Preview 2016: Safeties

Submitted by Brian on September 1st, 2016 at 2:53 PM

Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback.

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This post is also sponsored by XFINITY, which does not have any rockets or landers or even probes because, as it has been carefully explained to me, they are cable company. If you're on on-campus student they'll let you stream live sports and other shows for free on your phone, tablet, or moon lander you can rent from XFINITY I guess you have to get from NASA.

Off campus students can get both TV and internet for $79.99 a month. Adults and adult-type persons (you know who you are) can get the X1 system and its voice-activated remote which is just like Hal 9000 AND THEREFORE XFINITY IS A SPACE COMPANY AFTER ALL.

It's not.

Bolded alter-ego, sometimes I just…

Can we get on with the preview?

FINE

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[Bryan Fuller]

Depth Chart

Free Safety Yr. Strong Safety Yr. Nickelback Yr.
Dymonte Thomas Sr. Delano Hill Sr. Jabrill Peppers So.*
Tyree Kinnel So. Khaleke Hudson Fr. Jourdan Lewis Sr.
Josh Metellus Fr. Jabrill Peppers So.* Brandon Watson So.*

The Pax Wilsonica is over and Michigan moves into a less boring era, for better or worse. While the depth here gets scary quickly, Michigan returns two guys who were prominent contributors to a very good secondary. Both are touted recruits and seniors; both played better than they might be getting credit for. I was actually surprised at how many good things I had clipped and how few bad things there were other than the ones that stand out in memory.

Both starters are going to have a tougher job than they did a year ago as Michigan moves away from one super deep safety most of the time. They'll have to cover guys man to man, make checks, that sort of thing. So far, so good? When Delano Hill isn't trying to punch the ball out from behind, yes.

FREE SAFETY

RATING: 4.

We're splitting the safety designation into defined "free" and "strong" halves instead of a single unified section. This would have been mandatory if DJ Durkin was still around since Jarrod Wilson and Not Jarrod Wilson were deployed very differently a year ago; since Don Brown will mix in one-high coverages with a designated FS, it's still appropriate.

So. For years this space called Jarrod Wilson a boring safety. We barely ever saw him on the screen because he was doing his job. When he did see him it was generally fine. He made tackles. He did not separate receivers from the ball or intercept passes or force fumbles. He was there to put out fires, not start them. Now he's gone, and more interesting times may beckon.

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[Patrick Barron]

That's because DYMONTE THOMAS is still a bit of a wild card after a career that's been frustrating in more ways than one so far. Thomas was a high school linebacker and running back who Michigan first played at nickel, then at one safety spot, then another, then back to nickel, etc. Webb discussed the situation before last season:

The issue for him has been the fact that he's been moved around so consistently and hasn't been focused or told to focus on only one position.

Despite having no business on a football field as a freshman he set his redshirt on fire blocking a punt against Central Michigan; meanwhile the positional switching and Thomas's rawness made his brief cameos depressing. Last year's preview slotted him as a backup and mostly focused on various goofs, bemoaned the redshirt, and clucked about player development:

This kind of errant run fill isn't something we've seen from Wilson or Hill.

For big portions of last year it looked like he didn't quite know what he was seeing. He'd run a zone, see nobody anywhere near him, and just kind of stand around instead of trying to adapt his coverage to the situation. … He's far behind the other guys when it comes to understanding what the defense is trying to accomplish.

That take held for half the year. Against Oregon State, Thomas had a huge bust on a tunnel screen that could have resulted in a touchdown against a team better than the Beavers. Then he disappeared for three games. When he re-emerged it was in garbage time against Maryland and Northwestern; he played well enough for a couple of Delano Hill issues to open the door for live-fire snaps.

He did unreasonably well with them. One of my primary memories of Thomas's 2015 was that time he got shook big time against Minnesota in his first extended playing time:

I was prepared to talk about how his coverage was a mixed bag as a result. It wasn't. After this play, which I issued an excessively harsh –3 (it's –2, easy completion but he does tackle immediately) I didn't have a coverage minus for him the rest of the year.

And he was tested with some frequency. He's in press man to the top of the field on this play:

To try to chuck one receiver, have to bail to the other guy, and then have the speed to catch up is impressive. A better throw is probably a completion there, but to even be in a position to contest a reasonably good one is something not a lot of safeties can manage. Thomas drove on outs and shoved fades into the sideline and impressively mirrored wheels (while picking up ridiculous PI flags) and raked out near completions and on this play I misclassified him as Jourdan Lewis until I saw it for the third time:

Strange but true: Dymonte Thomas was good in coverage last year.

