During his first two seasons with the Michigan football team, junior Daxton Hill established himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backs.
Former Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown called him perhaps “the best cover guy” in the conference last September. A former five-star recruit, Hill’s combination of speed, coverage skills and football instinct allowed him to make an immediate impact. He recorded 82 tackles and two interceptions across his first 19 games, while his presence at free safety gave Michigan a reliable anchor in the secondary in 2019 and 2020.
That is, until this offseason.
In the Wolverines’ new defense, Hill is the starting nickel corner. He lines up in the slot, giving him the best opportunity to make an impact both downfield and at the line of scrimmage.
“I embraced it,” Hill said Tuesday of his position change. “At first, it was kind of tough for me to adjust to all the new calls and all the responsibilities, but once I got in the film room more with my coaches and they broke down everything — all the nuances to it — it kind of flowed to me a lot better.”
That much was clear in Michigan’s season-opener against Western Michigan on Saturday. Hill led the defense with six total tackles, five of which were solo. He was also one of five Wolverines to break up a pass.
“The thing that stood out live, he was all over the field,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “He was in tight coverage, he was tackling, he was getting off blocks, always in the right spot. Did a good job with communication on the back end. Him and (fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins) both did that. There was no hesitancy. He was just reacting, anticipating and reacting.”
It was the type of dominance the Wolverines have come to expect from Hill. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the transition from free safety to nickel was easy. Hill referred to the difference in responsibilities as “night and day” on Tuesday. And as first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald overhauled Michigan’s defense during the offseason, Hill pulled double duty, learning both a fresh scheme and his new position within it.
Hill doesn’t model his game after any NFL defensive backs, but he spent much of the offseason watching film on Baltimore Ravens slot cornerback Marlon Humphrey. He knew there was a good chance Macdonald, a former defensive assistant with the Ravens, would use him in a similar role. Hill worked with the Wolverines’ two new secondary assistants — safeties coach Ron Bellamy and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale — throughout the offseason to learn the ins and outs of the position.
“I was giddy when they mentioned it to me,” Hill said. “They told me I was going to have to step up and play multiple roles compared to last year. I was excited and I embraced it.”
One of Hill’s new responsibilities is shedding blocks at the point of attack in order to come up and make tackles. He made multiple stops for short gains in the Wolverines’ win on Saturday, showing an ability to read plays as they develop and close gaps quickly.
After getting beat over the top repeatedly last fall, Michigan’s defensive backs have made major changes to their approach. With the Wolverines’ safeties and outside cornerbacks focused on staying behind the ball, Hill can be more aggressive when lining up across from slot receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“Really, I just can fly around,” Hill said. “Hustling to the ball, that’s one thing you need — all 11 men to the ball each play. If I can help out as much as I can, that’s what I’d like to do. I feel like I have more room to do that now, so that’s why I was excited I could play more freely.”
And as Michigan’s defense looks to erase a nightmarish 2020 season, that type of freedom could be exactly what Hill needs in order to take the next step.