2012 Michigan Season Preview: Secondary

"The expectation is for the position," quoth Kovacs, right before making his acquaintance with Alex Carder.
2012 Michigan Season Preview
* Running Backs
* Linebackers
* WRs and TEs
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line

After several seasons of attempting to watch--through the slits between your fingers, of course--Michigan's secondary cover people, our long national nightmare is over: secondary competence, achieved! I am of the opinion that even the worst position coaches in college football know infinitely more than Some Guy On The Internet (i.e. me), but one thing about the RR era was indisputably true: Michigan's secondary was not very good, and one of the primary reasons for that is the simple fact that Tony Gibson was just not a very good coach. Again, there's no doubt that Tony Gibson knows more about football than you or I, but, at the end of the day, the absolute value that is "results" is all we have to go on. It's a simple process. Like a chemical reaction, something goes into the proverbial box and something comes out; while the in between can often be somewhat nebulous and incapable of distinct explanation, the products side of the equation is as clear as day. Michigan's secondary could not cover a sleeping infant with a warm blanket, and that certainly had something to do with Gibson.

Fortunately, Greg Mattison and Curt Mallory* came in and changed all of that in one year with all of the same players (plus a freshman Blake Countess). Front seven play is obviously something that can be improved upon through meticulous coaching and consistent, streamlined instruction from the DC and/or position coaches, but there is no position group on the defense more dependent upon said instruction than the secondary. One needs look no further than Nick Saban's CV as a defensive mind. For as many world-destroying front sevens as Saban has coached, he is known for his specific, OCD-driven passion for coaching secondary technique. There's a reason for that. A mistake in the front seven might lead to a first down; a mistake in the secondary often leads to points.

In 2011, the Michigan secondary was incredibly improved, in large part because said mistakes were few and far between.

*FWIW, Mallory is my early favorite to replace Mattison down the road (assuming he doesn't get poached by another program before Mattison retires).

Safety

Starters: SS Jordan Kovacs (Sr.) 6'0'' 202lbs, FS Thomas Gordon (Jr.) 5'11'' 207lbs

Backups: SS Marvin Robinson (Jr.) 6'2'' 200lbs, FS Jarrod Wilson (Fr.) 6'2'' 194lbs, FS Josh Furman (RS So.) 6'2'' 203lbs

No discussion of Michigan's starting duo at safety is complete without a reference to them being Michigan's greatest pair of safeties since ????, only to then sheepishly mention the unremarkably solid Adams-Englemon pairing of 2007. Then, you immediately wonder what went wrong vis-a-vis Michigan's safety recruiting in the past 15 years or so and proceed to have a good long cry.

If you were to watch to read this post after being transported via time machine directly from 2009, you'd probably think that all the Kovacs praise is a little insane. Remember the Indiana game, when Darius Willis left Kovacs in the dust for an 85-yard touchdown? That might as well have occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Kovacs's lack of athleticism was glaringly obvious at first, although, as a former walk-on pushed into duty as a redshirt freshman (coming off of a knee injury in 2008 that led to him not making the team, something that people often forget), he was somewhat forgiven for his mistakes given the dearth of options at the position. Kovacs at first carved out a little niche as a guy spending most of his time in the box, darting off the edge into the backfield as a quasi-linebacker of sorts. When asked to patrol center field, however, things often ended poorly...but again, given the overall state of the defense and the lack of any sort of real pass rush, Kovacs could hardly be blamed for his inadequacies.

Although he had gotten much better in 2010, the defense as a whole was still a disaster. fast forward to 2011, and Michigan fans had the pleasure of watching Mr. Kovacs do things like this:

KOVACS, JORDAN - Professional Walk-On (via Sweatervest09)

From the very beginning, Kovacs shed the label of "gritty walk-on doing the best he can with what he's got in the situation he's in" to "downright good/a guy that might have an NFL future of some sort." Kovacs continued to execute those tackles on the edge that the Michigan D had been missing, capably wrapping up backs and receivers before they had a chance to rack up much YAC. Via multiple years of S&C and experience, he looked noticeably faster and stronger last season, particularly when coming in on the blitz. There are few things more glorious than watching him come up the middle or off the edge to lay the boom on an unsuspecting QB/HB.

