Preview 2013: Safety

Submitted by Brian on August 30th, 2013 at 10:18 AM


Rating: 3

Free Safety Yr. Strong Safety Yr.
Courtney Avery Sr. Thomas Gordon Sr.*
Jarrod Wilson So. Josh Furman Jr.*
Jeremy Clark Fr.* Delano Hill Fr.

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

Well, here it is. Michigan has lost Jordan Kovacs and the replacement derby has gone about as poorly as it could have. Jarrod Wilson was the guy they wanted to take the job and has not done so; Michigan moved a 5'9" slot cornerback back to safety because they had more faith in that guy knowing the defense than Wilson, and then that guy got hurt in a way that is not the way that he is perpetually hurt.

So… yeah, at least we'll have a good perspective on how valuable Jordan Kovacs was?


Eric Upchurch

LET'S PULL THE BAND-AID OFF FIRST. The free safety slot is currently a competition between JARROD WILSON [recruiting profile] and COURTNEY AVERY that has gone to Wilson by default early because of arthroscopic surgery for Avery. Avery's only supposed to miss two games.

This preview projects that Avery will be the starter upon his healthy return, for various reasons. These are mostly about Wilson, so I guess we'll address him first. When Michigan moved him into the starting lineup last year in the bowl game, pain followed. Unless the entire rest of the defense was wrong on, Wilson was the culprit on a 70-yard South Carolina pass


Wilson is on the numbers at the 40. He is supposed to be offscreen(!) to the right

…and the game winner


it's called CENTER field

…in situations where it was just flat-out blowing simple centerfield assignments. We've made a lot of allowances for freshman whatsit in these previews, but Wilson hasn't done anything positive so far—literally. The only thing he charted on last year before infinite minuses in the bowl game was a critical, legit pass interference penalty on Tyler Eifert in the Notre Dame game. (That was third and goal. Ouch.)

And then there's the late move. When it leaked into the media, Hoke was of course asked about it:

MGoQuestion: What does Jarrod Wilson have to do to solidify his spot at safety?

"He's got to have production."

MGoFollowup: Have you been worried about his lack of production?

"No, we just think that we have good competition and there's guys having some production. He's got to have more."

This is terrifying because at safety, "production" means not doing things like those pictures above. Compounding the terror somewhat is that Wilson enrolled early and should be less raw, more familiar with the defense, etc.

You can hold onto this, I guess?

Do you have an idea who might start Saturday at this point?

"You know, I think Jarrod [Wilson]'s had a nice last two weeks of fall. I think the pressure that was put on him by other guys ... Josh Furman's improved. I would say Jarrod probably."

Does that make you feel good? If so, give me some of your enjoyment.

Okay, okay: Wilson does have some experience and safety is not a kind spot for freshmen. As a recruit, his frame and size got him a lot of nice offers, including Penn State, Notre Dame, and Stanford. Kovacs said he'd picked the defense up fast last year…

“He’s come in and picked up the defense really, really well. That’s one of the things he’s got the football smarts and as a defensive back you really need that,” Kovacs said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are things he needs to get cleaned up and improved on, but I’m definitely impressed with how much he’s progressed and how good of a ballplayer he is as a senior in high school. He has a lot more time here and I expect big things in the future.”

…and while that doesn't seem… you know… true, we are extrapolating from limited data here to wave our doomy fingers of doom. It could work out! Yeah!

[After THE JUMP: Courtney Avery trying to come back, Thomas Gordon definitely doing so, and dodgy depth.]


Bryan Fuller

So… COURTNEY AVERY. Avery's been pigeonholed as a nickel corner since his arrival at Michigan, and not without reason. When he moved outside in the Alabama game after Countess's injury, he was immediately burned. It didn't take long for Raymon Taylor to assert himself as the new field corner. Avery went back to the nickel spot he was seemingly ordained at for all time.

Avery started defying that in two phases after the bowl game. In the first, he was a serious contender to displace Taylor. In the second, he moved back to safety. The first was actually encouraging-ish since Taylor was an established Big Ten performer. Avery pushing him implied that he was finally healthy and that Michigan had corner depth.

