Hours before Michigan would squash the Illinois pass offense last Saturday, fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens and the Michigan secondary turned on a screen and saw the future. They were in their hotel rooms, studying, waiting, watching film.
Demens studied the Illinois route combinations, and by game time, he knew them. He knew them well enough to know where the receiver would be on the Illini’s first play of the second half. Demens beat the receiver to the spot, intercepted the pass and returned it 13 yards.
The Michigan defense ranks a surprising third in the nation in pass defense, even after losing sophomore cornerback Blake Countess to injury in the first game of the year, and Demens credits that success to preparation. That’s film room study, a competitive culture in practice and even the help of Countess himself.
Despite the gaudy numbers, members of the coaching staff warn that the first six games have also been nothing more than preparation. The first part of the season was a lesson for the secondary. Now comes the test.
“That position is a final exam every day,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “Other ones are midterms sometimes. But as a secondary, that’s a final exam.”
So far, the secondary has graded out admirably. It has yet to allow 200 yards in the air in a game. Its five interceptions outnumbers its three touchdowns allowed. Even against Alabama, the secondary held the Crimson Tide to 199 yards. Against Illinois, the Wolverines allowed just three receptions to receivers for a grand total of one yard. Demens had more yards on his interception return.
Statistically speaking, Michigan is among the elite in passing defense, just three yards per game behind Alabama and eight yards per game behind Louisiana State. Still, Michigan has yet to face a dynamic passing attack.
“I don’t know if we’ve been tested, you know?” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “We haven’t had balls thrown down the field vertically in the pass game.”
Michigan State will be a barometer of sorts. Gone is Kirk Cousins, but Andrew Maxwell has overcome his first-game hiccups to become the Big Ten’s passing leader. The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy typically features heavy rushing attacks, but last year, Cousins’ two touchdowns through the air were the difference.
That means extra pressure on sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor, the youngest member of the secondary, who Mattison also said hasn’t been tested yet. Starting in place of Countess, Taylor has been challenged in practice by an experienced secondary.
“We make it hard for him in practice so it can be easy for him in the game,” said redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon.
Taylor’s fellow defensive backs credit his quick transition cover corner to preparation. That’s the same for the rest of the secondary. The biggest play surrendered this year, a 51-yard touchdown pass against Alabama, was due to a mistake in execution — junior cornerback Courtney Avery slipped on a double move. For the most part, the secondary has avoided the miscommunications that plagued it in the first half of last year.
“The secondary, they’re doing a good job, and I would say a big part of that has to do with their preparation,” Demens said. “Watching film, understanding tendencies, wide receiver splits, the backfield — us just communicating.”
That cohesion was expected of a unit that returned all of its starters, that is, until Countess went down. But even in injury, Countess has worked to make Taylor’s transition easier.
“Blake, he still is in the film room with us everyday,” Gordon said. “When we come in early to watch film as a group, Blake’s in there too, and he’s coaching those guys, those younger guys.
“That’s being a leader.”
Against the softer passing attacks Michigan has faced in the first half of the season, Taylor has flourished. His teammates say they’ve see his confidence level rise with each game. The first-half success has had the same effect for the rest of the secondary, which in the last three games has started to generate the game-changing turnovers it did last season.
“It’s a challenge for us every week,” Gordon said. “We look forward to teams passing the ball. We want to fight when that ball is in the air. When the ball is in the air, we think that it’s ours.”