Entering the 2006 season, cornerback Morgan Trent was expected to be the weak link of an otherwise-loaded defense. But for most of the season, the 6-foot-1 cornerback was a pleasant surprise. He shutdown opposing receivers and solidified an record-breaking unit that led the Wolverines to an 11-0 start and a No. 2 ranking.
Then came Ohio State.
Trent and the Michigan secondary were burned repeatedly by the top-ranked Buckeyes’ offense. And things just got worse on New Year’s Day against Southern Cal.
Fast forward one season to Trent’s junior year. Despite his struggles to close last season, Trent was expected to be a bright spot on a young and inexperienced defense. But after Trent and the Michigan secondary were torched through the air against both Appalachian State and Oregon, he was once again fighting the liability label he tried so hard to shed the year before.
Now, riding a six-game winning streak, Trent and the Michigan defense are back on the map. And this time, Trent is ready to finish strong.
A disastrous homecoming
During Michigan’s 2004 trip to Pasadena, Trent didn’t play. The then-wide receiver had redshirted his first season in Ann Arbor and spent the month leading up to the Rose Bowl emulating Texas’ Vince Young as the Wolverines’ scout-team quarterback.
After a disappointing trip to the Alamo Bowl his freshman season, Trent and his teammates were eager to return to California at the end of his sophomore season.
The Wolverines just suffered four straight bowl losses, and Trent wanted to show he could pull his weight opposite All-American cornerback Leon Hall and help break Michigan’s bowl-game losing streak when it played Southern Cal in last year’s Rose Bowl.
But the success the San Diego native envisioned for his homecoming never materialized. Instead, Trent’s struggles six weeks earlier against Ohio State escalated.
The Wolverine defense could only hold Southern Cal’s high-powered offense for a half before the Trojan attack started clicking. The wheels came off for Trent and the Michigan secondary at the same time.
The Wolverines allowed four second-half passing touchdowns and nearly 400 yards through the air.
Southern Cal’s receiving duo of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith thrashed Michigan’s last line of defense – especially Trent – and the image of the Trojans repeatedly running into the Michigan endzone has since been burned into the minds of many Michigan fans.
With plenty of stars around him, including four defenders drafted in the first round and a half of this year’s NFL Draft, Trent took the brunt of the blame for the defense’s dismal performance.
“I don’t try to focus on it too much, but you still hear it,” Trent said of the criticism he received in the offseason. “Nobody wants to be talked about and known as that weakest link.”
But without that experience, Trent may not be where he is today.
“It makes you so strong,” Trent said. “It’s something you have to endure. It’s not fun enduring it, but it’s worth it. You’re going to get thick skin because of it, and it’s helped me grow as a player and a person.”
Trent admitted he was tempted to go into a shell at the end of the season, but he couldn’t afford that luxury. With so little time between seasons, Trent knew learning from his mistakes was his best course of action.
“Any time somebody criticizes you about your play, you want to prove them wrong – not only for them, but for yourself,” safety Brandent Englemon said. “I can’t explain how hard (Trent) worked in the offseason in terms of being in the film room as much as he was and out there doing drills.”
Switching it up again
Both of Trent’s parents were college athletes at the University of Nebraska. His father, Phillip, played football, while his mother, Tina, was a swimmer.
When Morgan was 8, Tina tried to convince him to switch to her sport.
Trent didn’t buy the sales pitch, though.
“It’s just swimming one way and back the other. It’s nothing exciting,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t for me.”
Had he jumped ship, it wouldn’t be the only big switch Trent’s made. He’s been surrounded by change his whole life.
Born in California, Trent claims he only misses the weather and Rubio’s tacos from his West Coast life. He moved to Michigan in high school, where he excelled as a wide receiver for Orchard Lake Saint Mary’s high school. But from the start, it was Trent’s versatility that caught the eye of Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
“When he came here, he was a wide receiver,” Carr said. “What I liked about him was he played both ways; he was a safety. But the cornerback position (was) new to him, and he had a lot of things to learn.”
Trent made the switch to cornerback during spring drills his redshirt freshman season because of Michigan’s paper-thin depth at the spot. By the second game of the year, he was playing in games. And a month into the season, he made his first career start at cornerback against Michigan State.
