Leading up to this season, it was a given that the Michigan football team’s secondary would be one of its biggest question marks.
In September, senior cornerback Ambry Thomas’ decision to opt out did nothing to quell that notion. Thomas’ opt-out, coupled with Lavert Hill’s graduation, thrust juniors Vincent Gray and Gemon Green into expanded cornerback roles this fall. So far, the results haven’t been pretty.
After holding Minnesota under 200 passing yards in the season opener, Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi and Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. exploited the Wolverines’ pass defense en route to career days. Both opposing quarterbacks threw for over 320 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, sending Michigan into a downward spiral.
“We’re just going through a little slump,” cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said Monday on the Inside Michigan Football radio show. “Guys are working hard. They’re working on their techniques. We’re going to get it fixed, for sure. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Right now, we’re just in a little slump, but we’re fighting through it.”
In defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defensive scheme, a “little slump” can make all the difference. Brown’s aggressive nature focuses on pressuring the quarterback, which often leaves his cornerbacks in press-man coverage. Thomas, Hill and David Long flourished in this system on their way to the NFL, but Gray and Green haven’t shown nearly as much promise so far. The Wolverines have been forced to play more zone as a result, and quarterbacks have been able to exploit holes.
At this point, part of the problem stems from the pass rush. Michigan hasn’t recorded a sack since Oct. 24, which puts a major dent in the focal point of Brown’s scheme. Without consistent pressure on the quarterback, the defensive backs are often hung out to dry. Injuries to defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye have only made that problem worse.
Still, that’s no reason to justify the secondary’s play, which has proved especially susceptible to allowing big games. The Wolverines have conceded at least 100 receiving yards to a wide receiver in all three games this season.
Players and coaches, however, insist the secondary looks good in practice. The unit’s performance on Saturdays has made that difficult to believe, leaving a disconnect somewhere in the middle.
“I watch our guys at the top of some of these routes and their body control is not in control,” Zordich said. “We’ve got to fix that. In practice, it’s okay, but on game day, why is it different? That’s something I’ve got to figure out. I’ve got to get these guys right, and we’re going to do some different things in individual to help them fix that problem.”
Added senior safety Brad Hawkins: “The plays we make in practice, we have to make in the game. That’s pretty much, the opportunities that come have to be made — interceptions, things like that. Things we’re doing in practice, we have to translate it to the game. That’s it.”
But as the box scores have shown, speaking a solution into existence has been unsuccessful so far. The problem is both physical and mental, according to Hawkins, which makes finding a solution even more difficult.
“I don’t really have a particular cause of it or anything,” Hawkins said. “It just has to happen. You just have to catch the ball when it comes to you in a game, just like you do in practice. It’s that simple. There’s not anything causing it or anything. We work hard, we do everything we’re supposed to do. It just has to happen. We just have to make it happen, that’s all.
“We just have to make the play.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.