The safety move was the opposite for the reasons detailed above. Avery's never played the spot and the lasting image of his run support remains the picture from his freshman year in which he's whiffed on an Iowa running back . Unfair? Yeah, probably, but Avery is generously listed at 5'11", 175 on the Michigan roster. Exactly one other safety is listed at under 200 on the roster—freshman Dymonte Thomas at 190.

Every single possible thing you can think about this safety situation is grim. It may not end up that grim, but mostly because things are rarely as bad or good as they absolutely can be. But why would you have confidence here? I've got a nice, albeit unblocked fill in the Air Force game and some nice underneath coverage on a tight end. Safety relevant? Uh.

I do have some faith in Avery as a guy who has been involved with the defense for four years and must have it down by now. As a recruit he was one of those guys who the coach just goes nuts over for being an awesome smart dude, and he has persevered through a chronic injury for a long time now. If he's just always in the right coverage and not giving up big plays he can replace enough of Kovacs to cope if the rest of the defense picks it up like they should.

If he can remain healthy. Or at least healthy-ish.


Eric Upchurch

fills pretty well
comes down to pop 'Bama
quick fill on Cox
instant tackle
light 'em up (get turrible flag on Floyd)
not Kovacs…
whiffs on Yeldon
…but a reliable tackler
ends Mark run
shoots down on Martinez
long touchdowns on him this site clipped

There's better news at the other spot, where THOMAS GORDON returns for a third year as a starter. He's always been Kovacs's sidekick, the guy this space says "oh yeah and he exists" in between rapturous descriptions of that one tackle Kovacs made that one time. Opposing Big Ten coaches took the same approach to him last year:

"[Jordan Kovacs] is a guy that on film doesn't look that special, not compared to some of the guys out there, but ask our coaches and there was no one they respected more. …

"He's gone and who replaces him? Their other safety was very average. He seemed like a better athlete but the coaches just sort of blew through him like he wasn't a real threat to us. It was all about [Kovacs]."

I think the above sells Gordon short. The kind of long touchdown prevention Michigan has achieved over the last few years is not the work of one safety, but two.

Gordon's Robin status is due to a lack of crunching QB sacks and the occasional long TD on which he bit on play action. He did not MAKE PLAYS, except insofar as tackling Venric Mark 30 yards downfield before he can get 70 is a PLAY. He barely touched the ball last year; I clipped one PBU, and the interception I clipped was a freebie overthrow.

He's still one of the better Michigan safeties of the last decade. Seriously. You guys don't even know how bad—okay you do. Sorry. I know you still have scars. Gordon hasn't given them to you:

Opponent + - TOT Notes
Alabama 1 5.5 -4.5 Missed tackles a plague.
Air Force 3 5 -2 Did not do well compared to Ryan on edge.
UMass 6 1 5 Various authoritative fills.
Notre Dame 7.5 1 6.5 Also quality.
Purdue 4.5 - 4.5 Playing pretty well these days.
Illinois 3 - 1 Here is your tea
MSU 7 5 2 Gave up the big one.
Nebraska 6.5 3.5 3 Good in the box this time out.
Minnesota 2 2 0 Should have been in man on the TE on the TD.
Northwestern 7 3 4 Has skills, man.
Iowa 3.5 1 2.5 Nice third down PBU.

Save the team-wide Alabama washout and option struggles against Air Force, Gordon didn't have a negative day all year in an environment where the easiest thing for me to give a safety is –4 for a massive bust.

I dunno, man. Michigan kept trying to replace Gordon with Troy Woolfolk when Gordon seemed to be playing fine, and other coaches say he's just a guy. I disagree. Gordon is a player. He's not Kovacs, but he's probably the second-best safety Michigan has had in a long time. Maybe he'll get exposed now that Epic Binky is in the NFL; I doubt it. Mattison thinks he's going to have a big year:

Thomas, I’m looking for him to have a great year. Thomas Gordon has had the brunt of me on him since I’ve got here.  You know what I love about him is some of the things I’ve said to that kid since we’ve been here… (laughter)… and you know what, he just keeps coming back.  He just keeps coming back.  Now it’s his time. He has his weight down, he’s running better, and he’s not as tentative at times. I always got on him… ‘you’re one of the strongest kids, one of the biggest safeties, but I don’t see you hitting like that, and you need to do that.’ So now he does it.

