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2016 Michigan Football Position Preview: Safety

Michigan returns two senior safeties, one of which could be in store for a special breakout season, but depth behind them is frighteningly thin.

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NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As discussed in detail earlier this morning, Michigan had one of the nation’s best pass defenses last season. The cornerbacks were the primary reason for their excellence, and the entire cast of corners returns along with two new, well-acclaimed arrivals.

Now it’s time to preview their counterparts, the safeties, who should not be overlooked for their performance last season. While the corners were proficient in sticking to their assignments in press man coverage, the safeties worked tirelessly to prevent plays from getting behind them. Michigan’s defense surrendered only 13 30-plus-yard plays — the third-fewest in the nation — and ranked a not-elite-but-still-very-good 23rd in opponent-adjusted explosiveness. To give the safeties some more credit, Michigan was much better at preventing explosive plays through the air (16th) than on the ground (45th) according to S&P+. Blame Indiana and Ohio State for that, when Michigan’s defensive line wore thin and D.J. Durkin’s run adjustments backfired.

Overall, Michigan’s safeties were pretty good, but the Wolverines lost the best of the bunch in Jarrod Wilson. As a three-year starter at free safety, Wilson developed a firm reputation among Michigan’s online circles for being boring or the Wolverines’ security blanket. He did not make many mistakes as the back line of the defense, but he also did not make many big plays either. He finished with only four career interceptions with the fourth one coming his final game. He didn’t make jarring hits in the open field and forced only one fumble as a Wolverine. But Wilson was fundamentally sound, and, knowing he had their back, his teammates were able to unleash their aggressiveness.

Michigan won’t have that boring safety in 2016. Instead, the Wolverines return two seniors, each of whom have some starting experience, and will rely on two promising underclassmen to provide some needed depth. Odds are that Michigan may have a few more leaks this season. But odds are that Michigan’s safeties will turn some heads, too.

Delano Hill

#44 | Senior | 6-1 | 215 | Detroit, Mich.
NCAA Football: Michigan at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

2013 (Fr.): 1 tackle
2014 (So.): 20 tackles | 1 FR
2015 (Jr.): 46 tackles | 2.5 TFL | 2 PBU

Delano Hill has always looked like one of the oldest players on the roster.

Now he finally is one.

Hill is a senior and enters his last season at Michigan with 21 games played and 13 starts at safety. Though he earned five starts as a sophomore, Hill did not really have an opportunity to show what he was capable of. He missed that fall camp and opener with a broken jaw before a leg injury and suspension kept him out an additional four games. In that season, he was okay, recording 20 tackles and a fumble recovery, but there was not much that stood out. However, Hill became much more involved the following season. As a junior, he posted 46 tackles, 2.5 of them for loss, and two pass breakups — one of which is pictured above, sealing a double overtime win at Indiana. Pro Football Focus graded Hill so well that he was on their All-Big Ten second team.

With Jarrod Wilson gone and Jabrill Peppers shifting to a SAM/nickel role, Hill will be slotted in as the permanent starting strong safety. Even though PFF rated Hill as high as they did and the conference is very thin at safety, he likely will not contend for a spot on the actual All-Big Ten team. He will rack up tackles and make the occasional thunderous hit, but he is prone to making a big mistake or bad read from time to time. Ultimately, Hill probably won’t be a difference maker, which is okay because Michigan does not need one at every spot. What Michigan needs from at least one of its safeties is someone who is stable down to down. That’s what Hill should aspire to this season.

Dymonte Thomas

#25 | Senior | 6-2 | 199 | Alliance, Ohio
Dustin Johnston-Maize n Brew

2013 (Fr.): 7 tackles
2014 (So.): 27 tackles | 1 FF
2015 (Jr.): 24 tackles | 7 PBU

On the other hand, Dymonte Thomas could be a difference maker for Michigan.

After his freshman year was squandered on special teams, Thomas spent the next 1.5 seasons trying to learn the nuances of the safety position. In high school, he had been a physical freak of nature, wowing scouts and earning top-100 status in the 2013 class, but he played running back and outside linebacker. Not safety. Thomas needed to understand the reads he was supposed to make and the coverages he was supposed to drop into, but that takes time. And, when a player is thinking about the decisions he must make rather than reacting on developed instinct, that player tends to struggle.

