"It's not about last year or who's here or who's isn't here," says your head coach. "It's about getting out here and competing and seeing who is here, and that's where we're gonna go."
Jackson is an LSU grad who spent a dozen years in the NFL as a safety after going in the third round of the 1989 NFL draft. A few years after his retirement he took up coaching at various small colleges, bouncing from Idaho to ULM to Tulane, before getting a break and joining Wisconsin in 2010. When Harbaugh went to the 49ers, Jackson got the DBs job despite no previous NFL or Harbaugh experience (unless you count some time spent together as players with the Chargers).
While it's hard to suss out Jackson's impact independent of the team-wide renaissance Harbaugh brought to San Francisco, and harder still to suss out the influence of the defensive backs versus pass rush in general passing statistics, Football Outsiders provides specific enough stats to take a stab at it:
|TEAM||YEAR||Pass DVOA||Adj Sack Rate||Line Yards||Open Field Yards|
Pass DVOA is Football Outsiders catch-all efficiency stat applied to just passing plays. Adjusted Sack Rate is FO adjusting raw sacks by adding grounding penalties and adjusting for down, distance, passing attempts, and opponent.
Line Yards heavily weight the first few yards of a carry and discount yards from 5 on and are used to get an idea of who is winning the battle at the line of scrimmage; Open Field Yards is a ranking of yards gained after the back gets ten.
So. San Francisco's pass defense was consistently very good despite being unable to get to the passer. Their run defense slid towards very bad but maintained elite production from the guys tasked with not turning ten yard runs into 50 yard runs. That run ended this year but even so they were still in the top third of the league.
That is a statistically ideal profile for a defensive backs coach. I mean: in 2013 the 49ers were one of the worst teams in the league at getting to the QB and still had a top-ten pass D. And that's without huge amounts of talent. His secondaries were both responsible and opportunistic:
Jackson helped guide the 49ers to the best pass defense in the NFC and the fourth-best in the NFL, in 2012, allowing just 200.2 yards per game. That total is the lowest given up by the 49ers since 1997 (165.4 yards per game). The 49ers secondary also boasted two Pro Bowl selections (S Donte Whitner and S Dashon Goldson) and a First-Team All-Pro (Goldson).
In 2011, the 49ers secondary tallied 22 interceptions, which ranked second among all NFL secondaries. Goldson and CB Carlos Rogers each recorded a career-high six interceptions, and were both selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in their careers. Rogers was named a starter in Hawaii, while also being selected Second-Team All-Pro. The defense finished the season ranked fourth in the NFL in percentage of pass attempts intercepted (3.9).
The advanced stats do reflect the impact of those interceptions already. I mention that in case anyone is like WHY U NO TAKEAWAYS about last year's D.
With just one year at a major college, Jackson has little track record as a recruiter.
PREDICTION BASED ON FLIMSY EVIDENCE
Jackson doesn't have a long track record, but what he's got is stellar, and on the NFL level. His NFL experience as both a player and a coach should help him recruit, and his deep roots in Louisiana as an LSU player and Tulane coach should help him get kids out of a talent-rich area that Michigan has tapped semi-regularly for a while. His SEC background could free DJ Durkin up to hit Ohio, where he's from.
Jackson's got Harbaugh continuity, as well.
UPSHOT FOR THE REST OF THE STAFF
It's still coming together. Our previous assumption that John Morton is likely for the WR job is now in question, though. On WTKA this morning Sam mentioned that while he'd heard a bunch of guys were in town to interview he had not heard that Morton was one of them. Since it seems like the only solid piece of information linking Morton to Michigan is a Sacremento Bee article that's now a couple weeks old (one that did nail Tim Drevno), I'm moving him off the board since it seems Dougherty is getting some sort of job.
Sam mentioned Youngstown State DL coach Tom Sims as a possibility, so he's added to the "others" section.
|OC||Tim Drevno||lock||DC||DJ Durkin||lock|
|QB||Jim Harbaugh||lock||DL||Greg Mattison||lock|
|RB||Tyrone Wheatley||very likely||LB||Durkin||lock|
|WR||Jimmie Dougherty||very likely||DB||Greg Jackson||lock|
S&C: Kevin Tolbert (lock)
OTHERS: John Morton (WR), Tom Sims (DL).
Michigan has a spot to play with. Harbaugh's Stanford staffs split the OL between the interior line and a TE/OT spot and that looks like a reasonable idea for the ninth and final assistant. The other possibility is another defensive coach, whether it's a CB coach or Manning staying in the secondary and Michigan adding another guy in the front seven like Sims.
Via Hail to the Blue in the comments, "The softball team is in action today, tomorrow, and Sunday in Lafayette, LA at the Ragin' Cajun Invitational. Follow @umichsoftball on Twitter for live updates. Couple of tough games against UL-Lafayette today and tomorrow down here."
Pitchers and Catchers! There used to be a day sometime in the late summer every year when I start to get really excited about football. This tingling would progress to a low hum when practices started up, and would be a spinal vibration by the time I'm racing into the stadium for whatever MACrifice we're starting against. I miss that. Last year we were doing the basketball book so August was just a bleary eyed gauntlet, and the year before the season started in Jerryworld. This year I already know that excitement will be damped down by a month's worth of reliving The Horror.
Pitchers and catchers reporting isn't so much an event, or even a day on the calendar, as it is a metaphor: It is the day that winter's back begins to break; a promise that day follows night.
|9||W All Track Combined||$141,452|
You can't dampen pitchers and catchers day, not when Omar Infante is the rookie you're praying will lead the offense, not you're seeing his back plus Prince Fielder's and your 4th best pitcher's because the expense of being so awesome has passed what awesome can net.
