The Michigan football team’s secondary hasn’t been perfect.
With the implementation of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s new system, there have been some growing pains. Although the secondary was mostly efficient on Saturday, players have still occasionally gotten lost in coverage or missed their assignments — issues that tougher competition will expose if they persist.
For example, in the two games thus far, senior cornerback Gemon Green has gotten beat over the top. In both instances, though, Green had been in decent position to make a play, demonstrating how — despite getting beat — the defense is improving.
Issues aside, it’s clear that the Wolverines’ defensive backfield has moved on from the debacle of the 2020 season, where they finished 12th in the Big Ten in pass defense. Through two games, one-on-one matchups are no longer looked to on every pass play, nor do deep completions feel like an inevitability on every third-and-long. While there are still plenty of areas for the unit to grow, every aspect of Michigan’s secondary looks visibly stronger so far.
“The whole team, it’s just a different energy this year,” junior cornerback DJ Turner told reporters Tuesday. “We all just feel comfortable and confident out there this year.”
Naturally, junior Daxton Hill anchored that effort. In his second game since moving to nickel corner, he once again showed his value in playing closer to the line of scrimmage, both in locking down receivers and dragging down ball carriers. In all, he tallied six tackles, including one assist behind the line of scrimmage.
But beyond Hill, the rest of the secondary has also taken strides this season, and that starts with communication. Before the play even starts, the defense’s pre-snap movements show a unit that’s active but calm, limiting the chances of a miscue or blown coverage.
Even more, it allows the defensive backs to anticipate the play ahead of them.
“I think on a day-by-day basis, they get a better feel for the spirit of each call and the communication that’s required to go with it,” Macdonald said Wednesday. “They’re just getting a better feel for how the whole thing fits together. To be a great secondary, you gotta be loud, you gotta communicate, you gotta work as one.”
A clear example of the secondary’s improvement has been senior cornerback Vincent Gray. Last season, he was at the forefront of Michigan’s struggles to defend the deep ball, to the point where offenses actively sought out one-on-one matchups with him.
Against Western Michigan and Washington, though, he found the consistency that eluded him in 2020. Weak opponents notwithstanding, he’s emerged as the tentative No. 1 outside corner in a rotation with Turner and Green.
“I’m really pleased with Vince,” Macdonald said. “I’ve seen more of his personality in the last month or two, and he’s a really sharp guy. … Just like the rest of the secondary, he’s got a better grasp of what we’re asking the whole unit to execute on a per-play basis, and when you understand what’s going on, you play faster, you play with more confidence.”
The Wolverines will have to sustain that success to avoid a repeat of 2020 later on. Though Northern Illinois on Saturday shouldn’t provide the toughest of challenges for the secondary, it does bring one of the architects of Michigan’s downfall in former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi.
It’s yet to be seen whether his second start in the Big House will go any differently.