“I didn’t have many expectations coming in and playing corner,” Trent said. “I didn’t know what to think because it happened so quick.”
By season’s end, Trent was a freshman All-American honorable mention at cornerback, and he had solidified not only his starting spot in the secondary but also his role on the team.
Now, two-and-a-half seasons later and the team’s top dog in the secondary, setting the bar too low isn’t an issue for Trent. Instead, he’s added extra responsibilities thanks to newfound comfort in the defensive backfield.
“It takes about two years (to adjust to a new position),” Trent said. “I’m going to say this is the first year I’m truly starting to feel comfortable. Now I can start to help the younger guys. In order to help someone else, you have to (know) what to do yourself first.”
Trent understands how things work with the Michigan secondary. The upperclassman superstar mentors the younger, budding star. Marlin Jackson did it for Hall, Hall did it for Trent and now it’s Trent turn to return the favor.
“He’s definitely becoming a leader for the younger corners and trying to get them going as well,” Englemon said. “It’s not only about his play, he’s trying to get Donovan (Warren) and some of the younger corners going, too.”
Said Warren, the starting cornerback opposite Trent: “Morgan’s done everything he could to make me adjust as quick as possible. If I have a question, he’s the first person I go to.”
Hiding from the spotlight
If you’re garnering attention at the cornerback position, it’s probably for the wrong reasons. Trent found that out the hard way last season.
But for someone who prefers to step aside from the limelight, Trent has made an interesting housing decision.
Michigan’s most highly praised player since Charles Woodson is Trent’s roommate – Heisman Trophy candidate Mike Hart.
“I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” Trent said. “I don’t need to be in the spotlight. It’s really about this team. It’s about getting this team together, getting this team to win games.”
Though Hart may have the same team-centric goals in mind, he does it while being in the spotlight. The mix of two different personalities may make for an odd-couple environment, but ultimately, it balances the two.
“It’s weird because I room with Mike, and he’s the hype, I mean, everybody knows Mike,” Trent said. “We’re the exact opposite, so I get enough from just dealing with him.”
Living with someone who Trent said loves talking so much that he does it in his sleep has given Trent a stronger backbone. If Hart jokingly jaws at Trent, he’ll get it right back. The same goes for talkative opposing receivers.
So when the two aren’t fighting about whether Hart could or couldn’t be a successful cornerback if he wanted (“Not fast enough. Too small, too,” according to Trent), Trent’s ready to play ball and not worry about the limelight.
“It’s something you get used to. Everyone has those dreams of scoring touchdowns and throwing the ball in the crowd, but that’s not my position anymore,” Trent said.
Trent says he models his game after Hall, another soft-spoken secondary member. He occasionally calls Hall on the phone to stay sharp.
When Hall went to Michigan’s matchup against Eastern Michigan last month, Trent got the opportunity to speak to his mentor in person. But instead of talking about the season or football mechanics, Trent decided to give his former secondary mate a hard time.
“I had to give him a little talk about that game on Monday night against Randy Moss,” Trent said, referring to a game the week before where Moss and the New England receiving corps tore apart Hall and the Cincinnati Bengal secondary.
For someone who has taken so much criticism during his short time at Michigan, Trent is allowed to give out some friendly ribbing here and there.
Resisting an encore
After Michigan’s dismal 0-2 start, Trent and safety Jamar Adams have provided the upperclassman leadership needed to steer the secondary back to where it wanted to be all season. Since Michigan allowed back-to-back 200-plus-yard games through the air to start the year, it has yielded just two more such games since.
Now that Michigan is back in the Big Ten Championship picture and the defense is clicking like it did last season, the scene is set for several end-of-the-year high-profile games. With trips to East Lansing and Madison along with a battle against No. 1 Ohio State to end the year, Trent might be reminded of his struggles against the Buckeyes and Southern Cal last season.
Trent isn’t at all afraid of a repeat performance. And he’s not alone – just ask his coach.
“He came back in the winter with an attitude that he wanted to play a full season,” Carr said. “He’s a very dedicated guy, takes care of himself. He’s got pride, and that motivated him in the course of the spring and off-season. There’s no question in my mind he’ll be able to finish this year.”
Don’t bet against it – the last thing Trent wants is another offseason in the spotlight.