Position grades: Secondary posts gaudy numbers despite loss of starting cornerback
Note: This is the seventh in an eight-part series grading Michigan's position groups. Previously: Quarterbacks (B). Tailbacks (D). Receivers (B+). Offensive line (D). Linebackers (A-). Defensive line (B). Up next: Specialists
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan's secondary, statistically, was one of the best in the country.
But it had holes, too, which were exploited in a season-ending loss to South Carolina. That was the biggest reason the Wolverines fell in the Outback Bowl.
What to make of the unit?
On to the grades:
Starters: J.T. Floyd, Raymon Taylor, Jordan Kovacs, Thomas Gordon
Reserves: Courtney Avery, Jarrod Wilson, Terry Richardson
The good: It starts with the incredible numbers. Michigan was among the top-two pass defenses for much of the season, and finished fifth at just 169.5 yards allowed per game. It didn't allow 200 yards passing until the finale.
Safeties Kovacs and Gordon were terrific at keeping the ball in front of them and funneling plays into the middle of the field. That helped Michigan to yield only 25 passes of 20 yards all season, which was second in the country. It didn't allow a 60-yarder in the regular season.
Taylor became an unexpected starter when cornerback Blake Countess was lost in the opener, and performed as well as could have been expected. He picked off two passes, returning one for a touchdown. Offenses seemed to prefer targeting Floyd as opposed to Taylor, a sign of respect.
The bad: Kovacs and coaches warned throughout the season the secondary was never as good as the numbers indicated, and perhaps they were right. Michigan was a top-five pass defense, but also didn't face many prolific passing attacks.
Then, the secondary was eviscerated in the bowl, with South Carolina picking on Michigan for 341 yards through the air. Starting QB Connor Shaw and backup Dylan Thompson both had two touchdown passes. When Michigan surged ahead with 3:29 remaining, South Carolina marched right back down the field on 8-of-9 passing and won the game on a 32-yard scoring pass with 11 seconds left.
Floyd didn't seem markedly better than last year, and was suspended for the Outback Bowl, which perhaps factored into the unit's struggles stopping the Gamecocks. Countess tore an ACL in the opening quarter of the season, a loss that Michigan accounted for with Taylor, but a loss that did hurt depth and delays Countess' growth.
The overview: Michigan's secondary was strong for most of the season. It wasn't challenged by many quality passing attacks, which inflated the numbers, but it performed well against the competition it did face. Kovacs and Gordon played relatively mistake-free, a strength that prevented the big play and forced offenses to grind out long drives. The cornerbacks were OK, but not elite.
The grade: Michigan was fortunate its schedule was loaded with teams that didn't, or couldn't, pass. That bloated the secondary's numbers -- which means the grade is bloated as well. This probably wasn't an A- outfit, but it did that kind of work. A-
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