Ever since Ambry Thomas announced he would opt out of the season back in August, uncertainty at cornerback has loomed over the Michigan defense.
Other than Vincent Gray, who appeared in every game last season, the Wolverines don’t have a single returning corner with substantial experience. The names floated as possible starters opposite him have ranged from freshman Andre Seldon to sophomore safety Daxton Hill — “Maybe the most talented player on the team,” according to Jim Harbaugh on WTKA’s Inside Michigan Football, but one with no viable replacement at safety.
On Monday, Harbaugh and linebacker Josh Ross finally hinted at the real answer: junior Gemon Green.
“Gemon Green’s doing a very good job,” Harbaugh said in a Zoom press conference when asked about the second cornerback spot, before mentioning Sammy Faustin, D.J. Turner and Jalen Perry. In Harbaugh’s world, that’s as concrete of a depth chart proclamation as exists (a few minutes earlier, he demurred when asked whether surefire starter Joe Milton will indeed be Michigan’s QB1).
Later in the afternoon, Ross seemed to agree.
“Coming into this year, we had a lot of questions about who our second guy was going to be, especially with Ambry leaving,” Ross said. “Brad Hawkins, Dax (Hill), Vince (Gray), Gemon Green, too. Those guys have been playing really, really well.”
Hawkins, Hill and Gray have been presumed secondary starters since January. If Green is the fourth name in that group, it’s fair to presume Michigan’s biggest defensive question mark has found its answer.
That’s not to say the questions end there — Green has seen action on defense just once, last year against Notre Dame. For most of his time in Ann Arbor, his duties have rotated between the scout team and occasional appearances on special teams.
Still, if he starts against Minnesota on Saturday, it indicates an offseason of rapid improvement. Earlier this fall, Turner and Perry were the hottest names set to replace Thomas. Green starting would mean he’s impressed sufficiently to pass them.
There are other uncertainties in Michigan’s defensive depth chart, of course — chiefly at defensive tackle and VIPER. But the Wolverines’ cornerback situation has always stood out as unique. Gone is Thomas, an NFL talent who was among the Big Ten’s best corners last year. So too is Lavert Hill, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2018 and 2019.
Between them, Michigan boasted one of the country’s most formidable secondaries a year ago, finishing 10th in passing yards allowed and providing cover for an often-porous rush defense. This year, the Wolverines face an uphill battle to have the same luxury.
Regardless of who starts across from him, the path to getting there starts with Gray. Arriving as a relatively unheralded three-star in 2018, Gray quickly became key secondary depth, seeing time in nickel packages and starting against Illinois when Hill was out injured.
“One guy that’s standing out to me, it’s a big year ahead of him … is Vince Gray,” Ross said. “He’s been doing everything the right way. He’s covering so well.”
On Saturday, that offseason development will be put to the test against Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman. A year ago, Bateman led the conference with 20.3 yards per reception, finishing with 1219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on the season. It’s the type of matchup that could have seen Thomas shadow him around the field had he returned.
Instead, the burden will lie on Gray and, at times, whoever lines up opposite him. As of Monday, that seems most likely to be Green.
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