I don't care if Gordon hits people like a feather duster as long as he gets them down like Kovacs did.

Gordon just about has to move down to the strong safety spot, which will be a more meaningful distinction than it was last year. Kovacs and Gordon were interchangeable at tiny linebacker duties; neither Wilson or Avery—especially Avery—is going to be an asset at the line of scrimmage. He'll play a lot of deep coverage, and he'll be what he was last year. Which I thought was great, but safety is still the greatest mystery since they're rarely on the screen.



Furman and Clark. [Scout/Blade]

Ominous here as well. Wilson or Avery will be the primary backup at both spots; past that you've got JOSH FURMAN, a redshirt junior who has seen almost no time so far. I've got nothing from him last year. The only guy who did get anything is Sam Webb, who accidentally skipped over Furman when he was talking to Curt Mallory and was told to come correct:

“You’re going to think we’re crazy, but the kid I really think is going to help us is Josh Furman,” said Mallory.  “Don’t count him out.  Sometimes kids take four years.  He’s just had a lot on this plate.  I just knock on wood…. I just think there’s something in there that he can help us.  I believe in the kid.  I think he’ll help us.”

"I just knock on wood" doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, sure. It does inspire more than you might have had in Furman before. He's always had the raw speed. He's just never been able to translate that into anything. Frankly, I doubt that changes at this point, especially with that Avery move. That implies none of the current safeties were cutting it. Special teams will remain Furman's domain.

After Furman, it's all freshmen. JEREMY CLARK [recruiting profile] took a redshirt last year; he was another sleeper recruit who proved his worth over his senior season. Clark got upgraded from a greyshirt to a normal dude midway through his final year to stave off SEC interest. Ohio State took a long look when he camped but when with Najee Murray over him; Murray just got booted and transferred to the MAC. Point to The Pattern™.

Clark's got a great rangy frame. His 6'4" as a recruit translated to the roster. He's still a bit skinny for that frame at 205, and his only on-field indicator after a redshirt was getting juked by Dennis Norfleet in the spring game. Forgivable, surely, but as with Furman that Avery move is a bit of an indictment to everyone who was already at the position. Clark is amongst them.

Unlike Furman, Clark is just a year into his Michigan career and still has plenty of opportunity to move up.

The other guys are true freshmen. This site thinks they're good bets to be players, but if you want a reminder about what freshman safeties generally equal, please review the bit sabove about Jarrod Wilson. DYMONTE THOMAS was already discussed extensively in the corner section as a nickelback.  Long term he may be a safety; this year they're going to play him at nickel if they play him anywhere. He has the size, speed, and range to play at either safety spot, and well. Experience, as always, will be a major asset.

DELANO HILL [recruiting profile], despite coming from Cass Tech, is a guy with an advanced understanding of the position and excellent size. He's also very fast—not even for safety. He's just fast. He put down a 4.44 at the Opening at 200 pounds. That's great. Buzz around the program has also been about how Hill can run. Mattison:

The guy I didn’t know was as fast as he is is Delano. Somebody told me he ran a 10.6 electric in track, and I saw him at Sound Mind Sound Body, and I hadn’t seen him since recruiting.  He looked like he got two inches taller.

Unlike Thomas, Hill did not enroll early, and he is still from Cass. He's not likely to play much this year. The coaches have talked him up a bit and I wouldn't be shocked to see him on special teams. If Thomas is a long-term nickel I get it; otherwise, man… what would this year be like if they didn't redshirt Gordon? Yeah. Safety should be like offensive line: autoredshirt. The coaches do not agree.


Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 10:53 AM ^

Could be wrong, but think it was OLB. He'll need to work on getting down coverage responsibility and just overall comfort away from the LOS before he gets a lot of snaps. While I disagree that his long term spot is NB, I do think this year he'll only get spot duty in blowouts at safety and will get far more reps at NB.

