Other than the offensive line, perhaps no unit has had more continuity for the Michigan football team this year than the secondary.
After rotating bodies in and out constantly in recent years, the Wolverines have stuck to four players for most of the year.
But on the offensive line, the goal is to establish cohesiveness and operate as a unit. In the secondary, each player is different, and each brings something different to the table.
There is Jarrod Wilson, a senior safety who will make his 27th career start — second on the defense to fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan — Saturday against Rutgers. Wilson has earned high praise for being the leader of the unit.
As a veteran, he has the task of coordinating assignments in the back end. Against Michigan State on Oct. 17, Wilson warned junior defensive backs Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas that the Spartans would look for Macgarrett Kings down the left sideline on 4th-and-18 late in the game. Sure enough, they did, and Stribling and Thomas broke it up to force the turnover.
Secondary coach Greg Jackson said last week that was normal for Wilson, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh also expressed appreciation for Wilson’s efforts.
“People listen to Jarrod when he talks,” Harbaugh said last week. “He’s a do-stuff-right guy all the time and really enjoyable to coach, and talented. … It’s something that the public doesn’t see, his leadership qualities, because he does it in such a steady, non-show type of way, but I can assure you, he’s one of the top leaders on the team.”
Then there is junior Jourdan Lewis, the lock-down cornerback of the group. Lewis defends taller receivers well considering his 5-foot-10 height. On the season, he has 15 pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
“The kid’s a competitor,” said secondary coach Mike Zordich. “I enjoy coaching him, enjoy watching him play. We match him up against the best receiver every week, and he embraces it. He really does. He’s just fun to watch and fun to coach.”
Lewis’ toughest test of the year came against Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge, but he could have another battle this weekend against Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo, who is questionable for Saturday’s matchup. In just five games this season, Carroo has caught 24 passes for 527 yards and nine touchdowns.
The spot opposite Lewis has been the only one with much fluctuation. Stribling started the year at cornerback, but redshirt junior Jeremy Clark, who leads the team with three interceptions, has started three of the past four games. Zordich said Wednesday that the two are competing for time along with other players.
Behind them in the defensive backfield, redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers garners the most attention in the secondary. While most of it has been for his offensive and special teams play lately, he spends most of his time on defense, starting all eight games there so far.
Peppers ranks fifth on the team with 26 tackles and sixth with 4.5 tackles for loss. He often makes plays coming off the edge in blitz packages.
Unless something changes, those four or five — with contributions from players such as Thomas and junior safety Delano Hill — will see the bulk of the time in the secondary again Saturday. They will try to regroup after giving up 26 points to the Big Ten’s worst scoring offense.
“Last week, not taking anything away from Minnesota, we just laid an egg defensively,” Zordich said. “Especially in the secondary, we just played poorly.”
Having two coaches in the secondary helps to shore up those issues before they escalate. Zordich and Jackson’s primary emphasis with the defensive backs is eye control.
Most of opponents’ big plays have come when their receivers sneak behind the secondary. When the Wolverines watch film, they watch the wings on players’ helmets, making sure they’re focused forward toward the receiver and not toward the ball.
Consistency with personnel has enabled the Wolverines to work tirelessly on that. While their unit has been dominant for most of the season, each individual brings something different to the table.
“As a group, they’re great. But just as all of you here are different, everybody in our room is different,” Zordich said. “Everybody has their own personalities, which is beautiful.”