Going into the 2009 season there are three positions on the Michigan Defense that are causing a great amount of concern among the Michigan faithful. Cornerback. Safety. Defensive tackle. All three of these positions have highly touted players starting for the Wolverines. All three of these positions are also an injury away from becoming an aneurism inducing mess. In an effort to assuage those fears (or stoke them like coals in a furnace) we'll be taking a look at Michigan Football's positions of need, the quality in place, the replacements on the way, and recruits that hopefully will carry the load for Michigan going forward.
With the possible exceptions of quarterback and receiver, it's hard to imagine a position on the football field over the past twenty years that's been as quintessentially "Michigan" as the cornerback position. Ernest Shazor. Marlin Jackson. Leon Hall. Charles Woodson. When you thought about big names on the Michigan Defense, you naturally turned to the backfield to find them. One of the main reasons those Michigan defenses piled up so many sack was the fact that opposing quarterbacks (usually) had no place to throw the ball.
Unfortunately for Michigan, the last two years have seen that reputation diminish substantially. In 2007, Wolverine fans watched in horror as short slant after short slant turned into 50 yard plus touchdowns. Teams had no problems going deep on the Wolverines where only a few years before they wouldn't have dared. Part of the problem was recruiting. Michigan normally stockpiled highly rated DB recruits and threw them out when they were ready. But Michigan no longer had that luxury. Defensive backs and safeties were being recruited to become linebackers. Of the pure corners that were recruited, it was a 50/50 chance that they'd be boom or bust. In fact, Michigan took to taking players out of position and installing them at cornerback.
The result of this was talented athletes, like Morgan Trent, being forced to learn the position on the fly because the guys previously recruited for that position couldn't hack it or were being moved elsewhere. Certainly Michigan hit a homerun at corner recruiting, taking in both starting corners Donovan Warren (Jr.) and Boubacar Cissoko (So.) (both were consensus five star recruits), but depth is a huge issue for the Wolverines heading into 2009 and 2010. Looking at Michigan's depth chart, there are no junior backups. No sophomore backups (however JT Floyd is a red-shirt frosh who came in with Cissoko). The second line of defense is comprised entirely of freshmen.
Like it or not, the Wolverines are an injury away from a crisis at corner. Though Warren and Cissoko legitimately have the talent and ability to be 1st Team All Big Ten, Michigan's primary corner backup is a kid that's not even on campus yet (though he may have arrived by now - ed.), Justin Turner.
Turner was one of the highest regarded defensive back recruits in the 2009 class. Originally thought of as a safety because of his size, the recruiting sites took note of Turner's speed and quickness and realized the kid could not only play corner, but was one of the best high school players in the country at it. He's a 6'2" cover corner with wheels. You may squeal now. Turner was one of the Army All American game standouts and comes into his freshman season almost assured of playing at nickel back or at starting corner should Warren or Cissoko go down. If as quick as advertised, Turner's size will be a considerable benefit to the Wolverines as their schedule is jam packed with tall, speedy receivers. It may be hard to project how he'll fare until he steps on the field for the first time, but the recruiting services, coaches and recruitniks are say this kid could be special.
Also backing up the starters will be JT Floyd and Adrian Witty. Both are eligible as freshmen, though Floyd's redshirt year gives him a significant experience advantage over Witty in the depth chart battle. Floyd came is as a mid level recruit, garnering 3 stars from the primary recruiting sites. Rated as No. 20 on South Carolina's top 25 recruits, he originally committed to Tennessee. Floyd had a slate of offers from high mid-tier BCS schools, and no end of suitors when it was perceived his commitment to Tennessee was less than firm. Floyd has some natural ability, pulling double duty as a wide receiver and corner (9 TDs as WR/55 tkls as DB). At 6 feet, Floyd has the size you want at corner, but he's light, apparently not that fast (even his fake forty time is a 4.7 which roughly translates to a 5.2-5.6), and needed a lot of time in the weight room to survive a season. Hence, the redshirt. He may see some time, but he's no projected as an impact player and realistically would fall into the "contributor" category at best.
Adrian Witty is a total unknown. Sidelined by a knee injury his junior year he never had the chance to make anyone take notice of what he could do. Then, during his senior year, he was still rehabbing and trying to play through the pain. When you see the words "Total ACL Repair" on a lightly regarded sophomore, you don't automatically think "star." Witty was reputed to have sickening straight line speed, prior to his injury. We like that. However, since his injury everyone's kind of holding their breath to see how well he runs in pads, at the college level. If you're not familiar with his recruitment, he's BFFs with incoming QB recruit Denard Robinson and also ran on his high school team's 4 X 100 relay team as a senior, so you get the impression his wheels are returning. But whether that means he's going to contribute now, or ever, is anyone's guess. My guess, personally, is no. I'm pulling for the kid, but I don't see him hitting the field until his junior year at the earliest, and then only in a fill-in role.