El Jeffe

August 30th, 2013 at 10:36 AM ^

It's obviously always hard to predict how any player will develop and Wilson certainly has time to develop, but if this preview is accurate he's a bit of a disappointment thus far. I went back and read his recruiting profile, and it reads like this

  • He is a safety
  • A safety is what he is
  • He is a free safety
  • He is not a linebacker who couldn't grow enough to be a linebacker so he is now a safety
  • He is not a cornerback who grew too much to be a cornerback so he is now a safety
  • He didn't used to be a wide receiver or a running back or a long snapper
  • He is a safety

So, hopefully the lightbulb will come on and Mattison and Mallory will figure out how to get him in the right spots to prevent dong punchingly long touchdowns.

Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 10:56 AM ^

And they are pretty superior athletes as well. As far as the CBs, their CBs actually have pretty good technique and are very athletic, they're just small. HS QBs and WRs just struggle to actually take advantage of that consistently.

Again, great athletes at Cass, no doubt. Great up front on the lines and scheme wise the players no what they're doing well. But with athletes and scheme you can overcome a bit of technique issues in HS. That seems to happen relatively often at Cass. Cass doesn't tend to be terrible with technique at positions outside CB, they just tend to not be as advanced as some other HS.

Come On Down

August 30th, 2013 at 11:13 AM ^

I think it's possible we're making too much out of the Cass Tech thing. In my view we've had one guy who was an all out bust, Boubacar Cissoko. I think Will Campbell was solid last year (he was drafted after all) and if he had played under this coaching staff his whole career I think he would have been a very good player. As this preview says, Thomas Gordon, has developed into a good player and the rest of them, Richardson, Hollowell, etc, are still too young to make a final judgment.

Am I missing something here?

Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 11:21 AM ^

Cissoko was thrown into the fire well before he was ready (as a true FR), both mentally and from a physical stand point. Yes, he went crazy being away from home for the first time, but if he came to Michigan today I think he could make a damn fine corner. Cissoko had very quick feet and extremely fluid hips. He jammed WRs pretty well for his size. While his top end speed wasn't great, he did display some recovery ability. Size was always going to be a bit of an issue, but I think he could have been the best of the Cass DBs and would even have a chance to start at field CB by his junior season in today's Michigan defense.

Unfortunately he did lose his marbles, went crazy, and all he had to show for it from a football standpoint was a FR season where he got burned due to inexperience and be put in some bad situations, while flashing some decent potential. He just needed to be coached up a bit more and given the chance to actually mature.

FWIW he had 3 PBUs and 1 TFL in two starts his FR year (while getting picked on a bit). He also was 2nd in the conference in KR average his freshman year. He had the potential to be a very good cover corner.


August 30th, 2013 at 2:08 PM ^

I think Cass Tech's rap has a lot to do with pumping out underachieving hyped recruits. They produce their over achieving under-the-radar types, as well, but they've been the source of some disappoint in recent years.

BWC turning in a "solid" senior season is still a pretty big disappointment given his profile coming in to college. And he was drafted, sure, but in the last round as an offensive guard. I'm not sure he's a tick in Cass Tech's favor. Richardson was a hugely hyped player who is looking like he may never see the field. Cissoko is kind of a punt for Cass Tech, because of his various issues we'll never really know how good he could have been.

Gordon's (who I agree is underappreciated among most observers) career has been a very nice surprise. Hollowell is still hasn't done anything, but indications are that he'll be a solid player himself. Both of these guys were pretty under-the-radar coming out of HS, though, and had little to no expectations.


August 30th, 2013 at 10:46 AM ^

Also, Jarrod Wilson gets thrown slightly under the bus here. Man, Brian, you really do this a lot; you write guys off. You wrote off Kovacs and JT Floyd after Indiana 2009 for a lack of speed. Kids can improve...

