Friday morning, Don Brown held a meeting with the players he deemed the leaders of the defense. In a Zoom call with reporters Thursday, the defensive coordinator took care to specify that Brad Hawkins was among them.
The senior safety is among the most experienced players on Michigan’s defense going into 2020, and Brown is fully confident in Hawkins’ ability to anchor the secondary after the loss of Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus to the NFL.
“The nice thing about Brad is he’s learned the defense,” Brown said. “There were times in his career where he was going through the growing pains of executing at an elite level and it took him some time to learn that. Plus I also believe on the back end, you develop confidence as you play and play well, and you cover guys and have the ability to cover, and this guy, everything’s on the upswing, it really is, and he’s taken a leadership role. … I feel very strongly about him having a strong year.”
Hawkins had somewhat of a breakout season in 2019 and was ranked as one of the top safeties in the Big Ten by Pro Football Focus. Though he missed two games late in the season with an injury, he made undeniable progress.
At cornerback, the Wolverines have a similar anchor in senior Ambry Thomas, who earned All-Big Ten honors in 2019 while being consistently praised for his leadership. The rest of the secondary will be less experienced after the loss of three-year starter Lavert Hill. Regardless, Brown is confident in his rotation going forward.
Starting alongside Thomas will likely be junior Vincent Gray, who appeared in all 13 games last season and made one start when Hill was injured. Though Gray as a player is mostly an unknown, Brown remembers how he knocked down a corner route against future first-rounder Henry Ruggs in the Citrus Bowl against Alabama. That, Brown believes, is a sign of his future potential.
“I thought (Gray) did a very difficult thing at the end of the year,” Brown said. “When we started to get nipped up with the injuries, he had to make — he played corner, but he had to transition to safety and play, do a number of safety jobs that he had to take on as well, and that’s not an easy task. He’s a young guy. But he did it and did it, I thought, really well, and I just see a guy whose confidence is there. … I just think the sky’s the limit for this guy, I really do, and he’s an outstanding player, an outstanding young man, and I just see nothing but good things from him moving forward.”
Though the third corner has been a subject of some discussion, Brown seemed certain that the spot would go to sophomore DJ Turner. Turner appeared in just four games last year, all on special teams, and dealt with injuries throughout the fall, but Brown praised his abilities Thursday at both corner and nickel, putting him above other contenders for the spot.
“We lost spring, and I thought that was tough on DJ in particular because he had kind of an injury-plagued fall which held him back, but … when you watch him run around and do things and just the way he carried himself in the winter workouts, he has come out of the freshman slump and I believe some guys go through that,” Brown said. “Especially when they get hurt, and I think he went through that, and I think we’re gonna see a guy that's ready to compete for playing time and be very anxious to see where he goes.”
In some cases, the cancellation of spring ball necessarily leads to less clarity when it comes to the starting positions. The players, after all, haven’t truly had a chance to compete for spots yet. When it comes to the secondary, though, Brown is comfortable in what he’s already seen, keying in on Thomas, Gray and Turner at the corner position.
Michigan lost a lot on the secondary, but between returning starters at both safety and corner and several underclassmen with potential, Brown believes this year’s group will be able to step up and fill the void.