Preview 2018: Safety Comment Count

Brian August 31st, 2018 at 2:31 PM

[Bryan Fuller]

Previously: Podcast 10.0A. Podcast 10.0B. Podcast 10.0C. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Tackle. Interior Offensive Line. Defensive Tackle. Defensive End. Linebacker. Cornerback.

Depth Chart

Free Safety Yr. Strong Safety Yr. Nickelback Yr.
Tyree Kinnel Sr. Josh Metellus Jr. Brandon Watson Jr.*
Jaylen Kelly-Powell So. Brad Hawkins So. Ambry Thomas Fr.
J'Marick Woods So. Sammy Faustin Fr. Jaylen Kelly-Powell Fr.

When the land around you is flat as a pancake any bump on the horizon becomes Mount Something and some goof will stick a ski lift on it. This was the Michigan safety corps' 2017. Surrounded by Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich and Devin Bush and Mo Hurst, their lack of super powers stuck out. A missed tackle here, a dropped interception there, and portions of the fanbase saw Mount Oh My God The Safeties on the horizon.

This is all a matter of perspective. Relative to the rest of the defense, yeah. Relative to Michigan safety play in the not-at-all distant past, no. They'll be fine. They will aspire to boring and let the rest of the defense turn into werewolves. This is fine. All I ever wanted was a boring safety.


RATING: 3.5.


awwwww cumong [Patrick Barron]

The thing people are mad at TYREE KINNEL about isn't the thing they should be mad about, insofar as they should be mad. Many words have been spilled over the offseason about the Dreaded Slot Fade, and Kinnel more than anyone else was the victim of these. And, yes, that one time Lavert Hill got one he showed how it should be done. I still offer up (minor) coverage positives for this kind of business, though:

He's very close and gets a rake in but it's for naught; it required a perfect throw (note how Hill and WR slow up on his PBU, none of that here) and fairly difficult catch. I shrug at that. Sometimes the offense wins. It felt like Kinnel got the business end of that business far too often for the quality of coverage he was providing. The picture above? Catch. QED.

This was a larger trend. Kinnel's coverage was solid, as befits a player who came in as a CB/S hybrid. He was barely more targeted than the cornerbacks and while his results weren't quite as good he still made it tough for most of his opposition:

S #23 rotating down on motion

He wasn't the kind of safety you could put on DJ Moore and expect good things to happen but he had a hand in the secondary's massive coverage positives week-in and week-out; he was also a major contributor to Michigan's low number of long (30+) passes allowed, 12. A QB rating allowed slightly below the 50th percentile doesn't reflect Kinnel's play since it doesn't grade on a curve for tough coverage beaten and doesn't take Michigan's lack of big ol' busts into account. He was a solid B in coverage.

[After THE JUMP: grumbles accepted]

On the other hand, this space will accept grumbles about missed tackles. Kinnel started the season with a super rare +3 for a downfield tackle because he flew into a desperate situation and saved a touchdown:

Seeing this from the stands was a different, relief-filled experience. That jet from offscreen was perfect, high speed and touchdown-saving. He'd miss a similarly heroic tackle attempt on the quarterback later in the game, so he still needs to learn when taking a risk like the above is necessary. If Kinnel comes in at the QB slower on his miss he almost certainly makes the tackle by giving up a few more yards; if he comes in slower at the tailback he gets blocked and UC scores.

He had no choice but to come in hot there because that screen was set up for a touchdown unless he didn't get blocked at all. Check.

Unfortunately that tackle got Kinnel so freakin' jazzed that he kept doing it even when the alternatives were a few more yards instead of an escorted march to the endzone. This did not always go so well as the first one:

FS #23 to bottom

This over-aggressive fill was more damaging:

Kinnel ended up missing more tackles than anyone else on Michigan's defense by a fairly wide margin, and never seemed to get better at knowing when he needed to take a risk and when he should play it cool.

Combine these two tendencies and you have a Not Quite Boring safety:

I have mixed feelings about Kinnel. He was not very boring in this game, and this was close to evenly split between good and bad. I'd rather have a 3-0=3 safety than a 9-6=3 safety, but I'd rather have a 9-6=3 safety than most guys I've charted. The safeties are coming in for some clucking largely because there's nothing to cluck about elsewhere.

There were a couple things to cluck about, though.

Entering 2018 Kinnel is "just a guy" to NFL evaluators and that seems fair. Now a captain, Kinnel seeks to change that. He called his own number when asked for a breakout guy at media day:

Defensively, Kinnel picked himself to have a breakout year, saying he wasn’t good enough last season but has the chance to take his game to the next level in 2018. ... “There were things last year that I wasn’t able to do or that I struggled with that I’ve fixed now,” Kinnel said. “I can show my ability.”