Avery was moved because the coaches were experimenting with getting the best 11 on the field. Avery is one of the best 4-5 defensive backs; they want to get the best 4 on the field. Jarrod is going to be fine. Maybe by his junior year, but the light will come on at some point.

Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 10:58 AM ^

I think he's saying Wilson is still young and probably needs more time to develop. He's got a decent skill set, but safety at this level is often something where you need to know the defense, responsibility of everyone around you, and everything else like the back of your hand. It's not enough there to have potential, because simply having potential gets you burned. Wilson may need another year (he surely wasn't ready last year, as very, very few freshman safeties are), but it appears he may be in line to simply get thrown in the fire before the light bulk clicks on for good.


August 30th, 2013 at 2:21 PM ^

I don't think this writes him off, but I don't think it's unfair to say that Wilson is behind where many expected him to be given his recruiting profile plus 1 1/2 years of college coaching and spot duty on the field last season. Doesn't mean he won't improve, but unexpected position switches in fall camp usually aren't a good sign for the position or the players playing that position.

As for "the light will come on at some point," part of the problem at the safety position is that light never coming on for guys like Marvin Robinson or Josh Furman. It's not unwarranted pessimism (pessimism, yes, but still not unwarranted) to be a little skittish about a pretty hyped recruit being a little slower than expected to develop.

Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 10:52 AM ^

I'm still not convinced WIlson was at fault both times against South Carolina. The first one I'm guessing he was, but in as much that I'm guessing they are in a basic two-deep man under coverage, and not bracketing the slot because the Old Ball Coach loves to chuck the ball in the seams to the slot guys. He may have had bracket responsibility there.

I'm also not convinced on the second play it wasn't Avery that was supposed to drop into his deep third on boundary side of the field rather than checking up on his man. As far as I know, that wasn't cover 3 but cover 6, with Wilson bracketing the slot in his cover 4-esque position and Avery failing to drop deep from his boundary side (also Kovacs did nothing to re-route the slot on the boundary side, so it's like seam all day).

I'm not saying he didn't have some responsibility, and it may have been on both. I believe it more on the first than on the second, but who knows. I still think your conclusion is correct, I think he's blowing assignments, getting flat footed at times, and just overall not making the plays he needs to make, I just think it's really difficult to tell if those are actually example or not.


August 30th, 2013 at 12:16 PM ^

Yes, Wilson got caught flat footed but I think it's on Avery for not dropping back deep enough.  Brian is incorrect to say that Wilson is supposed to play centerfield. The coverage doesn't dictate that it is cover 2 shell.

Honestly, the game winning TD is a result of a perfect play call to beat out Cover 6 coverage.  It put both DBs on the weakside in an impossible position to cover WRs one on one because more times than not, WRs win the battle.


August 30th, 2013 at 10:56 AM ^

The defense honestly feels very, very solid at every single position...other than FS which may be the most terrifying position to be weak at. Where else are we weak right now? SDE maybe?

I'm hoping/praying that Mattison is enough of an evil genius that he'll be able to mask the weakness at FS with all the other talent we seemingly have

Space Coyote

August 30th, 2013 at 11:00 AM ^

I think the athleticism has improved a bit, but they are still young or just solid at 3-tech and 5-tech. The young guys need to become more consistent with technique to start getting playmakers on the field. The same can kind of be said at DB. Lots of solid guys, but needs to take another step still. That will likely happen in time, and I agree it seems very solid, but it's not necessarily great strength everywhere yet.


August 30th, 2013 at 10:58 AM ^

Reading this preview is like a light tap to the balls.

I'm hoping for a Wilson progression. If that happens the S position will be ok but still not much depth.

Man, that final TD against South Carolina still stings hard.


August 30th, 2013 at 11:25 AM ^

I have higher hopes going forward from our safeties, because I expect our coaching staff to be able to teach them the game and develop them.  The poor safety play from the past decade is not something that we should expect point forward.  Being and athletic playmaker and "not giving up a 60 yard touchdown every game" aren't mutually exclusive.  People's expectations are too low.

blue in dc

August 30th, 2013 at 11:50 AM ^

Was the Avery move a panic move because Wilson could not cut it, or was it a depth move because the coaches felt vey good at cornerback? It is not hard to believe that Avery was pretty far down on the cornerback depth chart (behind some good competition).