Sorry, this is supposed to be about Michigan not the Tigers. Ah but it is, for it's a lead-in to Raoul's comprehensive preview of Michigan's baseball team. It's still tough for a northern team to be more than a good mid-major in this sport, but Bakich seems to have Michigan heading in that direction.
When baseball is really good (e.g. their 2006 run) they're the fourth sport in these parts. Are they Michigan's true #4 sport? There was a interesting thread this week where the question of that sport's identity was posed by Wolverine Devotee. To that discussion I added the list at right from Michigan's Title IX reporting. Some of those teams (like lacrosse) are benefiting more from ticket sales/TV revenue generated by opponents' fans. I tried to compare where each stands among other universities, but many schools lie their asses off in those reports regarding women's sports revenues, for example West Virginia says their W Track & Field team takes in what Michigan's hockey team does. My guess is this gets them around a Title IX provision but I don't know which. Either way it makes the stats useless.
As for Michigan's fourth sport, I still think it's softball.
My bloody valentine. Sunday there will be a whole bunch of recruits who don't have drivers licenses yet watching the Wisconsin game at Crisler. Next week there will be a large and star-heavy group of those who can drive, and who can also say things like "I'm committing to Michigan," say, for example, if they were suddenly taken by a wave of euphoria that might accompany an effective conference title clinch over a rival. This is not crazy; it has happened before. Go make our football team good, basketball.
FWIW HopeInHoke's diary shows winning the conference from here is possible, but nowhere near a certainty. MSU's only road loss in-conference is to Wisconsin; remember when that was a thing we used to just chalk up to "happens to everyone"? LSA's weekly stats report shows Michigan's superior to an average of remaining opponents in everything but rebounding.
[After the jump: things Marcus Ray et al. say about Michigan's 2014 secondary]
Taylor on an island [Upchurch]
Brian forwarded me a mailbag question regarding where Michigan's defense is getting attacked through the air, i.e. are there certain coverage areas that have been particularly weak? It took me most of a day to chart every passing play; the resulting post is rather straightforward. Consider this your bye week from my logorrhea.
Data are here.
What I tracked:
1) Where the ball starts (hash or center). If the tackles lined up inside the hash it was "center"
2) Which zone it was thrown to, on a telephone keypad grid. 1, 4, and 7 are around the numbers to the sideline; 2, 5, and 8 are the area around the opposite hash to the wide side only, and 3, 6, and 9 are down the middle.
If a ball was on the line I always erred to the zone closest to the quarterback. This makes sense if you imagine a player covering Zone 6 will be responsible for carrying a player through that zone, and would be in better position to defend that pass than a guy over him.
3) Which side (strong or weak) of the defense. I noted "Strong" as wherever the SAM lined up in 4-3 sets and where Countess lined up in nickel sets. Once or twice this conflicted with the offense but it's better this way for identifying which players are being targeted.
Weakside/boundary players, usually: R.Taylor, Wilson, Ross/Bolden, Beyer (as WDE) on nickel, Clark on 4-3.
Strongside/field players, usually: Countess, C.Gordon, Beyer (as SAM) on 4-3, Clark on nickel, T.Gordon, Morgan/Bolden, Stribling/Hollowell/Lewis/Avery.
Sacks, throwaways, scrambles, and other such events that took the emphasis on coverage were excised. I couldn't reward those things which occurred because coverage was good enough to make them happen so keep that in mind as you read.
Wot it sez up dere^. Despite the blowout nature we got a good look last Saturday at the various positions that Michigan will rotate this season. So I charted who was in at what spot for every play. The results (link to Google doc):
Here's your starting defense, with everybody in their base 4-3 under spots. I want to self-congratulate the MGoStaff for nailing the starting lineup in HTTV with the exception of free safety, since Avery, though out of the lineup, was nominally ahead of Wilson on the depth chart.
The corners lined up to the field or boundary; the line was usually aligned to the formation but then CMU usually aligned to the boundary anyway. The safeties were always lined up to the formation. They split who ended up the deeper guy; usually it was the field guy, and usually that was Wilson.
There was heavy rotation in the front four, an almost even three-man rotation in the linebackers, and the secondary stayed put until it was time to empty the bench. It was rotation, not platooning; guys would go in for a certain number of plays then come out. I charted 44 non-garbage (before 14:59 of the 3rd quarter) plays; rotations as follows:
[Jump for breakdown, nickel, garbage time]
Starting to look more and more like Sgt. Pepper's. Less depressing now. Legend*
♪ Oho a good secondary is a-comin' down the street
Oh please let it be for real
Oho the best safety tandem since like '80-something!
I wish I wish I knew that it could be.
I've got an FS and two tiny backs from Cass Tech
I've got safety-like safeties from Ohio
I've even got a two-deep filled with juniors!
And Curtice Clay out near Toledo sent a bona fide star!
Oho a good defensive backfield is a-comin' down the street
Don't look now but "shut-down" might apply to our J.T.!
Oho a good secondary is a-comin' down the street
And M-Robinson might finally be ready!
I'm particularly excited for Blake Countess
He's everything a sophomore phenom ought to be.
When minus every Gibson from this unit,
Well they could be (yes they could be) yes you're right they surely could be…
Something special (not a Woodson, but perhaps Leon-like special)
Yes we could have… something special… at D.B.!!! ♫
Also: Do do do do do do do do the worst is over.
