Preview 2013: Cornerback Comment Count

Brian August 29th, 2013 at 6:08 PM

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

Cornerback

Rating: 4.

Boundary Corner Yr. Field Corner Yr. Nickelback Yr.
Blake Countess So.* Raymon Taylor Jr. Blake Countess So.*
Channing Stribling Fr. Delonte Hollowell Jr. Dymonte Thomas Fr.
Terry Richardson So. Jourdan Lewis Fr. Courtney Avery Sr.

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The headliner here is the headliner last year, frozen in carbonite: BLAKE COUNTESS. Countess was Mattison's prophesied War Daddy at field corner, and then he got blocked on a punt return in the first game. That blew up his ACL and ended his year.

A year later, Countess is back to full health—he could have gone in spring if it wasn't, you know, spring—and ready to fulfill the promise he had a year ago. But that doesn't mean I've got anything on Countess that I didn't a year ago, save the occasional coach quote.

What I had last year: Countess started on the traditional Michigan Star Corner track, getting into the second game as a reserve corner and emerging as a starter halfway through the season. In six starts, Countess had six PBUs; he was named to various freshman All-American teams. As a freshman he manned up on Marvin McNutt pretty well:

The downside was the Ohio State game in which he was no match for Devier Posey on one of OSU's three long touchdowns. That'll happen when you're a freshman.

Despite that, even then he was Michigan's best corner. Anonymous Big Ten receiver:

On the cornerbacks: "Two years ago, they had a kid [Blake Countess] that was different. He played with a swagger and just seemed to attack every ball thrown his way. Last year, he wasn't out there, and it made my job a lot easier because I could use both sides of the field. Their corners were good, but they didn't go after the ball. They just wanted to stay between our receivers and the big play."

Countess seems to have had no problem reclaiming his starting spot and should resume the star corner track he was on before injury intervened.

[After THE JUMP: Taylor! Depth! Special Nickelback section!]

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yoink [AnnArbor.com]

After some uncertainty, it appears that RAYMON TAYLOR has taken over the spot opposite countess. Since Taylor's about the same size, it seems like Michigan has dumped the boundary/field distinctions this year and will play "right" and "left"; they may end up switching guys to get Countess on their best wideout.

In any case, Taylor emerged into the starting lineup last year and rather well for himself when he wasn't busting zone coverage. Even when he didn't do so hot sometimes his recovery speed made up for it; sometimes when he was beat it was just Trevor Sieman being an unstoppable throw-god. Opponents chose to test JT Floyd again and again instead of Taylor despite the fact that Floyd was far less vulnerable to getting bombed over the top than the targeting patterns implied. (Except against Ohio State. Sigh.) While his individual UFRs were only okay, he was the field corner on a secondary with these coverage metrics:

Opponent + - TOT Comment
Alabama 9 13 -4 Could have been worse.
Air Force 15 15 0 Push good against this kind of offense.
UMass 19 7 12 Open downfield guys were about zero.
Notre Dame 8 11 -3 Close enough to even.
Purdue 34 5 29 I don't even know what to do with myself.
Illinois 7 4 3 what is this pass you say of speaking
MSU 22 8 14 Maxwell helped here with some indecision.
Nebraska 17 21 -4 Lots of open corner routes.
Minnesota 23 18 5 Again, good day but helped out by opponent.
Northwestern 20 16 4 NFL windows hit: like four.
Iowa 15 15 0 Relatively low number for this secondary is something I have been happy with for the last six years.

0 is acceptable here.

The individual numbers were around zero save for a –3 against MSU and –6.5 against Nebraska, but those numbers don't tell the whole story since the video I'm working with doesn't show downfield areas; anything I see a DB doing more than a few yards down the field is necessarily because a quarterback thought he had a guy open. For Taylor to be rarely targeted on a defense putting up those coverage metrics is pretty good.

There were some big plays against, unfortunately:

Taylor also gave up a long TD against Alabama that we can write off as a guy thrust onto the field against Alabama for his first playing time.

It seemed like a strong season from a sophomore thrust into the starting lineup, one where Taylor beat out Courtney Avery for the corner job and was not an obvious weak link. But in spring, Taylor was seriously pressed first by Avery and then Delonte Hollowell; for a while it seemed like Avery was going to start opposite Countess. Ominous sign? I don't know. Avery is reportedly healthy, or at least healthier, this year. And Taylor did come through to start despite the challenge.

Taylor should improve, as kids do, and he could even do so significantly since he's moving from true sophomore to true junior. Last year he was not much of a playmaker (two interceptions, just one PBU). He's already pretty good at dissuading cornerbacks most of the time; now he has to make them regret it when he doesn't.