Regardless of the status of Wilson as a starter, depth at safety is pretty thin, so bringing in another player there makes sense. The fact that he was quickly named starter however is a bit woorisome.

I do wonder if the Avery starting plan may have also had something to do with the schedule. The Notre Dame game is the only one of the first five games that should present a major challenge. Even then, the challenge largely comes from the defense, unless our offensive line is better than expected, that should be a close, low wcoring game. A big mistake from a safety could be the difference. Given his experience, that mistake is probably more likely from Wilson in only his second game as starter than from Avery. Maybe, once they realized that Avery was not a factor in the corner battles, they thought, lets use Avery to start the season and move Wilson in for the Akron game. A strategy like that doesn't say Wilson is bad, it just says he is more likely to have growing pains.

Given Avery's injury, that usn't good for the Notre Dame Game, but it may be less ominous by mid October when the schedule gets tougher and Wilson has more experience.

Painter Smurf

August 30th, 2013 at 12:06 PM ^

This is the wrong year to redshirt safeties who can play, out of principle.  If Wilson continues to struggle, UM is probably starting two sophomores at safety next year between Clark, Hill, and Thomas.  So the learning process needs to be accelerated for those guys.  I konw the coaches want to ease Dymonte in at nickel, but it's looking more likely that will be forced to play FS.  Avery at FS is an act of desperation.  Outside of Coutess, all of the DB talent is in the freshman class so it makes sense that the coacches start getting their feet wet right away.


August 30th, 2013 at 12:18 PM ^

I think these previews have been spot on. I'm surprised so many people think they're selling the defense short. As I see it, we had an average defense last year, we're down arguably the three best players (Kovacs, Floyd, Jake Ryan), and the replacements are mostly unknowns. Our pass rush stunk last year, and we lost our best pass rusher (Jake Ryan). I've never subscribed to the theory that a player automatically becomes better with a year of experience under his belt. Some guys do get better with age, others stagnate. In order for this defense to play at a Top 10-team level, a few guys will have to show a lot more than they showed last year, and in a hurry. 


August 30th, 2013 at 7:43 PM ^

No it was not "average" last year. It was above average fergodsakes.  It was 13th in scoring defense and 20th in total defense (or vice versa).  Yes it had junky Big 10 play as opponents for most of the year but so did the "elite" defenses at OSU and MSU.  It wasnt a great defense and it had one (and a half - Kovaks) playmaker. But people crap on this defense of 2012 as it if cost us game after game - the defense kept us in a lot of games, esp when Denard was playing "punt the football".  It wasnt an excellent defense or a national championship defense by any means and it had a lot of warts.  But as a unit they played better than the individal pieces.  There were 2 NFL type guys (jr or sr) in the upperclassmen and one went to be a guard in the NFL.   As for Wilson who knows how he will do this year but sheesh he was a 1st year player playing a position that requires a lot of knowledge.  Some of these comments make him sound like a guy who cant make it at EMU.  And same for Dymonte - why would you want to throw ANOTHER guy first year at a critical position.  Let the guy learn at nickel and grow into a safety next year when the game wont seem so fast to him.


August 30th, 2013 at 12:23 PM ^

I know people are worried about Wilson, but I have to think that Avery getting some rub there is at least part due to defensive systems employed by UM.  Avery is a senior with experience, and it might be a "best 11" situation to an extent.  I fully expect Wilson to be in there quite a bit, and hopefully he'll show some improvement.

That said, I fully expect UM to be beaten deep a couple of times, though we may not see anyone try it until the Big 10 season kicks in.


August 30th, 2013 at 2:23 PM ^

of plays last year when our deep coverage was just flat beaten, but the opposing QB missed an open man for a TD. Having the Big Ten be short on NFL caliber passers last year was a saving grace. Hopefully with Countess back and general improvement in depth and experience at CB, that will tighten up our deep coverage, even if our FS play is not stellar.