This is Part IV of the thing predicting the reaction and drop-off if any 2012 starter goes down. Actually I wasn't sure I wanted to complete this series. I did the offense and Toussaint got a DUI; I did the DEs and Frank Clark got charged for stealing a laptop; I did the linebackers and it leaked that Antonio Poole's injury is at least Fall Camp-missing worthy. And well, before I could nix the series and wipe it from the interwebs Terrence Talbott preemptively took the bullet for the DBs, so I guess we can have that now. But if you folks want special teams I'm going to need written confirmation that Hagerup/Gibbons/Wile have come nowhere near the M on the Diag.
These days it's best to think of defensive back as five positions. To demonstrate, here's a preview chart from a Museday in the works (click enhances largetation):
To coaches this is "duh" but the more receivers the offense puts out there, the more DBs the defense counters with. While I mean to eventually include how teams played Michigan as well, and I won't make the mistake of treating anything GERG did as canon unless it involves hair product, the preliminary chart meshes with what coaches tell me about matching personnel. The Shafer line suggests heavy nickel use is more the norm while the outlier of 2009 stands as a reminder of what happens to those who mock the need for corner depth. This is important to us because the teams we play use 3-receiver sets more often than they used to, and this chart (made from UFRs so it's not perfect) says Mattison's defense used almost exactly as many five-DB sets as the 2010 defense, a base 3-3-5! Typical shotgun personnel is RB, 1TE, and 3WR; that is the formation we will face the most vs. every team but Air Force (Triple-Option) and Iowa (the I is for ISO).
Quickly again. Photos are all by Upchurch unless otherwise noted. Ratings are given in Saturn-punting Zoltans. Think of them like stars except more heavenly. Five is an all-conference-type player (Denard to Kovacs); four is a guy you'd call "solid" (RVB to Demens); three is an average B1G player (Morgan to Hawthorne); two is a guy with a big hole in his game (freshman Kovacs); one is trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Poole.
In case of emergency: Was it only a few years ago we were really down about having an emergency redshirt freshman with questionable athleticism thrust into the starting lineup? I re-watched what portions of the Indiana 2009 game are left on the youtubes yesterday to confirm he wasn't a guy you'd think would be getting five Saturn-punting Zoltans; those Zoltans now come confirmed by opponents. To imagine where we might be without him means figuring out what we have now in Marvin Robinson. He was one of those recruits who blew up early in his high school career thanks to an early growth spurt then fell down the rankings as other kids his age caught up. Frankly after similar tweeners like Burgess/Mouton/S. Brown/I. Bell became various types of linebacker I'm excited to see one of these dudes actually stick at safety.
M-Rob probably won't hit his half-SHIRTLESS recruiting expectations, but half-way through his Michigan career the possibility is at least still intact. It's weird to still be relying on his recruiting profile this far into a high-interest career; the off-campus incident may at least alleviate questions of whether the talent was overvalued. Technical problems evident in previous springs were still present but much reduced over a strong spring, and after several years of tutelage under the best, what we probably have is something between the anti-Kovacs and Ernest Shazor. He's a perfect "bandit" safety in a 3-3-5, and that's kind of what we've been doing with Kovacs. Lacking Kovacsian instincts he'll be a downgrade, but he'll make up parts of that with superior athleticism.
In case of dire emergency: Allen Gant may be as ready to go later this year as anyone else of his class, including Kalis. He's a big guy for a freshman, comes with as many work ethic and weight room credentials as Mike Martin did, and has the bloodlines. You'd usually redshirt a guy like this since safety is a tough position to learn, but there are two other safeties in his class and Dymonte Thomas is on the way. Then again he may not bring any more right now than 5th year senior Floyd Simmons, a former walk-on who has been on special teams a lot. He has never made it higher than the two-deep even when a hater god put most of that depth chart on the Never Forget banner. That might be because he was a Spinner (backing up Stevie Brown) at the time. You should also know he has three forced fumbles on kickoffs, suggesting he shares some of T.Gordon's weird fumble-causing voodoo. He's the same size as Kovacs (we have multiple pics of them standing together) and foremost a run defender—his route to regular playing time would be in a platoon situation with M-Rob or one of the free safety types.
Since the likely backups at free safety are pretty much free safeties (Furman's calling card is speed; Jarrod Wilson is the proverbial "rangy" player), a disaster at strong safety is as likely to make one of them a starter as Gant. In such a scenario Thomas Gordon takes on more of the run stopping duties and Furman/Wilson drawn in as an entirely nominal "strong" safety.
Safety: home of the scrumptious abdomen HT M&B
In case of emergency: This is where things get more interesting. After letting us spend years praying for the next Ed Reed to appear as a 5-star Campbellian Hero with angel wings (and trying to believe the other Gordon was that) Thomas Gordon spent 2011 doing his best impersonation of Brandent Englemon. It was like coming back from trying to sleep around New York and finding the girl next door, if the girl next door was once called "Prison Abs" and had a weird (spectacular) ability to cause game-changing turnovers by waving his hands at people.
If we lose him, we hope this has all been some giant lead-up to the Superhero reveal scene. Potential heroes begin with Josh Furman. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a … dammit I just looked up at the damn picture again. Due to a spurious arrest over the summer (he was innocent, the result of a misunderstanding, but suspended while it got sorted out) Furman missed precious practice time. At last sight he still needed to leap a few levels in a single bound to be ready for Big Ten play. The beneficiary of Furman's misfortune was early enrollee Jarrod Wilson, who is safety-shaped and safety-like and is actually a safety, which I realize is kind of a novelty around here since Jamar Adams graduated. He made some freshman mistakes along with mostly solid play and is probably the first to see playing time among his classmates, especially early.
