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The cornerbacks: Michigan 2018 positional rundown

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Lavert Hill and David Long may be the best cornerback duo in the country. How will the situation at nickel play out?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan media types love coaches like Mike Zordich. No “blah blah blah” answers from the fourth-year Michigan cornerbacks coach.

This includes last year’s summer evaluation of Lavert Hill and David Long — two young replacements at the time for Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.

“Somebody has to grab (the job) and run with it and take it,” he said in Aug. 2017. “It’s just not happening. Hopefully somebody will in the next five, seven days, because we’ve got to get ready for a game in less than two weeks.”

Anxiety increased after Hill allowed a 34-yard pass over his head on the second play against Florida. That moment is now ancient history, filed in between hieroglyphics and Crisler’s “Mad Magicians.” Zordich now possesses two potential All-Americans.

Lavert Hill, JR

Hill molds his play after former teammate and current Dallas Cowboy Jourdan Lewis.

Both played at Detroit PSL powerhouse Cass Tech — though Hill eventually graduated from Detroit King. Both are under 6-foot, but compensate with long arms. Hill is looking for another comparison.

“I want to be an All-American as well,” he said this summer.

Hill is already ahead of schedule, earning all-Big Ten second-team honors from the coaches, something his predecessor didn’t do as a sophomore. Hill accomplished this on the back of 25 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass deflections in 2017.

Highlight tape selectiveness aside, Hill flashes physicality on the perimeter, both in his tackling and coverage. You can see him shed blockers on sweeps and screens against Ohio State, or watch him go step for step with Michigan State’s Darrell Stewart twice.

He also was about the only Michigan defender able to defend a fade against Penn State.

Quarterbacks throwing at him posted a 32.5 passer rating, the second-lowest mark allowed by Power Five cornerbacks (we’ll get to the guy who did better). He simply was the anchor for the nation’s No. 3 S&P pass defense.

If he stays an additional year, he seems poised to reach All-American status just like Lewis. He may even snag the Jim Thorpe Award. If he stays...

This year, he will be needed against the likes of Michigan State’s Felton Davis and Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan to give the pass rush time to reach home against some unfortunate signal-callers on the docket.

David Long, JR

While Hill is sucking up all the recognition, his junior counterpart is actually more productive statistically.

The 5-foot-11 Los Angeles product suffocated receivers to the tune of an 11.9 passer rating when targeted per Pro Football Focus.

Yes, you read that right. He ceded the lowest passer rating in the last five years.

On top of that statistical gem, he made 22 tackles, batted six passes and picked off two throws. The first momentarily swung the Penn State game into competitive realms.

H/T to the guy who filmed that with his toaster.

While Don Brown loves his corners to harass receivers at the line of scrimmage, Long showed an ability to read and react in zone coverage. While Trace McSorley miscommunicated with Mike Gesicki there, Long bolted out of his back pedal to snatch the ball to give the Wolverines life.

His other interception almost ended as a coast-to-coast touchdown return against Maryland.

His other claim to fame was shutting down Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs, allowing only four catches for 39 yards. The now Washington Redskin produced against good competition last year, including 11 receptions for 149 yards against Ohio State. The fact Long completely stoned him should have opened eyes.

However, he only garnered honorable mention on the all-conference team. It’s possible voters saw Michigan’s breakdowns on pass defense and attributed it to the cornerbacks, rather than the inconsistent safeties.

Nonetheless, Long and Hill ensure opposing quarterbacks have to look away from at least two receivers on most plays.

Backups/Nickels

A fifth-year senior and a sophomore are currently battling for the third cornerback spot.

Brandon Watson has Zordich’s trust at the moment. He said during an early summer availability “I definitely trust those first three (Hill, Long and Watson). I mean, shoot, they rotated all last year and they’ve got another year under their belt.”

