2013 Season Preview: The Secondary

Time to lead. - US PRESSWIRE

Michigan's secondary could be a much different unit in terms of production this fall, depending on how it recovers from the loss of Jordan Kovacs and how Blake Countess can play the year after an ACL injury.

Life after Kovacs

There was perhaps no player that was a more interesting case study in the GERG to Greg defensive transformation over the last few years.  Thrust into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman walk-on because literally every other option was either hurt or losing its mind, Kovacs did what he could.  The lasting image of Jordan that first year is probably the picture of him trailing Indiana running back Darius Willis down the sideline as Willis ran in for the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.  In fact, that was really the best image to sum up Michigan's secondary that year: too young and attrition ravaged to do any better.

The next year was worse, really.  Michigan fielded an abomination of a defense that had no identity or reasonable clue what to do at any given moment, and Kovacs, in his second year, was one of the few working parts.  He led the team in tackles (as a safety, cue sirens) and tied for first on the team in TFLs.  Kovacs had turned into a reliable, heady mop up crew, but faced spills on every aisle.

The last two years?  Incredibly impressive, when you consider just how awful the first two were.  Michigan went from a laughingstock to one of the best defenses in the country in limiting big plays.  I already outlined just how effective the defense was in this regard a couple weeks ago:

- In 2012, no team gave up fewer plays of 20+ yards than Michigan (35).

- The Wolverines were also t-19th in both plays of 30+ and 40+ yards (18 and 8)

- In 2011, Michigan was 26th, t-12th, and t-9th in those categories, respectively (44, 15, and 6)

A lot of that was Greg Mattison fixing things up front and installing a run defense that wasn't a season long tribute to Benny Hill.  But, of the players on the field, nobody had a bigger hand in it than Jordan Kovacs.

And being such a steady presence for so long, Jordan Kovacs was able to walk away from a secondary much more able to replace his production than the one he walked into as The Final Option four years before.  Michigan's secondary is still on the young side, but the level of talent and depth are worlds better than what Michigan ever had under Rodriguez.

Good enough to maintain production despite the loss of the best Michigan safety of the last decade?  That's the million dollar question.

Corner

Field Corner Boundry Corner Nickel Corner
Starter So. Blake Countess Jr. Raymon Taylor Fr. Dymonte Thomas
2nd String Jr. Delonte Hollowell Sr. Courtney Avery Sr. Courtney Avery

Last year's common refrain during fall camp was, "as long as Blake Countess doesn't go down I think we're set..." which lasted all of a handful of plays into the Alabama debacle, and then the panic set in.

Countess was the freshman corner that everyone had waited for for years.  He showed promise early and slowly worked his way into the starting lineup toward the end of his freshman season.  He looked to be Michigan's next best shot at a lock down corner and was impressive during spring and fall camp.

The injury against Alabama set back the timetable, but it didn't turn off the expectations.  Countess had his surgery and spent the season and off season working his way back into playing shape.  This fall he has already shown the coaches that he is 100 percent, and to that end he brings the kind of lock down potential that Michigan hasn't had much of in a few years.  Countess has solid size (5'10, 182 lbs.) and the kind of athleticism and footwork to play in a receiver's back pocket.  He is the kind of player that you want left alone on the outside, and his return will be a big boost to a defense that only loses J.T. Floyd.  There will no doubt be struggles as he readjusts to playing and deals with run support, but with Countess on the field Michigan has a very good corner on which to rely.

While the moment that Countess went down a year ago looked to spell doom for 2012, it has no doubt put Michigan in a good position vis a vis the opposite corner.  Michigan first tried out nickel corner Courtney Avery, but soon it was Raymon Taylor starting opposite JT Floyd, and Taylor would finish the year in that spot.

Originally brought in as an athlete in the 2010 class, Taylor landed at corner despite being the kind of recruit that doesn't project there very well (lots of speed and athleticism, not enough swivel and coverage IQ).  Taylor played the position well when it came to pass coverage, and showed himself to be as good or better than J.T. Floyd when it came to dealing with run support.

So, Michigan gets back its top option at field corner and moves over a solid player that showed good run support skills to boundary corner to replace J.T. Floyd?

/music plays in background

What's that?  Why, it sounds like Courtney Avery's music.

That's right, folks.  Avery never could break through to the starting spot at an outside corner position, but there has been some talk this fall of Avery giving Taylor a run for his money at the boundary corner spot.  The senior corner has a lot of experience.  He was thrust into the lineup in 2010 well before he was physically or mentally ready (you probably remember him best from his whiffed tackle against Iowa late in that game).  The next two years he played mostly in the nickel, and was effective in the role.  Avery's also recently been linked to the competition at free safety (which is a whole other can of worms that we will get into in a minute) and is still a solid bet to get time at the nickel spot.

Michigan's other option at corner is most likely going to be Delonte Hollowell, a 2011 recruit out of Cass Tech that was everything you would imagine him to be given his high school (i.e. small and mentally unready to play the position).  In the last two years he was nary heard from, but during spring camp he made some noise and eventually earned the start in the spring game over Taylor (who the coaches must really like playing mind games with).  Hollowell probably isn't going to push either of the starters, but Michigan looks to have another capable player to come off the bench in spots, which is always a welcome sight.

