The Wolverine

2020 Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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112 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW DEFENSIVE BACKS BY JOHN BORTON T hey've faced Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. They stormed past Notre Dame in the rain. They've ex- perienced the bitterness of a defeat against Ohio State, and know how much better they need to be. So it's not a matter of experience for Michigan's projected starting defensive backfield. It's more, as defensive coordina- tor Don Brown puts it, learning to perform at the highest level when it's most needed. Michigan football radio sideline reporter Doug Karsch enjoyed a field-level view of the defensive backs all season long in 2019, and he has seen enough to know they won't be intimidated. "There's definitely depth at the position," Karsch said. "The players that are expected to do more have played. [Sophomore safety] Dax Hill has played, and Dax Hill looks like he could be special. You could see it when the ball was in his hands. "Guys have that look early in their career. You can tell, right away, that they're worth the hype. Dax Hill, specifically, had that look." With the look must come production and Hill — one of the projected two new start- ers in the secondary — demonstrated as a true freshman his combination of skill and fearlessness. He got a taste of what figures to be his new starting assignment early, filling in for now senior Brad Hawkins after injury kept Hawkins out versus Indiana and Ohio State, and limited him to just a handful of snaps in the bowl game against Alabama. Hill started all three contests, and wound up his freshman season with 36 tackles (three for loss), one interception, three passes bro- ken up and a pair of fumble recoveries. He also caught a chain-moving pass on a fake punt, showing himself to be a poten- tial offensive weapon as well. This year, he should be able to combine a deep knowledge of what Brown wants from him with his con- siderable prowess. "It's just coverage," Karsch said. "I talked to him after the Indiana game, because he had the interception. He talked about how he was getting more comfortable in reading offenses and reacting to the football, because he wasn't having to think as much. "The second year in the system, I think you'll see that manifest itself on the field. Again, that's if he has the typical learning curve. With the way this offseason has gone, I don't know what's typical anymore. "You're having no spring practice, Zoom calls for meetings and all that. Maybe we shouldn't count on everything being typical. But Dax Hill was getting better last year, so one would think that would continue during his sophomore year." Hill ought to ease the stress of losing long- time starting safety Josh Metellus, but Mich- igan still has to make up for the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Lavert Hill. That task will likely fall to redshirt sophomore Vincent Gray, who played in all 13 Michi- gan games last year, starting the road game at Illinois. Gray broke up five passes, which tied for third on the squad, and made 20 stops (1.5 for loss) a year ago. He also demonstrated the sort of attitude that gets you noticed as a younger player, Karsch asserted. "Gray really impressed me with his physi- cality for a player that was just a [redshirt] freshman," Karsch said. "When I started go- ing down on the field for games, you realize the freshmen look like kids, compared to the seniors, who look like men. "When you come in as a freshman and prove that the game is not too strong for you, that is really, really impressive. I thought Vincent Gray proved that on a number of occasions last year." Brown indicated he believes Gray is ready for more. "He played all year, last year, was in the rotation the entire year," the defensive boss said. "When Lavert got hurt against Illinois, he played the whole game. "This is a guy that's 6-2, 6-3, and I'm just hoping we can hold onto him for his entire career, in terms of him not coming out early [for the NFL]. Not that I'd begrudge that, because I wouldn't at all. "But I think he's an outstanding player with tremendous range. I thought he did a very difficult thing at the end of the year. When we started to get nicked up with the injuries, he played corner, but he had to tran- sition to safety and do a number of safety jobs that he had to take on as well." Gray figures to be working opposite the old man of the secondary, senior corner- Time On Task Michigan's Secondary Features Big-Game Experience FYI Michigan finished No. 10 in the nation in average passing yards allowed (185.5) last year. The Wolverines were signifi- cantly higher than that before surren- dering 313 passing yards to Ohio State in the regular-season finale and 327 to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines wound up No. 19 nation- ally in third-down conversion defense. Opponents moved the chains in third- down situations only 32.4 percent of the time. That mark proved good for third in the Big Ten, Wisconsin led the nation by giving up third-down conversions only 27.3 percent of the time. U-M tied for 76th in the country in in- tercepting passes a year ago, coming up with nine pickoffs. The top five were Florida Atlantic (22), Oregon (20), Clem- son (19), San Diego State (18) and four teams tied with 17 (Alabama, Louisiana Tech, Baylor and LSU). Michigan returns players accounting for fewer than half the nine interceptions it secured last season. Senior cornerback Ambry Thomas tied for the team lead with three pickoffs, while sophomore safety Daxton Hill managed one. Lavert Hill, who had three, ended his Michi- gan career tied with James Whitley for the No. 6 spot on U-M's all-time list for passes broken up (29). U-M's secondary is full of former star re- cruits. Of the 17 on the roster that came to Michigan on scholarship, eight were rated as four-star prospects by Rivals. com, while Daxton Hill was a five star. Seven of those nine were included in the Rivals250, with six checking in among the nation's top 190 recruits in their re- spective classes. YEAR-BY-YEAR PASS DEFENSE Yards TD Year Yards Per Game Allowed 2019 2,412 185.5 16 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

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