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. Defensive Tackle. Safety. 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 aneurysm 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.
Just like Cornerback, Michigan fans have a deep abiding love for the safety position. Some of our favorite and most important players manned the safety position for the Wolverines during all those championship seasons of yore. And by "Yore" I mean every year up to 2007. Just like with Defensive Tackle at Michigan, Safety has it's own iconic photograph.
Yeah. That's what I'm talking about. For a very long time being a safety at Michigan meant you were one bad mutha'. You hit like freight train and moved like a Maserati. Think about the guys that have played there: Marcus Ray, Ty Law (CB and S, IIRC), Tripp Wellborne, Brad Cochran, and Don Dufek. And that's before I get into the Ernest Shazors, the Jamar Adams, and many other outstanding young men who patroled the deep defensive backfield for Michigan. There's some history there. And some well earned Michigan pride.
But safety ain't a position for the faint of heart. After Middle Linebacker, it's arguably the most complicated position on the defensive side of the ball. Imagine having to make split second decisions on whether to rush the line on a hand off or back pedal because the hand-off may just be play action or head to the middle of the field because the tight end is getting behind the backer or...
You get the picture.
It's not easy. And as a result, from time to time, you're going to have down periods. In 2007 Michigan was woeful at safety early on, despite the presence of Jamar Adams (a safety I still consider to be pretty good) and diminutive run stopper Brandent Englemon. In 2008? Good lord. That can only be categorized as absolute disaster. No one could get the job done in deep coverage or in run support: Stevie Brown, Brandon Harrison, Mike Williams, and Charles Stewart were all equally culpable. It got so bad the Donovan Warren had to be shifted from corner to safety in an attempt to stop the hemoraging. It didn't help. Michigan ended up 87th in the country in pass defense, giving up 230 yards per game in the air. Quarterbacks completed 57.7% of their passes and threw for 19 TDs. When you consider Michigan only picked 9 balls all season, it was as bad as you remember.
So where does that leave us at safety for 2009?
(The answer after the jump....)
With Michigan's move to the 3-4 defense, you're going to see some differences in who lines up where this season. The most notable change will be moving Stevie Brown from safety to hybrid/deathbacker as the fourth linebacker in the scheme. Like the rest of the Michigan team, it's impossible to classify his season as anything more than dissapointing. The switch from Ron English to Scot Shafer went about as smoothly as a brick boat passing through a sea of Legos, and I can't think of a player that suffered more as a result of it. Whether it was miscommunications, blown assignments, or bad luck, Brown found himself routinely looking at the backs of receivers as the sprinted to the endzone. I think, after three years, it's safe to say deep coverage isn't his strong suit. On the other hand, Brown seems to excel close to the line of scrimage.
Brown's size and speed truly make him ideal for the deathbacker position in the 3-4. At 6'0", 220, Brown has the size and strength to play close to the line without getting burried by a lineman. According to camp reports he's taken very quickly to the new position and has earned praise from his teammates and coaches for his efforts. Playing a former safety near the line will also help the defense against spread attacks as Brown can line up over the slot reciever without there being a significant mismatch in coverage. But most importantly, the move takes Brown away from a responsibility I'm not sure he was capable of managing, and puts him in a position where his physical tools can be maximized. All that said, stop me if you've heard this before. After three years of waiting for Brown to be that next great safety or even a more than break even contributor, this is it. I hope he's up for it.
Brown's transition does create some different issues. While no one will protest moving him closer to the line, or having a dude with speed over the slot receiver, the question becomes who is back there if Brown's not? With Brandon Harrison's departure to graduation (God speed, Brandon, you were alwasy one of my favorite players), Michigan will be playing two safeties with no starting experience at safety and at least one safety who's never played in a college game!
At this point the smart money is on Mike Williams (RS So.) and Vladimir Emilien (Fr.) starting at strong and free safety, respectively. Mike Williams came into Michigan as the 15th rated safety in the 2007 class and a bonafide 4* recruit. Williams was an Army HS All-American and has been fairly impressive in the playing time he's received. Most importantly, Williams has the respect of the older players on the team, particularly Brown:
"Just being around Mike, I know how Mike is, and he will never turn down a hit regardless of who it is or how big they are."
So, barring injury, it looks like Safety No. 1 is spoken for. Likely backing Williams up will be Troy Woolfolk (Jr.). Woolfolk was another defensive back that the services agreed upon, both ranking him the #44 CB in the country in the 2007 class. Last season, after playing on special teams and in the nickle packages, Woolfolk was moved to safety during spring practices and seems to have excelled. Much like Williams, Woolfolk has a good deal of speed and enjoys inflicting pain on opposing receivers. Both were described as big hitters as opposed to pure coverage guys, so I'm not entirely sure how well they'll do once the ball is in the air. Given their athleticism and the praise coming their way so far, I'll put on my rose colored glasses and say going into the season, they appear to be an upgrade over last season's strong safety play. But how much of one is anyone's guess.