Side note: Even though Michigan has dispensed with the boundary and field distinctions for the moment, I bet Taylor is the more boundary of the two. He was rather good in run support a year ago, something Hoke liked about his game as a recruit: 

Raymon Taylor … can “line somebody up and go through the middle of them, like you’re supposed to play the game.”

Meanwhile he had some issues when isolated in space against quick receivers. Or it might be a matchup thing. Generally the boundary corner gets less safety support and is easier to attack deep—another reason Floyd may have gotten bombed at so much—so against teams with a worrying receiver they like to put to the boundary, Countess may flip over.

Anyway, a distinction with little difference this year.

Backups

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Hollowell is still a little dude. [Bryan Fuller]

The Dymonte Thomas hype has receded somewhat—more on him later—as Michigan plans to fold Blake Countess inside on passing downs. This means the nickel corner is actually going to be a corner. It says here that DELONTE HOLLOWELL [recruiting profile] is that man, as unlikely as that seemed after the bowl game.

If you recall, Michigan preferred the insertion of freshman safety Jarrod Wilson over either of their small Cass Tech corners, much to their detriment. At that point I was ready to write 'em both off as misses. Then a funny thing happened in spring:

I was surprised at how well Delonte Hollowell showed. He broke on a lot of balls, getting some breakups, and he stuck pretty close to the shifty Gallon. I'm not sure how much that means when Michigan was dead set against playing him in the bowl game. Gallon is the perfect matchup for the tiny Hollowell. Bigger receivers will cause issues, and it's clear what kind of corners the new staff is after: big ones.

A couple of days later I was talking about the Spring Game with Sam Webb on WTKA and tentatively brought this up; Sam concurred, and Sam chats with the coaches quite a bit. He made a move in everybody's eyes. Mattison:

Delonte Hollowell showed some things at the end of the spring that you have to be able to do if you’re not as big as everyone else, and he did it.

That continued in the fall, as insider reports have it that he is just tough to shake these days. He remains very small, but I've heard tell of the guy breaking up fades to Funchess. Meanwhile it'll be tough for a true freshman to displace him, especially early, at a spot at which a busted assignment can mean six points. To me, the Countess-to-nickel thing means Hollowell has believers.

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Another man rapidly accumulating believers is CHANNING STRIBLING [recruiting profile], a true freshman who caused message boards to blow up when he was a who-dat camp commit. It's difficult to overstate how off the radar Stribling was. He had no articles on recruiting sites. He had offers from Charlotte and the SWAC, and while he was looking to improve his profile in Ann Arbor he arrived hoping for MAC offers. He got one from Ball State… and another place Brady Hoke's called home.

After the message board rabbling died down, Stribling went out for the first game of his senior year and dominated. His first game:

He kicked it off($) against Tennessee commit and top 50-ish WR Marquez North. Stribling(1) had more receptions than North(0) in that matchup. IE, Stribling picked off the first pass of the game and helped shut North out the rest of the way.

He followed that up with pass breakups and return touchdowns and interceptions until everyone and their uncle was naming him a potential sleeper, including this site. Stribling is the 2013 MGoBlog Sleeper of the year. Three of the four guys previously named to that award are starting this fall: Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Jehu Chesson. The fourth is Ben Braden.

Now he's on the two deep already. Stribling is a find.

University of Michigan football recruit Jourden Lewis, of Cass Tech, in action against Brother Rice High School  in the "D" Sports Prep Football Showcase, Saturday, August 25th at Wayne State University in Detroit.8647436744_fe738a31d0_b[1]

Lewis and Richardson [Unknown/Fuller]

The fifth corner is presumably JOURDAN LEWIS [recruiting profile], another freshman, and another Cass Tech kid. Lewis is a bit larger than the usual Cass corner; he also brings diverse return and receiving skills. With two guys in the corner class headed for redshirts, Lewis could burn his without it being a major tragedy. If he's the fifth guy he'll get some runouts late in games. Mattison likes him:

Jourdan Lewis… I remember watching him at Sound Mind Sound Body, and I just said ‘wow’.

The writing is on the wall for the last veteran mentioned in this section. He's TERRY RICHARDSON [recruiting profile], another pint-sized Cass Tech corner. Here's the writing:

You have Blake Countess at two positions. Does that mean that Channing Stribling is the first corner off the bench when you go to the nickel package?

"I wouldn't say that's a for sure deal with Channing. He's a guy who's competing for that. Hollowell is competing for it. I think Jourdan Lewis is competing for it. It could be any one of those three guys."

Richardson is therefore the #6 corner on the roster—at best—and would have been #7 if Courtney Avery hadn't been shuffled back to safety. He's been passed by two freshmen who just showed up for fall camp and his similarly diminutive teammate Hollowell. That is a huge hill to climb back to plausibility. He won't play this year and a transfer seems a strong possibility.

