Preview 2014: Safety

Preview 2014: Safety

Submitted by Brian on August 28th, 2014 at 8:23 PM

Previously: Podcast 6.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback.

Free Safety Yr. Strong Safety Yr. Nickelback Yr.
Jarrod Wilson Jr. Delano Hill So.* Jabrill Peppers So.*
Jeremy Clark So.* Dymonte Thomas So. Blake Countess Jr.*
Reon Dawson Fr.* Brandon Watson Fr. Dymonte Thomas So.

[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on]



Okay, okay, Jarrod Wilson after the jump. Now…



ok, you're out of shoes, right


105146 EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ 12/07/2012 Bergen Catholic vs. Paramus Catholic high school football Non Public Group 4 state championship game at MetLife Stadium. PC #5 Jabrill Peppers on his way to scoring his first touchdown of the game in the first quarter.  MICHAEL KARAS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

I've been talking about hybrid space players for years now, projecting that Michigan would acquire one of these important gentlemen since about a year after that, and resigning myself to yet another repurposed 5'9" corner four games into every season since. Two years ago:

The thing that kept me from playing nickel a lot last year – the nickel has to be able to blitz. He has to be able to change the math … some guys can blitz and some can’t.

Michigan didn't have that guy, and their defense was solid, but conservative.

Now… now Michigan has a hybrid space player. Sound the trumpets. Unfurl the banners. Roll the carpet forth unto the unworthy ground so that our prince can walk upon maize and blue! Fetch… fetch the Woodson comparison. Yes, from the vaults.



And so forth and so on. As to why Michigan is deploying its most hyped recruit ever at a spot historically reserved for a not-quite-starting cornerback on passing downs, let's revisit last year's preview:


The ideal nickelback is a corner/safety/linebacker hybrid who can cover slot receivers, blitz like a mofo, and fend off blockers to make tackles in space, and in the increasingly spread-oriented world of football they are essentially starters. This does not just apply to college football:

NFL offenses are identifying the nickel corner as a key part of any defense. “This varies from defense to defense, but the amount of your sub package that you play nowadays — because we’re seeing more three wide receivers on the field — your inside player is going to play as many, if not more plays,” Capers says. “You could be in some form of your sub defense two-thirds [of the time].” The number Hayward throws out is 75 percent; Whitt says 80. No matter the math, the point is that the nickel cornerback is as much a “starter” as any other spot in the defensive backfield.

The QED here: that's an article on second-year player Casey Hayward, who replaced Charles friggin' Woodson as the Packers' nickel. In his time at that spot, Woodson picked up a Defensive Player of the Year award. The best nickels double as outside corners when teams are in a base package; others are just really important fifth defensive backs.


SI followed that Grantland article up with one this year asserting that the nickelback has risen in prominence as the NFL's "key battles move to the slot":

Teams ran base (with four defensive backs) 48 percent of the time in 2011, 45 percent in '12 and 40 percent in '13. Nickel sets increased from 40 to 44 to 49 percent over that same three-year span.

College is gradually following a similar pattern. One of the main reasons Michigan is moving to the over defense is that they were in it like half the time last year anyway, because that's how you have to respond to spread offenses. However, the motivations are somewhat different. In college if you get spread out there's a better than even chance they are spreading to run, an innovation still mostly on the sidelines in a league where you can pick the 30 most accurate passers in the world and whoever the Browns have this year.

But the idea remains the same: triple threat.

"To play nickel now? I think it's really hard. You have to play the two-way go [option routes in which the receiver can turn inside or outside based on coverage] inside the numbers, you have to be able to tackle, and you have to be able to blitz. And blitz is a technique, just like playing man-to-man or running routes. You need practice at that. You can't run in there straight up and down like a pencil, or you'll get decapitated. Because as the nickel, sometimes you blitz, and the tackle is set up on you. How do you beat him? You've got to get him back on his heels -- you set him up, almost like a basketball player driving to the hole.

You have to cover, you have to play the run, and you have to murder the quarterback. Come on down, JABRILL PEPPERS [recruiting profile].

Since Peppers is a true freshman, and since he is Jabrill Peppers, I can't tell you anything you don't already know if you've read that profile. Selected, mouth-watering highlights:

"Peppers is a rare athlete with potential to be great at the next level. He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen at the high school level. At 6-foot-1, and 205-pounds, Peppers has college ready size to go with un-matched speed and explosiveness."

This one is particularly apt given Peppers's spot in the defense:

"…could play four to five different positions and excel at them.  He is a strong running back.  He is as fluid as a good corner.  He hits like a linebacker.  He could play safety.  You could honestly take him and put him in an outside linebacker position and he would flourish.

