Mike Zordich laughed.
“My secret?” he asked. “I don’t know if I have a secret.”
Zordich, Michigan’s cornerbacks coach, had been asked about the program’s seemingly never-ending churn of NFL-caliber players at the position he coaches. After another year of losing a starter, David Long, to the league, the Wolverines seem just fine. Ambry Thomas has slotted in perfectly, and even when it seemed like Thomas would miss time with colitis, they were fine anyway — Vincent Gray, in his first extended time, has played like a veteran.
The biggest secret Zordich may have lies in plain sight, on Michigan’s 247Sports page. Since 2013 — two years before Zordich or Jim Harbaugh got hired — the Wolverines have recruited the position to near perfection. Besides the transition class between Brady Hoke and Harbaugh, when they didn’t take a corner, Michigan’s record of getting corners to the next level since then is almost 100 percent.
Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers are established players in the league. Brandon Watson and Channing Stribling have gotten practice squad opportunities. Long was a third-round pick last April, and Lavert Hill will almost certainly get his shot this April. That encompasses every Michigan class of cornerbacks from 2013-16; the three classes since are still enrolled.
There’s an extent to which that’s a self-fulfilling cycle — young players come in, sit and learn from the older guys and by the time those older guys go to the NFL, the young ones are ready to go. Now that Long and Watson are gone, Thomas and Gray stepped right into their place.
“Just about everybody that plays corner ends up being really good here,” Harbaugh said Monday, “goes on to be pro players.”
That’s the kind of cycle every position coach dreams of, which brings us to the offensive line, a position where Michigan has been as far away from that cycle as can be over the Harbaugh era.
Young players benefit from sitting and learning, and their development gets hindered from getting thrown into the fire too early. Nowhere is that more true than the offensive line — a fact that Michigan exemplified for the first few years of Harbaugh’s tenure, and a cycle it’s finally starting to break.
When the Wolverines were struggling to recruit elite offensive linemen — Cesar Ruiz is the only current starter from a five-man 2017 class — guys had to play before they were ready. When that happened in 2017, Michigan ranked 117th in adjusted sack rate with two of its quarterbacks suffering injuries.
The Wolverines endured that slog so they could get to now. The guys who couldn’t hack it that year — Ruiz, Runyan, Bredeson and Onwenu among them — are now integral starters on a line that came into this year as a point of confidence. Talk about a new scheme all you want. Experience goes a long way.
When Michigan nets a talented recruit now, it has the luxury of sitting him. When Ryan Hayes, a redshirt freshman, had to play the season’s first two games against Middle Tennessee and Army, there were no alarm bells to sound.
Hayes is the kind of recruit who needed developing, a high school tight end with a wide base and weight to gain. In an ideal world he wouldn’t have played this year at all, but his development seems to have come faster than normal. He acquitted himself well in those first two games, enough that offensive line coach Ed Warinner said he’ll probably play some snaps against Wisconsin even with Runyan back from injury.
That’s fine and good. It’s also beside the point.
“Playing tight end and running routes is not like playing O-Line,” Warinner said. “Playing O-Line at Michigan. So just learning and high repetition of the techniques and the calls and the job description and the work ethic and the culture and all that.
“Cause that’s different. Being a grinder offensive lineman is different than being a skill guy. That’s a whole different culture, a whole different way of life, a whole different way of practicing. And, so I think it just took time.”
It took Hayes a season, and it can take longer than that.
Now, Michigan has the luxury of waiting.