In addition to burgeoning man-to-man skills, Thomas has capital-R Range. He's always been fast as hell. See that punt block that burned his redshirt:

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Not only does that hit his foot, it hits his foot before the punter can even strike it.

Late last year his newfound knowledge of what direction to go finally saw that speed start paying off. If you hesitate slightly even go routes down the sidelines become dangerous:

Thomas was lined up on the near hash on that one. In the spring game he intercepted a reasonably well thrown ball in the corner of the endzone despite being in the dead center of the field:

Jarrod Wilson does not make either of those plays. Thomas could have five or so interceptions if he carries that kind of thing over to 2016.

Even some of Thomas's bad plays were kind of good. There was that interception against Minnesota that not only clanged off his hands but went directly to a Gopher WR, and he managed to jet through a bunch of traffic against Rutgers only to turn a TFL into… not that:

I liked that ability to pick through traffic but not the missed tackle, and there were a couple other instances of bad play against the run. Shannon Brooks spun through another tackle attempt in the Minnesota game, and I thought Thomas overran the one long run Rutgers had.  On the other hand, Thomas had a couple of extremely impressive open-field tackles against Ohio State:

His overall aura caused me to say he was "almost there" after Rutgers:

Dymonte Thomas could be putting it together. I don't think he's ever going to be a guy who's particularly good at preventing 20 yard plays from going 50, but with his athleticism he provides a suite of capabilities that can make up for that deficiency. He is a guy who you can put in man coverage relatively confidently, that Minnesota play nonwithstanding. He's come a long way this year; he has a moderate way to go. Cross your fingers.

With a season's worth of data, it maybe kind of sort of feels like he has arrived.

Thomas was "productive" per PFF, and my charting agrees. With increased playing time and considerable upside left to plumb, Thomas could blow up. He's not a physical guy and won't suddenly become one this year; you can chalk up a few missed tackles that add chunks of yards to plays that have already broken somewhat big. Everything else looks like a strength. He's good in coverage, he's fast as the dickens, and he's still got a solid bit of upside left.

Thomas should be good. It's hard for me to judge safeties since they're so rarely on the screen, but whatever extra deep stuff Michigan gets hit with because Thomas isn't Jarrod Wilson should be offset by the plays Thomas makes because he isn't Jarrod Wilson.

[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers is briefly mentioned!]

BACKUPS

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[Eric Upchurch]

This is a guess but we'll slot TYREE KINNEL [recruiting profile] in here since he's 1) probably the most coverage-oriented of the young safeties and 2) not Khaleke Hudson, who Michigan is all but certain to deploy in and around the box when that makes sense.

Thanks to various flameouts and the burned redshirts of the starters, Michigan really, really, really needs to hit on Kinnel. So far the returns are encouraging. While I strenuously objected to Kinnel burning his redshirt last year to get some meaningless special teams snaps, that is an indicator that they like him, and he's reputedly had both a very good spring and very good fall. Lorenz had three sources talk him up, one claiming he's the "future quarterback of the Michigan defense." I liked him in spring:

Happily, Kinnel looked pretty damn good here. He played a lot, often next toDymonte Thomas, and pick-sixed John O'Korn on a play where he flashed in front of the intended receiver in a way surprising not just to O'Korn but neutral observers.

So did Ace:

Kinnel, meanwhile, looked great; he stuck with his mark in coverage and made a couple stops coming downhill against the run. If Michigan needs to put him out there at safety, he looks ready.

Other free safeties include "uh" and "…well." See above: Kinnel has to hit.

Also JABRILL PEPPERS could end up playing some safety when Michigan goes up against manball teams and Furbush draws into the lineup. Free or strong, whatever, man.

STRONG SAFETY

RATING: 4.

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Hill's Greg Oden disease is acute [Eric Upchurch]

Like Thomas, senior DELANO HILL was up and down last year. He started up and kept Thomas on the bench; he had a midseason lull that opened the door, and then he finished relatively strong. PFF also dubbed him "productive."

Hill is the superior run defender of the pairing and will draw closer to the line of scrimmage when that is required. He had a number of impressive open-field tackles a year ago that shut down plays about to break for big chunks of yardage…

…or secured big losses the rest of the defense had set up:

Michigan would occasionally put him in the box when a spread team went to two backs, and he looked reasonably good in that role. On another roster he might be the hybrid space player.