Now, lest this verges too far into the realm of the hagiographic, Kovacs is still no doubt a limited athlete. Although he has perfected the blitz, which makes him appear to be approximately twice as fast and agile as he is otherwise, he's not someone that you want venturing too far from the LOS. Then again, that's why he's a strong safety. After finishing 2nd on the team in tackles (75), 3rd in TFLs (8), and tied for 2nd in sacks (4), it's reasonable to expect much of the same this season. Kovacs is without a doubt a legitimate All Big Ten First Team candidate and the leader of this defense.

We already knew a good bit about Kovacs before 2011. Thomas Gordon, on the other hand, was a lesser known entity. After laboring away at the nebulous hybrid LB/S position under RR, Gordon moved back to the free safety position in 2011. While he might not have ideal speed/athleticism for the position, he was more than serviceable last season. He finished third on the team in tackles with 67 tackles, right behind Kovacs, and he recovered the most fumbles in the Big Ten last season, securing four of them (something something LUCK something something). Although Kovacs gets all the respect, Gordon's 2011 was no less impressive. Gordon's slick one-handed over the shoulder INT against Eastern Michigan was a nice example of his ability as a forcer of turnovers (as were the aforementioned fumble recoveries).

2011 Michigan Defense vs. Eastern Michigan Every Snap (via mgodisney)

Needless to say, Michigan is in good hands with this duo, a pairing that would make Dennis Haysbert proud. As for the backups, the top two names are RS junior Marvin Robinson and Jarrod Wilson, one of three early enrollees in the 2012 class. Robinson has had a bit of an enigmatic career. In high school, he was at one point considered a 5-star sort before the services cooled on him by his senior year. Nonetheless, he is a very athletic guy, and although he has yet to make a real impact on the field, a solid season in 2012 will serve as a nice springboard for a starting role in 2013. Robinson reminds me of former Florida Gator strong safety (current Chicago Bear) Major Wright in a lot of ways: athletic, certainly capable of laying the boom, and somewhat suspect in coverage/form tackling. For an example of such a coverage derp, see the last ND touchdown of the UTL game: Robinson is one of two guys--the other being Troy Woolfolk--who appear to be a step or two late to the spot (i.e. not letting Theo Riddick run a go route to the end zone essentially unimpeded). Despite these flaws, Wright was a 3rd-round pick in the 2010 draft. If #3 gets anywhere near that level, consider his career a smashing success.

Josh Furman will be a redshirt sophomore this season and is still by and large an enigma. Furman's exploits as a prolific high school tailback are well-known; his athletic ability is not disputed. However, he's obviously still getting used to playing D at the college level. Furman saw some playing time on defense against EMU and Nebraska last season, but otherwise filled the "Special Teams Speed Demon Guy Who Pays His Dues and Then Maybe Becomes a Starting Safety Down the Road sponsored by Ernest Shazor" position. His suspension in early April forced him to miss out on some valuable practice time, however. Obviously, not much real practice info is escaping The Fort right now, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Jarrod Wilson is legitimately pushing him for the backup free safety position, although I would much rather see Furman begin to get some serious non-special teams reps this year than a freshman Wilson.

Speaking of Wilson...on the plus side, he was a 4-star recruit that enrolled early this past spring. Still, he is a freshman, and a nice quiet season of mop up duty would be ideal for him. I will say this: Wilson is a guy that I'm really excited about, irrespective of that whole "getting hit stick'd by Thomas Rawls in the Spring Game" thing. If Furman doesn't show anything this season, Wilson is easily the favorite to start at free safety in 2013.

Grade: A- (Starters A- Backups B)*

*NB: as far as these grades go, I'm not giving equal weight to the starters and backups alike...obviously the starters are more important. I just wanted to mention this so that people don't think that I'm getting an A- after averaging an A- and a B...FWIW. Math is hard, but not that hard.

Corner

Starters: BC J.T. Floyd (Sr.) 6'0'' 183lbs, FC Blake Countess (So.) 5'10'' 182lbs

Backups: Courtney Avery (Jr.) 5'11'' 173lbs, Raymon Taylor (So.) 5'10'' 182lbs, Delonte Hollowell (So.) 5'9'' 176lbs

Ever since the 2006 version of The Game, Michigan's situation at corner had gotten progressively less sunny. Troy Smith and OSU's 5-wide attack completely exposed a Michigan secondary that had only one elite player (Leon Hall). In 2007, we had the Johnny Sears Experiment, and in 2009 we had Boubacar Cissoko, whose career came to a sad end for a number of reasons. In 2010, Michigan rolled with J.T. Floyd--who then proceeded to get about as much flak in one season as Morgan Trent received in his entire career--and James Rodgers, whose play somewhat depressingly inspired Maize n Brew Dave to ask whether or not he was Michigan's best corner. Courtney Avery also picked up 5 starts as a freshman, showing occasional flashes of solid play lost within a gaping maw of mediocrity.

