Inside the Detroit cornerback pipeline paying dividends

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 6:41pm

Junior cornerback Ambry Thomas is one in a long line of Michigan cornerbacks from Detroit.

Junior cornerback Ambry Thomas is one in a long line of Michigan cornerbacks from Detroit. Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

Ambry Thomas looked up at the scoreboard as it ticked past one minute left in the fourth quarter. Army had Michigan on the ropes, driving into field goal range for a potential game-winning field goal. One more punch and the Wolverines’ season would crumble with it.

But Thomas didn’t so much as break a sweat. He thought about where he’d come from and where he was. He thought about who came before him and what that meant. Thomas, a Detroit native, says he’s driven by an intense self-belief, the only way to get where he is. It’s borderline Darwinian. If you want it the most, and you fight the hardest, you’ll stay standing.

“It’s just the community you grow up in, that kind of shapes you and rounds you and gets you used to certain stuff,” Thomas told The Daily earlier this month. “When certain stuff that would scare somebody else doesn’t faze us. Like, what, a minute left on the clock, Army’s driving. We’re not fazed by that. As long as there’s time on the clock, we’re good.”

Thomas is one of four cornerbacks on Michigan’s roster from Detroit. He and senior Lavert Hill attended Martin Luther King Jr. High School together, starting opposite each other on a state title-winning team in 2015 when Hill was a senior and Thomas was a junior. Four years later, the only things that have changed are the colors of the uniform and the size of the crowd.

Junior Jaylen Kelly-Powell attended King’s bitter rival, Cass Technical High School, during a pique in the intra-town rivalry. Sophomore Vincent Gray comes from the suburb of Rochester, but spent much of his high school days training in Detroit.

They’re four of eight Michigan defensive backs in the last seven years to be from Detroit. Spearheaded by a host of older role models, that group lives, breathes and reinforces its roots. It’s no accident that Detroit regularly produces elite defensive backs, nor that the talent finds its way to Michigan more often than not.

Talk to them, and they’ll tell you they’re united by a common drive. They’re from the same place, know the same people, value the same things. There’s something about being from Detroit that breeds a specific attitude. Once it exists, they pass it down to the next guy.

“I think it’s just like the dawg players we have and just like the grit and all that adversity,” Thomas said.  “People from Detroit have been through this, and it carries through some other cornerbacks. That’s our mentality. You just got to know you’re better than the person across from you.”

“It’s a pipeline,” Hill added. “We just pass down the little toys that we experienced, we got from here, and pass them down to the next one up.”

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The infrastructure began to take shape in the late 2000s, when a group of players from Cass Tech began to understand their strength in numbers. They were close friends and going through many of the same life decisions — recruiting trips, college decisions and all the pressures that come with that.

Among today’s players, Michigan alum and Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis is the player held in highest esteem, a examplar of the Detroit kid who worked until he made it. He was one of the movement’s patriarchs, though not the only.

“Everybody, I think, looks at Jourdan as the catalyst, but I would go back even further — Delonte Hollowell, Terry Richardson,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Steve Lorenz. “I know Richardson was always sort of a very respected sort of role model-type player for a lot of those younger guys. That’s sort of what got the ball rolling.”

Since 2012, when Richardson helped lead an elite class, Detroit and its near suburbs have produced 18 top-100 ranked cornerbacks nationally, one class passing along the torch to the next. That was no accident.

That collectivist mindset started to take shape with Hollowell, Richardson and Lewis, all of whom attended Cass Tech. Soon after, they spread to the entire city, being proactive about passing the lessons of those that came before. 

“That’s what we were taught coming up, especially in high school,” Lewis said. “We grinded together. We were getting scholarships together. We were on bus trips together to the colleges. It all started here. It started a brotherhood. Then it got crazy after that, just spreading like wildfire.”

That construction now begins at the lowest levels. Lewis remembers first seeing Ambry Thomas and Lavert Hill play while they were in little league. They were young — running around defenses, scoring at will — but he knows it’s never too early to understand when the talent is real. The Detroit football community is as close as they come. Once that talent flashes, the tight-knit group wraps itself around young guys and lifts them to new heights.

“Those guys, every summer, that same group of kids, they still get together and play at the same parks. I’m talking even Jourdan when he comes back into Detroit,” Lorenz said. “These guys just practice, they do 1-on-1s, all that kind of stuff. Every year. And they’ve been doing that since I’ve been doing this.”

