It’s hard to look at the Michigan football team’s defense and find a weak spot.
If you had to choose one, though, it might be the Wolverines’ safeties. That isn’t necessarily an insult, but a statement on just how strong Michigan’s defense is. Still, safeties have committed the most easily identifiable mistakes through three games this season.
First, against Notre Dame, there was junior Josh Metellus’ targeting call that got him kicked out just minutes into the game. Some didn’t view it as a penalty, but the call was made nonetheless, and it forced sophomore Brad Hawkins into the game.
Moments later, Hawkins was beaten on a jump ball in the endzone, as the Fighting Irish went up 14-0 en route to a 24-17 win.
Then, last week against SMU, the Mustangs scored their first touchdown when Hawkins and junior cornerback David Long had some miscommunication and left a wide receiver running all alone down the sideline for a 50-yard score.
“Inconsistent,” said safeties and special teams coach Chris Partridge of his unit’s play. “… There’s always room for improvement. But I thought when we were good, we were really, really good. You know, we had some mistakes in the first game. We cleaned them up and played really good in the second game and then, you know, played pretty good in the third game overall. If you took four or five plays out of each of those starters, just alignment and stuff, they would have graded really high — over a 90. But those four or five plays were in there, and we’ve gotta clean that stuff up.”
As Partridge implied, it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Metellus was called for a pass interference penalty late in the second half against SMU. Then he made up for it in a big way, securing a pick-six as time expired in the first half to shift the momentum of the game entirely.
Senior Tyree Kinnel, one of the defensive captains, has been solid too, and Hawkins has been a pleasant surprise. All three have played aggressively, flying downhill to make plays in run support when needed.
That aggressiveness is a catch-22, though. It has led to the targeting and pass interference penalties that have plagued the group. It’s something Partridge says they are going to have to learn to play with, because he’s not going to tell them to play timidly.
“We’re gonna be aggressive, and we’re always gonna be aggressive,” Partridge said. “But we need to understand when we need to be aggressive … when do we lay off, when do we be aggressive because it’s on the field of play and when do we don’t.”
Ultimately, the safeties are a talented group of players. Their ability is clear in spurts throughout each game.
And they’re an experienced group, too. Both Kinnel and Metellus were starters last season. So maybe it’s just early-season jitters, but for the defense to reach its potential, it will need the safeties to tighten things up.
“It’s just, these guys are going 100 miles per hour,” Partridge said, “And sometimes it’s the 30th or 40th play and they’re going hard, they’re a little tired, and they’re so locked in, you’ve just gotta teach them that in a split second, you’ve gotta be able to react and know the situation that’s coming.”