The Wolverine

November 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 56 of 59

NOVEMBER 2020 THE WOLVERINE 57 F or a variety of reasons, Michigan may be tempted to run more zone coverages this season. However, the Wolverines and defensive coordinator Don Brown should resist that temptation, which stems primarily from the fact that Michigan has question marks at both corner spots this season. The Wolver- ines need to replace former starters Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, the latter of whom opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they do not have any surefire replacements. Redshirt sophomore Vincent Gray is the only returning corner with any significant experience. Gray played 525 snaps last season, whereas the other contenders — redshirt sophomore Gemon Green, redshirt freshmen DJ Turner and Jalen Perry, and true freshman Andre Seldon — combined for only 12. Even if they had more experience, Gray did not grade well last year, and all of them but Seldon lack the recruiting upside that sparks optimism. On the other hand, Michigan likely exudes much more optimism with respect to its safeties. Senior Brad Hawkins received an overall grade of 81.5 from Pro Football Focus in his first season as a starter in 2019, which is the second-best among qualified returning Big Ten safeties, and sophomore Daxton Hill is a former five-star prospect who flashed his enormous potential. With corners who may not have the experience or skill set to fare well in man coverage and safeties expected to save the secondary, more zone cover- age would seem like the best solution. Prior to 2019, Michigan's defense had minimal zone coverage. The Wolverines deployed a man-press scheme and trusted that their cor- ners could be physical with receivers and stick with them on their routes. However, that illusion was shat- tered in The Game in 2018, when Ohio State weaved in and out of Michigan's secondary with cross- ing routes to the tune of 396 passing yards and six passing touchdowns on 31 attempts. Michigan did not have the athletes to keep pace with Ohio State's pass catchers, so the cry to work in more complex coverages roared from Ann Arbor. Brown began making that tran- sition that last season. In 2018, Michigan called man coverage (i.e., cover 0, cover 1 or cover 2 man) 228 times and zone coverage (i.e., cover 2, cover 3 or cover 4) 36 times. The Wolverines were in zone cover- age on just 13.6 percent of their non- screen defensive pass plays. In 2019, though, that soared to nearly half of those plays (48.3 per- cent). Therefore, it would seem like Michigan would be ready to con- tinue making that transition, but the Wolverines should not continue to do so. U-M was much better in man cov- erage than zone coverage last season. When the Wolverines were in man coverage, opponents completed 65 of 137 (47.4 percent) non-screen passes for 880 yards (6.42 yards per attempt), seven touchdowns and six intercep- tions. Their QBR (quarterback rating) allowed was 67.2, which was 15th out of the 76 teams that were in man for at least 100 throws last season. Conversely, when U-M was in zone coverage, the pass defense crumbled. Opponents connected on 72 of 128 non-screen passes (56.3 percent) for 1,136 yards (8.88 yards per attempt), nine touchdowns and three picks against zone coverage. The Wolverines' QBR allowed was 99.6, which was 104th out of the 130 schools that were in zone for a mini- mum of 100 passes. The reason why Michigan's zone coverage suffered was not its corners, but its safeties. Former starting safety Josh Metellus and then-freshman Daxton Hill were ruthlessly attacked. All eight catchable passes thrown at Metellus in zone coverage were snared for 192 yards (24.0 yards per catch) and four touchdowns, while all four catchable balls targeting Daxton Hill in zone were hauled in for 112 yards (28.0 YPC) and one touchdown. Hawkins held up much better, permitting just one reception for 11 yards when he was in zone coverage. However, the ball was only tossed in his direction four times in such cir- cumstances. That is a small sample, and it likely is because offenses knew there were other vulnerable spots. Although Metellus has graduated, and Hill and Hawkins have had an- other offseason to be acclimated to Brown's zone schemes, Michigan de- ploying more zone may neutralize the strength it has at safety. The drop off in its safety play may be greater than the benefit gained in its cornerback play by calling more zone — Gray did perform better in zone than man cov- erage — and the Wolverines would suddenly have question marks at all four spots in the secondary. Brown should be very cautious before he decides to adopt that ap- proach and strategy for Michigan. Rather, the Wolverines may be bet- ter suited zoning out of their zone and riding with more of their man coverage. Whoever replaces Lavert Hill and Thomas will need to step up quickly in either scheme, but Hawkins and Daxton Hill will keep the play in front of them in man. Michigan should not discard that approach. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Zoning Out Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. Though senior safety Brad Hawkins was stel- lar in zone coverage last year — allowing just one catch for 11 yards — there are many reasons the Wolverines should not overly rely on it and stick with their man principles this season. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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