Oh and

USC coach: "Holy s---, that's him? I've only seen two players in high school with a body like that and both of them are named Peterson [Adrian and Patrick]."

Scout's Scott Kennedy gets a gold star for his player comparison:

"I think his impact on the game [would be maximized by] letting him roam around a little bit and freelance and let him play – an Eric Berry style of safety where they would walk him up. I mean, Eric Berry had 15 tackles for loss.  He is that kind of a player.  Eric Berry, I thought, was maybe the best player in college football a couple of years ago.”

Eric Berry was a nickel in college. People didn't quite know it at the time because everyone was just inventing the idea of putting your most badass guy there, but he was a nickel. He's a nickel in the NFL, acquiring 3.5 sacks in 2013 and going to the Pro Bowl every time he's been healthy.

That is the mission. Be Eric Berry. Or All Pro Charles Woodson, of course.

Can Peppers do it right away? I'm supposed to equivocate about freshmen here. I won't. He's got the size, he's got the speed, and he's blazed his way to the starting lineup essentially on day one. Sam Webb:

I know the Jabrill Peppers is hyped enough already but the word he is the real deal.  You saw the pictures so you know where he is physically.  But it’s the non-stop motor and tenacity that just put him on another level from most freshmen.  …  It’s often hard to keep expectations of freshmen subdued, but it’s especially hard when they’ve been as good as advertised in practice.  They all say he is young and has a lot to learn, but also say he is as good as advertised.

I'm sure there will be some busts as he gets situated in the defense. That should be the primary issues. Go time: now.

[After the JUMP: the actual safeties, you shoe-throwing maniac.]

Hokepoints Seeks HSPs in Tackles, Uselessly

Hokepoints Seeks HSPs in Tackles, Uselessly

Submitted by Seth on July 22nd, 2014 at 4:06 PM


Last year we predicted Dymonte would seize the nickel job. It's still open. [Fuller]

While doing Draftageddon this year Brian told each of us to draft an extra nickelback, or hybrid space player, because these defenses face 3-wide sets (and beyond) about as often as 2-wide ones. Modern offenses were made to take advantage of the run-stopping linebackers teams put on the strong side of the formation, forcing them to cover a jitterbug in space in addition to the running game. Defenses have countered with linebacker-safety hybrids of various forms. We've seen it in practice, and for many schools there's now an official hybrid/nickel position: STAR at Illinois and Ohio State, F-linebacker at Wisconsin, nickel at Michigan, etc. The HSP is the defense's answer to the slot receiver. It's the position we've ticketed Peppers for this season, at least to start.

However as I keep trying to find evidence of this in the stats, they keep eluding me. See: the division of Michigan's tackles (counting assists as 0.5 tackles) between the levels since 1995:

Michigan def stats to 1995

(click does the big thing)

Seen together:

Michigan def stats to 1995

Outliers. Doing this with just one team means we don't get much of a sample; unfortunately cfbstats just got bought out by two dudes who want $7500/year from each blog to use the stats he used to put online for free (i.e. under creative commons). If you downloaded the old spreadsheets from Marty (who does deserve to get paid for the work he did curating them) he says it's fine to use them. If you visit the old site you'll get the most salesman guy in the world who acts all cagey before telling you the $7500 price tag. Such is life.

We do still have the Bentley Library's stats, with the positions input manually. I put them on a Google Doc if you want them.

You'll note some years Michigan went to a 3-4 defense in 2004-'05 there's an uptick in linebacker tackles—that's Woodley being counted as one (for much of 1999 and 2000 they were a 3-4 but as often as not James Hall/Shantee Orr had their hands down, i.e. 4-3 under). And in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan went to a 3-3-5 (effectively three safeties) there's a safety hump. However the year with the largest % of tackles by DBs was 2011, the year Kovacs and T.Gordon were #s 2 and 3 on the tackle charts. Then it went down.

I think there's a couple things going on here. One, I think the transition to nickel happened longer ago than we gave it credit for. And two: Jake Ryan. Remember for the start of 2011 T.Gordon was playing nickel while Woolfolk was free safety. The typical configuration of Michigan's defense wasn't the 4-3 under we'd been told was coming; it was the same base nickel Michigan had before Rich Rod. The 2011 season's formations from the UFR:

Opponent Nickel   4-3  Heavy Okie 3-3-5 Other
Western Michigan 69% 5% 7% 11% 8% 0%
Notre Dame 52% 26% 6% 11% 4% 1%
Eastern Michigan 17% 54% 21% 4% 0% 4%
San Diego State 43% 45% 6% 6% 0% 0%
Minnesota 42% 50% 6% 3% 0% 0%
Northwestern 80% 15% 2% 0% 3% 0%
Michigan State 32% 55% 10% 2% 2% 0%
Purdue 35% 59% 4% 0% 2% 0%
Iowa 16% 63% 16% 5% 0% 0%
Illinois 51% 25% 6% 14% 1% 3%
Nebraska 35% 38% 8% 15% 0% 5%
Ohio State 23% 57% 8% 12% 0% 0%
Season 43% 39% 8% 7% 2% 1%

It was highly opponent-dependent. You'll note the trajectory of the Okie as they debuted it, shelved it, then brought it back against Illinois. But you'll also see Mattison deploying 4-3 alignments more often against spread outfits. Against Kain Colter and Northwestern's spread-option offense they were 80% nickel; against Braxton Miller and Ohio State's they were 23%.

I think what they discovered was they could get away with Jake Ryan as the HSP. Come 2012 and 2013 that was the base.

When did it get Nickel-y?

From personal recollection Lloyd used a lot of 3-3-5 nickel against spread teams after 2000, when his 4-2-5 nickel got shredded by Randy Walker's Rodriguezian offense. The tackling stats don't say. Even when I went through to identify who played "SAM" (Spur in 3-3-5, not the WDE in a 3-4) and nickel the tackle totals told no story:

Michigan def stats to 1995-sams

I'm giving up on this route. Eventually someone will find something useful to do with tackling stats but this isn't that day. If someone has an idea for how to find the rise of the nickelback in statistics, I'm all ears. In the meantime let's watch defense porn.

Preview 2013: Five Questions, Five Answers, Defense

Preview 2013: Five Questions, Five Answers, Defense

Submitted by Brian on August 30th, 2013 at 1:47 PM

Previously: Podcast 5.0, The Story, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Friends, Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Linebacker,Cornerback, Safety, Special Teams. Five Questions: Offense.

1. Novacs?

Michigan St Michigan Football

Oh man that's brutal you just accidentally made me think about some combination of Novak and Kovacs that still doesn't have any eligibility you're a monster

It's bad you guys. I am admittedly super paranoid about this business. But you're a Michigan fan too. You are either super paranoid, 14, or not paying attention. In any normal situation I would be freakin' out you guys, and now you're telling me that the guy replacing Kovacs is either

  1. the guy who couldn't play a deep half in the bowl game to the tune of 100 yards of doom, or
  2. a 175-pound nickel corner who has never played safety in his life.

Excuse me while I eat balloon animals until my spleen ruptures.

Look… man, I am irrationally optimistic about Devin Gardner and the running backs and the receivers and even the offensive line. I am really into large portions of this team. And I cannot find any reason to not run around in circles perpetually about replacing Kovacs. God, I wish I could. God, I wish all sorts of things about Kovacs and his replacements. I just don't know man.

It should be Avery long-term, because you don't move a guy like Avery to safety unless you are just trying to get everyone aligned right on every snap and playing the right coverage. His main asset is experience. But Avery is hurt now, was hurt last year, and projects to always be hurt. The situation here is analogous to the one at left guard, where it seems like Michigan wants to play a guy they can't count on because of his injury history. The difference at guard is that they have another option good enough to go with. The tea leaves imply that that is not the case at safety.

Yeah, maybe it'll be okay. Maybe I'm making too much of limited snaps for Wilson and writing a guy off prematurely, but guys in the comments of the safeties section saying that the Avery move is a logical one to get your best four defensive backs on the field: you're these guys.

Hey, I'd love to be wrong here. I'd love to be more wrong about this than anything I have been wrong about, and hoo boy have I been wrong about some things.

[After THE JUMP: Papering over Novacs, and like I am so serene you guys. About other bits.]

Unverified Voracity Gonna Rage Some Cajuns

Unverified Voracity Gonna Rage Some Cajuns

Submitted by Brian on May 20th, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Best ever. Wolverine Historian assembles 15 minutes of Keith Jackson clips, and it's as glorious as you'd think.

"my spine is still tingling" -Ace

WH's magnum opus? To date.

Get the brooms. Congrats to the softball team, which swept through their regional in three straight games. Michigan opened the weekend with a 5-0 shutout of Valpo, did the exact same thing to Cal the next day, and took out the Bears again to close out their 16th regional title.

Michigan gets Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend at Alumni for the right to go to the WCWS after the Ragin' Cajuns upset LSU. Michigan beat ULL earlier this season in Florida 3-1. That was ace vs ace as Driesenga faced off against ULL's Jordan Wallace, who was 31-7 this season with a 1.73 ERA and four Ks to every walk issued. A two run Ashley Lane homer was the difference.

