By Teddy Rydquist
The 2018 version of Michigan football possessed one of the nation’s best defenses. Allowing an average of 275.2 yards per game, the Wolverines trailed only Mississippi State in this category. Michigan was also second in the country in completion percentage, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 49.4% success rate.
With this success comes attrition. Five starters from last year’s defense either graduated or were early entrants in the National Football League Draft.
Having to replace starters at all three levels will not be an easy task, but one area stands out above the rest: the secondary.
Lavert Hill is the only one of Michigan’s top-three cornerbacks to return from last season. David Long elected to leave early and was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the 79th overall pick and nickelback Brandon Watson’s eligibility expired.
Debating entering the 2019 NFL Draft himself, Hill’s decision to return and experience as a two-year starter was a big boost for this unit. Thanks to Michigan’s recruiting success, there are a couple of talented, but inexperienced, options to start across from him.
Possibly the fastest player on the team, junior Ambry Thomas has made contributions in all three phases during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. A four-star in the 2017 class and one of the top-15 cornerbacks nationally according to the 247Sports Composite, Thomas had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in South Bend vs. Notre Dame and recorded nine tackles in 2018.
A high school teammate of Hill at Martin Luther King in Detroit, the duo has a built-in familiarity they can lean on.
“We know how we play,” the junior told 247Sports’ Josh Newkirk. “We know how in rough situations we can rely on each other, and that’s what I want to put into the younger players also. Just when times are rough, ‘I got your back, you got mine.’ And Lavert and I we know it’s like that, because we played together in high school.”
Thomas does appear to be dealing with an injury/illness, however. “He’s working through a little something right now,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said of Thomas.
“We’re hoping for the best and that (hope) would be that he would be at the beginning of camp or soon after camp starts.”
Certainly, a situation worth monitoring.
Redshirt freshman Vincent Gray is also in line for a large role. A three-star in the 2018 cycle out of Rochester Adams High School (Rochester Hills, MI), Gray appeared in two games on special teams and made his debut as a defensive back in the 42-7 win over Rutgers in Piscataway on November 10.
“He’s just comfortable,” cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said regarding Gray. “He’s a very naturally talented, gifted guy, so he knows the system now and he’s going out there and playing. He’s not thinking.”
Despite his relatively modest prospect status, Gray has established a name for himself and is one of the young players to watch on this defense.
Transitioning to the safety position, Michigan has to fill the void of two-year starter and three-year contributor Tyree Kinnel.
Much like the cornerback position, the safety room benefits from having a returning starter, senior Josh Metellus. Along with Hill, Metellus was named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, the award is presented annually to the nation’s top defensive back.
Using the 247Sports Composite Rankings again, Hill was a five-star recruit, the No. 1 safety and the No. 1 player in the state of Oklahoma in last year’s class. While he was seeing some action at the nickel position earlier in the summer, Harbaugh indicated that the team sees him playing his natural position this fall. Having ideal size (6-foot-0.5, 186 pounds) and sub-4.4 forty speed, Hill is one of the most exciting defensive prospects the Wolverines have landed in the Harbaugh era.
Woods has played in 23 games for Michigan over the last two seasons and started the Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina on January 1, 2018. A strong special teamer as well, he has 22 tackles in this span.
A hard hitter who makes receivers think twice about coming over the middle, he has been working on making himself a more complete player.
“I tell them all the time I’m the hardest hitter on the team,” Woods told TheWolverine. “But I most definitely try to show different things in practice every time we do a drill.
Being in this system for a while, I just feel like I must step into a leadership role for some of the younger players. I know I have to hold myself accountable and be more consistent in everything I do.”
With Don Brown at the helm, the Wolverines have the talent to be an elite defense once again. His heavy pressure scheme puts a lot of emphasis on his defensive backs making plays one-on-one.
The talent is there, it’s time for some younger players to step up and seize the moment in the secondary.
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