Before this season, D.J. Turner had always been on the precipice of a starting job.
Over the last few years, Turner’s name had been tossed around as a breakout candidate. Jim Harbaugh praised the young cornerback’s progress as an early enrollee and freshman in 2019, but an injury sidelined him for much of the year. Turner made his first appearance for the Michigan football team in the secondary during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, though most of his action came on special teams once again.
But this season, the former three-star recruit is living up to the praise he’s collected for years. Through seven appearances, the junior has tallied 11 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup while holding his own in coverage.
“My sense is he’s always been great,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s always kind of been right there as a starting player and then had a setback … where he was working through something that slows him down. But he always battled right back. It’s great to see him peaking at a great time.”
During Saturday’s 33-7 win over Northwestern, Turner earned his first career start at No. 2 cornerback on Saturday over senior Gemon Green, who usually lines up opposite senior Vincent Gray to complete the sixth-ranked Wolverines’ cornerback tandem. He played a career-high 43 snaps, earning a team-best 78.7 coverage grade on Pro Football Focus.
Turner’s late interception on Saturday put the exclamation point on Michigan’s victory. After a pass to the sideline was tipped three times, Turner snagged it and took it the other direction, putting a circus pick on his season highlight reel in the process.
“He’s been battling the whole season,” junior safety Daxton Hill said Saturday. “This season, before the season, the spring. This has been a long year for him, and I’m proud of him for stepping up, making plays and helping out the defense.”
Prior to the interception, it was clear the Wildcats were making a conscious effort to target Turner. Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinksi threw his way multiple times in the first half but backed off after Turner blew up a screen pass in the backfield.
From start to finish, the strong performance caught Harbaugh’s eye.
“I thought he had a great game,” Harbaugh said Monday. “The interception, I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen all season in college football. Also really impressed with his physicality. He made some big tackles in the game, a tackle for loss (on) one of the screens Northwestern had run. Two of our guys had taken a bad angle and the ball got out, but he took a great angle, came from the other side of the field. He’s playing really good football. Great to see.”
As a recruit, Turner committed to Michigan just three days after taking his official visit to Ann Arbor. Hosted by linebacker Josh Ross, Turner’s visit sealed the deal ahead of his college pledge. Now a fifth-year senior, Ross has watched Turner grow from his initial arrival on campus.
So, it was only fitting that Ross became his lead blocker after his interception on Saturday.
“That’s a guy that always attacks everything the right way, works hard,” Ross said. “As I opened up from my drop and broke over and saw him get that tipped pick, I was just so happy for him. It was an amazing play and he’s going to continue to do big things for us and our defense.”