The Michigan Wolverines rolled over some really good talent at the safety position from 2020 to 2021. Brad Hawkins had been a multi-year starter and Dax Hill was a former five-star recruit eager to show NFL scouts he was ready for the next level.
Mike Macdonald came in as defensive coordinator and played very well to the safeties’ strengths by being aggressive with these two talents. Because of his versatility, Hawkins was an unheralded star on this defense. He lined up deep as a free safety on most snaps, but the Wolverines also had him in the box about a third of the time. All season long, Hawkins was a sure-fire tackler and made the plays necessary to help this team win.
Let’s look back on his best play of the season, stripping Adrian Martinez to help the Wolverines top Nebraska:
#Huskers Here's the Fumble from Martinez— @DaltonEastNE (@DaltonEastNE) October 12, 2021
"Adrian's Going to the Official Saying Why didn't you Blow the Whistle?" - Matt Davison
Martinez Picks up the First Down, Play is Extended during a Struggle in the Pile. No Whistle, Michigan Rips the Ball out
Ft. Husker Sports Radio pic.twitter.com/UMzmC4AxJ9
This was by far his most important play of the season, but there were much more subtle instances where Michigan won games because of its veteran safety. He wasn’t flashy but was among the most consistent players on this defense all season.
Moving to his partner in crime, Hill was equally as effective in 2021. His position evolved into a bit more of a corner than a safety with Macdonald leading the way. He lined up over the slot for 580 of his 831 snaps. However, the Wolverines were extremely aggressive with the speedster. Often he would blitz off the edge following Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojabo to get a wide-open crack at the quarterback. Look what he did to Graham Mertz on this blitz:
Dax Hill just put the BOOM on Graham Mertz pic.twitter.com/xJOieUovdk— Blue By 90 (@bluebyninety) October 2, 2021
This was also very effective in the running game, as Hill would be in the backfield as the ball was being handed off from the quarterback to the running back. That resulted in several tackles for loss:
Dax Hill comes flying off the edge for a TFL. pic.twitter.com/VT7efELNbe— Due# (@JDue51) December 5, 2021
Hill still has some work to do in coverage, as he allowed receptions on 70.6% of the time he was targeted in 2021, but he has some things you cannot teach — speed and really strong instincts. With the NFL Draft in front of him, it feels like he may be a Day 1 draft pick.
Beyond the two starters, Michigan had a lot to like from some of the rotational pieces that came in under different Macdonald formations. RJ Moten played 499 snaps this season as more of a true free safety in this defense. Michigan would love for him to be the next Hawkins-type of player if he can show to be a bit more of a steady tackler.
Then there was Rod Moore, who was one of the bigger surprises playing in 11 games as a true freshman. He played a healthy mix of free safety and slot corner and saw a lot more playing time toward the end of the season. He began to make a name for himself later in the year and he could very well be a starter in 2022.
While the Wolverines lose their top dogs to the NFL, Moten and Moore got some valuable experience and largely held their own. The two of them will probably be turned to as the starters for next year. Jordan Morant and Makari Paige could be two more options for a safety room that has a lot of talent heading into the offseason.