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Michigan football 2021 position review: Cornerbacks

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The corners took a giant leap forward in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When comparing the 2020 and 2021 seasons for Michigan football, it’s easy to point out several areas of drastic improvement when a program goes from a 2-4 record to 12-2 and a Big Ten Championship.

One of those noticeable areas was the pass defense, as Michigan went from the 93rd ranked pass defense in 2020 and allowing 255.5 passing yards per game and 12.5 yards per completion, to the 23rd ranked pass defense in 2021 at 204.4 yards per game and 11.1 yards per completion (18th in the nation).

Surely, a strong pass defense needs a good pass rush and it helps the cornerbacks when David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson are flying off the edge nearly every play and wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. But good coverage down the field in the back end can also make it easier on the defensive line, and there’s no doubt the Wolverines’ cornerback play was very good in 2021.

A good deal of the success from the corners had to do with the scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who did a nice job of mixing up looks and putting the cornerbacks in situations that were comfortable for them. In coverage, Macdonald was comfortable in coaching his cornerbacks to allow speedy wide receivers cushion at points in games where Michigan couldn’t afford to get burned down the field.

At the same time, Macdonald did still ask the cornerbacks to play man coverage a fair deal of the time, and when push came to shove, Michigan’s corners stepped up to the challenge more times than not.

Vincent Gray, who announced on Jan. 8 he is off to the NFL Draft, embodied the overall improvement made from that position group.

There’s no doubt the 2020 season was a tough one for Gray, who was often caught out of position and reaching and grabbing at wide receivers who beat him in one-on-one battles down the field. He certainly wasn’t helped by a Don Brown scheme that had worn out its welcome.

But in 2021, Gray honed in on many of the technical aspects of his game and it showed on Saturdays. He often had the awareness of when to react to break on balls in the air to attempt to break up passes and make catches difficult for opposing wide receivers.

Gray also became a solid tackler in space when he was called upon to do so. After finishing the 2021 season with career highs in tackles (46), passes defended (seven) and recording his first forced fumble and sack, he has positioned himself to try to take the next step as he prepares for the draft.

Gemon Green was another experienced Wolverine at the cornerback position, with signs seem to be pointing toward him returning to Ann Arbor for a fifth season. Green started the first six games at corner for Michigan before losing his starting spot to junior D.J. Turner on Oct. 23 against Northwestern. He also battled an undisclosed injury and missed a few games late in the year.

Still, whether in a starting or reserve role, Green played solid football, and losing his starting spot had more to do with Turner’s ascending play as opposed to Green doing anything wrong to lose playing time.

Just like Gray, Green’s improvement from 2020 to 2021 was fairly drastic and came with a handful of nice highlights, his best one being coming up with his first career interception against Northern Illinois on Sept. 18.

If Green is in fact back in the 2022 season, he will have the experience and maturity to do whatever Macdonald asks of him in the secondary, whether that be a starting role or a rotational one like he played in the second half of this season.

Turner’s emergence this season was eye-popping and he gave Michigan’s defense an added spark as it seemed like he improved every single week. He had plenty of great moments this season, but his play against Ohio State at the Big House was a huge reason Michigan was able to limit one of the best offenses in the nation to 27 points.

The Buckeye offense featured some of the best receivers in the country in Jaxson Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. In that game, Turner let it be known he wasn’t going to back down from any challenge.

Along with notching eight tackles in that game, Turner also broke up two passes against the Buckeyes. Even on passes Ohio State receivers caught, Turner was there to battle and contest every ball thrown in his direction.

That Nov. 27 game was a highlight in what was a really good season for Turner that included several other highlights throughout, maybe none more exciting than his pick six against Maryland Nov. 20.

Turner had another interception against Northwestern where he tipped the ball several times to himself before coming up with the pick in what was an acrobatic play. He finished the year with seven passes defended and 33 tackles and looks poised to be able to build off his play this year to step up in big ways again next season.

Overall, this should remain a position of strength for the Wolverines going into the 2022 season even with Gray’s departure, especially with five-star cornerback Will Johnson coming in as a freshman.

Ja’Den McBurrows, who will be a second-year player next season, appeared in a handful of games in 2021 and will be another player who would contribute to what will be a fairly deep group that also includes Jalen Perry and Eamonn Dennis as potential future contributors.