Hopefully that's on point. A reasonable expectation for Kinnel is to cut down on missed tackles, get incrementally better in man coverage, and to appease whatever foul spirit cursed him on slot fades. That still results in an honorable mention ABT, NFL undrafted free agent kind of season. But, hey, I'll take it. On this defense all the safeties have to do is give the other guys another shot on the occasions where the opposition breaks through Don Brown's line of pressure.





thwonk [Bryan Fuller]

I probably don't need to and shouldn't remind you why JOSH METELLUS has been the subject of Takes this offseason, but we do strive for completeness: so yeah, he dropped a JT Barrett pass that was directly in his hands last November. Michigan was up 14-0, it looked like a potential pick six, OSU scored afterwards, and if any of us had any capacity to feel pain any more it would linger in our minds, causing us to vomit at inopportune times (job interview! date! international society of people who vomit upon seeing someone else vomit!).

Since we don't I don't really see what the big deal is.

When not doing that, Metellus was a solid-to-good deep safety. He's the league's second-best returning slot defender, per PFF, either more capable or just more fortunate on those slot fades...



...and both athletic enough and savvy enough to make plays downfield:

(Note also this is not a Kinnel target but Kinnel's positioning influences the throw. All secondary members get some credit for the unit's bonkers numbers.)

He also flashed the physicality that he brought early in his career when he was running around beating up on the dilapidated remnants of Rutgers.

Until the Ohio State game he was tracking towards should-be-all-conference-but-won't-be status. Then the dropped INT, and what followed after. It was Metellus who got lost on a couple of critical late crossing routes. The excellent slot defender didn't just allow catches, he was so far away from the receiver that he wasn't even able to get a tackle attempt in.

In the aftermath a lot of people were hard on him. First and foremost was Josh Metellus:

"Last year it was more of a confidence thing," Metellus said. "More of like, 'alright you're a starter now. Like you have to be a starter, you have to be one of those guys people can depend on.' I wasn't as focused on technique. I was just focused on making sure I'm just good. "Alright, I got to get the job done.' So now going in, like having that confidence, 'alright I know how it feels to play in that big game. I know how it feels to be under pressure.' Like, I know how it feels to be tired and still playing. So now it's getting my technique right, making muscle memory."

"I was a little bit more passive than I usually like to play. But I feel going into this year I'm ready to go full force," Metellus added.

I am less hard on him because I don't have clips. I don't want clips for safeties. Metellus year was spent offscreen, mostly, until the late fade. If he was the same guy next year I'd be fine with.

There are occasional blips out of camp suggesting that is an excessively modest expectation. Wolverines Wire:

...massive steps forward. Metellus ... has looked like a different player – which jibes with what some players said this spring. We’re told that his ability to cover has increased significantly, and he found himself giving up barely anything when targeted as such.

That would be real nice. Michigan should expect improvement from a true sophomore entering his junior year; Metellus should be a little more impactful and a fair bit more difficult to break open on. That has the potential to make him one of Michigan's best safeties in the past decade. Or he could be just a guy again.


Just one section since these gents are close to interchangeable.


got more ups than a failed UPS joke [Patrick Barron]

The backup situation is much more stable than it was a year ago, when any safety ding forced a true freshman or Glasgow onto the field. All of those freshmen are back and a couple appear to be tracking well. The gent who's apparently tracking the best: BRAD HAWKINS [recruiting profile] . Hawkins was an extremely rare prep-and-follow recruit who dropped off radars once he took that postgrad year to get his grades right. This was probably a mistake:

Michigan saw that and made him a safety. This makes fairly good sense: he is a burly man and Michigan had four other touted WRs in his recruiting class. It was going to take a minute for him to adjust to the switch; it appears that minute has passed:

Hawkins continued progress especially noteworthy because of his previously mentioned man coverage ability. Partridge called him the best man cover guy at the position. It was just a matter of parking him at a position and letting him get comfortable at one spot. Now comes word that he recently began seeing reps with the ones, rotating in for Metellus at the rover.

He's set to be Metellus's primary backup. It does sound like the "Hawkins was the highest-graded safety in spring" was a wee bit oversold:

“Brad got banged up in spring,” recalled Partridge. “He practiced the first four practices and then he missed (some). He only came back for the last four, so he missed a good chunk. He graded out the best after those last four practices at the safety position. In those four practices he was the best guy. I'm not saying overall… (just) when he came back."

That's still good! It's just not start-now good. And that's for the best, really. Hawkins passing one of the starters one year after a position switch from offense and a year in which he spent a lot of time at viper(!) would be a bit of a heebie-jeebies moment. It does sound like Hawkins's time is coming. Partridge:

“Incredible – what a camp he’s had,” Partridge said. “He’s really, really stepped up and done some things and gotten – he’s gone above expectations for me. I think he’s a guy that, another guy that has a bright future, that loves playing the game and is really in-tuned and is really good. You’ll see him on the field for sure.”

