With a new set of coaches in spring practice, Michigan’s secondary knew there were going to be changes in 2015. The unit wasn’t sure what those changes entailed, though, until it got onto the field.
Suddenly, the cornerbacks were in the faces of wide receivers, running backs and linemen. Rather than standing five yards back and waiting for the play to reveal itself, the Wolverines were on top of the offense right at the snap.
That only intensified come August, when the Michigan football coaching staff increased man coverage in the secondary.
The cornerbacks were exhausted, but, aside from a few miscues, they were thriving — recording 90 turnovers in three weeks of training camp practices.
With eight returning starters and over a dozen key contributors back from last season, much of the Wolverines’ development into the nation’s second-best defense this fall can be attributed to simply growing up.
But in recording a shutout over then-No. 22 Brigham Young, the secondary made it loud and clear what the key to their success was — they were manning up more than many had in their entire careers.
“We noticed all the way through camp we were doing man, that’s all we practice really,” said redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark. “We were really prepared for a season of it. We were all on board with it.”
Like any football decision, increasing man coverage in the secondary comes with pros and cons. It’s more physical, risky and challenging, but can equate to more turnovers, fewer big plays and — most importantly for Michigan — a smash-mouth identity that sends chills down opposing offenses’ spines.
“It’s a compliment to me that (Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin) thinks we can play like that in man coverage,” said senior cornerback Jeremy Clark. “It’s tiring, but as Coach Durkin says, we want to play aggressive, and to do that we’ve got to play man coverage. We love it.”
On Saturday, the Wolverines stood tall against the Cougars’ four 6-foot-4 or taller receivers, holding quarterback Tanner Mangum to just 12 completions on 28 attempts.
In four games this season, Michigan has held opposing quarterbacks to a 93.93 quarterback rating, 43.4 points below those quarterbacks’ season averages. That, too, can be attributed to the man coverage.
“I really like it — it allows them to be aggressive with the receivers and take control,” said senior safety Jarrod Wilson. “I know it’s tiresome for them, but it makes my job easier so I can just focus on the quarterback and get my reads off the quarterback and make some plays.”
Having to track the receivers from the opening snap tires cornerbacks out over the course of the game, and corner may be one of Michigan’s thinnest positions. But the Wolverines feel more than ready to continue meeting that challenge.
“If you tell a corner they can’t sit back on their heels, they have to be aggressive and go after the receiver, they’re not going to hesitate,” Wilson said. “(Playing man’s) got them excited now, and they’re rising to that challenge.”
Though Michigan has just three interceptions in four games, the entire defense has felt the effect of the man coverage.
In addition to being second in the nation in yards allowed, the Wolverines are fourth in points allowed, 10th in pass defense and 17th in tackles tackles for loss per game with eight, all thanks to the secondary.
“Every time we get a sack, we know it’s because our secondary made sure nothing was open,” said senior defensive tackle Mario Ojemudia. “I definitely tip my hat to the secondary — they’re playing great.”