This is part II of our ongoing look at the Michigan Defense for 2010. You're either an optimist or you're a pessimist. Don't sit there and tell me you're in the middle, you're not. You either think the defense will be passable or not. Kool Aid or Drano. But before you yell "Hey! KOOOO-LAID!" or reach for a coffee mug of drain opener, we're previewing the 2010 Michigan Defense. So let's sit down, look at what we lost, what we've kept, and what we're gaining this season before you open that office window to yell "Hallelujah!" or to jump out of it.
We've already talked about the Defensive Coaches, so now we're going to look at the most panic inducing aspect of this football team. The 2010 Michigan Secondary.
Out Going: Donovan Warren (UDFA - NYJ). While Michigan also lost Brandon Smith (a long time special teams player) to graduation and Boubacar Cissoko to his own stupidity mid season, there is no question that Warren's departure with a year of eligibility remaining is a deep cut for this unit. Warren was a legitimate shut down corner. Teams basically shied away from his side of the field and Donovan was a sure tackler in run support. His departure means that Troy Woolfolk is the only cornerback with any significant playing time on the roster. It also means that Michigan is, again, going into a season with limited options at that position. Also, while not departing school, former safety Michael Williams has moved to the Stevie Brown Memorial Career Saving Hybrid Linebacker position.
Incoming: Thankfully there is help on the way. The biggest fish in Michigan's defensive recruiting, contrary to popular opinion, was not Demar Dorsey. It was Pennsylvania cornerback Cullen Christian. Christian is a pure cornerback and a consensus four star recruit according to all the services. Where the opinions on Dorsey's abilities and capabilities swung pretty wildly (middling four stars on Rivals/Scout and then the #12 player in the country on ESPN), the opinions on Cullen are rock solid and consistent. Scout (#3 corner) and Rivals (#8 corner) love him, with Scout saying:
"Bottom line is he is the total package at cornerback, and one the best in the 2010 class, and he will make a huge impact in the Big Ten."
ESPN ranked him at 4 stars, dinging him for lack of elite speed, but otherwise giving him a full-on tongue bathing. Critically, Christian is a pure corner. None of this "where do we play him?" crap. He is someone who could, conceivably, step into a starting position as a freshman and perform at a (relative to being a freshman) high level, much like Donovan Warren did.
Another huge get for the team was safety Marvin Robinson. Like Christian, Robinson was a consensus 4 star defensive back/safety who generally checked in as the18-20 best safety in a deep 2010 class. While opinions differed early as to where Robinson would initially play, given Michigan's lack of depth at safety I think Robinson will stick at Free Safety. Troy Woolfolk was pretty explicit on this point when I talked with him: Robinson has great ball skills and coverage awareness. The last safety I could say that about was Jamar Adams. If the kid's a natural at the position and I've got a gut feeling he may actually stick there.
In addition to these two highly rated incoming freshmen, Michigan also added a boatload of depth in this class. Joining the team are corners Terrence Talbot and Courtney Avery, as well as safeties Ray Vinopal and Carvin Johnson. Talbot, Avery and Johnson are all three stars with Vinopal checking in at the two star slot on Rivals and three on Scout. There's been plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the star ratings on these kids, but there are plenty of three stars that can make it big once they hit campus (a certain Michigan State Linebacker named Greg Jones comes to mind). Most importantly, these kids add depth to an absolutely depleted secondary that desperately needed to be restocked.
Staying the Same: Troy Woolfolk inherits the No. 1 corner slot from Donovan Warren. Who will play opposite him is somewhat of a mystery, but the spring practice and summer workout chatter is that J.T. Floyd has taken that next step and has a before-fall-practice-starts death grip on the No. 2 slot. Starting with Floyd, the redshirt sophomore has his work cut out for him. Floyd was a consensus three star corner who garnered offeres from Tennessee, Georgia Tech and all the Carolina schools; so it wasn't just Michigan taking a flier on him. With two years under his belt the spring/summer buzz has been he's finally got a grasp of the defense and he's got the speed to make an impact. As usual, I'll withold judgment until I see him on the field.
