Preview 2009: Secondary Comment Count

Brian September 3rd, 2009 at 11:11 AM

Part six of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, and the offensive line.

Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 2.

Depth Chart
CB Yr. FS Yr. SS Yr. CB Yr.
Boubacar Cissoko So. Troy Woolfolk Jr. Michael Williams So.* Donovan Warren Jr.
JT Floyd Fr.* Jared Van Slyke So*. Vlad Emilien Fr. Justin Turner Fr.

Christ, just look at this. Seniors: zero. Freshman starter: check. Converted corner starting at safety: check. One player with more than returning starts: check. Two, maybe three viable backups, only one of whom has ever stepped on a collegiate field before: check.

I don't want to talk about it. Brightside: no Stevie Brown?


Rating: 3.


This is two guys who should be nasty in-your-face press corners, one 6'2" corner recruit hyped to the moon, and a deep pit of terror and dismay after it. Verifying the press nasty business first:

"Boubacar and Donovan are outstanding cover guys," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Some corners don’t like to play press and get in your face. You want ones that want and relish that and want to get in and play some press one-on-one man coverage, be aggressive on the edge. And both those guys have that kind of mentality."

Donovan Warren
Post PBU
Defending the edge
Snuffs a screen
UW buffalo stampede
BONUS: Incredulous Bielema
Slant PBU
Tough press cover

Second, the men who press nasty. Man the first is Donovan Warren, a true junior out of California whose hyped stardom track (be an awesome recruit, start as a freshman, blow up as a sophomore) fell prey to the injuries and schizophrenic coaching that befell virtually everyone on the defense last year. By the Penn State game I was actively hoping/speculating that Warren was laid up:

Donovan Warren. I really, really hope he's had one of those injuries that's just not quite bad enough to knock you out of the game, and I hope he's had that most of the year. Because he hasn't made a single play, and a lot of Penn State's success was going right at him.

This was the case. Warren had offseason surgery to remove bone chips and enters the fall healthier than he was at any point last year:

"Talking with trainers and Donovan, he's as good as he's ever felt," Gibson said this summer. "Nobody really knows it except (us what he endured). He wasn't healthy at all. There wasn't one game he was healthy. We had to sit him out of drills to get him healthy. We'd never get him right."

So Warren's plateau has a reason behind it and fans can again hope that the promise that got him rated five stars and saw him leap directly into the starting lineup will pay off. Even with the bone chips, Warren turned in most of the good plays the secondary deigned to provide Michigan last year, including a certain jumped slant that turned into a Johnny Thompson buffalo stampede and, eventually, one of Michigan's precious wins.

Boubacar Cissoko
Running a guy's route
Doing it again
FROWNS: losing leverage
FROWNS: overrun

Sophomore Boubacar Cissoko is the other starter at corner. A highly rated recruit out of Cass Tech, Cissoko was reputed to be one of those feisty dwarf corners who just sits in your pocket all day and dares you to make a break. Gibson's impression of Cissoko heaven is 80 press man calls. And indeed, a couple of the highlights at right demonstrate his ability to run your route for you, thanks very much.

My go-to (and now rapidly aging) comparison was Arkansas corner Chris Houston, who I once saw battle the South Carolina star receiver before Kenny McKinley (his name escapes me) in a pitched Thursday night battle. Houston lined up two inches from his cover's grill and rode him into fades all night, some of which the opponent brought in spectacularly. That's life with feisty dwarves.

Cissoko got a start against Purdue because of Michigan's (insane!) shift to the 3-3-5 and struggled with it. Boubacar Cissoko, this is your abridged Purdue UFR:

This is just sickeningly open, with Cissoko(-1) offering an eight yard cushion and moving backward on the snap. He's nowhere near this, but is it bad play or is that just the coverage? (Cover -2) … Cissoko(-1) overruns the play and guys recover to tackle at the two. … Mouton(-1) gets too far inside and gives up the outside bounce, which Sheets takes. Good job by Cissoko(+1) to mitigate the damage. … Just to switch it up, this time it's Cissoko(-1) a couple yards off the wide receiver. Same technique as the earlier Trent thing. Purdue can run this route every damn down. … This guy is covered by Cissoko(+1) and he's got his head around looking for the ball … it looks like Orton is streaking for a touchdown until Cissoko(+1) makes it back to the ball, knocking it away. (Cover +1) Orton was open because he pulled Cissoko's facemask, FWIW. They call it; Michigan declines. … Cissoko(-1) is set up to tackle after two yards or whatever; Cissoko misses the tackle and Michigan ends up yielding six. … They're in man on this one but Cissoko gets lost, turning outside and leaving the initial hitch wide, wide open (-1, cover -2); the lateral isn't covered.

boubacar-cissoko-purdue How much of this was actually his fault? Not much. Morgan Trent was doing the exact same "sickeningly" open bit on the other side, as noted above. It was clear the corners were doing what they were told, even when it made no goddamn sense.

