Troy Woolfolk didn’t mince words — it was painful to watch the Michigan football team last season.

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Where do you expect Michigan’s defense to rank after a year under Greg Mattison?

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Woolfolk was supposed to be an integral piece on defense, locking down the No. 1 cornerback slot. But that was before a foot injury during fall camp sidelined him for the entire 2010 season.

“The hardest part is just looking at the games and seeing how I would be able to impact the team, make them that much better,” Woolfolk said last November. “I see our defense struggling. I feel like it’s kind of my fault because of my injury, and I can’t help them out.”

Michigan’s secondary was in shambles. Opposing quarterbacks launched an aerial raid on the secondary, and did it with ease, to the tune of 261.8 passing yards per game.

To make matters worse, then-redshirt sophomore cornerback J.T. Floyd — Woolfolk’s replacement at No. 1 cornerback — suffered a season-ending ankle injury prior to the Wolverines’ mid-season clash with Illinois.

It was a recipe for disaster.

But with the new Brady Hoke regime comes (another) second chance for the woebegone secondary. Michigan’s success has — and always will — depend on its defense. And that starts with the secondary.

Woolfolk is back as a fifth-year senior, but after missing an entire season, he’ll need a few games to adjust to the game speed. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd has been reinstated after a drunk driving charge and will be staring Woolfolk down in the second game of the season.

There will be no rest for Troy. But junior quarterback Denard Robinson thinks that if the summer workouts are any indication, Woolfolk won’t miss a beat.

“It’s hard to go deep on Troy these days,” Robinson said at Big Ten Media Days last Friday. “I tried to throw a couple deep, but he always seems to catch up to them.”

Floyd will also return to anchor the other side of the field, and Michigan has an up-and-coming corner in freshman Blake Countess that has made a good first impression and could realistically see significant time on the field this season.

Seeing the bulk of the time at safety will be the duo of sophomore Carvin Johnson and redshirt junior Jordan Kovacs.

Take note: Kovacs finished second on the Wolverines with 75 tackles in 2009, despite not starting a full season, and skyrocketed his production with 116 tackles last year.

But a safety nearly leading the team in tackles two years running means the ball is reaching the secondary far too often — and that spells doom for a defense.

Johnson emerged as a leader on the back line during the second half of last season. During the Spring Game in April, he picked off two passes — although credit there might go more to quarterback Devin Gardner than Johnson.

While Michigan recorded just 12 interceptions last season, returning a more experienced cast should boost those numbers. And Johnson, a self-proclaimed ball hawk, could lead that charge.

“I love making interceptions,” Johnson said after the Spring Game. “I don’t like to make the big hit … I like us to have the ball.”

He can leave the heavy hitting to sophomore safety Marvin Robinson, who had some jarring hits in spring camp that sent a message to the team. At Big Ten Media Days, senior defensive tackle Mike Martin said Robinson’s hits set the tempo for the defense’s new mentality.

Unlike last season, there is some added depth in the secondary. Despite losing Ray Vinopal and James Rogers — both productive members of the defense — players like fifth-year senior Tony Anderson and sophomores Courtney Avery, Terrence Talbott and Thomas Gordon can learn from their increased playing time with Michigan’s depleted corps in 2010.

A few freshmen have a chance to come in and make an instant impact, but barring injury, Hoke will likely elect to redshirt several newcomers. Countess, Greg Brown and Delonte Hollowell have the best chance at seeing the field in their first season.

Michigan’s cast is still raw and largely unproven, but the top four on the secondary’s depth chart are household names surrounding the football program.

We call that progress.

Preseason grade: C+
Projected starters: J.T. Floyd (CB), Troy Woolfolk (CB), Jordan Kovacs (SS) and Carvin Johnson (FS).
Key losses: Ray Vinopal, James Rogers
Surprise player: Carvin Johnson

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