Michigan State rivalry 'personal' for cornerback Lavert Hill
Two years ago, when cornerback Lavert Hill was still a high schooler, he sat in the stands at Michigan Stadium, watching one of the most unbelievable finishes to a college football game the world had ever seen.
Hill stood in shock as Michigan State’s Jalen Watt-Jackson carried a mishandled punt all the way into the end zone for a last-second, game-winning touchdown.
Then a senior at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, Hill was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits. Besides Michigan, his top choices included Penn State, Southern California, Tennessee, Clemson and — most importantly — Michigan State.
The decision came down to the two in-state schools, and he ultimately decided on Ann Arbor and joined coach Jim Harbaugh’s first full recruiting class. Academic, athletic and personal reasons — his older brother Delano played for the Wolverines — swayed Hill to Michigan.
Two years later, Hill is now a starting defensive back for the seventh-ranked Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall), and this weekend he will finally have the opportunity to make his mark on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.
“It was pretty devastating,” Hill said of Michigan’s 2015 loss to the Spartans. “This game is pretty personal to me.”
He prepared over the bye week by tuning in as Michigan State (1-0 Big Ten, 3-1 overall) defeated Iowa, 17-10.
Hill paid close attention to Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III, who caught two touchdowns and recorded a career-high 114 receiving yards. As the Spartans’ top target, Davis averages 64 receiving yards per game, and he was named the co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Hawkeyes.
Hill and the rest of the Wolverines’ secondary understand how important it will be to shut Davis down.
“(Davis) is a pretty good athlete,” Hill said. “He knows how to track the ball in the air. We just got to get our hands on him, disturb him on the line… We expect him to do what he can, but we’ll be ready also.”
Hill also discussed Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, mentioning his ability to extend plays with his feet.
Lewerke’s first touchdown throw to Davis last weekend came on a rollout to the right. He gave himself time to find an open receiver and Iowa’s secondary couldn’t stay disciplined in coverage.
Hill said that a cornerback can never lose sight of its mark if it wants to guard the type of passing threat that Lewerke brings to the game.
“Don’t look back at the quarterback until the ball is in the air and you know that you can get it,” Hill said. “Have your eyes on your man.”
Ultimately, Michigan’s secondary should be ready for Michigan State, especially having had a week off to prepare. With three interceptions and two pick-sixes — one of which belongs to Hill — the Wolverines have allowed just 134 passing yards per game, ranking as the fourth-best passing defense in the nation.
Although young, the secondary and Hill have proved they can stop opponents in the air. Lewerke, Davis and Michigan State will be their toughest opponent yet, but Hill believes the Wolverines will succeed if they continue communicating and adjusting well.
And while Hill has been waiting to participate in the rivalry, he knows he has to stay focused on the task at hand. He can’t get too caught up in the excitement.
But that’s pretty hard when you have to play under the lights, at primetime, against your rival and against former high school teammates and foes.
All that will be the case when Hill suits up this weekend for the first Michigan-Michigan State game in Ann Arbor since the fateful botched punt in 2015.
“We can’t lose at home,” Hill said. “We’re going to have to get after it Saturday.”