Jarrod Wilson is gone from the Michigan football team’s secondary, but nobody seems to have forgotten about him — not his mentality, not his presence, not even his nickname.
Talking about the departed safety Wednesday, senior cornerback Channing Stribling couldn’t help but call Wilson “40,” a nickname the team adopted for him.
Wilson has a tattoo of the number 1040 in honor of the street address for his old high school, Akron (Ohio) Buchtel, near his home. His teammates shortened the number to 40, and the name stuck.
It wasn’t all Wilson left behind. Though never a captain, Wilson became a de facto leader of the defense in 31 career starts over four years.
“[He just made] sure the highs and lows, not being too high on the highs or too low on the lows,” Stribling said. “Just a smart guy, very smart guy. Knew the plays. If somebody had a question, no matter if it was a corner, linebacker, they all went to 40 — or Jarrod.”
A key component in Michigan’s vaunted defense last season, Wilson was often overlooked, sometimes in favor of All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis or all-purpose threat Jabrill Peppers. As the Wolverines prepare to open this season, many have talked about who they return in the secondary and not who they lose, overlooking Wilson again.
But no one in Michigan’s defensive backfield can discount what “40” brought to the team. The secondary coaches last year, Greg Jackson and Mike Zordich, spoke of him as a coach on the field who would set all of the players in position before the snap. Specifically, safety Dymonte Thomas once credited Wilson with directing him toward a fourth-down pass breakup late in the Michigan State game, a play that would have secured a win if not for the fumbled punt return in the final seconds.
Wilson, who now plays for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, was modest about his contributions last season. He admitted he tried to avoid the spotlight, instead deflecting praise to one of his teammates. Now, those teammates have to find a way to make up for his absence.
“Honestly, it’s just, as a collective unit, going out there and making sure we communicate as a whole,” Lewis said. “Jarrod took a lot of the load last year, and a lot of us are all seniors, so honestly just going out there and communicating with each other [is important].”
The Wolverines return almost everyone from their secondary last year. Lewis, Stribling, Thomas, Peppers, fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark and redshirt junior Delano Hill each have starting experience, leaving a few candidates to take over Wilson’s role together.
Stribling said the coaching staff is working to replace Wilson’s leadership by committee, forcing everyone to step up and communicate more. Hill and Thomas have an advantage because they play safety like Wilson did, allowing them to see the whole field and adjust accordingly. Stribling is one of the team’s most experienced players, but he admits his leadership isn’t always vocal.
The most vocal defensive back remaining, in Stribling’s mind, is Peppers, though he can hardly be classified as just a defensive back. He often wavers between linebacker and safety, but he can rally the unit from wherever he plays.
“He’s just a rah-rah guy,” Stribling said. “If he’s down, I tell him, ‘OK, you know you’re our guy. You know when you’re hyped, everybody gets hyped. When you’re down, you know everybody’s like, ‘Nah, we don’t want to do it.’ So I have to constantly remind him, if you’re feeling down, you gotta at least fake it. When we see that, everybody sees it. It’s like, ‘OK, Jabrill’s up. Now we gotta go.’ ”
Another potential heir to Wilson is Lewis, who can draw on his experience as a shutdown corner. But even the All-American admits he misses the presence of “40.”
“Honestly, I haven’t been the most vocal leader,” Lewis said. “I’ve always been the guy that leads by example, or go out there and show I can go out there and lead. We just go out there and communicate, and that’s what I can see in the secondary, more so since last year, because everybody was somewhat kind of leaning on Jarrod. I know I was.”