stars to fill the void, has moved elite cornerbacks to the post, has tried the developmental approach, and has even utilized former running backs. In the last past 12 years, 21 different athletes have patrolled the last line of defense in hopes of being the next Tripp Welborne or Marcus Ray. Few have succeeded. ���It���s really been at least a decade since we���ve had a standout back there,��� said Harden, who has kept a watchful eye on the Wolverines following an 11-year NFL career. ���I don���t know if it���s been recruiting misses or coaching or other factors, but it���s really surprising because safety used to be a mainstay of the Michigan defense ��� having that guy that set the Redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon (standing) was tied for the team lead in tackles with 30 and had two fumble recoveries and an interception through four games. Photo by Lon Horwedel And that���s not a surprise with Jordan. He was good last year and you knew he���d take another step this season. ���Thomas Gordon has been the shocker because he���s inexperienced still. He���s been progressively playing better and better �����both of them are improving every week.��� The Drought Michigan���s safety play didn���t decline precipitously at the turn of the millennium. DeWayne Patmon was a rookie in 1997, mentoring under the leadership of Ray for two years before taking over as a starter in 1999, next to senior Tommy Hendricks, who would earn first-team All-Big Ten honors that season. Patmon would then help bring Julius Curry along in 2000, who would do the same for Cato June, June for Jon Shaw, Shaw for Willis Barringer, Barringer to Ernest Shazor, Ryan Mundy and on through 2010. But while the play of U-M���s safeties was good ��� and sometimes just aver- age or worse ��� it was never great. For the first time since 1984-88, the Wolverines went four seasons without a first-team all-conference performer from 2000-03. And after Shazor���s singular acclaim in 2004, the Maize and Blue haven���t had one since, with Jamar Adams the most recent safety to pull second-team honors in both 2006 and 2007. ���When you consider the safeties in the ���70s, ���80s and ���90s that made that statement about what Michigan defense stood for, and you compare it to our recent history, it���s just frustrating that we haven���t been able to find the right fit,��� Harden said. ���The kids have given great effort, but when you look at why our defense, especially the last few years, has really struggled, we haven���t had those guys back there roaming the field and making plays. ���Our safeties haven���t gotten the job done.��� The problems have been exacerbated in recent years. From 2008-10, U-M utilized nine different athletes at the safety position, and not one proved the solution. Perhaps the lone positive? Kovacs cut his teeth with the 2009 and 2010 teams, and seems poised to provide the Maize and Blue with their best strong safety play since Ray left in 1998. ���Jordan Kovacs is the best safety I���ve played with,��� said Woolfolk. ���He just does everything you need a safety to do. He���s smart and is a leader for the secondary and the entire defense. He plays physical, plays with toughness ��� he���s a football player. He makes plays, and he keeps plays in front of him. He���s not going to give up the big play.��� Achieving Balance Michigan officially began keeping track of plays of 20 yards or more in 2008. That season, the Wolverines surrendered 44 ���big plays��� in just 12 games (3.7 per game), including 31 passing. In 2009, U-M allowed 54 plays of 20 yards or more (4.5 per game), including 30 through the air. Last year, amid the worst statistical season defensively in program history, the Maize and Blue gave up 57 plays of 20 yards or greater (4.4 per contest), with 40 pass completions. It���s early, with the meat of the schedule to come, but in four games, Michigan has allowed just 13 plays of 20 yards or more (3.25 per game), with October 2011��� ������ the wolverine��� 29

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