In case of dire emergency: The position that inspired the BLANK-Hating God meme was free safety. This was in 2005 when Michigan was forced to burn the redshirt of Brandon Harrison (and in turn burn down a good part of the 2009 secondary).
Today there's at least Furman/Wilson, one or both of whom should be plausible by mid-season. The other freshman is Jeremy Clark, a big guy whose grayshirt was upgraded to full-ride as his star rose, but who probably needs some time to develop. Clark's future is at strong safety, but he's a tweener. While the talent atop the depth chart is mostly specialized, Mattison does want the safeties to eventually be interchangeable (the better to screw up quarterback reads my dear) and an injury plague at one safety spot might trigger that.
Center: from the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection, courtesy of the Freep
In case of emergency: The depth recovery program managed to get a bunch of little corners, however since Michigan makes a distinction between "Field" and "Boundary" we may as well try to see where the early returns fit. The former can supposedly sacrifice some size for coverage ability/athleticism. The latter has less area to cover, is more involved in run support since he's generally on the weak side of the formation (offenses typically align to the field since it gives them more room to string out the run defense), and ends up matched with other teams' big receivers on an island. At this last year Floyd was spectacular. A list of guys he covered who are now in the NFL:
Receiver 2011 Team NFL Team Rnd-Overall Catches Yards TDs Michael Floyd ND Cardinals 1-13 13 159 0 A.J. Jenkins Illini 49ers 1-30 4 103 0 DeVier Posey OSU Texans 5-68 3 58 1 B.J. Cunningham MSU Dolphins 6-183 4 39 0 Marvin McNutt Iowa Eagles 6-194 9 101 0 Jeremy Ebert NW Patriots 7-235 11 86 0 Jordan White WMU Jets 7-244 12 119 0 *******Total******* - - 56 665 1 *****Average****** - - 8.0 95.0 0.1
*VT's Danny Coale and MSU's Keyshawn Martin were also drafted this year, but Floyd was primarily covering Jarrett Boykin and BJ Cunningham, respectively, in those games. Boykin had 4 catches for 30 yards and 0 TD; he went undrafted and unsigned.
The lack of touchdowns from seven leaping touchdown machines earns Floyd that 4th star. DeVier Posey did demonstrate the hole in Floyd's game—he can't keep up with the elite athletes—and better passes from Braxton Miller easily could have added two TDs and 120 yards to DeVier's single day of 2011 eligibility. That guy, at least, is gone, as are the rest of the Big Ten's 2011 embarrassment of WR riches. Of those who remain on our schedule, Keenan Davis (Iowa) might be a Posey-like (read: bad) matchup, however I would trust him against Northwestern's (now-eligible) Kyle Prater.
Which brings me to the point: there isn't another Floyd on the roster. Even in the hilariously height-overestimating world of college football rosters, J.T. is the only CB who the FAKErs thought could even plausibly be listed at 6'0.
Talbott was the guy making noise to be the #1 backup to Floyd during spring ball, but since he's gone that means a ding to J.T. puts us back in the midget bucket. I think what happens is Courtney Avery reprises his role as starting corner, which this being his junior year I think we can now get past the original excitement of his one good game and the bitterness of that tackle he missed against Iowa, and remember he ended the Ohio State counter. Avery has been ahead of Talbott his whole career thus far, despite being a quarterback until fall practice of his freshman year, so while Floyd to Avery is a downgrade, I don't think the effect of losing the second Talbott will be felt unless we get to…
In case of dire emergency: This is still a work in progress. Of last year's freshmen Tamani Carter is the biggest—that's why he was listed with the safeties in the first place. He's been hanging out on safety depth charts due to hips that do not fluid swivel or whatever they call a cornerback nowadays who's not twitchy enough, and his forte is supposedly the jump-ball. This is why I've mentally moved Carter to boundary since Talbott's departure. Magnus says he likes Carter in a role where he sits out in the flat, and he missed spring practices, so you're hoping he can just be a nickel back and not have to play significant snaps on the island. Then there's Ramon Taylor. He dreamed of going to Michigan, and that came true when Hoke was putting together a last-minute class and wondered, as we all had, what Indiana was doing with a 4-star...yoink. He's another mite who is listed now at 183 (up from 167 last year), a plausible weight for a Big Ten cornerback. He's also listed at 5'10 which he's not. But he likes to hit and also doesn't have Robot Hips. As a recruit he drew a comparison to a shorter James Rogers; make of that what you will but I say it suggests he fits into Rogers's position. Taylor played early last year (that photo's from EMU), mostly at nickel, and I think he too is destined to be that more than either outer corner spot.
Blake Countess isn't huge, and you want your better guy at the field, but this distinction can be overstated. In the event of an Avery-Floyd injury combo, Michigan will probably lean on Countess to cover the other team's best receiver and whichever mini Cass Tech kid is most ready will be in a better position to start than either of the young nickelbacks. Next year the cavalry arrives.
In case of emergency: This spot is young. They're also not-big. What they lack in being young and non-big however, they make up for by being "good" and "extant." That begins with Countess, whom I gave 4 stars because that was the level he was playing at (about equal with Floyd) by the end of last year. The upside is tantalizing for us now, though it remains upside. Making Woolfolk obsolete last year was one hell of a statement, and it's because of that entrance that I'm more filled with trepidation over losing Blake than I reasonably should be.
The reason not to be in total fear is the little we've seen and heard about the other remaining corners from his class (Greg Brown has joined the banner on top of this post) is that they're good, in the way little mite corners are supposedly good everywhere else but here because seriously we have been burned on this so many times.