Gibson, for his part says, Cissoko "has got to have a great year"—encouraging!—and that he loves his aggressiveness but "you kind of have to have him back up from that a little bit." It does sound as if the light has gone on a bit, if I can extrapolate:

We grade every rep that these kids take every day. The thing about him is that he is all over the field. We use him in the run game. He’s supporting the run, he’s playing man coverage. He’s playing zone coverage. You know just all those things and he’s getting them. That’s a relief for me. He’s figuring it all out and he’s feeling comfortable as he goes.”

That inexperience and aggression was the culprit on two of Michigan State's big gainers last year. In Cissoko Michigan is likely to find a source of big plays for and against; the balance will go a long way towards determining how good the team is. The prediction here: a rough start and strong finish.

Backups and Whatnot

This position was so thin in the spring that walk-on Floyd Simmons was on the two-deep, and there was nearly disastrous attrition from the reinforcements before they even arrived on campus. Both Adrian Witty and Justin Turner had clearinghouse issues; as of this writing, Witty is still in limbo after a test retake. Even if he makes it in at this point he's a guaranteed redshirt.

Turner, though, is in. And thank God for that. He was the #1 player in Ohio last year and a near five-star who showed up at the Army All-America game seeking to prove he could operate on the corner despite checking in at 6'2". Skeptics were converted and by the time he left Turner was ranked amongst the top corners in the nation. Turner's recruiting profile has his full dossier. Here's one of a half-dozen panting quotes in the aftermath of the Army Game:

“He played his way up the charts. We knew he was good. Everyone knew what a tremendous player he was before his senior year in high school, but he separated himself in the U.S. Army game. He was arguably the best player on the field, not just in the game, but in practices as well. ... It’s exciting to see how big he’s gonna be for the Wolverines."

The Clearinghouse troubles cost him a week of practice and he may start the year behind redshirt freshman JT Floyd, about whom more in a bit, but moon-hyped Michigan cornerbacks traditionally see the field after their first few games. Turner will be no exception given the crying lack of depth in the secondary. He's already started working in with the ones a bit. Tony Gibson:

He’s having a really good camp. He ran with the ones yesterday for a couple of series at the end and made some plays. I think he got 30 total plays in the scrimmage yesterday. … That’s the first time we’ve put him in there just to see what he would do. He did really well with them. We played him a lot of man coverage yesterday and that’s kind of his thing. He’s so long, he can get his arms on people and hands on people. I like the way he’s progressing.

Unlike OMG shirtless Michigan cornerbacks past, Turner has to contend with two players who have more experience and essentially equal recruiting hype. He is not likely to start, and with Stevie Brown's presence at linebacker dedicated nickel packages might be less frequent, but he's the best bet to come off the bench on passing downs.

JT Floyd, meanwhile, arrived at Michigan with little hype and redshirted. He was originally a Tennessee commit but it didn't seem like Fulmer & Co pursued him that hard when he started to look around. With Tennessee's recruiting class that year ranking amongst the country's most disappointing, that says something. What it says is that Floyd is physically deficient. Ask Gibson:

From a mental standpoint he is really good. Physically, he is a little behind, but he is faster now going through Coach Barwis’ strength and conditioning stuff. Mentally, he has it from day one but physically is where he has had to catch up and I think he is doing that.

If that sounds like a future safety to you, it does to me, too, but they moved Woolfolk instead so I don't know. Floyd's recruiting rankings and that Gibson quote peg him squarely in the realm of low-upside overachiever; with the hyped corners all around he'll probably be a career nickel/dime guy. Think maybe Grant Mason?

