Michigan Football Preview 2019

Digital Edition

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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112 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW DEFENSIVE BACKS BY CHRIS BALAS M ichigan cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich has proven his worth as a coach many times over, having pushed several Wolverines to the NFL in his four years in Ann Arbor. He's old school in his approach, "Schem- bechleresque" some would say in challeng- ing his players to play through bumps and bruises to be tough and prepared for the rugged Big Ten — just like late Michigan legendary coach Bo Schembechler. He's also similar to the former coach in that he's not into sugarcoating. When he feels one of his players needs extra motiva- tion, he isn't hesitant to provide it, and he won't tell you it's good if it isn't. So when he says his position is strong — as he did this spring — it's reason for Michigan fans to celebrate. "I'm pleasantly happy that [redshirt fresh- man] Vincent Gray has come along, [junior] Jaylen Kelly-Powell has come along and [junior] Ambry Thomas — the sky is just the limit with that guy — really had a great spring," Zordich said. "I'm happy for those guys, certainly happy for the defense that they're playing well … and you can't count out [redshirt freshman] Gemon Green. "We've got some guys who have been working extremely hard, doing really well, and then we've got [freshman] D.J. Turner coming this summer. So it will be interest- ing." They got a lot of work, too, going against a more pass-oriented offense. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis implemented more run-pass option (RPO) into the game plan as well and kept the secondary on its toes trying to distinguish between run and pass during a play. "It's great for us going against the RPO," Zordich said. "We love it. You just have to be really disciplined in the back end. The line- backers have to be disciplined too. I think it's going to help us tremendously going forward, for sure." The Corner Piece They'll take all the practice they can get after losing two of their top three corners to the NFL. David Long went to the Los Ange- les Rams in the third round, No. 79 overall, while Brandon Watson signed a free agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Lavert Hill seemed close to joining them before returning for his senior season. He's grown a lot as a player since Zordich chal- lenged him last spring to play through some pain. While Hill missed a good portion of spring ball this year after undergoing surgery to repair an undisclosed injury, Zordich had plenty of praise for the returning unanimous first-team All-Big Ten corner. "He's been great," Zordich said. "He has been excellent in the classroom and a real leader for us. He's vocal when guys aren't doing the right things in the room. He's locked in and ready to go." Hill reported on May 26 he was back at 100 percent and getting ready for the season with lofty goals of championships. The 5-11, 181-pounder, an Associated Press third-team All-American, was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which annually honors the nation's top defensive back, and is tied for the defense's most veteran starter. Hill has opened all but one game the last two years and finished 2018 with 14 tack- les and an interception, which he returned 21 yards for a touchdown, with five pass breakups. "I think he's going to pick up where he left off," Zordich said. "He sees what his future can be and sees what he can do to help this team win a Big Ten championship. He's all in. He's all about the team." After two seasons of learning the ropes behind Hill and Long, Thomas has emerged as the man to beat at the other corner spot. The 6-0, 183-pounder finished with nine tackles last year and snared his first-ever interception in a win at Rutgers. Now he'll be asked to step up his game even more in Long's absence. Thomas has always been a "naturally gifted" player, Zordich said, who knows the system better and is "playing without think- ing" too much. "It's really a beautiful thing," Zordich praised, adding with a chuckle that Thomas believes he's the fastest guy in the NCAA. "Speed is never a bad thing, but it's only a good thing if a player knows how to use and control it." Thomas understands it now, entering his A TAlenTed Mix The Secondary Blends Veterans And Newcomers YEAR-BY-YEAR PASS DEFENSE Yards TD Year Yards Per Game Allowed 2018 1,921 147.8 14 2017 1,951 150.1 11 2016 1,853 142.5 11 2015 2,060 158.5 8 2014 2,324 193.7 14 2013 3,007 231.3 23 2012 2,203 169.5 16 2011 2,476 190.5 12 2010 3,404 261.8 21 2009 2,657 221.4 18 PRESEASON ANALYSIS: DEFENSIVE BACKS STARTERS ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Wolverines return two first-team All-Big Ten performers in senior corner Lavert Hill and senior safety Josh Metellus. Junior corner Am- bry Thomas and junior safety J'Marick Woods will be under the gun as first-year starters, and junior nickel Brad Hawkins is solid. While there's some talent in the backfield, there isn't a wealth of experience. DEPTH ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Hawkins is going to be U-M's jack of all trades in the secondary, but he's the only backup with any experience. None of the backup corners have seen any significant playing time, and the depth at safety is also somewhat of a concern. Freshmen are going to have opportunities to play out of necessity at both spots. X-FACTOR Freshman Daxton Hill is one of the best safety prospects Michigan has ever recruited, right up there with former Wolverine Jabrill Peppers. Not many defensive backs tear it up right out the gate — even Heisman win- ning corner Charles Woodson had his ups and downs in his first year — but Hill could be a difference maker by the end of his first season. That would help, given that many of the big games come in November. OVERALL ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ There's star power at the top and plenty of potential in the backups, but this group needs to stay healthy early. Should Lavert Hill or Metellus go down, the Wolverines would be extremely green in the back end.

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