Hey, let's talk about good things now! Last season was pretty great for both Floyd and his running mate across the way, Blake Countess, a 4-star freshman from Maryland. Now, Floyd has gotten his fair share of criticism over the years. In some cases, he's still receiving that certain criticism from some folks, namely Magnus at Touch The Banner (which is fine, for the record, as I think Magnus's main point is that Floyd is not the upper echelon corner that some people claim he is). Floyd is not an "elite" corner, but he is at minimum a very solid one. As long as he continues to play well, worrying about where he fits in the hierarchy of college corners is a pointless exercise. In any case, as much fun as it is to watch guys like Charles Woodson come in and look great right away, players like Floyd, who improve gradually over a 4/5-year career, are particularly endearing to me.

The only real negatives from last season for Countess and Floyd (and the secondary as a whole, really), were the last two games of the season. Blake Countess in particular had a tough time against DeVier Posey and Virginia Tech's Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, which is to be expected; those guys are all very good and Blake was just a little freshman. It was a disappointing end to a fantastic debut season, but the future is still very bright. Unlike Michigan's last big name corner to start as a freshman (Donovan Warren, 2007), Countess will have the benefit of top notch defensive coaching and a good defense around him.

The backup situation is about what you could reasonably expect it to be. Remember, this is college football: even great teams typically only have one truly great corner and bunch of guys ranging from "serviceable" to "good." If you're expecting 4 or even 5 starter-worthy players, your expectations are probably a little too high.

Michigan has two "pretty good" starting corners right now and a fairly solid #3 guy in Avery, who saw starting time in 2010. Raymon Taylor and Delonte Hollowell played sparingly last season, but having sophomores that have a non-zero amount of game reps to their name manning the 4 and 5 spots...well, it could be worse. I'm irrationally excited about Taylor, as I think his speed could be a real asset down the road, but he's still young and very raw. Hollowell, on the other hand, is fairly small. Another season of mostly playing on special teams is probably in the cards for Hollowell. Losing Terrence Talbott (and Tamani Carter, who, as Magnus notes, could have potentially filled in at corner) hurts a little bit, but he likely wasn't going to see extensive playing time this season anyway.

Grade: B+ (Starters B+, Backups B-)

---

Michigan finished 16th in passing defense last year (part of a D that was also 16th in Defensive FEI as a unit) almost completely eliminating the "big play" that had plagued Michigan for so long. Really, try to remember them off the top of your head. There was: that long Gary Bush TD in the first quarter of the Purdue game (a game which Kovacs missed due to injury, FWIW), that long TD pass against Nebraska, and the multiple miscues against the Buckeyes. Other than that...am I missing any? I don't think that I am. Michigan did do its fair share of bending last season, but they not only tended to not break, they did not allow teams to rack up points due to major derpage in the secondary. It was...fun? Am I allowed to say that watching Michigan's secondary play football is fun? I think so, although the failures of the past admittedly have me still nursing a certain residual level of cautious optimism.

Michigan's starting quartet is above average. With the possible exception of Countess, however, none of them are exceptional athletes, which is the primary reason behind me not giving this group an A (that, and less than ideal established quality after Michigan's top 5 defensive backs). That is okay, as nobody said you had to be a Bo Jackson-esque athletic in order to be a good football player. Still, with the pass rush looking to get even weaker this season, the onus on the secondary to limit the big plays will grow as Mattison will be forced to resort to riskier playcalling to get to the QB and keep opponents' run game in check.

Overall, however, 2012 will be another year featuring very good play in the secondary. The numbers might not end up being as pretty as they were in 2011, mostly due to the DL situation and the inevitable regression to the mean with respect to fumble recovery, but whatever. It's been quite some time since Michigan has fielded an above average secondary in consecutive seasons, and it will be a strange thing to behold in 2012 indeed (in a good way, of course).

It's probably a little too soon to start ignoring the "never forget" imperative, but it's safe to say that the Michigan secondary has already put a good distance between itself and that era after only one season. The days of looking on in anguish as an opposing QB gets ready to let a pass fly downfield are long past us now.

Grade: A- (Starters A-, Backups B)

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