It took two years, but it seems the OG signing day that used to thaw our frozen midwinter hearts has been usurped by its pre-bowl season sibling. Michigan is expected to sign one prospect today, Washington D.C. safety Quinten Johnson. That signing barely even counts, as the only reason Johnson didn’t submit his letter in December is because his head coach asked that he do so with all of his teammates in a ceremony at their school in February. I thought an interesting alternative to pulling together a recruiting roundup that has nothing to do with players that can sign today would be to look at Michigan’s highest-rated player in the 2019 class, OK S Daxton Hill. His 0.9927 composite rating on 247 places him eighth on their list of all-time recruit rankings, sandwiched between Brandon Graham (0.9930) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (0.9925). Not bad company to keep. Hill’s every-snap film is particularly relevant to our interests because of Michigan’s roster; there’s certainly real competition in the form of Brad Hawkins and J’Marick Woods, but Hill is the Twitter favorite to step in and fill Tyree Kinnel’s vacated free safety spot. Taking in a full game should allow us to better assess whether he’s mentally and physically ready for the next step.
[After THE JUMP: every-snap film and scouting]
Theoretically taking in a full game should allow us to better assess whether he’s mentally and physically ready for the next step. Sometimes there are two full games but only one works and said one happens to involve a significant number of plays filmed from the sideline in a fit of inspiration that I can only assume came from ESPN’s one-off ref-butt-cam experiment. There’s still quite a bit to take from the film, but I thought it fair to warn you that I dropped three or four plays completely because Hill was lined up outside and the sideline cam was zoomed in exclusively between the tackles.
[Hill is #30]
[00:35] This punt return shows how fast he is relative to the competition and, uh, it’s pretty dang fast.
[00:45] Hill is athletic enough to stop-start his way past a block, getting the lunging lineman off balance and using his hands to shed. Hill then launches himself at the ball carrier and tries but is unable to bring down the back with one hand.
[1:03] Hill lines up over the slot and buys the first couple steps of a fade before realizing he’s been duped and it’s a screen. He’s changing direction as soon as the receiver turns his hips toward the line of scrimmage, then goes over an attempted pick and a block to get to the receiver. Hill throws himself at the ball carrier and knocks him down with just a shoulder; this is one of his habits (which he pointed out at the All-American Bowl) he’ll have to work on replacing with proper tackling technique at the next level.
[2:07] He can play in the box, too. Hill reads which gap the run is going to hit and gets there in a split second, shutting down the play.
[2:18] Hill takes the tight end as he splits out and runs through the slot. Hill outruns the tight end, pushing ahead of him as he sees the quarterback break the pocket and rumble to his left. The vaunted closing speed is on full display here, and man is it vaunted for a reason. Hill erases the space between himself and the QB so quickly that the camera doesn’t adjust in time, the tackle by a teammate occurring outside the frame and Hill somehow a couple of yards upfield of the quarterback.
[2:51] The camera switched mid-play but it isn’t hard to figure out where Hill is. It looks like he was covering the slot and broke for the middle of the field after he saw the runner break through the line, and here’s another shining example of his closing speed. He undoubtedly saves a touchdown here.
[3:10] Hill is on the far side of the field, and the sideline camera allows us a close-up look at his backpedal and jam. He’s watching the backfield before he makes contact with the receiver, and he’s already read run before the receiver reaches him. He’s off the receiver’s attempted block in a beat and flies toward the pile to support.
[3:45] If this was a college game you’d probably want him to just get upfield after destroying the first attempted tackle, but it’s hard to criticize rerouting in an effort to break a long run when you can see he’s more athletic than everyone else and is shifting his route based on where the coverage team has numbers. That’s a long-winded way of saying he reads the field well and it’s hard to fault someone with that kind of skill for trying to create.
[4:18] Hill is pressing the point and also reading the play, starting to come off his man as he sees one of the three receivers in the bunch take a couple of steps back for a screen.
[4:46] Really impressive how quickly he’s able to get off a jam from the slot when he reads run. Maybe more impressive is that he does it repeatedly.
[5:27] I’m not sure if he’s trying to jam and bail for a zone or whether the impact with the receiver knocked him back a couple of steps (seems too intentional for that but I don’t know), but he once again warps from one place to another to throw a shoulder at the quarterback.
[5:53] Hill demonstrates a nice understanding of angles here. He goes over the top to get in position for a potential run stop, realizing that flying toward the group of bodies in the middle of the field would bring him in too low should the runner start to escape before he closes. This is particularly impressive to me because it has to be hard to force yourself to think a couple steps ahead when you’re athletically so far ahead of your peers you could probably neglect to ever read the field and get away with most anything.
[6:15] This might be the highlight of the whole reel, and it’s not because of the hit (though the hit is something). It looks to me like the defense is countering the offense’s bunch alignment by putting one defender right across from the receiver who’s at the top of the bunch—this defender is “pressing the point”—while the other two defenders are either in man or waiting for the receivers to start their routes and then one takes any out-breaking routes and one any in-breaking routes. Hill sees the outside receiver step back just as a he did earlier in the game, and he’s headed downhill with a head of steam to break up a screen. He’s so fast that he’s gone before the in-breaking route can pick him.
[6:25] Any questions about his ability to flip his hips is answered here. Hill chops and pushes off his right foot when he thinks it’s an in-breaking route, but the receiver has him fooled. As the receiver cuts back outside, Hill—who would have been a step ahead of the receiver if he did cut inside—flips his hips 180 degrees and runs the rest of the route with the receiver. He has his man blanketed at the top of the route and the ball goes elsewhere.
Hill has elite closing speed, is excellent at diagnosing plays, and exhibits good footwork when asked to cover receivers. He takes the correct angle to the ball every time he’s tasked with doing so downfield and is very good in run support, in part because he’s able to recognize plays with speed and in part because his off-the-charts athleticism makes it possible to backpedal and then fly in to fill a gap in a matter of seconds. His hip flip is so fluid that he often gets a step ahead of a receiver’s route. One area for improvement is tackling form; Hill often throws a shoulder, which is effective in high school but won’t work in the Big Ten.
Almost every box you’d want checked for a safety is checked in the above film, and one of the first things I thought after re-watching the tape was that Hill has positional versatility beyond that. He’s going to need to walk down and cover a slot fade. He’s going to need to make a quick reaction when a receiver breaks out or in from a stack or bunch. He’s going to need to be able to take a zone and react to what’s happening in front of him. He can do those things. There should be no issue plugging Hill into either safety spot (though, of course, the roster dictates that he’s likely to start at free safety).
I think Hill is also feasible as a Viper. His ability to read the run and get into the right gap is aided by closing speed that’s Peppersian, and that should pair well with blitzing off the edge to make him a TFL machine. His physicality with receivers on jams and the way he throws his body at ball-carriers indicates that he’s physical enough to play in the box, and it’s clear he has the requisite skills to develop into a player who’s excellent in coverage.