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Michigan Safety Review: Holding it down on the back end

Committee contribution helped to fortify Michigan’s rock solid defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan vs Iowa Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2023, Michigan’s defense continually stole the show in games, asserting itself as one of the nation’s best. The defense was particularly stingy against the pass, allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game nationally (157.0), despite the fact that the Wolverines were usually playing with a lead, forcing opposing teams to throw the ball.

Numbers like that are a testament to the strong secondary play that Michigan got this year. Its corners undoubtedly played a big role in this, but the play of Michigan’s safeties was also outstanding all season long, helping to prevent big plays over the top and holding offenses in check.

In 2023, there were four guys who made big contributions from the safety spot: Rod Moore, Makari Paige, Quinten Johnson, and Keon Sabb.

Entering his junior season, Moore had already been a big contributor for Michigan for each of the past two seasons. He made four starts as a true freshman in 2021 despite being ranked as a three-star recruit, and has since had himself a nice career. He broke out in 2022, securing All-Big Ten honorable mentions from the media, while recording 71 tackles and four interceptions.

Moore did have a dip in production this season, with only 38 tackles and two interceptions, but came on at the end of the season to make some critical plays. Fans will remember his interception of Kyle McCord, which secured Michigan’s third-straight victory over Ohio State. However, he also made a big tackle in the overtime period of the Rose Bowl, stopping Alabama’s Jalen Milroe from reaching the end zone on a long run, allowing for the goal line stand.

Paige also had himself a solid season in 2023. He got his first taste of regular playing time in 2022, recording 41 tackles and an interception, earning All-Big Ten honorable mentions. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mentions again in 2023 after logging 41 tackles and a fumble recovery. He also recently announced his intentions to return to Michigan in 2024 and will once again serve as a key part of the secondary.

Johnson might not have seen the field the most of the safety group in 2023, but made some valuable contributions nonetheless. He recorded 22 tackles on the year, as well as an interception and a forced fumble. Like Moore, his biggest play of the season also came against the Buckeyes. Late in the game with Ohio State building offensive momentum, Kyle McCord took a deep shot at receiver Emeka Egbuka. It was Johnson who came in late with a big hit on the receiver to break up the pass and prevent a large gain.

Finally, Sabb took a step forward in his development in 2023 by getting his first tastes of playing time in college. Sabb looked unfazed in his time on the field, registering 28 tackles and two interceptions. His most notable play came against Minnesota, where he returned an interception for a touchdown.

While Moore and Paige will both be back next year, expect Sabb to continue to get regular playing time and look for him to continue to be a valuable member of the defense. There are still some areas of his game that he’ll need to clean up, namely tackling, but Sabb is dripping with potential and could have a big year in 2024.