Hokepoints: Safety Spring Nits

Submitted by Seth on April 23rd, 2013 at 11:03 AM

medium_adamsmedium_wilson

One of these is Jamar Adams, the other Jarrod Wilson (by Fuller)

Here's a little tradition from around these parts that you're not happy to bring back: who's going to be the new safety starter? Yeah, remember that conversation? Remember how it went around picking up all the we-hope-he's-at-least-an-Englemons out of Gibson'ed secondaries?

The best of all that. This last bout of hand wringing finally ended with the best safety tandem we've had in the Cover-2 era. In their two years together Kovacs and Gordon were the first capable pair since Brandent and Jamar, easily the best since Marlin and Ernest, and probably ranked higher than any since Marcus and Tommy or earlier. We can actually chart the stuff since '07, thanks to Brian's Upon Further Review charts (which total up the plusses and minuses accrued in each game into a rough net contribution stat). I've got my UFR database now updated that far (any further and the knowledge isn't really there to make it relevant or comparable). Remember this is a game-by-game exercise that wasn't meant to remain standard across the ages; that said the Chart?-Chart! chart totals for Michigan safeties in these six seasons very much fit your recollections:

Player 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Career
Brandent Englemon 12 +12
Jamar Adams 9 +9
Charles Stewart -15   -15
Brandon Harrison 1.5   +1.5
Artis Chambers -1 -1
Stevie Brown -9 -7 -16
Michael Williams 2.5 -26.5 -24
Troy Woolfolk -10.5 0 -10.5
Jared Van Slyke         0   0
Brandon Smith -3.5 -3.5
Jordan Kovacs -7 -4.5 37 11 +36.5
Vladimir Emilien     0       0
Cam Gordon -26.5 -26.5
Thomas Gordon 17.5 24 +41.5
Carvin Johnson   -7.5 -7.5
Josh Furman -2 -2
Ray Vinopal -3.5 -3.5
Marvin Robinson   0 -9 0.5 -8.5
Jarrod Wilson -2 -2
Total 12 -19 -47.5 -34.5 38 31.5 -19.5

Chart notes: maize is positive, blue negative so that can stand out more. Time spent at the Spur in the 3-3-5 years was counted as linebacker, likewise Brandon Harrison's 2007 at nickel, which was a starting position on the English defenses. I tried to separate Woolfolk's corner games from his safety games; for the record here's the breakdown for 2009:

Position Gm + - Tot
Safety 5 3.5 14 -10.5
Cornerback 5 4 8.5 -4.5

…when he was obviously a better corner than a safety but as you can see from above, was needed more at the latter.

Still the totals at the bottom tell a story of a moderately positive '07 (Stevie Brown—0/-8/-8 in The Horror) did most of his damage in one game, which itself did plenty of damage to that season), three years of atrociousness, and dramatic improvement under the new staff. If you remember 2010 as worse than '09 that's because the cornerbacks were just as bad. The disparity between Kovacs 2011 and 2012 is easy enough to explain by there being far fewer opportunities for him to make those Kovacsian stops after 7 yards as Michigan faced either Alabama or teams who either didn't test or schemed against him (Air Force, Nebraska).

Also I had to chart The Horror myself because Brian didn't at the time. Thanks Brian.* Anyway the charting says Thomas Gordon (!) was the best safety at Michigan in the last six seasons. Should we be talking about all-conference stuff for ol' Prison Abs in addition to the leadership stuff? Gee, maybe. He had a spectacular spring game, which I don't think many people noticed.

As for what's opposite him Michigan has to find something out of the blues above plus another year of progression.

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*Had this been done under modern UFR standards it would have doubled any record for RPS debacles. Just to know I tried doing that, handing out the remainder of expected points for any play that weren't on the players as Brian does in UFR-ing and came out with this staggering figure of +23/-46/-23. RPS is never that much of a variable, except in this game it was the alignment of linebackers, stunts (!), not stacking the box, and not responding to the QB draw even though they only ever ran one play out of that alignment.

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[After the jump: Candidates]

I downloaded the wrong torrent but fortunately mgovideo made an every snap video from the spring game that I was able to pick through for safety-related material.

Jarrod Wilson is still the presumptive favorite right now. He was with the ones in the Spring Game and burned his shirt last year in order to get some experience. When we were riding to the post-game event, I was talking to Marlin about Jarrod, whom he blamed for the Butt touchdown:

Elsewhere folks have blamed that on Desmond Morgan not getting enough depth on his drop, but Wilson is the overhang guy who, according to Marlin, didn't recognize his position on the field. Notice how Wilson cut deeper into the end zone while the ball was in the air, meaning his momentum is taking him away from the play. The catch is made several feet from the spot he just abandoned in order to cover territory that's out of bounds. According to Marlin, offenses usually attack the front of the end zone and safeties should seek to protect that line first and foremost, trusting in their athleticism to adjust if the ball is thrown over their heads. He also said it is one of those young mistakes that will be automatic after enough experience.