The last scholarship player before we get to the aforementioned Simmons—who this preview will not discuss due to a lack of information and desire to avoid contemplating a walk-on cornerback—is converted tailback/slot receiver Teric Jones, a true freshman from Cass Tech. His recruiting profile isn't particularly useful since it assumes Jones will play offense but it does point out that Jones ran the fastest 40 at the Army Junior Combine last year; if he can learn the position he's got the speed and agility to play it. Gibson says he's been one of the pleasant surprises of camp:

We got him the day before camp started. We had a staff meeting and talked about some guys that we could move over and he was the first guy we had mentioned. He’s been in the two deep the last couple of practices. He had a good day yesterday, had an interception. He’s playing well and learning the system. He still has a lot to learn obviously, but he’s getting better.

That's encouraging, but Jones didn't play a snap of defense in high school and if this isn't a redshirt year for him we'll be cursing Angry Michigan Cornerback-Hating God, because at least two corners will be laid up.

Rating: 1

Stevie Brown and his reel of lowlights interspersed with good man coverage are off to the linebackers section, leaving Michigan's safety situation at the exact spot you would expect given that Brown was an unchallenged starter all last year despite stuff like this being a regular occurrence. But that's another show.

The remaining folk at this position are:

  • a junior who was a cornerback halfway through fall practice
  • a redshirt sophomore who did not challenge Brown or equally poor Charles Stewart for (much) playing time last year
  • a true freshman who missed his senior year of high school with a knee injury
  • a true freshman who was a quarterback until Michigan told him they'd offer if they saw him at safety as a senior
  • walk-ons!

At least it can't get worse, right? I just checked all the defensive UFRs from last year and I can assure you that it cannot. Except that's what I said two years ago when Brown replaced Ryan Mundy, a guy with his own unflattering stat named after him and "the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform." Brown was directly responsible for 14 points during The Horror and Mundy got drafted. By an NFL team.

Of course it can get worse. Do not doubt the power of Angry Michigan Safety-Hating God. Of all the gods that are randomly angered by various college football position groups only Angry Iowa Tailback-Hating God is as wroth.

Michigan was going with Mike Williams and Brandon Smith early in spring until their performance was clearly substandard. They moved Smith to linebacker, Troy Woolfolk to safety, and Vlad Emilien into the starting lineup.

troy-woolfolk Of the above options, one stands above the rest and it's the cornerback. Junior Troy Woolfolk, yes still the son of Butch Woolfolk and a man who will probably retain that status next year, has locked down a starting spot since he moved from corner just before the spring game.

Longtime readers of the blog will know this trips one of MGoBlog's heuristics for season prediction: any guy you swap from one position to another and then expect to start will be bad, and given that this guy moved and is your best option that probably goes for the whole unit as well. Now, this is considerably stronger when the player in question is flipping from one side of the ball to another or going from a position that's usually considered easier to play to one that's tougher. Last year's John Ferrara move from DT to guard was an obvious reason to groan at the state of the offensive line; a corner moving to safety is more likely to be a non-disaster. But it's still not good.

Maybe Woolfolk's history at the position—he played it his senior year of high school in an attempt to take advantage of his speed—will help out. Maybe the aforementioned speed, which is considerable, will. It won't take much to make Michigan fans, or Obi Ezeh, happy:

"Less so than last year is the play culminating in a 50-yard bomb, you know," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "That's always a good thing when you don't have to worry about that."

What a remarkable quote. It says so many things. Some are about Stevie Brown. Some are about the recent history of Michigan safeties not named Jamar Adams. Some are about Troy Woolfolk. And some are abut life. There's never been a more appropriate spot to say this: so, yeah, we've got that going for us.

And for a throwaway quote with odd syntax it's pretty encouraging. Less so than last year is the 50 yard touchdown culmination. If we close our eyes and say it over and over again everything will be black and white and someone nice and matronly will be pressing a cold compress to our forehead as we detail the strange dream wherein our favorite football team went 3-9.

For his part, Woolfolk:

"You can be the fastest person in the world, but if you're not making the right keys, it can happen," Woolfolk said. "Like on playaction and not picking up the tight end, it's not only speed but also being smart and I'm working on the intelligence aspect of the game.

"But I think the speed will help as well."

I dunno. He could be okay. He's an upperclassman who put a death grip on the job as soon as he got it and safety is less physically demanding than cornerback. And though he's got the weight of history and heuristics against him, when I sat in for Sam Webb on WTKA both Craig Ross and's Michael Rothstein brought up their strange, unjustified confidence in Woolfolk based on their readings of practice tea leaves and the confidence both Woolfolk and his teammates had in him.

On Media Day, Tony Gibson called Woolfolk "his eraser"; if that's all he does this year he'll vastly improve Michigan's defense. It is too much to hope, and yet…


…there it is. Hope.