Behind Richardson (probably) are two more freshmen. REON DAWSON [recruiting profile] is a wire-thin speedster who's extremely raw. A redshirt and another year or two of apprenticeship beckon. ROSS DOUGLAS [recruiting profile] enrolled early but has fallen behind Stribling and Lewis; he's a Courtney Avery type. Looks like he's redshirting, too.

NICKELBACK

RATING: 3.

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left: Bryan Fuller. right: 247.

We are finally splitting this out as its own position this year. 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.

Michigan has finally acquired one of these folks after a few years of rolling out Courtney Avery at the spot. While Avery is actually quite good at underneath coverage, his slight build makes him a less-than-ideal blitzer and a poor run defender. This has forced Michigan away from nickel packages. Mattison:

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.

No more. With the arrival of freshman DYMONTE THOMAS [recruiting profile], Greg Mattison has a new toy he intends to play with extensively. A dynamic athlete who was an excellent high school running back, Thomas was actually an outside linebacker for his high school team. This makes him ill-suited for early duty at safety, but it also means the nickel spot is a natural fit. His coach:

"His advantage will be the time he has played linebacker in the box for us, because unlike a lot of high school defensive backs, Dymonte is used to the physical contact and loves it. He is used to coming up and thumping people, and he can close on the ball."

Mattison again:

"…there was a play this spring where he blitzed from the far corner, the ball got off, and he made the tackle downfield coming all the way around the quarterback and running to get it. I said ‘there’s the nickel you’re looking for’. I really am looking for big things out of him."

His recruiting profile is littered with similar references to crazy speed. Most notably, ESPN's evaluation does not downplay it—a first.

Thomas's dynamic athleticism, experience at linebacker, and early enrollment should combine to make him good enough as a freshman in the relatively forgiving confines of nickelback. Eventually. While Blake Countess is top of the depth chart at that spot right now, Thomas is going to see a lot of time right away, and when Michigan goes up against spread-to-run teams dollars to donuts Michigan prefers him to Hollowell or a 170-pound freshman. By midseason he'll be a starter in practice, if not in name.

He's a freshman. He will blow an unfortunate number of assignments, struggle a bit with the increased level of play, and make up for some of that by doing ridiculous things. In year two people will expect him to blow up. Thomas 2013 == James Ross 2012.

Long term, Dymonte will be cross-trained at safety and may eventually move back there depending on how well Delano Hill and Jarrod Wilson work out. Your author believes Thomas is in for a long spell as the nickel, because he's a great fit for an incredibly important position.

BACKUPS

Obviously Countess, and then probably a linebacker. If Thomas underperforms or is injured, Michigan will go away from frequent nickel packages and use them as traditional passing-down substitutions with a non-hybrid corner coming in.

Comments

charblue.

August 29th, 2013 at 6:39 PM ^

Michigan is on the verge of creating a great secondary. It han't had one ever, I mean since Woodson prevented everything on one side of the field. The reason Channing Stribling is getting pub and play is because Stribling will deny every pass that comes to his way and assignment. And this isn't like potential, it's happening. When you have a guy who creates happening plays, I don't give a damn whether he's a transfer or a freshman, you put him in the game. So Stribling is going to play because he can, and will make a difference. 

Schembo

August 29th, 2013 at 7:59 PM ^

Dymonte seems like the forgotten man around here the last couple weeks or so.  I'm definitely looking forward to watching him on Saturday.  It's possible we will have the best secondary in the nation in the next year or two after Peppers arrives on campus.  It seems like we've heard positive things about everybody on this roster from the coaches, except Richardson.  That's unfortunate.  I don't like seeing instate recruits not panning out. 

gwkrlghl

August 29th, 2013 at 9:11 PM ^

Sure seems like we've got a lot of position groups that are 4+, especially on defense. I know a lot of people are calling for 7-9 wins, but (if the safeties can hold up) this might be the year the defense steps into elite territory. If not this year, then certainly the next

Fastfeet

August 29th, 2013 at 10:28 PM ^

Someone please help me on this. I just heard Derrick green was transferring because they won't play him. We will never get another 5 star once this happen. Our starting running only got 500 yards last year. What in the hell are we thinking. Coach Hoke is not showing his top recruit no love I hope he goes somewhere I can see him play.

BoilerBlue

August 29th, 2013 at 10:42 PM ^

I just can't see Dymonte staying at nickleback past this year. He's incredibly talented, but I think that spot will go to Peppers his freshman year, and Crawford the year after that. I have a feeling that we're going to see incredibly talented freshmen filling that role year after year. Hoke uber alles.

SDCran

August 30th, 2013 at 2:02 PM ^

It is sooo nice to see true freshman in the starting line-up/ depth chart only because they are amazing and not due to major depth concerns! A couple of years ago if a freshman didn't start, we started thinking of them a busts. Then if one took a redshirt (Kalis), we all raised our collective eyebrow (MGoUnibrow). No more!!!