In the vein of its head coach, the Michigan football program is usually tight-lipped around the media.
That is except for Michael Zordich, who has twice used press conferences at Schembechler Hall to call out players. In August of 2017, the secondary coach said his group was “scared to make plays” before questioning junior corner Lavert Hill’s willingness to practice through injury last spring.
Wednesday, Zordich was at it again. He challenged his freshman corners, Myles Sims, Gemon Green, Sammy Faustin and Vincent Gray.
“They need to grow up and get used to being in college and understand it’s a little different than being a four, five-star guy,” Zordich said. “You’re now a zero-star guy, start from the beginning, compete every day and get better.”
Even with an injury to redshirt freshman Benjamin St. Juste, the Wolverines returned a deep corner room from 2017. Barring injury, it would have been surprising to see any of those true freshmen receive regular playing time. Still, Zordich hasn’t been especially encouraged by their progress.
“They’ve got a long way to go,” Zordich said. “As long as they understand that, and they come here to work every day, they’ll be fine because they got talent. That’s why they’re here.
“They’ve got to earn their stripes.”
From last Fall Camp’s uncertainty, that’s what Hill and sophomore David Long did in starting roles the past two seasons. Michigan allowed the fewest passing yards nationally in 2017 — a mark it’s on pace for this year, allowing 134 yards per game.
In last Saturday’s win over Maryland, Brandon Watson made the group’s biggest play. The fifth-year senior undercut a slant route in the fourth quarter and returned it 46 yards for the game’s final touchdown.
It was Watson’s second interception of the season, furthering his role as a reliable third option for Zordich.
“Coach Brown and I — it’s funny, we watch film in the mornings from the night before — there’s (Watson) causing some kind of problems some way along the line in practice,” Zordich said. “It gets noticed.”
The Wolverines have occasionally used Watson in nickel sets, moving Hill or Long inside to cover the slot. But that’s not the bread and butter for No. 15 Wisconsin, which visit Ann Arbor on Saturday. Like Michigan, the Badgers are a run-first, smash-mouth offense.
“They’ll get in these sets, it’s like rugby,” Zordich said. “Everybody’s in there real tight running the ball, and then all of sudden — boom — play action and they’re throwing all over. So the running game really sets up their passing game big-time.”
Zordich mentioned the Wolverines are focusing on forcing Wisconsin into predictable passing situations on third down. The presence of running back Jonathon Taylor — the Big Ten’s leading rusher with 849 yards and eight touchdowns — and potentially the best offensive line in college football could make that difficult.
It’ll be strength-on-strength Saturday, as Michigan is one of eight teams nationally that allows less than 100 rushing yards per game.
“Yeah, that’s one thing as a defense we pride ourselves on: can’t run the ball, you gotta beat us passing,” said junior safety Josh Metellus on Tuesday. “Once get them in third down, that’s where we want to thrive as a defense. … So we just make sure a team can’t run the ball, get them in third-and-long, get our ends, D-tackles doing work.”
Wisconsin has the best rushing attack Michigan will see in the regular season. Though it won’t be the focal point in stopping the Badgers’ ground attack, Zordich’s group is still preparing for a tough battle.
“These guys, they’re going to go north and south,” Zordich said. “For our corners and safeties on the edge, they got to fill the lanes. It’s going to be more of a challenge.”