Maize n Preview: Previewing Michigan Football's 2011 Cornerbacks and Safeties

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Mark Dell #2 of the Michigan State Spartans catches a 41 yard pass during the second quarter as Terrence Talbott #22 and Courtney Avery #5 of the Michigan Wolverines make the stop during the game on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan Spartans defeated the Michigan Wolverines 34-17. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It's July. Things are quiet. It's time to start previewing things. Specifically Michigan Football things. Over the next couple of weeks we're going to be looking at what happened, who's back, who's new, and what to expect from each Michigan Football position group going in to the 2011 Football Season. So far, the 2011 Maize n Preview series has a detailed preview of the Michigan Defensive Line and a detailed preview of Michigan's Linebackers. Today it's time to finish up the defense, so we're previewing the 2011 Michigan Conerbacks and Safeties.

As and FYI, we're unabashed homers here at Maize n Brew. Even so, throughout this preview series we're doing our best to be realistic, and as you're well aware, realism can be a bit of a downer from time to time. The result of this may be a little bit more negative than it's been in years past, but there's good reason for that. We've predicted vast improvement in each of the last three years and gotten burnt crispy each time (much like our pass coverage!). So, that said, you may like what we predict or you may not, but we're trying to be objective.

One last thing. Part of the preview can come from you guys. Some of you have great insight as to what's going on in Ann Arbor and about the players, so please jump in where we're falling short. You're free to start off a discussion, point out our idiocy, brilliance, or mediocreness in the comments below. More to come over the next few days, but now it's time to preview the 2011 Michigan Conerbacks and Safeties.

About Last Night Year

2008, 88th. 2009, 66th. 2010, 112th.

Those are the numbers from hell. The types of numbers that keep coaches awake at night and make quarterback's eyes light up like the Griswold's House as Christmas time. Yes, dear reader, lose are Michigan's pass defense rankings for the last three years, arguably the worst pass defense years in Michigan's history. Spectacular flame-outs in recruiting highly touted players and spectacularly blown coverages combined with a position group younger than Justin Beibler conspired to make Michigan's defensive secondary the laughing stock of the interwebz and the Big Ten. Let's be clear, last year's secondary couldn't cover a hotdog with mustard.

Looking back over last year's preview, I was inexplicably optimistic about this unit. Still, I managed to keep a modicrum of perspective:

Look, the secondary isnot an area of strengthforMichigan. 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 group, and that is definitely a cup of Drano waiting to be ingested.

Drano indeed, this unit went down the toilet like a night of drinking followed by two Big Ten Burritos. The majority of the issue was a complete lack of depth. Michigan was playing four freshmen along with Jordan Kovacs for large portions of the year. Not only that, these were freshmen that were either playing out of position or freshmen that desperately needed a season to redshirt to grow and strengthen. But, realistically, the largest aspect of the problem was that Michigan was playing a defense that was completely ill suited for its personnel, and forced these freshmen into a position that couldn't even hope to be adequate at.

Further, if you look at the lack of productino from the defensive line and linebackers, it's not wonder the pass defense was so bad. Opposing quarterbacks had months to throw on Michigan's young secondary, and there was nothing they could do about it. The answer, apparently, was to take Michigan's best pass rusher in Craig Rohand make him a linebacker who's sole job was to cover the tight end. Gaaaaahhhhhh! Burn in hell GERG.

The final result was a lot of experience for Michigan's young guns, but the worst pass defense in Michigan's history.

Outgoing

Surprising fifth-year senior James Rogersbid Michigan adieu after what was arguably one of the most admirable performances on the defense in 2010. Rodgers was a veritable unknown who had played sparingly at wide receiver and cornerback during his three prior years in Ann Arbor. Everyone, including me, expected him to be supplanted by incoming freshmen Cullen Christian, Courtney Avery, or the ficus kept in Rodriguez office. It never happened. To be honest, though Rogers really wasn't great, he was Michigan's best cornerback in 2010. You read that right, and I'll stand by it. In fact, I said it in print last year. Rodgers started all 13 games at corner, racked up 40 tackles, 3 PBUs, and 3 INTs. He was a solid contributor, and given the youth of this year's secondary, he's going to be sorely missed.

Michigan said goodbye to number of other non-seniors in the way that only Michigan could under Rodriguez. Prior to the season Michigan said bye-bye to a pair of former 4 star recruits when Vladimir Emilien and Justin "J.T." Turnerboth transfered. Emilien was a mid 4 star who a lot of people thought might be a contributor but for his slow recovery from ACL surgery. Emilien never made the field as a defensive back and wound up burriedon the depth chart before deciding to transfer. Turner on the other hand was one of the more spectactularflameouts in Michigan's recent recruiting history. The former Mr. Football in Ohio never saw the field, never even cracked the depth chart, transfered to West Virginia, then transferedagainto parts unknown. Whether or not either would've been stars aside, their transfers helped to kill Michigan's depth in 2010.