The other corner is the nickel spot, where Courtney Avery used to have a steady gig.  Not anymore after the emergence of Dymonte Thomas in the spring.  Thomas, an early enrolling four-star freshman, immediately opened eyes in the spring and brings a lot of athletcism to a position that it is apparent that Greg Mattison wants to do more with in the future, specifically, according to Mattison: "that position, for our defense, has to be able to be a blitzer".  With Jake Ryan injured, Michigan will be looking for all sorts of ways to stay fast on the edges while still being able to bring heat.  Thomas looks capable of providing the defense with a lot of different looks.

Behind him, there is a good chance Michigan sees more from Courtney Avery when the onus is more on pass coverage.

Safety

Free Safety Strong Safety
Starter So. Jarrod Wilson Sr. Thomas Gordon
Backup RS-Fr. Jeremy Clark Fr. Delano Hill
Backup Sr, Courtney Avery RS-Jr. Josh Furman

You don't really replace Jordan Kovacs.  That is pretty much a given as far as Michigan's secondary in 2013 is concerned.  However, the Wolverines do have the benefit of returning Thomas Gordon, Kovac's right hand man from the last two years.

Gordon came to Michigan a little known safety recruit out of Cass Tech that had also played quarterback at the school.  He redshirted his first year on campus and then broke into the two-deep in 2010 playing one of the hybrid safety/LB spots in whatever form of the defense that GERG decided to run on a week to week basis (those schemes were a revolving mess of suck, and I'm glad to finally watch a defense with an identity).  The next year when Michigan was looking for deep safeties, it was Gordon who moved to the position and took over the starting job.  Over the next two seasons Gordon would be a reliable safety next to Jordan Kovacs.

He will return to that role this season, only without the help of Kovacs.  Odds are good that he will take on more of the run support/strong safety-ish duties (the safeties in Mattison's defense are largely interchangeable).  This will put Michigan's most experienced safety in the position to play clean up on a lot of run plays, and Gordon should be set to have another solid year in the back half of Michigan's defense.

Behind him there are two options, both a little frightening.  Josh Furman is the elder of the two, in his fourth year on campus with something approaching no meaningful time on the field.  Furman was a freak athlete that Michigan picked up and never found a home for.  He has yet to display the kinds of instincts needed to play safety, and if it comes to him logging substantial time deep, run for the hills.

The other option is another safety out of Cass Tech.  Delano Hill, a one-time Iowa commit that flipped to Michigan in the winter around the same time David Dawson came back to the class.  Hill boasts impressive athleticism and a lot of praise from recruiting guru's for his understanding of the safety position.  On top of that, Hill is already 6'0 205 lbs. which is just about safety sized.  My best guess is that Michigan goes to Hill at some point this year as a backup.  I also think he holds up pretty well when that happens.

The problem is that Michigan needs two safeties, and right now the other spot is looking like a harbinger of doom.

Jarrod Wilson was supposed to be the guy.  A four-star early enrolling freshman last year, he played in reserve duty at safety.  He then had a solid spring that established him as the frontrunner for the starting job going into camp.

/music plays in the distance

What's that?  Is that Courtney Avery's music again?

Indeed it is, and as has been discovered recently, Avery has been getting some time at the free safety spot.  It is an understandable move.  Avery has played well enough thus far to push incumbent starter Raymon Taylor at corner, and Avery is a senior with experience all over the secondary the last three years.  He doesn't have the size or physicality that Michigan would prefer at the position, but the name of the game is keeping plays in front of you, and Avery has enough experience where it would seem that he would be Michigan's best option to do that.

On the other hand, Jarrod Wilson is 6'2, 200lbs, has the speed and length that is typically looked for at safety, and is still clearly the free safety of the future.  While his growing pains are unfortunate, it is still early to write him off, especially when you consider that he is a second year player trying to seize one of the more mentally demanding and least protected spots on a defense that is looking for him to replace the guy who redefined how good Michigan safeties could be (at least recently).

Avery has a chance to get some significant playing time at free safety, and for good reason as Greg Mattison says: "(If) your three best secondary guys are corners, it's not very intelligent to have someone on the bench in favor of someone else."  Michigan might not be able to approach the ridiculous consistency of Jordan Kovacs, but the two options it is looking at both bring promising attributes to the table.  Not to mention, redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark is also working at the position, and he brings even more length (6'4) to the position.

This won't be quite as effective a secondary as the last two years, and it should be expected that Michigan isn't quite as adept at stopping big things from happening.  However, there is a solid foundation of talent here, and the potential for Michigan to get enough from its safeties to hold up over the season.

* * *

It is easy to look at the secondary like a long math problem.  Add Blake Countess and subtract Jordan Kovacs plus factor in percentage improvements to Thomas Gordon and Raymon Taylor, then add freshman hype.  But all those things taken together don't necessarily add up to an answer.

This will be a more athletic secondary than last year's unit.  But Jordan Kovacs and J.T. Floyd weren't schlubs, and they won't be easily replaced.  Michigan's coaches will need to find a way to use this athleticism while still not opening some of these younger players up to huge busts in both the run and the pass game.

In short, Michigan's secondary could be better, but not necessarily look it at times.

Such is life without Kovacs.

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