If injuries to Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd last season were a blessing in disguise, then it sure was an ugly one.
Without its No. 1 corner for the entire season and its No. 2 for the last half, the Michigan defense allowed 262 yards per game through the air, which topped the Wolverines’ own super-powered offensive pace.
Woolfolk and Floyd haven’t completely recovered from their respective ankle injuries, but new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison sees the experience the unit gained — allowing 35 points per game — as the means to create a good-looking secondary this fall.
“It’s difficult if we’re playing a game today,” Mattison said of missing his two starting cornerbacks this spring. “But I tend to look at that as a positive, in a way, if those guys are players, which they have shown that they are at times, you get a chance to get some depth.
“And you get a chance to bring these other guys along. And you get a chance for those guys to prove that they could be guys that can help you.”
At cornerback, Courtney Avery, Cullen Christian and Terrence Talbott were all thrown into the fire as freshmen — especially Avery, who started five games in 2010. During practice on March 29, Avery and fifth-year senior Tony Anderson worked with the first team defense in the first portion of practice, while Floyd was also seen running on the sidelines.
Those getting reps this spring will most likely be bumped by the fifth-year senior Woolfolk and redshirt junior Floyd when they return.
Playing time at the safety position will be just as difficult to come by, but not because of injuries — the position just has solid depth.
“I’ve been pleased for the most part with that group, and maybe because there’s carryover there, as far as what they’re playing,” Mattison said of the secondary. “I think Carvin (Johnson) has had some really good days for us. I think he’s a guy that’s done well. Thomas Gordon has done a good job.
“And I hate to name guys, because you’re leaving somebody out. But that position has done a pretty good job.”
With a logjam at the position — brought on by the switch of players who were playing in Rich Rodriguez’s hybrid-linebacker position to safety — current Michigan coach Brady Hoke said earlier this spring that safety would be a deep position, perfect for the competitive environment he’s promoting.
There’s the veteran redshirt junior, Jordan Kovacs, as well as a talented group of youngsters who Mattison said he was excited about, including Thomas Gordon, Johnson and Marvin Robinson.
As a group, there are two problems that Mattison is focusing on curtailing as he molds his defensive players: limit the big plays and get off the field on third down. The two are products of each other — fatigue sets in the longer the defense plays, which helped Wisconsin and Michigan State pound Michigan in the second halves of those 2010 losses.
“It isn’t how much of a rest you get, it’s the kind of defense you play to give yourself the amount of rest,” Mattison said. “And that’s why, for us, third-down defense is critical … Because if you don’t get off the field on third down then it’s six plays. And if you don’t get off the field again, now you’re at nine plays. And that’s on you. Your job is (to) do what you’re supposed to do to get off the field.”
In 2010, the Wolverines’ opponents converted at a 43-percent success rate on third downs — that number climbed to more than 51 percent in Michigan’s six losses and dipped as low as 36 percent in its seven wins.
Mattison said a big factor in his plan for third down will be the nickel package — the Wolverines will add an extra defensive back and take the strongside linebacker, currently Cam Gordon, off the field.
“To be really good on third down, you’ve got to be able to have the best players on the field that can cover people and blitz and all of that,” Mattison said.
One player who could be in the mix at both safety and nickel cornerback is Thomas Gordon. He’s worked at both spots this spring, and has practiced at both safety positions — but Mattison said he expected all of the safeties to be able to play both safety positions.
Johnson has “stood out and made some plays,” too, according to Mattison. He broke onto the scene when he started as a true freshman last season as the hybrid linebacker. But he was injured in the first half in the season opener against Connecticut, and spent the rest of the year as a part-time starter.
And Robinson, who has missed one spring practice per week due to a conflict with class, drew Cam Gordon-esque praise from Mattison last week.
“He’s got the range and he’s got the ability to run and he hits,” Mattison said of the sophomore. “So now, it’s going to be a matter of getting him (in) the defenses that we need and make sure he knows what’s going on. I was really excited about him — good-looking athlete that plays hard and will hit you — I like those kind of guys.”
The depth seems to be building itself through competition this spring for the Wolverines.
As for preventing those big plays?
Mattison is working on it.
“They’ve just picked up the scheme,” Mattison said. “When I say I’m happy with them — I’m never happy when a big play occurs, and we’ve had some big plays and they know that and we can’t allow that.
“I am happy with them, in that they’ve picked up what we want to try to do. Now they have to execute to do it better, with more consistency.”