ULL proceeded to stomp through the Sun Belt before falling into the elimination bracket early in their conference tourney; though they pushed through and took WKU to a winner-take-all final they could not get the job done in that. That didn't seem to affect them, as they also swept through their regional without giving up so much as a run.

Michigan should be favored, I'd guess.

Notable things said during the takeover. WTKA's annual Mott Takeover was Friday and raised almost 100k for the eponymous children's hospital. It also was an opportunity for people to say notable things on the radio. The reddest of the red meat came from Steve Everitt. Brady Hoke's pet viking took the opportunity to blast Kirk Cousins for something innocuous he said two years ago and dump on "Notre Shame," no doubt causing a tweed-jacketed Notre Dame alum driving through town to bite down so hard on his pipe that it cracked. Meat for the meat god!

In news-ish substances, Roy Manning reiterated that Jake Ryan was on track for a midseason recovery and talked up his potential replacements. On Beyer:

"He's done a great job, he really has," Manning said of Beyer. "The transition was seamless for him. He did the things that made him successful in the past. That kid really is a sharp kid. Probably one of the hardest working kids -- I think most people on the team -- hardest working kids on the entire team."

Curt Mallory noted that statements around here that nickel is really a 12th starting spot are neither balderdash nor horsehockey:

“He got the majority of the reps at the nickel back,” Mallory said of Thomas on Friday during the Mott Takeover on WTKA-AM (1050). “That position has been played in the past by not only Courtney, but also Thomas Gordon. That really is a position that’s a starting position. Our first year, I believe Courtney played 400-some snaps at that position alone.

"(Thomas is) going to be a contributor -- we’re expecting him to be a major contributor, more so at the nickel back position and we’ll see where he goes from there.”

Also, yeah, Thomas has already locked down a starting job. Borges talked up Kyle Kalis and did vaguely imply that Glasgow had a slight edge for the LG job:

"The depth chart is still in pencil there, but one guy who took the next step was Kyle Kalis," Borges said. "When he came in, he was just not ready to play yet. It was overwhelming from the systematic perspective. Not so much physically. Kyle from the first day to the last day (of spring practice) really improved his game. He's a powerful kid who can run-block and is learning the techniques better in the passing game.

"And Jack Miller, our center, did a really nice job. He's in a competitive battle with Graham Glasgow, but he kind of answered the call, so I think he's going to be a factor. Left guard, Graham Glasgow, will be part of the mix there, coupled with Ben Braden, who's as talented a lineman as we have."

Chances Michigan brings in a transfer QB are dim, so it's on Shane Morris and the other guys coaching him up:

"You can't coach him -- that's your problem, is you can't coach him," offensive coordinator Al Borges said last week. "But our kids can coach him. So if he goes out there in some offseason workouts, there's no rule against Devin Gardner showing Shane Morris what to do.

"He'll have to get it through osmosis a little bit."

This is kind of a strange thing, to think a Cass Tech player is underrated. If you'd like some confirmation that Delano Hill is pretty dang fast, he ran a 10.8 100 meter at state regionals a few days ago while also anchoring Cass's 4x100m and 4x200m relays, both of which finished first.

That is not quite Denard's 10.44 from his high school days, but it's not bad for a guy who's nearly 200 pounds and is likely to play safety. Add it to the pile of reasons to think the guy is being sold a little short.

The other ball and stick game. Baseball squeezed into the Big Ten tournament as the sixth seed, not a bad accomplishment for Erik Bakich's first year. Michigan takes on Nebraska at 3:30 Wednesday (BTN) just a few days after taking two of three from the Huskers to close out the regular season.

After all, what can go wrong with drafting a touted point guard out of your home state? In news not at all likely to make me start watching the Pistons regularly for the first time since they traded Chauncey Billups—which still kills me, I mean broke-ass inefficient Allen Iverson cumong man—the Pistons have not even talked to Trey Burke:

Later Thursday, Burke is slated for at least six more interviews with pro squads.

Does he have one with the Detroit Pistons?

"No, I don't," Burke said Thursday. "I was actually surprised. But talking to my father (and agent, Benji Burke), he said some teams do that just to not let other teams know that they're interested (in a player).

"I don't know. I don't think they're going to bring me in for an interview."

Burke measured at 6'1" at the combine, which is a couple inches taller than I thought he would. That further bolsters his case to go near the top of the draft, so the Pistons potential lack of interest is likely moot anyway. Instead, Joe Dumars will pick the guy with the fewest eyebrows.

Etc.: home video of Michigan folks stopping in at Mott. Peyton Siva tells Burke the best block ever was in fact a block and not a foul. Jeff Withey changes his tune on Mitch McGary. Michigan won't break its Adidas contract. Well… yeah.