Here's Jarrod reacting to a quick toss to the tight end that Morgan left open:

You can see they're using him as the deep guy while Gordon plays strong side. Jamar Adams played that strongside but it's still a very Adams-like play by Wilson, who sat responsibly in his zone then reacted immediately and correctly to the pass. Beyer was only near that play because he was way slow guarding Funchess in the flat.

Jeremy Clark and Marvin Robinson got to play with the twos as the free and strong, respectively. A lot of their coverage stuff was thus spent against Cleary, who made it kinda easy. M-Rob got one such knock-down early on the first worrying duck of the day. Marlin said he liked his play better than Wilson's but I didn't get to see much of him against the first team; when they did I saw him getting cut by receivers because he didn't attack the run fast enough.

Against Michigan's D-I quarterback, Clark was culpable on the long Funchess grab:

…where you can see he's in the right spot in coverage but can't get over there in time to do much more than shove a guy to the turf and hope the ball comes loose. If you watch the next play you get to watch some bad safety play against the run from both Robinson and Clark, as both guys bit inside and opened up a long TD run. M-Rob's bite got him down-blocked by Darboh; Clark went hard to a hole that was filled and then tried to tackle Rawls by leaping back-first into him. The tackle was made by M-Rob who closed using his speed—save this for an example when somebody asks you why speed is good to have but is less important than skill. (Also watch this one again for the +2 Kerridge block on Jibreel Black).

Here's another run on the next drive against our 2nd string safeties:

In that play you can see M-Rob hitting Jeremy Jackson, which establishes his position against a cutback (which was good since the stunt to the backside meant there's no scraping DE to cover that) but also blocks himself out of the play. Now watch Clark, who got to the right spot to close it down, but not as fast as you'd want. The replay shows it better: he hesitated in case of a cutback but then accelerates to his top speed and goes off screen. When we see him again that top speed doesn't get him to the ballcarrier until Rawls is at the 50. Kovacs wasn't any faster, but you got used to him reading the RB's mind and arriving about the time Terry Richardson is holding the outside.

Later Clark is the safety juked out of equipment by Norfleet but you can only fault him so much for that. He also made this play, where he hesitated about a second more than a Kovacs might have but then attacked his hole and made a good tackle. It's nothing like the disasters of the Gibson era—these DBs are playing sound—but I don't expect Clark to be a very viable option just yet, and Marvin Robinson still appears very young despite being a senior.

Others. Right now I can't say what we'll get from true freshman Dymonte Thomas since he was at nickel. I did like Allen Gant's momentum-stopper during Swieca time. Josh Furman didn't seem to register.

Comments

Magnus

April 23rd, 2013 at 11:26 AM ^

The thing on the Butt TD play is that Morgan had no other threats across the middle.  I really think he should have carried Butt deeper.  The safeties didn't react well, and I agree that Wilson is partially culpable because of his positioning; but Morgan didn't do much to discourage that throw over the middle.

I know this isn't going out on a limb or anything, but I'm concerned about the safety play for 2013.  Other than Gordon, I don't think anyone is ready to be a starter, including Wilson, Robinson, Clark, Furman, Gant, Thomas, etc.  Despite their respective gaffes, I still like Robinson against the run and Wilson against the pass, but things aren't quite that simple.

Seth

April 23rd, 2013 at 11:58 AM ^

Right. My same fears are what inspired me to write this, though it's a concern more on par with the Carr-era "oh no who's the other gonna be next to the one guy I like?" than the utter panic of all the RR years. If I was a betting man, I'd say I think Wilson will earn the job out of fall camp and Thomas will charge up the ranks during the season. I haven't seen enough of Robinson to like him against the run; I do know I'd take a Jamar Adams (good against the pass, adequate run-stopper) over a Shazor (good against the run, adequate coverage) with this front seven since the linebacker depth plus the existence of a safety-like object at SAM and the pass-o-rific schedule make it seem unlikely we'll need a lot of box play out of the SS this year.

Seth

April 23rd, 2013 at 5:27 PM ^

Do you remember who the nickels were in 2011 before Courtney Avery seized the job along with Braxton Miller's last pass in the Big House? It was Gordon and Woolfolk. Really the nickel job in this defense is more of a 3rd safety than a 3rd cornerback, and they like to play the free safeties there.

Nickel is basically another starting position, more so this year than last since we basically replace Alabama (who prefers heavy formations) with Akron, who runs a Purdue-like dink and dunk.

Ohio State plays a very similar system with Christian Bryant, who is their "Star linebacker" (!) despite being Dymonte-sized. When OSU went to a 4-3 look Bryant was the free safety and C.J. Barnett remaining at SS. You'll note that Bryant is listed as a safety on the Ohio State roster (http://www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/osu-m-footbl-mtt.h…).

Dymonte's position is virtually identical. Courtney Avery played it last year but even then the role was more like that of Brandon Harrison's in 2007 than the primarily coverage position Avery and Talbott played as freshmen.

