The stats don’t jump off the page.
Michigan’s secondary had just 11 interceptions last season, tied for 60th in the country with middling teams such as Minnesota and Nebraska. Despite that, the Wolverines’ defensive backs played at an elite level most of the year.
But the story — as with many of the Michigan football team’s other units — had a familiar ending. Secondary play crumbled in a loss at Ohio State in November and then again in the Peach Bowl against Florida, calling into question whether the unit was really ever that elite in the first place.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives. Cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long had their praises sung all season long and for good reason. Regularly rated high by advanced stats, Hill’s and Long’s reputations preceded them. The pair received fewer targets as other teams feared their abilities, and when passes did come their way, they were almost always broken up. Hill and Long were both All-Big Ten First Team selections; Hill was also honored as a Third Team All-American by the Associated Press.
The safeties also got their share of accolades. Senior safety Josh Metellus was a Second Team All-Big Ten selection and then-senior safety Tyree Kinnel garnered an honorable mention.
HIGH POINT: There was Brandon Watson, and then there was open space.
Maybe Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens overthrew the ball, or maybe he underthrew it. Either way, Watson was the only player in the vicinity. The then-fifth-year senior cornerback caught the ball, ran and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone.
The touchdown put the Wolverines up, 28-0, late in the third quarter and all but shut the door on any potential Nittany Lion comeback. The rest of the secondary also dazzled, holding Penn State passers to a collective 8-for-17 with two pass breakups.
Then, in the fourth quarter following a touchdown, Long intercepted Trace McSorley on the first play of the next drive, giving Michigan the ball back at the Nittany Lion 12. Four plays later, running back Chris Evans punched it in for a one-yard touchdown to put the Wolverines up, 42-0.
What had been a much-anticipated matchup against the No. 14 team in the country had become a laugher.
LOW POINT: In Columbus three weeks later, Watson was once again the story. But this one didn’t have a happy ending for Michigan.
On seemingly every play, Buckeye receivers targeted Watson in coverage. And on seemingly every play, they left Watson in the dust.
The Wolverines’ press-man defensive scheme meant that the defensive line had to pressure the quarterback as much as possible, so as to avoid receivers getting free against man-to-man coverage. But Ohio State was prepared. Its screen passes and crossing routes were intended to get the ball out quickly, matching its speedy receivers against Michigan’s secondary.
And the secondary — especially Watson — just couldn’t keep up in a 62-39 loss.
The loss was a shock in a lot of ways, but perhaps the biggest was the extent to which the secondary, which had played at a high level all year, got torched. It didn’t take long for fans to tweet in despair asking why Watson was still in the game, begging the defense to do anything. Of course, in all likelihood, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Buckeye quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw for 318 yards and five touchdowns, a performance that cemented his status as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2019 NFL draft. The Wolverines never had a chance.
The secondary wasn’t put in a position to succeed against Ohio State, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the biggest game of the year, a highly-touted unit came up short again and again.
THE FUTURE: The secondary enters 2019 facing a lot of question marks, and not just because of how the season ended. Long decided to forego his final year of eligibility to declare for the draft, and Kinnel graduated, leaving two big pairs of shoes to fill.
The favorite to replace Long is likely junior Ambry Thomas, who showcased his speed as a kick returner during his first two years. But Thomas’ technique is raw, and the fact that defensive coordinator Don Brown did not trust him enough to try him over Watson when things started to go sideways in Columbus isn’t exactly a good sign.
At safety, junior J’Marick Woods is next on the depth chart behind Metellus, according to Jim Harbaugh, while junior Brad Hawkins is the favorite at nickel. Both played backup snaps throughout the 2018 season. But the X-factor here is five-star incoming freshman Daxton Hill. Hill had a whirlwind recruitment: He initially committed to Michigan, but decommitted from the Wolverines and committed to Alabama less than two months later, only to eventually sign with Michigan after all. The Tulsa, Okla. native was ranked the 14th-best prospect in the country and the top-rated safety. If Hill proves he’s ready, he could make an impact right away.
Meanwhile, Lavert Hill decided to return and man the cornerback position for one more year. If he puts up numbers like he did last season, he’s an early favorite to garner All-Big Ten and perhaps even All-American honors again.