Of all the position groups Michigan had to rebuild on the defensive side of the ball, the secondary was expected to have the most pieces to replace.
When it came to the defensive backfield — especially safety — the picture was blurry, to say the least. The two new starters — junior Tyree Kinnel and sophomore Josh Metellus — had only one career start between them.
With the way they played Saturday in Michigan’s season-opening victory over Florida, though, you wouldn’t have noticed their inexperience.
The safety duo tallied nine total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss by Kinnel and a forced fumble by Metellus.
The two played the vast majority of the game, as defensive coordinator Don Brown opted for a tight rotation within the secondary. Working in tandem for such long stretches, Kinnel and Metellus had the opportunity to grow and blossom as a joint unit. Kinnel has spoken highly of his new position partner before. And Monday, he did so once again.
“(Metellus) did everything well. He was talking to me all the time, making checks as I was making checks,” Kinnel said. “He covered a lot more than me in that game, just because of (the Gators’) offense, and I felt like he covered really well.”
While two safeties is typically the norm, Brown and his staff utilized a 3-3-5 scheme, which they debuted against Florida with positive results. The shift gifted Kinnel and Metellus with even more help manning the secondary in sophomore defensive back Khaleke Hudson.
Between the free safety, strong safety and VIPER — the hybrid position Hudson started at — the three defensive backs shuffled through a variety of responsibilities. Kinnel spent most of his time as the strong safety, while Metellus and Hudson moved back and forth between free safety and VIPER pretty evenly in different formations.
The ability to switch between Hudson and Metellus has added an extra dimension to an already-complex defensive scheme. So far, the transition has been seamless for the trio of safeties. According to defensive backs coach Brian Smith, the added wrinkle has been a “luxury.”
“That versatility, being able to move in different places, helps out the defense as a core — getting guys lined up and giving the offense different looks,” Smith said.
Kinnel described the process of switching as situational, where the defense has to read the offense and react quickly. Since the shifts are not necessarily incumbent upon a run or pass play, the practice keeps all three on their toes.
“As a (defensive back), you always have to think that the ball is coming your way every snap,” Smith said. “That’s the way you have to prepare for it. … You can’t look at it any differently or you won’t have as much success.”
While the technical aspects are still a work in progress, the foundation seems firmly built. Throughout Michigan’s fall camp, the theme for its budding defense has been “flying to the ball,” as Kinnel called it.
“Coach Brown and (defensive line coach) Mattison told us, ‘Here at Michigan, we run to the ball,’ ” Kinnel said. “And we took that in, we took it personal, and I think we did a pretty good job on Saturday.
“I thought our communication was on point. There are some things that we have to clean up… (but) when we play fast and hard, it covers up a lot.”
While the secondary looked to be on the same page Saturday, Smith admitted that it took a long time for the unit to find its footing. It wasn’t until the final week of fall camp that it all began to come together.
“That last week, they did a great job communicating,” Smith said. “That’s something we had been stressing all camp, all the way back to the spring, being different guys back in the secondary, not having been used to working together.
“And you could see it that last week. Guys were calling out, making all the checks, not just the safeties, the whole secondary, the linebackers, they all were working together.”
Though growing pains are bound to reveal themselves as the season progresses, whenever those troubles arise, Kinnel, Metellus, Hudson and the rest of the defense will be able to look back at Saturday and see what they are capable of together.
“It definitely sets the tone,” Kinnel said. “We got that out on film that everyone can see that we play fast and play hard. We just have to keep it up, keep getting after it.”