The 2004 season had to be a near-dream scenario for defensive backs coach Ron English.
Standout cornerback Marlin Jackson returned to his preferred position after switching to safety in 2003. Safety Ernest Shazor was coming off a banner season in which he finished third on the team in tackles and recorded two sacks and two interceptions.
So compared to last year, this season must have seemed like a nightmare. The Wolverines returned just two of their starting defensive backs from 2004 – cornerback Leon Hall and safety Ryan Mundy – and would have to rely on mostly untested players to fill the remaining spots in the lineup. Even Hall and Mundy were relative question marks, charged with the daunting task of filling Jackson and Shazor’s All-American shoes. In the weeks leading up to the season opener, the secondary was widely proclaimed the weakest part of Michigan’s defense.
The situation got worse once the season began. Mundy was lost for the year with an undisclosed nerve injury. Starting safeties Willis Barringer and Brandent Englemon were injured in the loss to Minnesota and missed three combined games. Playing safety for the Wolverines started to look like dangerous work.
The rash of injuries presented English with perhaps the greatest challenge he has faced in his three seasons at Michigan. He had already proven his expertise in bringing out the best in top talent. Jackson and Shazor made English the first coach ever to have two defensive backs earn consensus All-America honors in the same season. But what would English’s unit look like when it was full of inexperience and ravaged by injuries?
As coach Lloyd Carr put it a week ago, “I can’t imagine a coach doing a better job with a group of kids than Ron English has done.”
To be fair, all of Michigan’s position coaches have been tested this season due to the number of injuries the Wolverines have suffered. Running backs coach Fred Jackson has been without Mike Hart for at least part of five contests. Michigan has started four different combinations on the offensive line, and coach Andy Moeller has had to shift players from position to position within games thanks to minor injuries suffered during almost every contest.
But only English has done so much with what most considered so little when the season began. The numbers speak for themselves. Michigan’s pass defense currently ranks third in the Big Ten, giving up an average of 209 yards through the air each game. The Wolverines have also recorded nine interceptions, which ties them with Penn State for third in the conference. In nine games, Michigan has allowed just eight touchdown passes. In part, those high rankings stem from Michigan’s struggles against the run, but it cuts both ways. Maybe teams decide to run against the Wolverines because they believe it will be hard to beat them passing.
Still, the secondary isn’t perfect. Cornerback Grant Mason has been torched on a number of plays, cornerback-turned-safety Brandon Harrison looked lost in his first few games, and – somewhat comically – everyone from Barringer to wide-receiver-turned-cornerback Morgan Trent has struggled to hold onto the ball when he gets his hands on it. But English’s players have improved each week, and that says a lot about their character and talent. Because that improvement has taken place throughout the secondary, it says even more about English.
At Carr’s weekly press conference following the Iowa game, he applauded English’s ability to break down complicated techniques and schemes, making them simple enough for even the youngest and most inexperienced players to understand. Out of necessity, English has shown off that skill all season with impressive results. Harrison – a true freshman – has started to adjust to his new position; he recorded three tackles, a pass breakup and an interception against Northwestern last weekend. Sophomore Jamar Adams started in place of Englemon at strong safety against Penn State and Iowa and notched 15 tackles in his two starts. Even Hall – a reliable contributor since his freshman season – has reached new heights this year. The junior was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week this week after he recorded six tackles and a fumble return for a touchdown against Northwestern.
Carr said last month that he thinks English is going to have “great success in this profession.” Considering the job he’s done this season, I think he already has.
Stephanie Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org