What they’re teaching, though, isn’t limited to technique. Sure, Lewis has passed along secret little tricks to Hill, which Hill has passed along to Thomas. They certainly focus on the fundamentals.

Mostly what comes through, though — the central strand touching each generation — is the mentality. It’s one, coaches and players say, bred from their environment that is uniquely Detroit.

“Detroit don’t get a lot of love,” Hill said. “So we just have to go out there, carry the chip on our shoulder, just produce for the city. (Detroit) means family, means hard-work, means savagery. We’re killers.”

Once cultivated, that mentality manifests ideally at a position like cornerback — one predicated on self-belief, individual determination, and a hint of delusion. Savages. Killers.

When evaluating which position best suits his players, Martin Luther King head coach Tyrone Spencer runs down a checklist of physical attributes. But he also makes a determination about whether their mental makeup is suited for corner.

“I think you gotta be confident (to play cornerback),” Spencer said. “I think you gotta be tough mentally. And I think when you’re from (Detroit), you get those things, those characteristics, in a lot of those types of players. That’s why you get a lot of defensive backs and corners from Detroit that are successful. Because they have that makeup.”

Added Gray: “That’s how you have to be at corner. Everything’s against you. Everybody’s against you. The game is against you. Rules are against you. Nobody wants to see you go out there and defend every pass. Everybody’s trying to go see long touchdowns, people catch the ball and stuff like that. Nobody wants to see the bad guy win.

“Detroit is painted as a bad city, a lot of bad things and all the stuff like that. It’s on. It’s kind of like a make-it-out mentality.”

Spencer offers a prime example of that sentiment applied. When Ahmad Gardner, now starting as a freshman at Cincinnati, was developing in high school, Spencer considered several different paths. At first, he thought Gardner’s natural position of receiver would play best. Then he heard him start talking.

“The reason why I put him there — he played receiver but he was one of the most confident kids,” Spencer said. “He really believed in his ability, even if he wasn’t as good as ... he believed he was. And that’s half the battle.”

Spencer knew quickly Thomas had both that physical and mental ability. The first time he ever put Thomas in a game, the 10th grader undercut a pass over the middle, picked it off and ran it back 80 yards for a touchdown. Perhaps a fluke, he thought. Then Thomas made a similar play the next week, then again the week after.

That’s when he knew: “This kid is special. We have a special kid.”

Still, one of the things Lewis and other older mentors have instilled in their mentees is the notion that elite talent is not enough of a differentiator. If they want the accolades — the scholarships, the playing time, the NFL — they require intense discipline.

One of the lessons Thomas has taken away from his many training sessions with Lewis and is the insistence on never staying stagnant. Thomas and Hill worked out with Lewis all offseason before Thomas’ freshman year in 2017, as Lewis was preparing for the draft. Thomas and Hill trek down to Dallas one week per year to train and learn through osmosis. 

They communicate regularly — texting back and forth, swapping tips, motivating each other. Hill and Thomas watch Lewis’ games. Lewis, of course, reciprocates.

“It’s like, when we kind of saw each other for the first time, it was just like we already knew each other,” Thomas said of Lewis. “That’s what it was like. He put that dog mentality even more so in me, too.”

Lewis doesn’t so much see this as a burden, but a privilege. He relishes the role of big brother and educator.

“It just became more than just football. They’re family now, honestly,” Lewis said. “I don’t want anything from you, just pass it along. Just all of the knowledge that you guys obtain, give it to the young guys and make sure they’re doing the right things.”

Now, as always, Lewis, Hill and Thomas have their eyes down the road. When they find themselves in the Detroit area, the youth and high school football fields are one of the first stops. They’re not about to neglect those who need the same help they got years prior.

The talent pool is as strong as ever. 

“It should be acknowledged,” Lewis said. “It should be appreciated. We have All-Americans that came out from the pipeline. We have guys that produce. I feel like that should be acknowledged. Like I said, we have a lot of pride in what we do. 

“We have a lot of pride in where we come from.”

Saturday, when No. 19 Michigan faces off against No. 14 Iowa, Hill and Thomas will line up opposite each other once again. Kelly-Powell and Gray will be on call, ready to rotate in at any moment. Spencer will likely beam with pride, watching his former players shine miles down the road. Lewis will watch from Dallas, keeping a keen eye on his de facto younger brothers. Feedback will follow.

And countless young, talented Detroit football players will hope that one day it will be them suiting up at cornerback. They’ll have some help along the way.