Every year I involuntarily pick a guy on the team nobody's talking about to get overly excited about for no reason, and this year that somebody is Delonte Hollowell. That's him in the Nebraska photo above and the reason he was playing on special teams against Nebraska when we had all sorts of other corners eating eligibility is he played his way out of a redshirt. I don't yet know what's Hoke's baseline for doing such a thing, however either the coaches are so sure they will be able to find plenty of great CBs to fill the 2015 depth chart (which their 2013 class seems to suggest they were right), or more likely, Hollowell met some standard of what he needs to do to play.
That standard can be few other things than "is 2nd on the depth chart" and there my reasoning stands. Courtney Avery would be here if something happens early I guess. I think you'll be seeing Hollowell spelling Countess either way.
In case of dire emergency: Terry Richardson is the mite-iest Cass Tech dust mite yet. He has the power to shrink to the size of a neutrino and hide out among the other atoms that make up a receiver's garments, reappearing in time to make a crucial interception. However being only a handful of planks has its drawbacks, like accidentally passing through the Earth's gravitational field, and Whitley/Howard syndrome. The true freshman comes with high recruiting bona fides, so if you see him jumping up the depth chart we may have another Countess here.
In case of emergency: For most teams the nickel corner will replace the SLB (Jake Ryan), though in Michigan's case we seem to pull the Will (Desmond Morgan) just as often. Later in the year that became more usual as Michigan went with an aggressive nickel package featuring a nickelback and Ryan/Beyer/Clark with a hand down (a 5-1-5 look with 4-2-5 personnel that we called Michigan's "Okie."). The nickel will cover the slot, usually has help over the top, and must be there to tackle in space when spread outfits isolate him against the slot or RB. Michigan played a lot of nickel in 2003 (Leon Hall) and 2006 (Brandon Harrison), and it led to some 38-0 scores against various Indiana teams. You'll remember we came out in mostly 4-2-5 personnel against Northwestern last year, but it didn't work; in the second half Jake Ryan was inserted and allowed to terrorize (at this point he dished it out equally to friend and foe). Early in the season T.Gordon and Avery split duties at nickel, and Carvin Johnson was the free safety. This year Avery is again the designated nickel guy, however expect others from the safety and CB corps to rotate in there.
The nominal "other" is Raymon Taylor (see above), who played a good bit last year at this spot. He is small but so was Harrison. You also might as well pencil in RS Freshman Tamani Carter here since his long-term future is at nickel.
In case of dire emergency: Nickel draws from the CB depth charts (and can from the safety ones as well) so if Avery and a backup are hurt there's an endless parade of other guys. You'll see moonlights of most of the backups here regardless, as it's a way to get a young cornerback playing time and tackling experience without exposing to deep responsibility. If The Dude in Section 2 Eating Fat Free Pretzels is tapped, well, so long as the pretzels are fat free and he stayed in a Holiday Inn Express and whatnot. The 2009 depth chart across the secondary really was unprecedented; if it happens again then it is 2009 and we can all go punch each other in the dong.
* Never Forget Legend (years in parentheses are the last season the guy would have helped had he not left/gone down/whatever).
TOP ROW: T-Wolf (2010), Mike Williams (2011), Boubacar Cissoko (2011), Adrian Witty (2011), Vladimir Emilien (2013), Jared Van Slyke (2011).
SECOND ROW: J.T. Turner (2013), Terrence Talbott (2013), Carvin Johnson (2013), Cullen Christian (2013), Demar Dorsey (2013), Ray Vinopal (2013).
BOTTOM ROW: Greg Brown (2014 or '15), Crying Biff the Wolverine, Donovan Warren (2010), Never Forget Guy.
Previously: The Story.
The existential crisis that was last year's secondary has been the subject of emo rehash and frequently-updated "Never Forget" banners in this space for going on a year now. In mid-August of 2010, Troy Woolfolk did something strange and painful to his ankle and I—and I assume a good chunk of the Michigan fanbase—decided ankle-exploding time was drankin' time. Twitter archived the results; read from the bottom.
The headache I had the next morning did not subside until Greg Mattison was hired.
Woolfolk wasn't going to cure last year's secondary issues by himself but he was going to be a decent returning starter in a secondary without any other than Jordan Kovacs. Without him this section of last year's preview started "What's the point of anything?" because everyone left was either a freshman, walk-on, or JT Floyd.
After a deceptively promising start courtesy of the vast incompetence of Zack Frazer and Notre Dame's backup quarterbacks, the doom took hold. Everyone who saw a snap last year contributed to it but if we have to pick a single moment that best represents Michigan's 2010 secondary it would have to be this:
JT Floyd picking up a –3 against Penn State
That is how Matt McGloin tears you up for 41 points on nine drives. Let's never speak of this again.
While this year's secondary won't bring back memories of Charles Woodson, improvement is almost a given. It could be vast, even. Every contributor returns save James Rogers. Woolfolk is back and healthy, and there's a small horde of freshmen.
If you believe the message board chatter about Tony Gibson's coaching acumen, Curt Mallory is a huge upgrade. My favorite apocryphal story is that when Scot Shafer resigned he told Rodriguez he would take all the blame publicly if Rodriguez admitted to Shafer that Gibson was "the worst secondary coach in the country." Shortly after his resignation, Shafer did pop up in the News stating it was all his fault. Poppycock? Probably, but you can't rule it out.