At free safety, Emilien (or Vlad the Impailer as he will be envitiably called) appears to have the inside track. Vlad's incoming pub from the recruiting services was mixed. Scout had him as a 3* safety and #42 at that position for the 2009 class. Rivals was far more positive, saying 4* and #14 safety in the class. The reason, or at least likely reason for the dispairity was a junior year ACL tear that cost Vlad his senior year. However, camp reports say the kid can fly and that he's a much better "cover" safety than first indicated.
After Vlad, your guess is as good as mine. Stevie Brown mentioned walk-on transfer Jared Van Slyke (son of Andy Van Slyke) as the next "cover guy" after Emilien. Van Slyke sat out last season after transferring from Southeast Missouri State where he played very little at quarterback and DB. Here's the blurb:
2007: Played in one game as a backup quarterback ... saw action in relief at Samford ... rushed one time for four yards ... lone pass attempt was intercepted.
Van Slyke was an unrated quarterback recruit that showed up on Northwestern's radar at one point and promptly dropped off it when no scholarship materialized. He's been shifted to safety since he transfered and appears to be one of the back-up options as practice rolls on.
Only two other players seem to merit consdieration for playing time at safety, Thomas Gordon (Fr.) and Justin Turner (Fr.). If you ever wanted to see what it's like when a scouting service drools all over itself about a recruit, check out Turner's Rivals page. Turner was rated the #3 safety by both services, but showed so well at the U.S. Army All American game that he's now looked at as a pure corner prospect. My understanding is that Turner is will be on campus, qualified, and in the weight room shortly, but we're still waiting on some clearinghouse issues (HT: Mgoblog). Given the lack of depth at safety, even though I'm certain the coaching staff would love to redshirt him, you're probably going to see Turner in the defensive backfield. He's just too talented. When you're the No. 1 rated recruit out of Ohio, expectations tend to be high.
Gordon's a little bit more of an unknown to me. He was a 2/3 star recruit, seemingly without a position. Earning the dreaded ATH designation from Rivals. Oddly, his Scout bio was fairly complimentary for a kid they rank as a 2 star.
Gordon is very solidly built. He is a strong kid and shows good straight line speed. Having only played one year of safety, he must refine his technique in terms of man to man coverage, in particular, improving his backpedal and breaks. However, he shows very natural instincts and anticipation as well as good ball skills. He is a good athlete who can go up and either intercept passes or break them up. He is also a solid tackler. - Allen Trieu
So, that's good. Right?
Just based on guru ratings, the likely top four should be fairly capable. Williams, Emilien, Woolfolk, Turner are all big time recruits with solid offer sheets. Hopefully, they'll live up to their billings in their first years, and Michigan fans will be on their way to erasing some painful memories. I hope. It's not going to be an easy season when you're starting two new guys at any position, let alone safety. So keep your fingers crossed.
As you can tell from the above, there is plenty of space on the roster for a couple of good safeties. The unfortunate thing about safety recruiting over the last five years has been Michigan's insistence on recruiting safeties to play Linebacker. Yes. I get it. Kids grow, their frames, speed, blah, blah, blah. But we need some firggin safety recruits that will, you know, play SAFETY!
For the 2010 class, it's anyone's guess how things will shake out. The only committed safety in the class is uber-stud Marvin Robinson out of Florida. Robinson's a concensus four star, and Scout has him as the #10 safety in the class. However, in keeping with Michigan's habits, Rivals projects Robinson as an OLB (#11). Lovely. Whatever, we need help there too, I guess.
There are still a number of 2010 safeties on the board, including Dietrich Riley, Marquis Flowers, Sean Parker, and Brandon Ifill. Of the group, however, only Ifill looks like a solid possibility to commit (being a teammate of covetted Corner Cullen Christian). Unlike at Defensive Tackle or Corner, getting guys to campus to take a peak has been somewhat difficult.
One player who will definitely see campus is Sean Parker, who is reportedly set on an official visit to Michigan in the fall. Dietrich Riley also reportedly liked Michigan, but based on his rivals and scout pages, it may come down to beating out hometown USC for his services. After these two and Ifill, your guess is as good as mine.
What it all means is that Michigan is insanely young at a critical position, but also insanely inexperienced and thin. Injuries to Williams, Emilien, or Woolfolk, and Michigan will be relying on walkons, converted cornerbacks, and possibly a wideout to cover the gap. Maybe Stevie Brown would be moved back, maybe he wouldn't. But if the kids in place get hurt, or don't live up to expecations, Michigan's going to be in big trouble at Safety.