Then, of course, there was the end of season exodus. First was Ray Vinopal. The tiny safety made his debut against Bowling Green intercepting a late pass and running it back to mid field before getting stripped. It gave many of us hope that there was indeed a safety on the roster who could, you know, play safety. Yeah... Not so much. Vinopal was too slow and too teeeeny to play safety at the Big Ten level. Still, he was a willing and savvy competitor who gave his all on every play and did the best he could in a system designed to maximumize his shortcomings. he transferred to Pittsburgh after the season to be closer to his family in Youngstown, Ohio. All of us at Maize n Brew wish him nothing but success at Pitt.

Finally, there was Cullen Christian. Christian was a concensus four star that had everyone in the Michigan recruiting circles drooling. Frankly, the freshman was expected to start at corner from day one. It didn't happen. Concerns about Christian's speed turned out to be far more justified than anyone thought. Whenever Christian saw the field, opposing offenses went right at him on deep routes that the talented kid simply didn't have the wheels to cover. He was torched so bad we needed dental records to identify him after the Michigan State game. When Rodriguez got the boot Christian decided to transfer in a Boren-esquemannerwhich didn't endear him to a lot of people. Still, I wish Christian the best and hope he finds success with his next school.

It should also be noted that Cameron Gordon, who started the season at free safety, was moved to LB. Also lost was highly touted safety recruit Mike Williams whose career ended due to concussions. So there you go. We're not even into the returning players and Michigan's already short 7 guys in the defensive backfield. It's Deja Vu all over again.

Returning Starters - Cornerback

After a year's rehabilitation, Troy Woolfolk returns to the starting Cornerback slot. Woolfolk missed the 2010 season due to a horrifying ankle injury that I experienced back in 2004, and man-oh-man does it suck. Thankfully, troy is healed, healthy and ready to return to the field in 2011. Prior to breaking his ankle in 2010, Woolfolk was slated to take over the No. 1 cornerback position from the departing Donovan Warren. Woolfolk had a decent 2009 season as Michigan's No. 2 corner, and appeared ready to be a legitimate All-Big Ten type cornerback. Knowing what I know about Woolfolk's injury and rehab, I'm not sure he's going to be that sharp out of the gates at corner. While it's true that his injury takes a full year to recover from and he's had that time, he's also missed a full year of football. I'm guessing Woolfolk's going to be a little rusty early on as his body gets used to playing at the Big Ten level again. That said, Woolfolk is a hell of an athlete that really does have good hips and changes directions fairly well. Going into the season, by virtue of his experience and time to heal, he's your No. 1 CB.

Opposite Woolfolk will be Junior J.T. Floyd. Floyd took over the No.1 corner position from Woolfolk when he went down and held onto it until he suffered his own ankle injury before the Illinois game. Thankfully Floyd had no broken bones in his ankle, but Floyd had surgery and his season was over. Overall, I thought Floyd has a decent year as a red-shirt sophomore. He wasn't expected to be Michigan's No. 1 corner, but took the position gamely and had a decent season. One of the problems JT faced was a constantly shifting position. Floyd also spent time at safety in an effort to cauterize the points hemorrhaging in the secondary, but it didn't really work. Floyd was too slight for safety, so he had some troubles supporting the run and never really looked comfortable back there. He had two good games at safety, but he's a corner. And as a corner, he's got some work to do. Floyd tends to give up the inside a little too easily for my taste and hasn't really seemed to learn how to use the sideline to his advantage. I think as a Junior he's destined to have a better, more consistent year. My only concern is that he's healthy. Floyd and Woolfolk both sat out the spring game as a precaution so we're speculating as to their abilities here. Still, if healthy, I think Woolfolk and Floyd can be a good, middle of the pack CB combo. And lord won't that be an improvement.

Safeties, back-ups and predictions after the jump.....

Returning Starters - Safety

Jordan Kovacs is a tackling machine. There. I said it. The Junior former walk-on made 75 tackles in 2009 (second on the team) despite not playing consistently until the third game of the year. In 2010 he made a jaw dropping 116 tackles (also second on the team, by a single tackle). Anyone suggesting Kovacs is 6 feet tall is a liar and at a reported 195, he is awful light for those kinds of tackle numbers. Yet there they are. Jordan Kovacs is a bad-ass. Superman wears Jordan Kovacs pajamas, because Superman knows that what Kovacs is doing is harder and more improbable than anything the Man O Steel has done in a generation. Kovacs is basically a bloodhound for the football. If you hand the ball off, more often than not your going to find Jordan Kovacs smashing his facemask into your midsection within a second of the handoff. Surprising fact, Kovacs led the team in TFLin2010 with 7.5. He's not big. He's not fast. But there he is.

