With the Michigan football team’s 2017 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2018. In this edition: defensive backs.
The performance of the secondary might be the biggest surprise of the season for the Wolverines.
For a unit that lost both of its starting cornerbacks and safeties — all of whom were seniors — coming into this year, it would have been expected for Michigan’s pass defense to take a step back. The apparent successors were a trio of sophomores and a junior who had taken few, if any snaps, for the Wolverines before this season began.
But the quartet of defensive backs — cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long and safeties Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel — outperformed expectations in 2017, and then some.
Despite being thrust into starting roles, all four looked like veterans, both as individuals and a unit. But the most veteran member of the core, Kinnel, had the best season.
Kinnel excelled in his free safety role, racking up a whopping 67 tackles — five more than sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary — including 4.5 for loss. He tallied a career-high 11 of those tackles in one game against Minnesota, in which he led the team in the category with seven solo stops.
His strongside partner, Metellus, wasn’t far behind with 49 tackles of his own. He and Kinnel spent the year shutting down opposing receivers, combining for 12 pass breakups. Metellus also forced a fumble in the season opener against Florida.
The duo of Hill and Long proved to be reliable forces as well, recording 24 and 20 tackles, respectively. They came up only one short in the pass breakups category, tallying 11, and also had two interceptions apiece. Kinnel had a pair of picks as well, and only Metellus was shut out in that regard.
For much of the year, Michigan boasted the top-ranked secondary in the nation based on team passing efficiency defense. The Wolverines are currently third, behind Wisconsin and Alabama, with a rating of 100.17 — just the Badgers and Crimson Tide have maintained double-digit ratings over the course of the whole season.
Michigan, though, has allowed the least opposing passing yards in the country with a total of 1712, an average of just 142.66 per game. By comparison, Wisconsin and Alabama have allowed 2088 and 1964 yards through the air, respectively. The Wolverines have also given up just nine touchdowns on the year while accumulating nine interceptions.
HIGH POINT: Michigan’s secondary put together multiple standout games this season, but the two that stand out the most are the Wolverines’ matchups with Cincinnati in September and Maryland in November.
The common thread between both contests is the sheer number of pass attempts from both opposing quarterbacks, in contrast to the lack of success they found moving the ball through the air.
While both signal callers — Cincinnati’s Hayden Moore and Maryland’s Ryan Brand — threw for 132 and 136 yards, respectively, it took them 15 and 16 passes apiece to reach that figure. Worse yet, Moore and Brand threw the ball 40 and 35 times, respectively, on those days — good for completion rates well below 50 percent.
To add insult to injury, Michigan picked off both quarterbacks twice in those contests. Kinnel and Hill came up with the first set against the Bearcats, while Long and sophomore VIPER Khaleke Hudson came up with the other pair against the Terrapins.
LOW POINT: While the Wolverines recorded four picks in those two games, they came up with just five more in their 10 other contests.
For a secondary with as much talent as Michigan has, that number should be much higher. The other teams in the country ranked near the Wolverines in pass defense have interception totals well into double-digit territory.
Throughout the year, Michigan struggled with the turnover battle, as its offense ran into trouble finding a consistent rhythm. While the defense can only save the offense to a point, there were certainly opportunities for the secondary to lend a helping hand, but untimely drops seemed to be a consistent theme for the Wolverines’ back four.
The most significant came in the second quarter against Ohio State when Michigan had a 14-0 lead. Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett telegraphed a pass to Metellus, but the safety couldn’t come up with it and Ohio State scored on the next play to kick off its comeback.
THE FUTURE: The Wolverines will have the benefit of all four starters returning to the team in 2018. With a year of experience under their belts now, it isn’t far-fetched to expect that Kinnel, Metellus, Hill and Long will be even better in their second go-around.
The biggest loss will be senior cornerback Brandon Watson, who served as a backup-turned-starter after Hill’s concussion injury late in the year. But Michigan has plenty of young defensive backs coming up the ranks.
Freshmen J’Marick Woods, Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste, as well as senior Jordan Glasgow, are all in line for playing time as part of the second unit next season, which means the secondary should be in good hands for the near future.