Position Previews 2017: Defensive backs
As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: defensive backs.
It was only last week that Mike Zordich issued a blunt, public challenge to Michigan’s cornerbacks. Zordich’s desire was simple: He wanted his corners to show more consistency in the ongoing competition for the starting job, and for someone to grab the proverbial bull by the horns.
The reality facing the Wolverines is simple: It wouldn’t matter whether Zordich had showered his corners with praise or frustration. No one knows how they will play. They simply haven’t seen enough time on the field to know.
And as a whole, this will be a very inexperienced group that lost four — an argument can be made for five, as Jeremy Clark was an integral member of the unit and Michigan often used three corners — starters from last season. Couple that with how important the secondary is in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme, working hand-in-hand with the front seven to make life difficult for opponents on passing downs, and things could get dicey if no one steps up to Zordich’s challenge. But it seems, given the recruiting pedigree of many of these players and the talented young freshmen pushing from behind, that at least one or two will separate themselves from the fray, and the back end of the secondary could be a steadying force that helps with any early struggles from the corners.
Here’s how the group stack up this year:
Who’s back: Sophomores Lavert Hill, David Long and redshirt junior Brandon Watson return at the corner position, and redshirt junior Drake Harris — formerly a receiver — joined the group earlier this offseason. At safety, sophomore Josh Metellus and junior Tyree Kinnel are back for another year, while redshirt sophomore Jordan Glasgow may split time between safety and VIPER.
Zordich was pleased with the progress that Hill, who has missed practices in the past with injuries, has made this summer. It appears he will man one of the corner spots. The other spot is much more unclear, and is where Zordich issued his challenge — just as redshirt sophomore Keith Washington, who looked impressive in the Spring Game, decided to transfer. Long and Watson are similar in stature, but appear to have different play styles. Long was a highly-touted recruit, earning the highest ranking out of any defensive back on the roster, and has plenty of speed to burn — which should help him in Michigan’s press-man system. Watson, meanwhile, struggled to keep up with quicker receivers playing out of the slot last year, but was known for his ability to play press coverage as a recruit. Zordich’s comments seemed pointed towards both Long and Watson; the expectation is that, barring a late run from one of the freshmen, one of the two will man the other starting corner position. Harris has a tantalizing combination of size and ball skills, but it’s too much to expect anything from him considering he switched positions just this summer.
Meanwhile, on the back end of the defense, Kinnel and Metellus should give the Wolverines a steady pair of safeties. Kinnel will be the more conventional free safety, playing center field and helping set the defense up, and as the most experienced member of the secondary, he may be its most important. Metellus played the hybrid VIPER position last year, starting in place of an injured Jabrill Peppers in the Orange Bowl, and has now moved back in the defense. He wasn’t a highly-touted recruit but has quickly moved up the depth chart in his time at Michigan and has earned praise this offseason for his grasp of the defense. Glasgow — the third member of his family to walk on the team and eventually earn a scholarship — was a force on special teams and showed his playmaking ability in the Spring Game when he intercepted a pass in his end zone and returned it for a touchdown.
Who’s not: The list, as mentioned, is extensive: Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas all graduated, while Washington recently elected to transfer.
Who’s new: Ambry Thomas, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Benjamin St-Juste and J’Marick Woods all enrolled early — perhaps by design, to give the group more time to acclimate to the collegiate level. Brad Hawkins, a former receiver who originally committed to Michigan as a member of the 2016 class, enrolled in the summer and promptly made the switch to safety.
Michigan did well to help rebuild its secondary with a large class of defensive backs in 2017. The question is whether any will be ready for meaningful snaps this fall. Thomas and St-Juste were four-star recruits with vastly different physiques. Thomas is a lightning fast player who shares a similar build to Hill or Lewis. St-Juste, standing at 6-foot-3, is lanky with long arms, closer to the mold of Clark or Stribling. As a recruit, he had one of the nation’s fastest shuttle times — a sign of his quickness and ability to change direction at an elite level for his size. Both, however, may need more seasoning, as evidenced by the Spring Game. Thomas was bulldozed on a run near the goal-line and needs to continue bulking up, while St-Juste was picked on repeatedly when matched up against freshman receiver Tarik Black late in the game.
Kelly-Powell was a four-star recruit and would appear to have positional versatility — he may be able to play both corner and safety for Michigan. Woods, who drew praise as a big hitter, is a safety all the way, while Hawkins — with his ball skills and explosiveness — has interesting potential at the position as well.
Stats in 2016:
Hill: 2 tackles, one pass defended, one fumble recovered
Long: 3 games played
Watson: 12 tackles
Kinnel: 17 tackles (1 for loss), one forced fumble
Metellus: 15 tackles (1 for loss), one sack
Glasgow: 12 tackles, one fumble recovered
Outlook: Michigan needs its corners to step up — especially Hill and Long. Those, with their recruiting pedigree as highly-touted four-star prospects, may give Michigan’s secondary the highest ceiling. Watson could be a steady option without elite athleticism, while Thomas or St-Juste could certainly force their way into the lineup, but Hill and Long starting across from each other was the reality Michigan’s coaches envisioned when they signed the pair in 2016. The safeties should be fine, with one caveat — Michigan really can’t afford any injuries at the position, especially to either of the presumed starters. Losing Kinnel would be disastrous due to his knowledge of the defense, his leadership ability and his previous experience, while losing Metellus would mean starting a freshman or replacing him with Glasgow, thus hurting depth at the VIPER spot. Things could turn out well for Michigan in the secondary. But they’ll need their players to stay healthy and to continue developing.
Edge/Prediction: Hill and Long will start at corner, with Kinnel and Metellus at safety. Either Watson or Thomas will see time as the third corner, given Michigan spends a lot of time in the nickel, especially given how many spread offenses it runs up against now. Woods and Kelly-Powell will see time as the backups, with Glasgow ready to step in wherever needed, while Harris and Hawkins continue to learn their new positions. There will most likely be growing pains from this unit as it gets more game experience, but luckily, there aren’t too many lethal passing offenses that this team will face in the Big Ten. Circle the Oct. 21 matchup against Penn State as the most difficult test for this team, with Ohio State, of course, posing another challenge at the end of the year.