Like Thomas, I was surprised that I had more positives for Hill in coverage than negatives. He of course crushed a slot's out route to win the Indiana game…

"Harbaugh thought that's where they were going to go, I thought that's where they were going to go, Sudfeld thought it, Wilson thought it, and Hill won it."

…and other times I clipped him in coverage things went pretty well. His tackling saved first downs on third and medium and he was occasionally able to separate guys from the ball. He was occasionally crafty:

The one fluttery moment when Mangum escaped the pocket and found a guy downfield was ably handled by Delano Hill:

Hill ends up in man coverage after a corner blitz and gets beat by a step but has the athleticism to make up the ground he's lost. Then he makes a play on the ball. Here I'd like to go back to a picture that featured in the game column, and one that just precedes it:

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Hill's right hand is grabbing jersey [Bryan Fuller]

That grab is how Hill went from in trouble and trailing to advantageous position. It's also something Michigan is very clever about this year. You often see defensive backs wrap that hand around the waist of the receiver; 99% of the time this happens it draws a flag. Michigan has absorbed the MSU-fu of getting in numerous small jersey tugs that generally do not warrant flags and often go unseen. Neither ref near this play can see Hill's hand or what it's doing, and the side judge far away would have to have some major stones to throw this flag.

So that's all well and good, both in coverage and on the ground.

But while Thomas is the guy we were all worried about making big errors it was Hill who came in for some huge UFR minuses. The first was the infamous FB wheel route against MSU. The play design might have been good for 30 yards. Hill sucked up way too far. That turned it into 50, and then his futile attempt to punch the ball out from behind gave up the rest of the yardage, minus the academic final one:

The next week he completely blew a zone read and tried the same bullcrap with the punching as he chased Mitch Leidner to the endzone. He's no doubt been yelled at sufficiently to drop the punching, but he piled up significantly more mental errors than Thomas did. An assessment after that Minnesota game:

This is now the point at which we get a little worried. That happened. The FB wheel against MSU happened. The UNLV touchdown was set up by Hill getting beat and missing a tackle. BYU had a shot over the top on which Hill managed to recover, but that was dodgy for a bit. That's a trend.

Hill was spotty elsewhere, getting sealed inside on a crack block on which he offered no resistance. He didn't offer anything positive to offset his mistakes in this one.

On top of those things I forgot a big zone read keeper against Utah on which Hill got suckered and a screen against Indiana he didn't read until way too late. Those are the things that paved the way for Thomas to emerge, and unlike some of the big bad things that happened to Jeremy Clark these aren't being slain by bloody fate.

Hill appeared to get right late, with four straight good games to close the year. (I didn't UFR OSU but PFF thought both Thomas and Hill were amongst Michigan's top five performers in that game.) He hasn't been challenged by Kinnel or Hudson, he too gets some credit for the overall performance of the secondary, and he's got some upside left to explore.

Hill should be good enough to warrant some All Big Ten attention and maybe draftable; you can still figure on a couple plays where he ends up chasing a guy he shouldn't.

BACKUPS

If you've read this blog for longer than a nanosecond since last year's Semper Fi game you are already aware that it is slightly more excited about KHALEKE HUDSON [recruiting profile] than Rashan Gary and the prospect of cold fusion. Hudson is rooming with Jabrill Peppers, and while he's not Peppers, I mean, he's kind of Peppers. Partridge:

"I don't think it's fair to compare anyone to Jabrill this early," linebackers coach Chris Partridge said on Sunday. Partridge coached "They're not exact replicas of each other, but they're kids who have the same attributes. Khaleke is the kind of guy that is going to do some things that are going to wow some people. I think we'll be looking at him to contribute sooner rather than later."

Hudson is without a doubt physically ready—the eyes emoji got a workout on Twitter after Hudson put up 25 reps of 225 on the bench press, an NFL combine number. Lorenz reports he's "already one of the most physically imposing players on Michigan's roster"; Webb says he's one of the top three freshmen he's hearing about (other than Gary) because he's "already a grown man."

So. He is rocked up, as they say, and has navigated the transition from high school to college well enough that everyone asked swears up and down he's going to play. That was about the only question left. Yeah, yeah, he's only a 3/4 star borderline guy to the recruiting sites, but nope. They whiffed on Hudson. Opposing coach John Ruane:

"He is the best combination of strength, speed and burst I've seen in a long time," said Ruane. "Every tackle, run and block is violent with him. He will be playing on Sundays someday. And I'm happy he's graduating."

