R.J. Moten first noticed a difference in the Michigan football team’s secondary during a routine spring ball practice.
“We had a whole bunch of picks and after every pick, we were jumping around, talking trash to the offense, running around,” Moten, a sophomore safety, said on Tuesday. “After that, I think it just sparked a fire.”
During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Wolverines’ secondary had little to celebrate. The unit finished 12th in the Big Ten in pass defense, and allowed an opposing quarterback to surpass 300 passing yards on three separate occasions. The secondary’s struggles contributed in large part to the demise of Michigan’s defense and, ultimately, its season.
So far, the 2021 season tells a different story. Through three games, the Wolverines are allowing just 176.7 passing yards per game, the third-best figure in the conference.
“We’re getting there,” first-year safeties coach Ron Bellamy said on Wednesday. “Learning, the kids are playing fast, enjoying the experience. We, collectively, have a great group with the corners and the safeties. The guys are meshing and bonding well with each other and with the coaching staff. Each week presents a new challenge with the kids and they’re responding to everything we’re asking them to do.”
Among its defensive backs, Michigan’s personnel is virtually identical to last season. Senior Vincent Gray, senior Gemon Green and junior D.J. Turner are in a rotation at corner; fifth-year Brad Hawkins and junior Dax Hill start at safety, with Moten seeing regular playing time as well.
Each one but Turner was a contributor in 2020. The unit’s cohesiveness, though, took a hit when Ambry Thomas, the presumed No. 1 corner, opted out of the season.
This year, the Wolverines are benefitting from a routine spring ball and fall camp.
“We’re a lot closer (this season),” Moten said. “Being able to have that type of bond has really helped us out this year.”
Part of that can be attributed to the reshuffled coaching staff. Bellamy and Steve Clinkscale, the defensive backs coach, were brought in during the offseason, replacing Mike Zordich and Bob Shoop. Mike Macdonald, too, replaced Don Brown as defensive coordinator, another element to the Wolverines’ youth infusion across the coaching staff.
Their influence has quickly rubbed off on the secondary room.
“After practice, we’re doing more,” Moten said. “We’re going back up and watching practice. We’re watching more film on the upcoming opponent. We’re watching more film on certain players, certain formations. We’re really just diving deeper into the game instead of just ending practice and leaving.”
In short order, that work has been parlayed into on-field success. Take last week, for example. The Wolverines faced Rocky Lombardi, who torched them for 323 passing yards and three touchdowns last season with Michigan State. This go-around, Lombardi threw for just 46 passing yards on an erratic 9-for-17 line.
“Really, really good,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of the secondary’s performance on Monday. “Just playing with a lot of want-to, playing with a lot of energy, playing really hard.”
In the Big Ten opener against Rutgers this upcoming Saturday, Michigan’s secondary will be offered another shot at redemption. Last season, the Scarlet Knights shredded the Wolverines through the air, with Noah Vedral throwing for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
On Saturday against Rutgers’s wide receiver Bo Melton, Michigan’s defensive backs will look to string together another strong performance, continuing to make amends for its 2020 woes.
“They’re gonna present a big-time challenge for us,” Bellamy said. “We’ve gotta be dialed in every snap to make sure we’re playing our best game.”