I know it's weird to anyone who's played a lot of NCAA games but I believe Michigan's nickel is more of a third safety than a third cornerback, and that the guy playing it is expected to be just as capable of playing free safety. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually have Thomas play some Cover-1 and roll Gordon into the nickel spot to better utilize their talents (Dymonte will have to demonstrate he's responsible enough).

We didn't get to do this much because Kovacs's skillset did not lend itself well to being a cover-1 guy, but the coaches have talked about how they'd like to have the safeties be more interchangeable so they can show more cover looks in personnel and pre-snap. When we saw them on the field, Thomas was doing this safety stuff.

Blue boy johnson

April 23rd, 2013 at 5:52 PM ^

I didn't see Thomas playing safety in the spring game. I saw Clark and Gant subbing in at the safety position but not Thomas. I liken Thomas playing safety as a true freshman to Mitch McGary posting up as a true freshman; it's a good idea, I don't see it as practical. Sophomore seasons? Now that a whole different story.
I think a lot of this is just semantics. Once they get out on the field responsibilities can take them pretty much anywhere. Hell Mike Martin was one of the best nickels I've ever seen in some games!

dragonchild

April 23rd, 2013 at 5:01 PM ^

I think the defense will be fine, but we HAVE to get over last year; it won't be fair to this year's unit.  Gordon-Kovacs was the best safety tandem I'd seen at Michigan in at least a decade.

We were flat-out spoiled at safety last year.  I know secondaries are judged as a unit and we were paper-thin at corner, but it says a lot that opposing offenses picked on J.T. Floyd.  He was hardly bad; QBs just didn't have many other options (not to mention the B1G didn't have many elite receivers).  I don't even recall that many attempts to go deep against our D (until SC's four-verts anyway) because in most cases slinging it was basically a wasted down.

I just hope that the first time the inexperience at safety forgives a long TD, MGoBlog doesn't lose it.  Again, we'll be fine, but offenses will be looking to test our new FS.

Space Coyote

April 23rd, 2013 at 1:56 PM ^

Which is unfortunate, not because I agree with you, but because I think Gordon has by far more upside at SS. I think if he has a future in the game (which isn't outside the realm of possibility) it will be at SS, as he doesn't have the speed for FS, but is big enough and aggressive enough to play SS to a better degree. But Wilson simply hasn't looked ready to play FS, let alone play SS when the positions get switched. But the same can be said for Robinson when he's playing SS and strength changes.

Danwillhor

April 23rd, 2013 at 1:59 PM ^

It's just amazing to me how Robinson was essentially a Wolverine as a Sophmore in HS. A given aside from his senior year when he didn't convince anyone that he was newly interested in UNC. Anyway, as a Sophmore Marvin was compared to the great Florida school DBs and a sure fire can't miss. Almost 8 years later and it's his last year yet he has done next to nothing. Sure, he had the misfortune of the worst defensive coach in CFB history his first couple years but he hasn't even shown flashes. I'm not trying to put him down as much as state how amazingly shocked I am that the almost zero impact he has made given he basically was good enough for LLOYD CARR to offer (and essentially land him) him as a FR/SO in HS. Marvin's only memory for me is his absolutely blown coverage in the UTL game that gave ND the lead with seconds remaining. I'd love for him (and Furman) to suddenly live up to their billing but they won't. It will be Wilson/Gordon/Clark/Thomas, IMHO.

Seth

April 23rd, 2013 at 2:15 PM ^

It's not THAT weird. Kids who have an early growth spurt often leap up the rankings then fall back as their classmates catch up. His rankings dropped as his high school career progressed, especially after it became clear he was probably done growing and wouldn't end up linebacker-sized with that athleticism.

I've noticed a lot of the sophomore phenoms who do end up college and pro stars keep growing, ending up as OLBs or defensive ends.

Danwillhor

April 23rd, 2013 at 3:14 PM ^

Not calling it weird as much as shocking. Basically, if told when we first heard of him that he'd be a Senior and not so much as earned All-B10 honorable mention by now I'd have been shocked. I get the growing aspect that THAT doesn't surprise me. It's that he never developed into anything despite a very reserved coach wanting him so badly for his athleticism that he offered him as a FR/SO. I'm shocked he isn't even a viable backup LB or the likes of what you mention. I truly hope something clicks on for him over the summer but I have no evidence to think it will. Same for Furman. Both seemed like such athletes that they'd make a mark somewhere other than ST.

Danwillhor

April 23rd, 2013 at 3:17 PM ^

I'm an open and admitted Nike lover as far as our unis went. Money or not, we need them back because our jerseys even in the 90s were better made and looked better than anything under Adidas. At least Nike had our colors right, ffs. Also, I don't like the notion that Nike = Uniformz. It's a school choice. We could easily go back with Nike and pass on their BS ideas. Would Brandon do that? That's the question. ha