Your author:

His highlight film above is his collected effort in all of those departments plus his blocking, which appears to be a never-ending series of rim-rattling dunks on people. Highlight films can lie, but once they hit a tightly-edited 15 minutes they are far less likely to. And on top of that we saw him in the Semper Fi game, where he collected seven tackles, two forced fumbles, and four PBUs in about half a game after ripping up practice on both sides of the ball. Hudson is a FOOTBALL (period) PLAYER (period), as they say.

Hudson could play a half-dozen spots but safety is by far the least stocked on the current roster. He'll have an apprentice year and then start in 2017.

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[Scout]

Fellow freshman JOSH METELLUS [recruiting profile] is far less hyped and will likely redshirt. He's one of the three Flanagan freshmen along with Devins Gil and Bush, and while he was virtually ignored by the recruiting sites he had the good fortune to not have an ESPN evaluation at all when he committed. When they looked at his film they saw a four-star nobody else had:

hybrid type SS/nickel CB. … Not always the most disciplined player when it comes to technique and position. … At his best near the box in coverage. Good range defender who closes quickly and covers a lot of ground fast. … Big-time hitter who looks to initiate contact and get downhill quickly on run support. … Closes fast with explosive burst that leads to big hits. … physical ball-hawk who can run and hit with top tier safeties in this class. Unrefined at times in man coverage.

While nobody's talking about him like they talk about Hudson, Metellus has come in for a couple of approving notes. Per Lorenz the coaching staff thinks he's a "steal"; Scout moderator DOTMAN says he's "underappreciated" and "brings a physicality and attitude" to safety.

Metellus is a guy they'll put on a shelf for a year or two and then see if they can polish his man coverage up. Getting their scouting right on him would be very nice.

Comments

Michigoss

September 1st, 2016 at 3:06 PM ^

Im a little more concerned about the safety spots than a 4. If not for our DTs, I would be somewhat worried about the whole of our interior defense. I think we could still be vulnerable to slant routes, given our inside linebackers and mistake prone safeties. 

Champeen

September 1st, 2016 at 3:33 PM ^

Our safeties are extremely athletic and fairly experienced.  They were very highly rated recruits and are now seniors.

On some former teams, we would be talking about these safeties being the top (or one of the top) units on the team.  Its just that pretty much every unit on the team this year is loaded.

I think 4's for our safeties is definitely a good ranking.  This is a damn good unit.

reshp1

September 1st, 2016 at 4:05 PM ^

The only question mark for me is how well they handle the new system. Safety is the position that got the biggest step up in degree of difficulty with Brown's system. But, that goes for anyone, even if Wilson had another year of eligibility. Both guys certainly have the physical tools to do the job. I agree with Brian's assessment that variance goes up this year, but the bad will be offset by an increase in positive plays both as a result of an upgrade in athleticism and scheme.

TheRonimal

September 1st, 2016 at 3:25 PM ^

I haven't really thought much about the safeties. With the talent at DL and CB/Peppers, it's pretty easy to think that LB/Safety play won't be super important. I can definitely see some big plays occuring because of Safety/LB mistakes. I don't think it'll happen too often, but it's something to watch for. 

Richard75

September 2nd, 2016 at 12:51 AM ^

Yep—if you have a weakness anywhere it'll get exposed. Good example of how that happens at safety was the South Carolina game, where they just called 4 verticals all day against Wilson (who was a pup back then) and Kovacs (who wasn't cut out for running with those dudes).

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad

funkywolve

September 1st, 2016 at 5:31 PM ^

but safeties are usually the last hurdle before an offensive player has an open field to a TD.  A bad pursuit angle, a mis-played pass by safety when he's helping and boom, all of a sudden a 15-20 yd play can become a huge play.  

If you're blitzing a lot (which Brown is known for a bit) it puts some more responsibilites on the safeties to make sure a decent sized play doesn't turn into a back breaker.

Rufus X

September 2nd, 2016 at 9:25 AM ^

But totally wrong.  And stupid. You don't pay tor  MGoBlog you dipshit.  And no one objected to the noodle on the basis of hating macaroni and cheese, but rather that it was giant that impacted the Stadium's architectural impact.

Go get your free content elsewhere.  SMH.

boliver46

September 2nd, 2016 at 10:08 AM ^

to include the /s apparently.

