Josh Metellus was one of ten new starters for Michigan’s defense last season.
So before his first start, the then-sophomore safety naturally faced an abundance of questions about the challenges of replacing so much talent on his side of the ball. Metellus and his teammates gave the only answer they could for a team looking to remain competitive despite so much turnover: Talent and hunger would outweigh experience.
And at times, they were right. Michigan’s defense looked dominant for stretches and ultimately allowed the fewest passing yards nationally in 2017. Metellus would eventually be named an All-Big Ten honoree — a level of recognition nearly the entire starting defense met or exceeded. Still, there were moments when the Wolverines’ youth showed.
This was especially true for Metellus and senior safety Tyree Kinnel, who found themselves on the wrong side of breakdowns in the secondary in some of the season’s biggest moments. Penn State, for example, completed five passes of more than 20 yards to route the Wolverines in Happy Valley. Ohio State then used the deep ball to come back against Michigan a month later.
Metellus remembers what it’s like to endure those growing pains.
“Last year was more of a confidence thing,” Metellus said. “More of, ‘Alright, you’re starting now. You have to be a starter and be one of those guys.’ I wasn’t as focused on technique. I was just focused on making sure I’m just good (enough).
“I (was) a little more passive than I’d usually like to play.”
Metellus didn’t have the luxury of much freshman playing time, unlike higher-profile classmates like corner Lavert Hill, linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary. Metellus mostly spotted Jabrill Peppers on a snap-by-snap basis during his first year in Ann Arbor — and only for extended time when Peppers reaggravated his leg and missed the 2016 Orange Bowl.
So it’s understandable to hear Metellus say he wasn’t fully comfortable heading into last season. As much as the Wolverines tried to downplay it a year ago, experience — and a lack thereof — played its part in mistakes for the defense.
That justification won’t fly anymore for defensive coordinator Don Brown, however.
“He gave us a big challenge to step up to the plate,” Metellus said. “We’re not young anymore. We can’t use that as an excuse.”
That message has resonated with Metellus. He’s now prioritizing the fundamentals — unlike last year by his own standards — with a focus on improving in man and slot coverage. Metellus also believes the Wolverines’ depth at safety will allow him and Kinnel to avoid some exhaustion-sparked mistakes entirely.
Behind the pair of incumbent starters lies a crop of sophomores in J’Marick Woods, Brad Hawkins and Jaylen Kelly-Powell. Woods split time with Metellus at strong safety in the 2018 Outback Bowl, and Kelly-Powell has drawn noise with a strong spring and summer. They figure to be capable backups.
But the biggest name in the depth conversation is fifth-year senior Casey Hughes, a graduate transfer who started 11 games at corner for Utah last year.
That level of experience has left Metellus impressed, even as Hughes’ fit within the secondary remains unclear.
“He’s filling in where ever we need help,” Metellus said. “He’s a smart guy going into his fifth year, so he’d been around college (football) a long time. He knows how practice is supposed to go and what to expect from coaches and players, so he’s bringing that extra leadership and extra push that everyone needs.
“You would think that Casey’s been here since January the way he came in and took over the system and the playbook. He’s been looking like he’s been one of us.”
Hughes’ addition simply bolsters what already was a steady safety group. At least that’s what Metellus, more self-assured with a year of starting experience under his belt, believes two weeks from kickoff.
“Last year, we were young, and the guys coming in behind us were younger,” Metellus said. “Now, we just got that confidence.”