Watson quietly accumulated similar numbers to the starters, tallying 22 tackles and five deflections in limited snaps. He possesses a little more size than his peers, checking in at 5-foot-11, 204 pounds. While his strength served him well against most foes, he occasionally got beat with inch-perfect throws.

Throw to Mack at 0:08.

Technically, the leader for the nickel spot is Hill, who slid inside for passing downs at many times in 2017. However, if Watson and Ambry Thomas can elevate their play, they can keep a valuable asset on the opponent’s No. 1 target.

Speaking of Thomas, the former 4-star out of — you guessed it — Detroit is looking to connect his impressive athleticism with the necessary technique.

“He’s fast. He’s straight line fast, he has some wheels,” Zordich said. “The long ball, they’ve gotten a couple on him (in camp) but only because of his technique when he gets turned around or something. But when he stays calm, he’s in good shape. And he’s starting to learn to do that.”

Outside of kick returns, he hit the field sparingly in 2017, notching seven tackles with 0.5 for loss. He did recover two fumbles, including one in the second half against Florida that helped build the lead.

Much like Hill, this is on the same trajectory as Jourdan Lewis, who saw the field in a similar role as a freshman in 2013. Thomas, unlike his Detroit peers, stands tall at 6-foot, 179 pounds. He combines that with a laser-timed 4.43-second 40-yard dash.

All of that athleticism is tantalizing, but Zordich needs him to connect the dots with his footwork and trail positioning before throwing him out there extensively. In the meantime, he looks to be a dangerous return men and part-time offensive weapon.

The last guy mentioned in the potential rotation is Utah transfer Casey Hughes. Playing in the pass-happy Pac-12, he collected 35 tackles with 2.5 for loss and a lone sack.

While he figures to start his time in Ann Arbor with the safeties, it appears to be a long-term plan to prepare him for the slot.

“He’s going to start in the safety room just because you’ve got to teach them the safety play,” safety coach Chris Patridge said this summer. “Going to corner is easier once you learn safety. We’re going to start him as a safety and play him at the nickel.”

The scuttlebutt around Utah circles is that Hughes — a starter on a Power Five secondary in Salt Lake City — was going to be pushed out by former 4-star Jaylon Johnson and junior Julian Blackmon. This makes me think this is another Wayne Lyons situation, where a former Pac 12 contributor transfer to Michigan for a degree and lingers on the bench.

The coaches talked about his willingness to learn, so time will tell if he finds his way as a reserve.

Benjamin St. Juste was last seen getting torched on fades against John O’Korn in the last spring game.

10:54 touchdown to Tarik Black.

Zordich needed to be prompted to mention him during his media availability. He was blunt in his assessment.

“Benny’s just got to learn – he’s very talented – (but) he’s got to learn to strain a little bit,” he said. “It’s a lot of talent in the body, though. Unbelievable amount of talent. Could be really good.”

The former prospect out of Quebec combines 6-foot-3 height with a 3.93 shuttle time. Somewhat like Thomas, the elite athleticism is wandering in the woods, waiting to connect with the on-field production.

If he balks, three equally wiry freshmen will pass him. Georgia blue-chipper Myles “Spider” Sims is also 6-foot-3, while Texas 4-star Gemon Green and Michigan 3-star Vincent Gray both measure at 6-foot-2.

Seeing as schools such as Alabama and Texas offered Sims and Green, while Oregon offered Gray, the talent is there. Until they see the field more, they represent the growing trend of lanky cornerbacks in the Don Brown era.

Final thoughts

Michigan has two elite options with two or three solid backups. Hill and Long are both poised for huge junior seasons, while very good shots to get postseason award honors.

Watson is a trusted veteran, Thomas has all the speed and measurables you need at the position and Hughes has vital experience against teams that pass far more than Big Ten ones.

Between D.J. Durkin and Don Brown’s tenures, Michigan ranked No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 in S&P pass defense. If this unit fails to reach the top spot again, you’d be hard-pressed to blame the guys on the outside.

Pun intended.