 

I have never had Comcast myself, as we are in an area with a monopoly by a local provider that coincidentally is also awful.  Buckeye Cable.  Who would have thought that something named after that team in Columbus would be awful?  /s

superstringer

September 1st, 2016 at 4:02 PM ^

I feel like I've been lead to believe we don't even NEED deep safeties... I mean, with our DL and then all the blitzing Brown is known for, opposing QB's will be lying on their backs about 0.32 seconds after each snap.  There literally will be no difference, in terms of what our deep two defenders will be doing, between "defending an opponent's forward pass" and "fielding a wobbling wayward punt."

Do I have that right?

Space Coyote

September 1st, 2016 at 4:30 PM ^

And the attempt to make light of it with "bolded alter-ego" is just making it worse. You can't be a site that rails against cable companies for years, then puts it as a sponser, and has it feel alright. I mean, I get free money, by all means, take that free money. But do it in an add on the side. Putting XFinity as the header for the post within the post text as the lead image for an article just seems.... yucky.

Space Coyote

September 1st, 2016 at 4:54 PM ^

I appreciate you responded to my comment on it, and not the others (included those from the other day). It doesn't surprise me because you still have some internet bone to pick with me because I disagreed with some of your football analysis. Still, I get that it's "free money" in the middle of the week. I get how the site works, with ads. I even said in my post that I'm fine with their being an XFinity add (sic by self admission), just that it felt odd as the header within the text of the post, I said as much in my post.

But I get it. I'm an ass because I think it being there feels "yucky". Like I said, by all means take free money, it doesn't make it not feel yucky. I'm fairly satisfied where I stand on the "ass" spectrum though when I tried multiple times to reach an olive branch out to you, I've contributed to this site, and in return... well the best you've returned is silence.

By all means, I enjoy the content on this blog. The previews this week have been generally great. Keep that up. Increase the ad content, all for that, especially with how much content you're currently putting out. And keep calling people that contribute input into the comments an "ass" if you want. You'll do fine either way.

Either way, I don't typically make snide comments in the post. I probably shouldn't have this time, that was my mistake. Oh well. I'll live with it.

Space Coyote

September 1st, 2016 at 5:16 PM ^

Over what they would otherwise be making, free as in it costs them nothing to make that money (the content would be here either way). And no, I'm not wounded by any of this. It's a blog and a blogger doesn't like me and has not accepted an olive branch I've accepted; generally that has little impact on my life other than acknowledging that hey, at least I tried to own up to my side of things and apologize.

MGoBender

September 1st, 2016 at 6:42 PM ^

The "free money" comments are especially disrespectful.  These guys have put hours on top of hours on top of hours into their business and passion to get it to the point where a major company like Comcast is buying ad space.  Nothing is free about all those hours they've put in.

Space Coyote

September 1st, 2016 at 6:58 PM ^

I honestly meant no disrespect by the term "free money". Brian has always put out great and extensive previews prior to the first game, "free money" - which I had associated with getting additional money for doing the same amount of work - was only intended to mean "I understand trying to get additional money for the content he is putting out this week. I thought that was common vernacular and usage, but I appear to be wrong on that. My bad

MGoNukeE

September 1st, 2016 at 5:59 PM ^

Can't find the link to his explanation, but Brian has acknowledged his results-based charting weighs defensive line players more favorably than the secondary BECAUSE he's using a standard football broadcast to judge players. A +4 day for a safety is a great day, while a +4 day for a defensive lineman is just okay... 

Then Kovacs came along and kept scoring above +6, so it may have changed.

jabberwock

September 1st, 2016 at 5:34 PM ^

sitting through that Kahleke Hudson video just makes my joints hurt.

There's going to be an on-field assault warrant out for him next year.  He just rocks people and it's amazing to watch.

Easily Jabrill 2.0 in my book.

M-jed

September 2nd, 2016 at 9:22 AM ^

I have no quarrel with the ads. I do have a quarrel with giving away grabby-hand secrets of our secondary to the refs and blowing the teams cover. First pass interference flag is on you.

MichiganSkeptic

September 2nd, 2016 at 9:58 AM ^

We will be super solid up front and on the outside defensively; but the inexperience and lack of speed of the linebackers, coupled with the troubling mistakes of the safeties, will leave us very vulnerable in the middle of the field. 

I expect quite a few big chunk plays against us where the linebackers get sucked in on play action or misdirection and the safeties take bad angles or miss tackles on the ensuing pass over the middle.  This may be exacerbated by even bigger holes when Brown blitzes from the middle or with a safety.