Mike Williams
Backside sack

The player opposite Woolfolk is yet to be determined. True freshman Vlad Emilien, an early enroller who promises to have an MGoShirt (THE IMPALER!) sooner rather than later if he pans out, was the tentative leader at the spring game. He played opposite Woolfolk and didn't do anything particularly embarrassing. The other candidate is Mike Williams, the erstwhile leader before the spring switch and is the designated starter for Western; he's not big but has a reputation as a ferocious hitter. A ferocious, irresponsible hitter.

Emilien's been the presumed starter here and elsewhere but no one's really had much to go on since the spring position switch and there's at least one guy who's been taking in what practice he can who expects the (relatively) veteran player to get the nod. He's's Dave Birkett:

"I know I'm going to have a little jitters playing in front of 110,000," Emilien said. "But I’m looking forward to just showing my aggression, just getting out there and playing to my full potential." …

A January enrollee, Emilien is healthy now and has shown enough in spring practice and fall camp to crack the playing group at the thin safety position. Converted cornerback Troy Woolfolk and sophomore Mike Williams are the projected starters, with Emilien and Jared Van Slyke pushing for time as backups.

Here's something to shiver your spine: Van Slyke's one of them walk-on folk. Beatwriter depth-chart guessing is just above blogger deduction in terms of accuracy—not much to be found in either—but it's something at a murky, touchdown-scoring-shark infested position. 

Back to people with scholarships: Emilien is a wild card after his senior year of high school was wiped out by a knee injury (recruiting profile for you). Before that he was on the verge of committing to Ohio State; after it Ohio State backed off and Emilien lost interest. When the Buckeyes came back in late, they were told to talk to the hand. This was the main factor in his decision:

"It meant a lot to me that U-M stayed loyal to me after I hurt my knee ... others stopped recruiting me at that time and that hurt. Michigan stayed with me; they showed me they will still be with me in tough times as well as good."

So Emilien's a risk because of injury and resultant inexperience but he's got four stars despite the senior-year injury and offers from Ohio State, which has a frustrating excellent safety factory right next to their frustrating excellent kicker factory, and a number of other high-profile schools. He arrived in spring and his knee is healthy. As a natural safety it's a matter of time before he sees the field in some capacity. There's reason for significant optimism for his career… but he remains a freshman. And never again shall I say "Player X couldn't possibly be worse than impossibly bad Safety Y."

Backups And Whatnot

What backups? It appears that Jared Van Slyke is on the two-deep for serious. Now, you can get away with the occasional walk-on safety—Jon Chait had the best zinger of a three-hour block on WTKA when he said Wisconsin had an "endowed chair" for walk-on safeties—but raise your hand if you're enthusiastic about that prospect given Michigan's safety play of late. Right: no one.

He's important enough to video but even Van Slyke admits he's "surprised" to be in a position to play before doing a 180 and declaring he's always expected it. I've got nothing on him other than what the coaches say, so Tony Gibson:

Jared has done a nice job. The deal with Jared, he was a quarterback at Southeast Missouri, transferred in here, was a wide receiver until right before spring ball and we moved Jared in right now. He’s battling obviously Troy for some playing time back there…. I kind of like my depth at safety. They’re young kids, but I like coaching them and they’re aggressive to learn and all that. I like what their doing.

That makes one of us, Tony Gibson.


He sat out last year in his redshirt year, but he’s been very active at safety for us. He’s a smart football player. He’s involved in a lot of the special teams. He’s going to get a chance to play next weekend.

I assume that's just on special teams. Also hope. BONUS biographical note: Van Slyke is the son of longtime baseball pro and Tigers assistant Andy Van Slyke.

The guy behind Slyke is true freshman Thomas Gordon, also from Cass Tech. (If Dior Mathis and 2011 CB Delonte Hollowell sign on, Michigan will be able to field an entire nickel package from one high school.) He was a high school quarterback who showed at summer camp, was told to play safety in the fall to get an offer, got one, and committed. So he's raw. He was also nicknamed "prison abs" by Rodriguez—causing several Free Press writers to faint—and therefore can be expected to have a good work ethic.

Like Jones, an appearance by Gordon this year means several players have been struck by lightning and bodes very unwell. A redshirt is best here, plz k thx. Here is Gordon's recruiting profile, by the way.

And that's it.


