At first glance, a team returning two upperclassmen safeties on the nation’s No. 3 S&P pass defense would probably feel pretty good.
However, safety play prevented last year’s defense from reaching an elite level, as Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus failed to make big plays in the three losses to Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
With young pups feasting for playing time, Kinnel and Metellus need to improve in a few areas to retain their jobs.
Free safety — Tyree Kinnel, SR
Jim Harbaugh selected Kinnel as one of three Wolverine representatives at Big Ten Media Days, indicating a confidence in his senior safety.
On paper, his stats are solid. He tallied 66 tackles with 4.5 for loss a year ago, adding in two interceptions. The first was returned for a touchdown against Cincinnati, and the second clinched the overtime win over Indiana.
I have not minced words about Kinnel’s and Metellus’ struggles this offseason. Open-field tackling was sometimes an issue, but slot coverage ranged from “beaten on a perfect throw” to outright bad. The slot fades against Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton rank in the former category.
This slant ranks in the latter category.
Also, this against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Despite examples like this, I confidently place him as the starter for the confidence the staff showed in sending him to Chicago, indicating his status as a leader on an exceptional defense.
Strong safety — Josh Metellus, JR
This one is real tentative. The options behind him are, according to Don Brown this week, “really figuring it out.”
However, playing safety in Brown’s system is incredibly stressful, as the responsibilities range from flying upfield in run support to covering slot receivers to manning the deep zone. Metellus was thrown into the fire in his first full season on the field, and had some moments.
He made 50 tackles, including 14 in the final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State. He was frequently tasked with covering star Badger tight end Troy Fumagalli, who mustered only three catches for 38 yards.
Despite this completion, it takes an inches-perfect toss from Alex Hornibrook to beat this tight coverage. Skip to 0:31.
He always seemed one play away from making the difference, most notably with his dropped interception against the Buckeyes. If he holds onto that, the streak may be over.
Both safeties need to be just a few steps better to get this defense back to 2016 levels. If not, the following dudes will have to do.
Backup free safety — Jaylen Kelly-Powell/J’Marick Woods, SO
Don Brown stated safety would be the “most improved position on the team,” during spring practices. He specifically pointed out Kelly-Powell for his massive improvement physically and mentally.
“(Kelly-Powell) has really benefited from the offseason,” Brown said. “He’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster. He’s a really articulate kid, which is important due to what we put on the safety’s plate.”
Woods, meanwhile, may have only made seven tackles in 2017, but they were anything but quiet.
When he found the field against Ohio State, he popped the pads to the tune of three tackles in spot time.
He exhibits the range of Jeremy Clark, standing 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds.
The two packed on a combined 20 pounds of muscle during summer workouts, which now allows them to be appropriately-sized, Don Brown run defenders.
Understandably for a young safety, Kelly-Powell allowed Wisconsin’s first big play on a fly route (3:47 of the Hornibrook highlights).
If both his and Woods’ work over the last nine months translates to better play, expect them to spell the starters more than just sparingly.
Backup strong safety — Brad Hawkins, SO
Regarding the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Hawkins, Brown claimed at this week’s media availability, “he’s probably made the biggest jump — of any of our defenders.”
Safeties coach Chris Patridge insinuated he would start off at “rover,” the Michigan vernacular for strong safety.
“We’re going to put him at the rover spot,” he told 247’s Sam Webb, “It’s just better-suited for him, I think it’s where he can really take off and he’ll be competing with Josh there.”
Though he only made two special teams tackles last year, that mimics the trajectory of his current competition in Josh Metellus. The projected starter made a handful of tackles in garbage time his freshman year — admittedly a lot more time due to all the blowouts in 2016.
Hawkins had the athleticism of a wide receiver when he first moved to defense, but he needed some mental and physical maturation. With nine pounds of muscle gained, he’s starting to know where to go, as well.
“You can tell when a guy’s playing fast and doing things,” Brown said. “It usually means there’s a strong correlation between mentally playing fast in his mind, so physically he has a chance to execute at a high level. And he is.”
With Jordan Glasgow moving to Viper, expect Hawkins to absorb the full apprenticeship at the rover to set the table for a breakout in 2019.
Note: The safeties in a Don Brown defense share many responsibilities, so any of these backups could find themselves playing free safety or rover.