In the early 2010s, when Don Brown was the defensive coordinator at Connecticut, he walked into the high school gym of Obi Melifonwu, then a three-star safety from Grafton, Mass. Melifonwu, who measured 6-foot-4, picked up a basketball and, from a standing position, did a 360 dunk.

“I told (Melifonwu’s coach), ‘We’re good,’ ” Brown, now Michigan’s defensive coordinator, recalled Wednesday.

Melifonwu went on to have a four-year career at UConn before getting picked in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft and playing on a Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots team.

Ten years later, Daxton Hill’s talent is even more obvious. He came to Michigan with a five-star label attached. But Brown was still asked to compare the two on Wednesday. 

Since his recruitment saga two years ago, which culminated in Hill flipping from Alabama to Michigan and handing Brown a foundational piece for the future, Hill has been a sure thing in waiting. He impressed when he got on the field in 2019, mostly as a slot corner, but for the most part, he sat behind two experienced safeties and waited his turn.

Now, like he did with Melifonwu — a defensive back, quarterback and running back in high school — Brown needs to figure out how to maximize Hill’s talent.

“He can fit in anywhere he wants to fit in,” Brown said. “That’s how talented this guy is. He’s a safety by trade, but he’s a nickel (corner) by trade as well.”

The lack of clarity regarding Hill’s position reflects both Brown’s gamesmanship and the situation in which Michigan’s secondary finds itself. After confirmation that cornerback Ambry Thomas won’t return for the abbreviated nine-game season, cornerback Vincent Gray and safety Brad Hawkins are the only two defensive backs left with starting experience. Brown named Jalen Perry, DJ Turner and Gemon Green as “high level players” at corner while giving an impromptu depth chart, but that was before a single practice in pads. 

Hill, having played and looked good in 12 games last season, is as close to a sure thing as this group has. Despite that, it’s unclear where he’ll be spending most of his time on the field.

Asked how he handles guys with talent and without an obvious position — like Melifonwu, Hill and Jabrill Peppers, the last unicorn Brown coached — Brown told that story about Melifonwu dunking, then talked about maximizing value.

“You try to take what the man is elite at, for example rushing the passer, and let him do that,” he said. “With Dax, he can cover the slots. Let him do it. He can rush the edge. Let him do it. Is he a good internal blitzer? Eh, he can. But the guy can cover. 

“It’s funny, some guys are just always around the ball no matter if they know what they’re doing or not. He was one of those guys. Oh the ball is over there and there’s Daxton. Even when he was going through the learning curve and we were taking him through that, he was always around the ball. If you ask me what he was elite at, he was always around the ball.”

There’s no reason Michigan needs to keep Hill at one position the entire time, and Brown’s answer points to that logic. He can cover the slots. He can also get to the ball — a skill that befits a safety far more than a slot corner. At one point, Brown added that if Michigan gets hit with injuries (or COVID-19), Hill could play on the outside. After a freshman year spent learning, he’s comfortable in Brown’s scheme.

“He plays faster on his feet, primarily pre-snap,” Brown said. “In other words, there’s not a lot of indecision about, ‘What’s my alignment? Who do I align on? What is my responsibility?’ He’s just lining up, playing football.”

As ever, the talent that made Hill such a commodity before he arrived in Ann Arbor remains the subject of effusive praise. If Michigan can withstand its losses in the secondary, it will be with Hill at the center of everything.

“He’s a talented guy,” Brown said. “I’m not sure he isn’t the best cover guy in the Big Ten, to be honest with you.”

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