That's our corner depth going into the season. Scared yet? My reservations about the Michigan defensive backfield are primarily concentrated on the safety position rather than corner, but with wafer thin depth at a critical position it's hard to go into the season uber-confident that covering wide receivers won't be a problem against teams with more than two receivers on the field.
The coaching staff, to their credit, seems aware of this issue and has been chucking out offers at corners like Frisbees at a Phish concert. Unfortunately, to date, Michigan has just one corner commit in Courtney Avery (who was theifed away from Stanford's clutches). Avery is listed as a middling corner recruit (3*/NR), but came to Michigan's camp and earned an offer fairly quickly. Further, Avery's recruitment was hindered by an early commitment to Stanford, being short (5'6-5'8), and playing QB until throwing in corner last year. So there's definitely room for improvement and the kid may well be a diamond in the rough based on his performance and Harbaugh's interest. Avery is #23 on Scout and unranked by Rivals.
Outside of Avery, there are a lot of highly rated CB recruits either favoring or listing Michigan as a final destination. So here's who we're looking at based on Rivals'/Scouts' databases:
Cullen Christian 3*/4* - 6-0/180 - Pittsburgh, PA - (#3 CB According to Scout)
Rashad Knight 4*/3* - 5-10/181 - Jacksonville, FL - (#69 CB According to Scout)
Dior Mathis 4*/3* - 5-8/166 - Detroit, MI - (#21 CB According to Scout)
Tony Grimes 3*/4* - 5-11/166 - Hollywood, FL (#5 CB According to Scout)
Spencer Boyd 3*/3* - 5-10/178 - Cape Coral, FL (#28 CB According to Scout)
Lo Wood 3*/3* - 5-10/160 - Apopka, FL (#42 CB According to Scout) - Committed to ND over the weekend.
Travis Williams 3*/NR - 5-10/170/- Cooper City, FL
As of the time of this posting, I understand Michigan to be in the lead for both Christian and Knight. The disparity between the rankings for these two is kind of hard to explain, but both appear capable of stepping in a playing from day one in some capacity. Christian's been to Ann Arbor several times and it appears he will eventually commit. Knight has been listing Michigan for a long time, but his list of offers is growing on a daily basis and Michigan may end up in serious competition with some southern schools to land his services. One of these guys will commit, and my hope is that both do based on their interest so far. Both of them commit, and Michigan is done recruiting at this position until the 2011 class.
Assuming one commit out of the above, that leave Cass Tech's Dior Mathis and Tony Grimes as the top rated CB's on Michigan's radar. Mathis is a wild card in my opinion. I see him ending up in Miami, even though I hope he chooses Michigan. He's got the tools, but it seems MSU commit Mylan Hicks is in the process of usurping Mathis' long held title of Michigan 2010 best cornerback. At this point, your guess is as good as mine. Grimes is a mystery to me as well. Obviously talented, the Florida corner has drawn all kinds of interest from the SEC, including Alabama. He's another kid that would be a great fit at Michigan, and seemed to enjoy himself at the BBQ at the Big House. Even so, my gut tells me based on his offer list, camps elsewhere, and upcoming Ohio State visit, he looks to be ticketed elsewhere.
Of Boyd and Williams, my guess is that one of them will end up at Michigan. Williams is the lower rated of the pair but apparently committed after his visit to Ann Arbor. Based on the recent trend of players saying "Woo! Commit!" and Michigan saying "NSFMF," I'm not 100% certain how the (non)commitment played out. With Lo Wood out of the picture and Boyd a heavy Notre Dame lean, I think Williams will probably end up on board but more as a depth commit than a potential starter.
So that's where Michigan stands at corner until 2011. Two potential All Big Ten corners. One in-coming hot recruit who has the potential to start right way. One redshirt that looks like filler for the time being. One freshman who is a total unknown. On the recruiting end, Michigan has one good corner in the fold. There are two good to outstanding corners with Michigan leans in Christian and Knight. There are two good to outstanding corners that are listing Michigan, but are 50/50 on signing. Finally, there are two good corners out of which Michigan will take one if the need arises.
What it comes down to is injuries. If Michigan can make it through the season with BooBoo and Warren healthy, the Wolverines are secure at corner. Justin Turner should compete for playing time and see plenty of action at nickel corner. However, life is usually unkind to Michigan's secondary, so if either starter goes down Michigan's lack of depth could really become evident.
On the plus side, help appears on its way. The 2010 class should include two highly rated corners and at least one well regarded corner. Add that up for 2010, and Michigan is looking at turning a position of need into a position of strength next year.