Things are looking up. They could be okay. Not okay for Michigan, but okay for a mediocre Big Ten defense. They've got a cap—like everywhere on this attrition-wracked team the depth is a little scary. The starters still include a walk-on and the talent level as measured by stars is strictly second-rate. They haven't disproved that on the field, so expectations should be kept in check.
That there are any except doom is pretty cool. Bohemian Crapsody begone.
|Corner #1||Yr.||Corner #2||Yr.|
|Troy Woolfolk||Sr.*||Courtney Avery||So.|
|JT Floyd||Jr.*||Tony Anderson||Sr.*#|
|Terrence Talbott||So.||Blake Countess||Fr.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on.]
Woolfolk in T-Woolf mode
Unless something very depressing happens in the near future I will not need any power tools this year. Troy Woolfolk is healthy, and while he's probably not going to be All Big Ten he's fast and steady enough to get good reviews a couple of years ago when he split time between safety and corner. There is empirical evidence for this, and how: Woolfolk's absence from the safety spot marked the point the 2009 defense went off a cliff. Michigan went from giving up 23 points per game with Woolfolk at safety to 37 without.
Those reviews have moved from potentially ignorant bloggers to the head coach. Woolfolk was one of three defensive Wolverines to be named a starter by Hoke weeks before the season (Kovacs and Martin were the others) and is conspicuously first when Hoke talks about his corners:
"(Woolfolk is) is a guy who I think, as a senior, has taken some ownership and he's done everything," Michigan coach Brady Hoke. "J.T. is fighting. Courtney Avery is fighting, Terrence Talbott, they're all fighting with each other to see who's going to be the guy."
Mattison joined in as well:
What are your impressions of Troy Woolfolk? "I'm really, really impressed with a senior -- with a new staff, with a new system -- with a guy that comes out every day and says 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, I'm going to do it how you tell me to do it, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to do it.' ... I think his technique is improving."
That bit at the end about his improving technique is a little ominous. Woolfolk's injury and position switches may leave him vulnerable to Morgan Trent-like deficiencies. The two are similar players: very fast, rangy corners who are tough to beat on a fade but can struggle when opponents are changing direction rapidly. Woolfolk's main advantage over Trent is want-to. Trent spent his senior year raging against the new regime and saw his play suffer. Woolfolk should have no such issues.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
|juuuuust evades the fingertips|
|jars the ball free|
|comes up too hard|
|pwns a UW guard!|
Opposite Woolfolk the battle is on between sophomore Courtney Avery and redshirt junior JT Floyd. The bet here is that Avery wins that battle. Avery drew into the starting lineup last year when Floyd exited with yet another injury and seemed to outplay the guy he was replacing.
What he brings to the table is still up in the air. He was seeing spot duty relieving Floyd and Rogers even before Floyd's injury; he also split time with Terry Talbott when Michigan went to nickel and dime packages. In that role he was erratic. He wasn't good, per se. But in the tire fire that was last year's secondary he showed a little spark. This spark allowed other portions of the tire fire to spew ever more pitch black tar smoke into the observers face, yes. The spark remained.
Here's an erratic UFR that might not mean that much because he's a corner and his playing time was highly variable:
Zone vacancy II.
|MSU||-||-||-||Didn't register. Yay?|
|Iowa||-||5.5||-5.5||The whiff, the zone vacation, etc.|
|PSU||-||-||-||DNP, I think.|
|Illinois||3.5||0.5||3||Two key tackles.|
|Purdue||3||6||-3||Gave up the big screen.|
|Wisconsin||2.5||3||-0.5||Could have been harsher on him.|
It's not great, though a big chunk of his Indiana negative might have been erroneously given. The blogosphere ferociously debated whether a particular frustrating Iowa touchdown was mostly on the head of Kenny Demens or Avery and eventually decided it was kind of both but maybe probably mostly Demens. The UFR still registers Avery as the victim.
Given the circumstances—tire fire—he did well to not get hammered on a consistent basis. Try to judge him as a freshman by comparing him to his classmates: the highly-touted Cullen Christian was a blinking "throw at me" sign whenever he was on the field. Terrance Talbott was clearly behind. His main issue was playing zone coverage too aggressively, vacating his zone as he chased receivers across the field.
His quickness and aggressiveness bodes well. This is just Bowling Green (see also: the brief blip of Ray Vinopal hope) but Michigan hasn't had a corner who's able to recover like this in a while:
Avery's two years younger than Floyd and was healthy through the entirety of last year and spring practice. He played quarterback in high school; nagging injuries scuppered plans to play him both ways as a senior. He was just learning the rudiments of playing corner when he was thrust onto the field last year. Even if Avery and Floyd were close a year ago—something that is generous to Floyd—Avery should improve much faster than his competition. Avery has never seemed to "transparently lack the speed to be a Big Ten cornerback."
With practice buzz generally talking up Avery, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter. If not now, then by the Big Ten season. He should make a big leap forward in year two.
The primary backup and presumed nickel/dimeback will be the loser of the Avery/Floyd battle. This preview presumes that will be JT Floyd. Our last glimpses of him were against Penn State, when he turned in the coverage-type substance at the top of this post and a few other howlers. Here's one:
The game before that, it was Floyd who gave up slant after slant on critical third downs against Iowa. Even before that this blog declared his coverage "only brushes up against adequate."
|Iowa||2.5||11||-8.5||Oh my god the slants.|
|PSU||3||12||-9||Awful, awful, awful.|
Floyd was so overmatched as a redshirt freshman that Rodriguez and Robinson pulled him off the field, moved Woolfolk from his duties as a fairly effective free safety, and inserted Mike Williams to disastrous effect. Yeah, that could be another symptom of the insanity that ruled decision-making on the D these last few years. But unlike Kenny Demens's debut, Floyd's return to the field didn't make anyone think his removal was a mistake.
