When senior cornerback James Rogers left Saturday’s game in the third quarter with cramps, true freshman cornerback Cullen Christian replaced him and lined up across from Spartan senior wideout Mark Dell.
Soon after Christian took the field, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins challenged the freshman in a big way, as he lofted a 41-yard ball to Dell, who left Christian in his dust.
With the Wolverines’ secondary as young as it is this season, plays like Cousins’ deep-ball touchdown to Dell have become standard for a Michigan pass defense that ranks 119th out of 120 teams in the NCAA.
“Most coaches will tell you that most true freshmen who play are either so talented that you had to get them on the field some way or they’re talented enough because you have to play them because your depth is what it is,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said at his Monday press conference. “They’re talented enough to play, but they’re playing at positions that not many true freshmen play to the extent that they’re playing.”
Along with Christian, true freshmen Terrence Talbott and Courtney Avery have played significant time at corner, while leadership roles have been left to senior James Rogers — a wide receiver convert this offseason — and redshirt sophomore J.T. Floyd, who has started in just seven games in his career.
Rodriguez said he and the other coaches are taking a “ready-or-not” attitude with the young corners, as the Wolverines prepare to take on Big Ten quarterbacks like Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi, who Michigan will play next week.
“They’ve done some good things,” Rodriguez said. “And I think they’re growing up even though there’s some growing pains with that. To play this many true freshmen on defense at this level, it doesn’t happen very often.
“… Some of the issues we have aren’t going to get solved overnight, we just have to minimize them the best we can so we can still win ballgames.”
DELIVERING ON DEVELOPMENT: Rodriguez tried to find a silver lining to the Wolverines’ defensive struggles. He noted that with so many young players seeing the field, those players should have a lot of time to develop hands-on experience, which should lead to a better product in the end.
“(Right now,) we’re not as talented as we’d like to be or we’re going to be,” Rodriguez said. “When you’re talking about these four or five true freshmen that are playing quite a bit, the guys in the secondary, (freshman spur) Carvin Johnson, (freshman defensive end) Jibreel Black … if we do our job in developing those guys, boy, they’re going to be really good in the next couple years.
“We really haven’t had a chance to develop them yet.”
Rodriguez also said he was pleased with the way this year’s recruiting class has gone after the Wolverines’ roster numbers were “ridiculously low” in the past two years.
“We’ll still be young,” Rodriguez said. “But at least we’ll have the bodies there.”
Although the team hasn’t been low at running back, last Friday, the Wolverines received a commitment from Demetrius Hart, the nation’s No. 1 all-purpose back, who hails from Dr. Phillips High School in Florida.
Hart told the Orlando Sentinel that, despite Michigan’s depth at the position, he feels he can still help out.
“I’m a versatile guy, and they need that guy at running back who can break tackles and have speed around the edge, and I think I can bring that to the table,” Hart said.
INJURY NOTES: Junior slot receiver Martavious Odoms broke his foot against the Spartans and is expected to miss “an extended period of time,” Rodriguez said. Rodriguez wasn’t sure whether the injury was season-ending … Rogers, junior nose tackle Mike Martin and center David Molk are all fine after sustaining minor injuries against the Spartans … Running back Fitz Toussaint is expected to miss Saturday’s game against Iowa due to issues with his injured knee. Rodriguez hopes he’ll be back after the bye week.