When Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin arrived alongside Jim Harbaugh last winter, he noticed a flaw in the defense he inherited. The Wolverines’ defense had struggled to create turnovers in 2014, something Durkin felt was unacceptable.
So Durkin implemented a reward system, one that started in spring practice, to incentivize his defensive players to get their hands on the ball. Whenever they make a big play on defense, usually a turnover, Durkin rewards them with a new piece of clothing that says “Ball Hawk” on it.
Though the Wolverines constantly say they aren’t satisfied with their turnover statistics — they entered Saturday’s game ranked 111th in the NCAA in forced turnovers — Durkin’s methodology has become embedded in the minds of his players.
Senior safety Jarrod Wilson said the first thought in his mind after his diving interception in the second quarter was that he would be receiving some new “Ball Hawk” gear.
Perhaps nobody embodies Durkin’s philosophy better than Jourdan Lewis. No Wolverine has gotten his hands on the ball as frequently as the junior cornerback. Ever.
Though he doesn’t have a jaw-drapping number of interceptions this season (two), Lewis has now broken up more passes in a single season than any other player in Michigan football history.
When Lewis broke up Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano’s heave on 4th-and-7 from the Michigan 18-yard line late in the third quarter, it was his 19th pass breakup of the season. He passed former Michigan defensive backs Marlin Jackson and Leon Hall when he set the milestone.
“It feels good,” Lewis said. “Being named with some of those legends, it’s a good feeling.”
Saturday wasn’t Lewis’ flashiest defensive game of the season. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Northwestern and recorded six pass breakups against Michigan State. But when the ball came his way, it rarely turned out well for Rutgers. Lewis broke up two passes and recorded three tackles.
In addition to his defensive performance, Lewis returned kicks for Michigan for the first time this season. He filled the spot next to redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson that is normally occupied by redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers.
Peppers has broken multiple long returns throughout the season, presenting a threat nearly every time he opts to return the ball. Lewis ensured that Peppers’ absence on the kick return unit was not an issue.
He returned his two kickoffs for 59 yards. On his longer return of 35 yards, he allowed the Wolverines to take over possession on their own 42-yard line. Michigan marched down the field and scored. Lewis joked after the game that Peppers, who had a thigh contusion, might not get his job back.
“Jabrill’s a great player, but it would be hard to get that job back,” Lewis said, laughing.
Lewis liked the feeling of having the ball in his hands, something that hasn’t happened consistently since he played offense and special teams in high school.
Lewis got his hands on the ball on the other end of special teams, too. He was serving as a gunner on the kickoff team when he made contact with Rutgers returner Janarion Grant late in the first quarter. Lewis got his hand on the ball and stripped Grant, causing a scrum for the loose football.
The Scarlet Knights recovered, but by stifling Grant, Lewis had done what the Wolverines struggled to do for most of Saturday’s game.
When the blowout was complete, Lewis maintained the same disposition he has held for most of the season. He expects nothing less than excellence out of Michigan’s defensive unit, the secondary in particular. He said the unit could be the nation’s best in the country early in the season, and his expectations for his position group are consistently based on that notion.
He is not surprised that opposing offenses still test him, despite how infrequently their attempts are fruitful. He will have at least four more games to tack on to his record.
“It’s a game, they have to score points, they’ve got to put points on the board, so trying me is trying to put points on the board,” Lewis said. “I’ve got to do my job, because I know they’re going to do theirs.”