The Michigan football team’s secondary needed to make big changes after ranking 112th in pass defense last season. But secondary coach Curt Mallory started small.
A two-year letter winner for the Wolverines from 1989-90, Mallory came back to Ann Arbor after spending last year as the defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach at Akron. He took over the secondary when Hoke was hired and went about adjusting the players’ technique.
In spring ball, he realized sophomore cornerback Courtney Avery took a false step — a small step forward before back-peddling. He fixed it in about five practices.
“One false step or one bad step here, he’s going to talk to you about it even if you do make the play,” Avery said. “I thought it was a small thing. I was like, ‘Come on coach,’ but it is important, and I see that now.”
That emphasis on technique has the Wolverines’ secondary telling a different story, even if Michigan coach Brady Hoke isn’t pleased yet.
No. 11 Michigan is now ranked 32nd nationally in pass defense. After giving up 23 passing plays of 30-plus yards last season, it’s surrendered just three this season, and none more than 40 yards. While the improvement seems vast, Hoke says the unit has only improved “some” since the beginning of the year.
“We are a long way from being a good secondary,” Hoke said.
According to Hoke, the biggest problem hasn’t been the long passes that plagued the unit last year — it’s been the short ones. The backs aren’t getting off blocks well enough or supporting the runs or bubble screens.
Northwestern ran the bubble screen nine times last Saturday, completing every pass and averaging about seven yards a reception. As the Wolverines made adjustments in the second half, the yards per screen decreased but the completions remained.
The task of stopping the short passes usually falls to the cornerbacks, which have consisted of redshirt junior J.T. Floyd and a rotation of fifth-year senior Troy Woolfolk, Avery and freshman Blake Countess. And with Hoke, helping them defend is simple.
“You show it to them,” he said. “You talk about their technique and their hips and if they’re keeping their feet under their hips, not opening up. There’s a lot of technique, and you can’t defend all of those.”
While Floyd has generally remained in the game on one side, the rotation among the other three has increased in recent weeks, as Woolfolk has been banged up and Countess has received more playing time. In certain situations, Avery has left the rotation to play nickel back, a position he also played as a freshman.
“You don’t want to get caught up in how much playing time you’re getting,” Avery said. “At times (it’s tough getting into a rhythm), but I feel like we rotate pretty well.”
Avery will feel comfortable wherever he plays next Saturday. He played nickel back significantly against the Spartans last season and knows the challenge Michigan State’s receivers pose.
The Spartans’ corps possesses the most depth the secondary has seen this season, with B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol lining up on the outside. This week, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said he believed Cunningham is an NFL-caliber player.
And as the secondary tries to stop the short routes, it knows what the stakes are if it lets a reciever get open deep.
“You can say anything you want about the secondary,” Mattison said last week. “But you’re one big pass away from not looking like you should look, and they understand that.”