Sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill was immediately placed into concussion protocol last weekend, exiting the Maryland game at halftime.
Hill, who has two interceptions and eight passes defended this season, is unlikely to take the field when the 24th-ranked Wolverines (5-2 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) face off with No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 10-0) this Saturday.
As of Wednesday, Michigan secondary coach Mike Zordich said that Hill wasn’t participating in any practices.
“That’s a wait-and-see kind of thing,” Zordich said. “I know he’s in the protocol right now. … That means that he has to see a doctor every day, certain symptoms have to go away, and if they stay, then other certain things happen.”
As Michigan’s top cornerback this year, Hill usually matches up against the opponent’s top wide receiver, but Zordich isn’t too concerned about Hill’s absence.
He expressed full confidence in the team’s other starting cornerbacks — sophomore David Long and redshirt junior Brandon Watson. He stated that Long and Watson have both been improving each day in practice, and even without Hill, Michigan will be “absolutely fine.”
“(Long), daily, has been getting better,” Zordich said. “(Watson) doing the same… What’s great about it is they’re taking the coaching. It means something to them, and you can tell by their performance and their technique.”
Behind Long and Watson, the younger cornerbacks have impressed Zordich as well.
True freshmen Ambry Thomas, Benjamin St. Juste and Jaylen Kelly-Powell have all entered games for a few reps, despite mostly contributing to special teams. Thomas is the most likely to get more minutes with Hill out, but St. Juste and Kelly-Powell both made appearances in the defensive backfield against the Terrapins.
Kelly-Powell mainly practices at nickelback, where he serves as a fifth defensive back in addition to the typical two corners and two safeties.
As Zordich explained, Kelly-Powell has been asked to play nickelback, cornerback and safety at different times this season, and was a bright spot at each of those. In the future, though, Zordich foresees Kelly-Powell developing mostly as a nickelback where he can cover slot receivers — something he showed that he could do well against Maryland.
“He’s like a little magnet,” Zordich said.
Kelly-Powell arrived in Ann Arbor as a four-star recruit from Cass Technical High School in Detroit. One of many highly-touted prospects from Cass Tech, he was ranked as the No. 1 safety in the state of Michigan and 21st-best in the country.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Kelly-Powell handles significant defensive back minutes in Hill’s absence.
Those duties will fall almost entirely on Watson, Long, and Thomas, while junior Tyree Kinnel and sophomore Josh Metellus will be the Wolverines’ starting safeties against Wisconsin.
The Badgers are a run-heavy team, which has been the defense’s focus this week, but quarterback Alex Hornibrook still presents a threat with a 64 percent completion rate and a 155.6 quarterback rating.
“We can’t afford to fall asleep on the back end,” Zordich said. “(Hornibrook has) got a hell of an arm.”
Three Wisconsin receivers — Quintez Cephus, Jazz Peavy and George Rushing — are all out this week with injuries. Cephus is Hornibrook’s top receiver with 501 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Still, Michigan must account for tight end Troy Fumagalli. The 6-foot-6 senior has three receiving touchdowns this year, and Michigan’s secondary will have to keep their eyes on him coming off the line.
“We have good tight ends on our team, so it’s nothing that we haven’t seen,” Metellus said. “We cover for a living.”
It doesn’t matter that Wisconsin runs the ball on 77 percent of its plays and three of its receivers aren’t able to suit up this weekend.
Hill’s absence makes the other 23 percent of plays that much more important.
“They’ll just pound it, pound it, pound it,” Zordich said. “Then all of a sudden,” CLAP, “play action or rolling out. We’ve gotta be ready for that.”