The Michigan football team’s secondary overcame inconsistency early in the 2017 season.
After cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich called out his players for being “afraid to make plays,” they stepped up to the challenge — and then some.
Spearheaded by sophomore cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill, the Wolverines allowed 150.1 passing yards per game — the fewest in the nation — and surrendered just 11 receiving touchdowns while returning two to the house themselves.
Now, three weeks into spring practice in 2018, Zordich isn’t calling out his players anymore — he stayed on message and complimented the guys who have stepped up.
“We’re just gonna talk about the guys that are out there and practicing and getting better. How’s that?” Zordich joked on Thursday.
With Hill sidelined due to a hip/groin injury suffered during the second practice of the season, different corners have seen time with the first-stringers. One guy in particular has been turning heads: freshman Ambry Thomas.
“Ambry Thomas has practiced extremely well,” said defensive coordinator Don Brown. “I’m talking jumpers, now. You’ve got Lavert and David Long, (Senior cornerback) Brandon Watson — those three guys are veteran guys that have been playing pretty good. But this Ambry Thomas now, different level. Confident, fast.
“We ran through on a sweep — again, we were in pajamas the other day so not a physical thing — it was just, ‘Wow, that was fast.’ So happy with him.”
Added Long: “He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. He’s fast, he’s big, makes a lot plays, he’s really confident. He’s playing really well this spring.”
Last season, Thomas played sparingly on defense, but was primarily used on special teams as a kick returner, averaging 19.9 yards per return.
The Detroit native attributed a lack of playing time at cornerback due to overthinking and uncomfortableness with the playbook. A recent conversation with Brown made Thomas interpret his freshman season as a “learning curve.”
“It was hard. Just running around, hoping the safeties will help me out as a young buck,” Thomas said. “Now I really know the defense and everything. It helps me play faster without thinking. … It’s the little stuff now that I’m paying much more attention to like the offensive formations, what can change my call, stuff like that.
“Last year, I’d screw up, and I’d think hard about the play, it’d bring me down. This year, instead of bringing me down, it’s bringing me up and it’ll motivate me.”
With returning starters in Long, Hill and Watson still in the fold, Thomas knows that playing time is hard to come by. Like Long’s interpretation, Thomas referred to his added intensity as a chip on his shoulder, despite seeing time with the ones this spring.
With the addition of graduate transfer Casey Hughes from Utah, Zordich admits that he is still puzzling together the pieces of his secondary and is considering moving Hughes to safety.
“You can just do more with us now,” Thomas said. “We’re not worried about the same three, four guys rotating in. There’s more depth back there.”
While Zordich toys with the defensive backs, Thomas remains focused on finding a greater role in the defense. But that’s not to say that he’s just as focused on improving his kickoff returns.
“Hopefully, I get a few to the house next year,” he said.