As you can see at right, Floyd started off well enough against the incompetent quarterbacks of the nonconference schedule. A number of whiffed tackles and Mouton-like angles against UMass were cause for concern. That concern bloomed, then metastasized in the Big Ten schedule.
|Nate Montana gift|
|breaks on to break up|
|reads and attacks|
|boxed out by Rudolph|
|sucks up on drag|
|allows Willis to drag him 15 yards|
First he was amongst the many Wolverines who were too confused or too slow to keep those four-yard Indiana routes from becoming eight. While he wasn't a major factor in the Michigan State game, he imploded against Iowa and Penn State.
In context it seems like his relatively benign Michigan State game was because the Spartans had even easier prey elsewhere on the field. And maybe Michigan protected him in favor of that prey. Remember the sinfully easy 41-yard touchdown Cullen Christian yielded? Yeah:
Why the hell is Cullen Christian the guy in man coverage on a receiver running a fly route? Why isn't it Floyd? Christian(-3, cover –3, RPS -2) is smoked crispy as he bites on an out and up gives up the touchdown. Roh was about to hit Cousins but no matter.
After that it was the elevator straight down and the injury. If he gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
If there are injuries, options past the top three are dicey. With Floyd and Woolfolk held out of spring practice the starting cornerbacks were Avery and Tony Anderson, who's one of many walk-ons threatening for playing time. Anderson played ahead of Cullen Christian and Terrance Talbott; Christian transferred soon after. Talbott remains.
The hope is that's motivational or Talbott can accelerate past Anderson's spot on the depth chart as his scholarship-having self surpasses Anderson's walk-on ceiling. Talbott got sporadic time last year and was okay for a freshman. He got lost on zone drops and was a weak tackler, etc. The book on him…
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
…seemed pretty accurate. He can be a contributor down the road… if he sticks with football. There were widespread rumors Talbott was off the team, by choice, for a period this offseason.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.) Greg Brown [recruiting profile] enrolled early and was decent in the spring game. Those two feature on the first depth chart. Talbott does not.
The rest of the n00bs: Raymon Taylor [recruiting profile] is speedy, might not have the greatest change of direction, and got a fourth star from Rivals. Delonte Hollowell [recruiting profile] is yet another smurfy Cass Tech corner who can't be put on outside receivers; he'll probably have to wait for time to open up at nickelback. He is rooting hard for Thomas Gordon to win the safety job opposite Kovacs. Finally, Tamani Carter [recruiting profile] is probably a safety; as a guy Michigan hijacked from Minnesota it will be a bad callback to Ray Vinopal if he doesn't redshirt.
That's five dudes instead of three; if it turns out some of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart can't play the one who emerges as a contributor will probably be better than Talbott and Avery were last year.
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.|
|Jordan Kovacs||Jr.*#||Thomas Gordon||So.*|
|Marvin Robinson||So.||Carvin Johnson||So.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Is it possible that last year's Michigan defense actually one-upped the safety horror on display in 2009? Yes. It was actually worse than even the situation that gave rise to this in last year's preview:
Their [Kovacs and Mike Williams's] powers combined in episodes like "Iowa tight ends are open by 15 yards," "We don't have a guy in the deep middle on third and twenty four," and "What would Juice Williams be like if he was an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot?"
While the situation two years ago was never good it didn't drop off a cliff until Michigan moved Troy Woolfolk to corner. First Mike Williams and then Jordan Kovacs leisurely escorted opponents into the endzone for the remainder of the year, sure. But last year Michigan started out with this…
…and then pulled a similar switch by moving Cam Gordon to spur and inserting true freshman two-star Ray Vinopal. Vinopal wasn't quite as likely to take a terrible angle. Instead he was a 160-pound object in the way of Wisconsin's various house-sized Katamaris.
Artist's impression of Vinopal tackling Montee Ball
He also took some terrible angles. Kovacs was better but still kind of eh—he has not yet found that Iowa zen where the slow small white guy is always in the right place—and Michigan never got competent play from the other spot. Survey says increase doom panic victory 2010. And there was much rejoicing.
It can't be that bad again, right? I'm seriously asking this. Please, someone tell me it can't be that bad again. If no one else is willing to stand in front of that howitzer I guess it's up to me: they can't be that bad again.
|blasted all over|
|fends off the RT|
|shoots the gap|
|instant tackle on WR|
|tackles in the backfield|
|leaking out into the flat|
|capable zone coverage|
|almost a 95-yard Rick Six|
|not so smrt|
|inexplicably slows up|
It was already a foregone conclusion, but Brady Hoke explicitly confirmed that Jordan Kovacs will start for a third year this fall. He did so almost before anyone asked. The man once mistaken for Matt Cavanaugh by Greg Robinson is on track to becoming the first four-year starter at safety since
Jamar Adams [Ed-M: Marcus Ray ('95-'98). Adams's RS Fr year was Shazor/Mundy]
Unfortunately, thanks to the defensive implosion of the last three years this does not necessarily mean he is any good. Whether he is or not is a subject of heated debate wherever Michigan's starting secondary is discussed. His freshman year he was solid as a box safety. His instincts and tackling made him an effective force player and blitzer. Then the whole Woolfolk-to-corner thing happened and he got switched into a deep half role. To say he struggled was an understatement. Some UFR comments from that portion of his freshman year:
Just can't play a deep half.
Again burned as a deep half safety.
Enormous bust #3.