However, in the second half of 2015, Thomas stopped struggling and started reacting. He chased down ball carriers at the line of scrimmage. He stoned elusive playmakers in their tracks. He sprinted from between the hash marks to one sideline to provide support over the top of a go route. He did that again more impressively in the spring:

Everything seems to have clicked for Thomas, which is why he should be in store for special breakout season in 2016. He will man the back line for Michigan’s defense as the starting free safety. Though he may not keep everything in front of him like Jarrod Wilson did, he will compensate for that by making big plays and forcing turnovers. If Thomas can be consistent week to week, he can be one of the Big Ten’s best safeties.

Tyree Kinnel

#23 | Sophomore | 5-11 | 206 | Huber Heights, Ohio
Eric Upchurch-MGoBlog

2015 (Fr.): No Stats

Michigan’s initial plan was not to play Tyree Kinnel in 2015. Kinnel was a four-star safety recruit in the 2015 class, but, with Jarrod Wilson, Jabrill Peppers, Delano Hill, and Dymonte Thomas ahead of him on the depth chart, Michigan had the luxury to sit him for a season and let him learn off the field. And that was the case through four games.

However, Kinnel made such an impact in practice that Jim Harbaugh could not keep him sidelined anymore. Harbaugh praised his physicality and added that “you get better at football by playing football.” So Harbaugh burned Kinnel’s redshirt and tossed him onto special teams for Michigan’s Big Ten opener against Maryland. Kinnel remained on special teams for the rest of the season but didn’t see a snap on defense.

Some could argue that Kinnel’s freshman season was wasted on special teams much like Thomas’ was in 2013. The difference, though, is that Kinnel was a natural safety in high school and did not have as steep of a learning curve as Thomas. And that decision and additional experience for Kinnel should pay off this season because Michigan will need Kinnel to provide depth at the safety position. Thomas and Delano Hill are the only two Michigan safeties with significant experience, and both are seniors. Kinnel will definitely get some time on defense, and he must show he is solid now and beyond.

The good news for Michigan is that Kinnel flashed some promise in the spring game and was raved about by one source to Wolverine247’s Steve Lorenz ($). If that materializes for Kinnel, Hill and Thomas won’t have to bear all the burden in the back.

Khaleke Hudson

#7 | Freshman | 6-0 | 205 | McKeesport, Pa.
Tom Hauck-Student Sports

Another Wolverine who may provide some instant depth at safety is incoming freshman Khaleke Hudson. Though Hudson was a three-star recruit in 2016, many picked him to be the sleeper of Michigan’s class, believing he had been incorrectly disregarded by scouts (and Penn State, who reportedly refused the Pennsylvanian’s commitment at least once). Scouts did that at least until Hudson arrived at the Semper Fidelis Bowl, where he was extremely impressive. Not only did he draw rave reviews all week during practices, he tallied seven tackles, two for loss, one forced fumble, and four pass breakups in the game itself. He exhibited his penchant for closing in on ball carriers and delivering vicious hits, and his coverage held up even though Scout’s Brian Dohn believes he needs to improve his hip flexibility and jams.

Nonetheless, there seems to be some validity to Hudson’s sleeper status. Since his arrival in Ann Arbor, he has been praised as a true freshman who could provide an instant impact. His athleticism, toughness, and aggression stood out immediately. The question was whether he could pick up the finer points of being in coverage as a safety and learn the playbook. Well, according to Wolverine247’s Steve Lorenz ($), it appears Hudson has. Don’t be surprised if he sees the field as reserve in Week 1.

Josh Metellus

#23 | Freshman | 6-0 | 204 | Pembroke Pines, Fla.
NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In most seasons, Josh Metellus would be a perfect redshirt candidate. He was a low-three-star recruit, ranking 744th overall in the 247Sports Composite. His only other reported scholarship offer from a Power 5 school was from Colorado. It’s not as if he played in a state not well known for its football or at a high school at a lower level. He played at Florida’s Flanagan High School, which had other D-I talent (like Michigan’s Devin Bush, Jr.) and won the state championship in the state’s biggest division. He had every opportunity to be seen and scouted, yet his recruiting status remained constant.

However, because Michigan has so little scholarship depth at safety, the Wolverines likely cannot afford to redshirt Metellus this season. In 2017, the only scholarship safeties on the roster will be Tyree Kinnel, Khaleke Hudson, Metellus, and whomever Michigan adds in this next recruiting class. Though Kinnel and Hudson will be the front runners to start after this season, Michigan will want Metellus to have some playing experience because he likely will be in the middle of the rotation. So expect Metellus to get some reps on special teams this season before giving safety a go in 2017.

And Metellus will need to change his number because Kinnel already has dibs on 23.