Woolfolk is a little different story. Woolfolk committed early in his recruitment, only garnering offers from Michigan, Houston and Nebraska. But had the speedster remained on the market, I'm fairly certain he would've garnered several more offers and possibly a fourth star based on his speed and quickness. TIFWIW. I thought Woolfolk played pretty well last year despite moving between positions and think he's proven himself as a good No. 2 cornerback. We'll have to see if he's got the chops to make it as a shutdown corner.
After the starters there is the returning enigma of Justin J.T. Turner. The No. 2 rated prospect in Ohio two years ago, Turner has yet to crack the lineup despite the depth issues and still seems to be struggling to adjust to the system despite all his natural ability. Turner's talent has never been questioned, but I get the feeling he's struggling in the same way that William Campbell is at DT, he never had to go beyond his talent to get the job done. Rodriguez has said specifically that they need Turner to take that next step and become a valued member of the secondary. Regardless of where he plays (safety or corner are possibilities), if he gets it together he could be an impact player. If he doesn't... well... then we're looking at another Marques Slocum.
Once you're past Turner, you're getting into fuzzy territory. James Rodgers has been a good special teamer but hasn't shown any ability to play consistently above "yikes" in the secondary, and as much as I hope things work out for Teric Jones at corner, I'm not holding my breath at this point, he's just got too much learning to do at a new position (initially a RB that switched over last year).
At Safety things remain nightmare inducingly uncertain. The only definite appears to be that (So.) Jordan Kovacs will start at strong/free safety (whichever position is SEE RUNNING BACK DESTROY). How was Kovacs recruitment? I have no idea. There are no, repeat no, articles or pages on Kovacs' recruitment. There is, however, a nice interview with him. Kovacs didn't play a minute until the Notre Dame game and still managed to be second on the team in tackles, not bad for a walk-on. Even so, Kovacs is not a coverage corner. Frankly, he scares me in space simply because he doesn't have even average speed and was a liability in coverage. If he stays on the field, Michigan will keep him close to the line where he excels and away from the defensive backfield where he does not.
Opposite Kovacs the returning players (RSF) Cameron Gordon, (RSF) Vlad Emilien, and a bunch of guys you've never heard of. Gordon seems to have the starting slot locked down after a dominant performance in the spring game and some great work over the summer. But that's not to say he won't be pushed by the former 3 star/4 starrecruit Emilien. Vlad was finally back from ACL surgery at the end of last year and was pushing hard before dinging his other knee in practice. According to Rodriguez, Vlad will be back full speed for fall practice and will push Cam for the starting spot. If healthy, Vlad certainly has the athletic ability to make a difference on defense but we won't know what kind until he sees game time. It's possible Mike Jones (who drew interest from Auburn, Notre Dame, and UNC) could play if necessary but he's slated to play Linebacker.
Rainbows or Liquid Plumber? Compared to last year, this unit will be better. There's too much returning experience for it not to be. But how much better is a total unknown to me. There are just too many question marks. Jordan Kovacs is a great story. He is. But a walk-on should NEVER be starting at a school like Michigan. I am totally open to the possibility that Kovacs grows three inches and drops his forty time by four tenths of a second, but only to the extent I am open to the possibility that the Titanic will rise from ocean depths, dock in New York, and disembark its passengers. Regardless of JT Turner's emergence, Michigan willstart a Sophomore and a freshman (redshirt or otherwise) at both safety slots. That scares scares me to the point I should be wearing Depends as I type this.
At corner I am less scared than I am about safety, but still pretty nervous. Woolfolk should be a pretty good cornerback. J.T. Floyd is an unknown, but then again so was Woolfolk a year ago. If Floyd performs as well as Woolfolk did last year, I think the corners good be average to above average. There's enough depth at corner and safety with the possibility of Emilien, Turner, Robinson and Christian either returning or getting on campus for the first time.
Look, the secondary is not an area of strength for Michigan. We've all heard the platitudes about "this is a different defense" over and over again during the last three years to make them particularly hollow. the only thing that will prove them to be anything other than platitudes is on field performance. There is talent on this team, and for the first time in a while, a little depth. But there is next to no experience in this grouping, and that is definitely a cup of Drano waiting to be ingested.
There are rainbows there. But we're going to have to get some sun to shine on the secondary before all those dark clouds go away.