It was his freshman year, Ambry Thomas thinks. His first spring ball. That was when he first saw J’Marick Woods take off a guy’s head.

“I was at corner. He was at safety,” Thomas says. “He came down like on a basic route and just took the tight end out.”

In the middle of the sentence, Thomas claps for emphasis.

“Crazy. From a freshman that just got up out of high school.”

There is, of course, a difference between being someone who hits hard and being a good football player. As Woods enters his junior season as a presumptive starter alongside Josh Metellus, it’s a gap those surrounding him think he’s successfully bridged.

When Woods came into the program, safeties and special teams coach Chris Partridge said, there was some developing to do. He was 17 years old and had to adjust to college ball on both a physical and mental level. That means learning a playbook and it means developing in the weight room.

“He was like a baby deer running around,” Partridge said. “And he is now developed into a man.

In the past, the Wolverines didn’t need Woods as anything more than a depth piece. Last season, Metellus and Tyree Kinnel could dependably take the bulk of snaps at the position — between them, the two missed just one game.

Metellus is back and will undoubtedly be a leader for the defense, as Partridge said multiple times on Thursday. But Kinnel has graduated, and that’s a void Woods will be expected to fill.

“I’ve seen his athleticism,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “His potential, like, in terms of size. He’s 6-(foot)-3, 210, 205 (pounds), I’m not sure. Fast, can hit harder than I’ve really ever seen anyone. He can really put his body out there and lay it all on the line.”

Woods’ game has gotten more refined. He’s got the playbook down, which means there’s time to work on technique. That seems to be going pretty well.

“He’s controlling his body,” Partridge said. We saw it in December, before the bowl game. And he’s come into this spring ball and he’s been lights out to where he had to develop a little bit. And we’re excited about him. Like I said, he’s becoming a man. He’s taking a stronghold. He’s seeing formations. He’s taking coaching.”

The hitting, that’s still there. It has been since day one, and it’s still a defining characteristic. Glasgow called Woods the hardest hitter on the team and when told that, Thomas concurred, and put it simply. “He lay that wood,” the junior corner said. Hitting so hard in spring ball that the sound reverberates throughout the practice field, as Glasgow recalled, sets one hell of a tone.

“That gets everyone going,” Glasgow said. “… Just makes everyone stop and say, ‘Oh, shit. This guy’s going 100 miles an hour.’ And that makes everyone else wanna do that as well.”

Kinnel’s departure is far from the only one Michigan will have to answer for come the fall. With Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary and Devin Bush all gone as well, the void Kinnel leaves is one the Wolverines don’t have quite as much time to think about.

If Woods can make it so they don’t have to think about it at all, that’s all the better.

“We want dogs. We want people that want to be here,” Thomas said. “We want people ready to compete. And when I know he’s beside me, or people on defense beside me, I know they’re coming to play with me.”

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