He will be Michigan's best shot at spectacular leaping interception from a safety, that's for sure.


if it's a position he's played it [Patrick Barron]

Sophomore JAYLEN KELLY-POWELL [recruiting profile]  got a test drive as a slot fade defender in the Wisconsin game, and that went spectacularly unwell. One wide open touchdown later Michigan was in a hole and folks had a newfound appreciation for Tyree Kinnel (lol jk no, it's the internet).

This was a bad sign for Kelly-Powell, who played mostly corner in high school—he was Cass's pick to battle Ambry Thomas's offensive snaps, which is quite an assignment—and should have been well suited to defend that sort of thing. And he probably was, in practice. That is undoubtedly why Michigan sent him out there. But freshmen gonna freshmen.

JKP's stock has recovered since thanks to a steady drumbeat of praise. Before Hawkins's fall surge he was the backup everything; Wolverines Wire asserted that Kelly-Powell had also taken a "massive step forward" thanks in part to Michigan finally whittling down his position duties to safety. This was a giant load to dump on a freshman:

“He’s been working with the safeties, the corners, kind of all over. A little Viper, nickel. A great addition to the defense.”

Michigan tends to fling athlete-style freshmen in at a bunch of different positions in year one before making a decision going into year two, but JKP's nomadic lifestyle was an extreme example. Partridge:


“Jaylen is a guy who has got a very bright mind ... As a freshman we asked him to do a lot… more so than you (typically) would. He was playing nickel, he was playing rover, he was playing free. ... He put on about 10 pounds. It was something he needed to do as well. He had a heck of a spring. He'll get in there and he'll get into the mix during camp right away."


Kelly-Powell will be a special teams mainstay before a massive battle to replace Kinnel.


J'Marick Woods is a human, man [Marc-Gregor Campredon]

And let's not forget J'MARICK "OL' WOODS" WOODS [recruiting profile], who caused previous safeties coach to break down into Perd Hapley-isms when attempting to describe him...

"He's kind of earning his nickname -- we call him 'Woods' -- and he definitely brings the wood, as a physical player."

You will note that his nickname is just his name, which makes it not a nickname at all and yes I am still on about this. I will never log off about this. I hope you enjoy this meme because you've got at least two more years of seeing it:


Woods is a safety nicknamed Woods

Woods very briefly replaced Kinnel in the Ohio State game, which went very well for one play:

OSU broke JK Dobbins into the open field; Woods came up and stopped him dead at about six yards. I'd venture that nobody has been able to stick the slippery Dobbins like that all year.

He also started in the bowl game, where he was "up and down" per Partridge. Despite that impressive stick and the, you know, start, almost all offseason safety talk has been focused on the two guys just above. Patridge makes it sound like they've got the technical stuff down in a way that Woods does not yet:

It wasn't as consistent as he wanted it to be. It wasn't horrible… (he) just had some things to improve. He's a guy who had a really good spring as well. We just have to get him really being consistent all the time. When he gets to be 100% consistent in terms of understanding formations, moving the ball, his footwork, he's going to be a force to reckoned with.”

Webb floated an OPINION that he would be "lights out at viper"; if Michigan does feel confident in Hawkins and Kelly-Powell they might test that opinion out in case they need a new starter next year.

Freshmen SAMMY FAUSTIN [recruiting profile] and GERMAN GREEN [recruiting profile] are the most safety-ish of Michigan's five identical defensive back recruits—the Greens are literally twins—and are filed here. Both are generic three star sorts; with five guys above them on the depth chart it looks like redshirts for both. Neither has warranted much, if any, buzz so far.

Finally, LOU GRODMAN. Lou. Grodman.




August 31st, 2018 at 2:42 PM ^

Brian - Very NIMBY comment regarding the ski lifts. We need to create MORE zoning for ski lifts. That way it drives down ski pass prices for everyone and makes Ann Arbor skiing more affordable.


August 31st, 2018 at 2:59 PM ^

I'm sure Metellus will be great and I do not harbor ill will toward him

but that hurt to read that and be reminded that he had a pick in his hands when we were up 14-0 in the game and then OSU scored shortly there after. Ow.


August 31st, 2018 at 3:09 PM ^

"When the land around you is flat as a pancake any bump on the horizon becomes Mount Something and some goof will stick a ski lift on it. " This line made me laugh right off the bat. I always appreciate your writing, Brian.

Avant's Hands

August 31st, 2018 at 6:12 PM ^

Metellus is only a junior? Holy shit. I had originally thought he graduated last year and was sure he had to be a senior this year. How am I so off about him? I will take it, though.