Going into 2011 Kovacs is Michigan's best run defender. Sadly, at safety, he's not the best in coverage. Kovacs has okay wheels, but can't cover middle tier receivers on deep routes. He just doesn't have the speed. He best suited in zone defense where he can read the play and make his move. In a strange way, Kovacs may be the only player on the team to have benefited from GERG's disastrous defense. Because of all the extra DBs on the field, Kovacs was able to play by the line and do what he does best. I think Kovacsis going to have a decent season, but I think with the move back to a 4-3 his liabilities in coverage may be a little more pronounced. Overall, expect his tackling numbers to decline as the play in front of him gets better. Kovacs will still be our "box" or strong safety, but he's going to be called on to do a lot more coverage this year, and I'm not sure how that will turn out.

At free safety it appears Sophomore Carvin Johnson has locked down the starting slot. Johnson spent last season at the LB/Db hybrid safety and had a decent season racking up 18 tackles while alternating time with Thomas Gordon (who has also moved to free safety). Johnson had a good spring game, picking off a pair of passes and registering a sack. However, Greg Mattison let it be known that he wasn't entirely pleased with Johnson's day. So there's that. Johnson does appear to be a bit of a ball hawk but Michigan definitely needs a guy at deep safety who's going to be in the right position, play after play. From what I've seen of Johnson, he looks like he could stick at safety. He's shown the necessary toughness in run support last season, and if he has the wheels to play deep, we're in good shape. However, it's tough to get a feel for his play with only the spring game to go on.

Returning Back-Ups - Corners

Sophomore Courtney Avery is easily at the top of the heap in terms of returning depth. In an ideal world, Avery would've redshirted last season. It wasn't to be. Still, Avery notched 36 tackles on the season along with 4 PBUs. Of Michigan's young corners, Avery was the only one who not only wasn't intimated, but also was able to physically make most of the plays he was called on to make (excepting the wiff against Iowa... sigh). Avery's a great athlete off the bench and arguably a future starter at corner. He's got good speed and a really good sense of the position. I suspect Avery will be in Michigan's Nickle package and will spot Woolfolk or Floyd as needed. Personally, I think Avery's got a good future at corner.

With all the injuries to Michigan's corners, Senior Tony Anderson saw a lot of time in the spring game as Michigan's first team CB. Anderson is a solid team contributor, but as a senior with limited time on the field and 6 tackles to his credit after three years, it's not reasonable to expect that he's going to contribute much more than the occasional spot duty at corner or mop up time.

SophomoreTerry Talbott was easily the teeniest of Michigan's cadre of teeeny freshmen corners in 2010 and the one that could've benefited the most by from a redshirt. Still, Talbott played quite a bit in 2010 with mixed results. A year younger than every other freshman, Talbott physically wasn't ready to play at the Big Ten level in 2010. While he's got the wheels and the body to develop, the best thing that could happen to him is a sophomore year readshirt. Unfortunately, I don't think that's in the card. I think Talbott's probably third or fourth on the list to go into a game at this point based on the spring game. He'll probably see some time, but if he's seeing a lot of time the secondary's in trouble.

Returning Back-Ups Safety

Sophomore Marvin Robinson got a lot of press last season for his big hits in practice. Unfortunately, Robinson really was a player out of a position in GERG's defense. Was he a LB? Was he a Safety? Was he ever going to get a chance to play? It looks like he will. Robinson is a big hitter and a physical presence, so his future looks fairly secure at strong safety. Robinson will back up Kovacs and likely see some heavy playing time this season depending on the packages used. the only knock I've really heard about Robinson appears to be speed related and understanding of GERG's miserable system. Moving back to a traditional 4-3 (which he played in high school) will be a huge benefit for the talented sophomore and hopefully allow him to bloom.

Sophomore Thomas Gordon spent a lot of last season flipping time with CarvinJohnson at Spur. When Johnson went out with an injury, Gordon stepped in an played admirably for a freshman. I originally thought they were gfoing to try to bulk Gordon up to the point where he'd play 'backer, but it appears he'll stick at free safety. Gordon's a great athlete, but I worry if he's got the speed for deep safety.

Red-shirt freshman Josh Furman isone of those prospects we're really excited about. His high school film was great, but still, we knowdeep in our hearts it's going to take some time for him to develop. The former running back certainly has the wheel and strength to be a top notch safety, but it's hard to project anything until you see him play. Furman is sushi raw at safety and is likely going to see time only on special teams this season. Still, as a redshirt freshman, he's got time to develop into something special.

Junior Brandin Hawthorne hasmoved around a lot in Michigan career. As you've see above, that's more due to the coaching staff than anything else. Hawthorne was a well regarded prospect who simply hasn't found a home yet. He was a spur, a LB, a safety, etc. The high school safety seems to finally have been place back at safety where hopefully he can excel. At this point though, I'm anticipating a little bit of mop up duty with a chance to play depending on his development in fall camp. But he's easily 4th or 5thonthe depth chart at safety.

