The adjectives “young,”, “talented” and “inexperienced” effectively describe every position group on the Michigan football team.
However, they are perhaps most applicable to the Wolverines' secondary. While the defensive line returns four players who saw significant playing time last season, including two Bednarik Award candidates in Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary, and fifth-year senior Mike McCray — an All-Big Ten Honorable mention honoree — will anchor the linebacking corps, not a single one of Michigan's defensive backs have even started a game.
Gone is First-Team All-American Jourdan Lewis. Gone are All-Big Ten honorees Channing Stribling, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Gone is Jeremy Clark, who was denied a sixth year of eligibility after a knee injury ended his final season.
“If people will say that it’s because we did lose a lot, it’s obvious,” said junior safety Tyree Kinnel after practice Tuesday. “But the talent’s still there, the system’s still there.”
Kinnel received substantial playing time last season on both defense and special teams last season, playing in all 13 games and recording 17 tackles and a forced fumble. He's likely to start at free safety this season, and along with another relative veteran — redshirt junior cornerback Brandon Watson — he has been thrust into a leadership role almost by default. But according to special teams coordinator Chris Partridge, Kinnel is more than capable of stepping into those shoes, both on and off the field.
“Tyree is a leader. Natural leader,” Partridge said. “He gets those guys going, another guy that loves the game and loves all aspects of it.”
For Kinnel, the most important aspects of his new role are trust and communication. At safety, Kinnel will be tasked with anchoring the back of the defense and making sure the defense is lined up in their proper positions. But he feels confident and comfortable with these responsibilities, especially because while much of the leadership of the secondary may fall on his shoulders, Kinnel knows he won't have to do it alone. He has already seen a wealth of other players contribute.
“Being one of the older guys there, I feel like I do need to take that leadership role,” Kinnel said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job this camp, as well as Josh Metellus, he’s been taking leadership, Brandon Watson and Keith Washington too. I don’t think it’s just one of us that’s leading. We’re all together, we’re all communicating together, you can tell everyone’s talking, even the freshman. We all feel good together, trusting each other and communicating.”
Watson, who appeared in all 13 games last year and recorded 13 tackles, and Washington, a redshirt sophomore who had an impressive showing in spring camp, are both in the running to start at cornerback. Metellus, meanwhile, started the Orange Bowl at the VIPER position in place of Jabrill Peppers but moved back to the secondary, where he played alongside and developed a strong connection with Kinnel in last season and this spring's practices.
“He’s doing really well,” Kinnel said of Metellus. “We trust each other and that’s the key. We communicate back there and just trust each other.”
Kinnel also pointed to sophomore cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill, both of whom saw action as freshmen, as players that have improved and benefited from their experience last season in maturing behind an experienced and skilled stable of defensive backs.
“You can tell especially the guys that came in in the spring, some of the guys that came in the games last year,” Kinnel said. “You can tell that the game started moving just a little bit slow for us. We’re just trying to take every rep as it can, mental reps, physical reps and get better every day.”
Kinnel's comfort with his enlarged role is also increased due to having a second offseason and camp with Don Brown as defensive coordinator.
“I had two springs with Coach Brown, this is my second camp with him,” Kinnel said. “It’s great and I feel really comfortable. I’m good with my plans, just trying to help the other guys.”
Having comfort in Brown's scheme has also helped freshmen such as safeties J'Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell, who both enrolled early at Michigan and participated with the team in the spring.
“They’re getting even better, which is a really good thing," Kinnel said. “You can tell that they came in the spring, it was a good thing they came in the spring because now they came in knowing the plays, knowing what they have to do, so now they’re playing much faster in Coach Brown’s system.”
While Kinnel recognizes how much talent and experience the Wolverines lost from last season, the schemes and gameplans behind the nation's No. 1 pass defense are solidly in place. Now it's up to Kinnel, Watson, Metellus and anyone else who might step up to ensure the networks of trust between the defensive backs remain strong as well. And in Kinnel's view, it's off to a solid start.
“We’re all hungry and you can tell watching the film every day at practice everybody’s going hard,” Kinnel said. “No lows. High expectations, as Coach Brown always says. Competition brings out the best in all of us, we’re competing.”