Yinka Double Dare

September 3rd, 2009 at 11:32 AM ^

I know it's a bit odd, but if we're going to have a walk-on safety potentially playing, the fact that the guy is a former QB (should give him a jump on understanding what he's seeing offenses do in front of him) with a professional athlete (the elder Van Slyke having been a guy with both speed and some power) pedigree does make me feel better than most walk-ons would make me feel.

That's not to say he'll be good, but he might not end up being a total disaster. And given the regular playing time of Total Disaster the last few years at safety, I'd take it.


September 3rd, 2009 at 11:50 AM ^

So Warren's plateau has a reason behind it and fans can again hope that the promise that got him rated five stars and saw him leap directly into the starting lineup will pay off.

Maybe picking nits here, but I think the almost immediate leap into the starting lineup had more to do with what Johnny Sears didn't do than what Donovan Warren did.

He would've ended up in the starting lineup by the end of 2007 anyhow, though, so your point still stands.


September 3rd, 2009 at 11:55 AM ^

The starting FREE safety will be Mike Williams. I've maintained for a while that he should start over Emilien (for obvious reasons), and that's what the depth chart and Tony Gibson said, too.

Also, the starting STRONG safety will be Woolfolk. I think it makes more sense to have Woolfolk at free safety, too, but once again, the depth chart and the coaches have called him a strong safety.


September 3rd, 2009 at 1:33 PM ^


Admittedly I know little of defensive alignments but I have a question. What's the difference between a Free and Strong in a cover 2 situation. Don't both safeties simply have deep responsibility? Or is it more intricate than that (which is more than likely)

And my understanding is that there will be playing primarily cover 2, which could be wrong as well.


September 3rd, 2009 at 2:41 PM ^

If they're playing Cover 2, there's virtually no difference in pass coverage. Each has a deep half of the field. But the SS would go to the strong side of the field (usually the TE side) and, therefore, he'd be more likely to get involved in supporting the run.

Mountaineers Fanatic

September 3rd, 2009 at 12:04 PM ^

I think the DB crew looks pretty good. Yes they are young and inexperienced, but I think overall they are better than what Michigan has had the past couple years. It may take them a couple games, at least the backups, to get used to college football, but when they do I think they will be very impressive


September 3rd, 2009 at 1:30 PM ^

My goodness, that two deep is terrifying! We have to pray that the starters stay healthy, Having 3 fr and a walk-on as back ups doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence. Gotta run, I need to go to Costco and buy a couple of industrial size bottles of Tums.


September 3rd, 2009 at 1:20 PM ^


I believe the word "Safety" should appear in bold above the "Rating:1" line, just before you get naustalgic (appropriate, yes?) about Stevie Brown.

...and was that really you in the detnews chat with Angelique asking about the status of Witty?

GO BLUE!!!!!!!!


September 3rd, 2009 at 2:09 PM ^

You are sorry.

nostalgic + nauseous = naustalgic. He was writing about Stevie Brown after all... need I say more? Note the "(appropriate, yes?)" in my original post.

I went to Michigan, so I can spell. Don't get so excited about correcting perceived grammar and spelling mistakes that you overlook a creative use of language. Unless it is just over your head, in which case you are correct that you can't help yourself.


September 3rd, 2009 at 1:35 PM ^

Again I'm impressed by all of the content at my disposal. It's taken me a while to read all of this, but it was well worth it. Good work Brian. The biggest problem I have with the secondary last year was the uncountable number of times we had both, count em, both corners playing somewhere between 5 and 10 yards off of the WRs. Now, this is a shocker, but the WRs happened to be wide open on most of these plays. I don't really know what the coaching staff was thinking. I don't understand how that can even be considered a coverage option. I'd rather throw the corner up in the WRs' faces every play than let that happen. Ok, maybe you don't get beat deep, but they still get the first down and keep moving the ball. Ok, end of rant. I would say I'm not too confident (like most people) in this defense being able to play well. Should be an improvement in at least the scheme from last season, but I wouldn't say it will be anything mindblowing. Anyways, solid analysis Brian. Thanks.


September 3rd, 2009 at 2:38 PM ^

It's called Cover 3. The cornerbacks and the safety each have deep third responsibilities, meaning they're the deepest men in their zones. If a guy runs past them, there's no help over the top. Those underneath routes need to be covered by the linebackers. Quick hitches can be quite effective against a team that's playing Cover 3 because the corners bail out so quickly and a lot of OLBs are too slow to get to the flats.