So that didn't go so well.
Last year Michigan tried to move him back into the box by switching to a 3-3-5 in which he was the "bandit" (a strong safety that spends his time on or near the LOS), but then they spent a lot of time in a two deep shell that saw Kovacs's deep limitations tested again. He did not pass with flying colors but thanks to his awareness and solid tackling was not the flaming dump truck the rest of the secondary was. It's not a coincidence that the new coaching staff has been talking him up. Hoke:
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Kovacs did improve last year, and significantly. Kovacs went from deep half dead meat to "the king of moderate-moderate-0". In three different games (ND, BGSU, and Indiana) he had plusses that exactly offset his minuses; in four more (UConn, UMass, Iowa, and Penn State) he was just above or below breaking even. He was excellent against MSU…
…may have had his best game at Michigan. He's so reliable; on a day when Michigan couldn't find a tackle it didn't want to miss, Kovacs twice dragged down TEs in space to boot MSU off the field. Only one counted, unfortunately.
…but he broke down late, picking up negative days against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Even so, his season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
Thomas Gordon: prison abs, manages to look badass on last year's D
|sends the house|
|makes a solid TFL in some space|
|get outside his blocker|
|moves up into the gap|
|not brandon harrison|
|search and destroy|
The spot next to Kovacs is second to only weakside linebacker when it comes to mystery on this year's team. One candidate is sophomore Carvin Johnson, who had a plentiful helping of hype early and started in the spring game. The other is redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon.
These two are familiar with each other since they spent last year duking it out with each other. The twist: they were doing so at Spur; Cam Gordon had locked down free safety. This year they're swapped.
The smaller Gordon has the advantage. He played at nickelback in the spring, swapping with the WLB on passing downs and covering slot receivers. He seemed well-suited for that spot. Moving him to safety signals some discontent with the options there, and since the move practice scuttlebutt has talked him up a bit more than Johnson. When Countdown to Kickoff flagged down DBs coach Curt Mallory he described the situation at safety like this:
It starts with Jordan right now. … He's done a great job, had a good two-a-days. Then we've got some younger guys in there. Thomas Gordon, I've been really pleased with how he's improved. [pause] And then with the two other guys…
That sounds like Johnson had eleven days to displace Gordon for Western Michigan. As of publication there's been no indication that switch has happened. Gordon was just named a starter by the WMU depth chart.
Gordon's 2010 was abbreviated. He started the season thanks to an injury to Johnson and played pretty well. Particularly impressive was his ability to roar off the edge without pulling a Brandon Harrison by zooming right by the quarterback. Gordon showed a knack for coming in at the fastest possible speed that would allow him to rope the QB to the ground, which accounted for many of his plus plays last year. Here's a good one against Notre Dame:
Outside of that it was minus half points here and there for poor coverage or missed tackles. He and Johnson displayed a knack for finishing his day with around three positive points and two negative ones. The spur was not a high-impact position either way last year until Cam Gordon switched to it and promptly got himself lost on flat zones he'd never been asked to play before.
Like Avery above, Gordon's ability to not be the most spectacularly flaming tire is encouraging. He came in with bler recruiting rankings but—again like Avery—he was a high school quarterback who got a Michigan camp offer and then did not play in his high school's secondary because of injury. He's beaten out some actual scholarship players and drawn praise from the coaches for his play. When I clipped something he did last year it was usually something positive.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
Carvin Johnson does not like losing.
Curt Mallory wants his safeties to be interchangeable, so this will probably be a situation like offensive line where there's a line behind the starters and whoever the top backup is will come off the bench no matter who exits. That is likely to be Carvin Johnson. Johnson shouldn't feel too down: what small tea leaves we've gotten from the defense suggest he will be the first defensive back off the bench when Michigan goes nickel—in the Saturday punting demo he was on the field plenty as Thomas Gordon played nickelback in Michigan's third down package.
His season was even more abbreviated than Gordon's due to injury. I clipped three events from him last year:
- A bad zone drop against UConn
- An Indiana touchdown on which he was playing some sort of weird ILB and got crushed.
- A nice open field tackle on Rob Henry.
#2 won't be an issue if he's playing a deep safety; #3 is an asset that was promised by his recruiting profile. One… maybe not so much. Though people talk him up Michigan felt it necessary to move Gordon back, whereupon he won the job. He's probably a little unreliable at the moment.
Past Johnson there are actual scholarship(!) players who weren't(!) in high school last year. One is Marvin Robinson [recruiting profile], he of the obligatory OMG shirtless pictures…
…and that thing he did in the spring game where he ran with a slant pattern while Mike Cox was waving at him en route to the endzone. Practice reports on Robinson alternate tales of massive here-comes-the-BOOM-type hits and equally massive touchdown-ceding errors. If you hit up that recruiting profile you'll see a lot of skepticism he can play safety; last year he spent a good chunk of his time at WLB. That may be his long term destination.
For now he's behind Kovacs. He seems to be the second guy in the pecking order; Michigan will try to avoid using him until he has that consistency thing every coach ever but especially Michigan's keep harping on.
The final scholarship guy is Josh Furman. Furman's a bit like Avery in that he was almost exclusively an offensive player in high school. (He put up some Rawls-like games in the Maryland state playoffs.) Michigan managed to redshirt him last year, so his recruiting profile is about all we know. He's reputed to be super athletic, like six FAKES out of five 40 athletic, and will have a role on special teams this year. When asked about the safeties for CTK, Mallory mentioned Kovacs, Gordon, Johnson, and Robinson but not Furman. He's still a year or two away from seeing the field on defense.