Finally there are Junior Floyd Simmons and Senior Jared Van Slyke whowill add some depth and tackles on special teams.

Incoming

Freshman Greg Brown was the only freshman DB to enroll early, and consequently he got a buttload of playing time in the spring game. The reviews were mixed, but overall it was good for the kid to get some practice time. I'd be surprised if he plays much this season outside of MAC type games, in garbage time. Brown was a moderately recruited corner, so expectations are at the contributor stage at this point.

Freshman Blake Countess is another story. Arguably the biggest fish in Michigan's 2011 recruiting class, Countess could very well find himself on the field this season. From TTB:

Unlike several other cornerback recruits over the past few years... Countess doesn't have any glaring deficiencies.  He has decent size, runs well, has good hips, is a solid tackler, and tracks the ball well in the air.  He ended his senior season with 47.5 tackles, 15 pass breakups, and 2 return touchdowns... The way he moves reminds me a bit of former Michigan cornerback Ty Law, although Law filled out to be a thick, physical corner at Michigan and later in the NFL.

Countess' path to playing time has a number of players in front of him, but if he's as good as touted and can run as scouted, I doubt Michigan will be able to keep him off the field.

Freshman Tamani Carter was one of the handful of recruits that Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison went after once they took over in Ann Arbor. Carter has good size, speed and appears to be able to tackle. On the other hand, he's a little stiff in the breaks and doesn't have a fluid chane of direction. I'm guess redshirt and a permanent move to safety

Freshman Delonte Hollowell is another in the long pipe line of Cass Tech Corners to suit up for Michigan. Hollowell is almost guaranteed a redshirt due to his size (5'8", 163).

Freshman Raymon Taylor is a kind of tweener S/CB/WR. The kid has great ball skills, so it's just as likely he ends up as a Jason Avant sure hands guy as end up on defense. According to TTB's recruitment post, Taylor reminds him of James Rogers:  

Rogers was a standout receiver/running back with great speed in high school, but he wasn't all that sudden of a player.  Much like Rogers, Taylor doesn't exactly make quick cuts but catches the ball well and can run away from opponents.  One thing Taylor has on Rogers, though, is that he's a little more physical.

I'd take that. Taylor might see some playing time on special teams, but a redshirt to sort out where he's going to play wouldn't be a bad thing.

The 2011 Season

Who the hell knows? If you look at Phil Steele's projections over the last three years none of them are correct withregard to this position group. Michigan has been an utter disaster thanks to a string of high-profile recruiting misses, poor coaching, lack of depth, new coaches, and a horrid system. The result was the worst pass defense in the program's history in 2010. And that defense lost three contributing players. On paper this is an incredibly young group anchored by two upperclassmen returning from serious injuries. That's nightmare inducing.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. First, when you're ranked 112th in the nation against the pass there really is nowhere to go but up. Second, coaching. Imagine, if you will, coaches that understand the point of defense is to, you know, stop people. Third, the play in front of them is going to be a lot better.

Michigan's secondary spent most of last year getting hung out to dry by a non-existent pass rush and linebacker play which forced them to cover even more of the field than they already were. This season's shift back to a 4-3 and new linebackers should keep the opponent's time to throw the ball under two minutes for the first time in three years. I also think the experience that CarvinJohnson, Thomas Gordon, Courtney Avery, and Marvin Robinson got last year will be a tremendous boon to this group. With the return of two veterans to the lineup at corner, it should take a lot of the pressure of the safeties and allow them to actually play the position.

Even so, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about the return of Woolfolk and Floyd. Ankle injuries suck, and they can linger like you wouldn't believe. We're going into the season hoping that Floyd and Woolfolk will be playing as well as they were when they got injured, and let's face it, that's probably a bit of a stretch given their injuries. While they're certainly an upgrade over three freshmen starting in the CB/Nickle package, to expect Troy and JT to be All-Big Ten coming off injuries is a bit too much.

I think Michigan's pass defense will be better in 2011, but I'm not expecting a giant leap forward toward respectability. If Woolfolk and Floyd play to their pre-injury capabilities, then yes, this could be a decent unit. But if they struggle and the switch back to normalcy takes longer than expected, this pass defense could be as bad as the 2008 version. Even so, that'd be a large improvement over 2010.

Overall secondary play should be improved this season. I think Michigan will get a few more picks than last year and I also think the overall pass defense numbers will greatly improve. That said, I think Michigan will struggle against the better receivers in the conference until about mid season when Woolfolk and Floyd should be back to normal. It won't be pretty this year, but it will lay the foundation for a great 2012 defensive secondary.

(Previously: a detailed preview of the Michigan Defensive Line, a detailed preview of Michigan's Linebackers)

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