Try some numbers on for size:
- 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)
Now, credit where credit is due, a lot of this is thanks to the
wizardry leadership of Greg Mattison, who was defensive coordinator over these two years (in 2010 Michigan gave up 64, 29, and 15, respectively). But I imagine if you asked Greg Mattison where credit was due, the first words out of his mouth would be, in order, Jordan and Kovacs.
Michigan's defensive revival under Mattison has been most markedly seen in two different places: short-yardage run defense (stopping third downs), and guarding against big plays (to set up more short third downs to stop). Other than a fortuitous bit of fumble luck two years ago, Michigan defense has excelled not by causing big negative plays or bottling up offenses, it has just consistently kept plays in front of it, bent but not broken, and done good things on third downs.
This is where you will miss Jordan Kovacs dearly, because these are not easy things to do (/Greg Robinson nods vigorously in agreement).
Michigan gets Thomas Gordon back at one of the safety spots, and given his abilities, he will probably play the nominally Strong Safety role that involves a little more run support. This will leave the big play stopping, deep coverage aiding to sophomore Jarrod Wilson.
Wilson is a well regarding recruit out of Ohio that possesses the things you look for in a free safety. He is 6'2 and just under 200 lbs, has speed to play deep help coverage, and just enough tackling ability to be serviceable (this is where he will need to improve a lot — Kovacs could teach Ph D. level classes on tackling form and theory).
What Wilson doesn't have is much experience. That isn't something that usually goes with the statement "I have a lot of confidence in my team's starting free safety". Seth at MGoBlog said it best in a recent roundtable discussion:
Safeties are supposed to take time to develop-the more plays they see the more quickly they react to what's in front of them and avoid the traps defenses set for them. That's even more true in this defense as Mattison never quite stopped asking his safeties to do Ed Reed things once they stopped being actual Ed Reed.
Jarrod Wilson has been on campus for a little over a year and played backup duty — not always well — for just one season. He will be learning on the fly this year, and that is bound to bring growing pains. Those growing pains are going to show up as missed tackles on runs when the back is in open field, misjudged angles on over-the-top pass defense support, and potentially tripping over his feet at the first really sneaky play action that comes his way.
Wilson is going to have to grow up fast to be a good safety. He has more of the measurable one typically looks for in a safety than what Kovacs had. After watching Kovacs play safety for the last few years, you now know that it doesn't always matter.