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Posted on Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 8:55 a.m.

Grading Michigan's nonconference performance: Safeties earn high marks for 4-0 start

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs, left, helps make a tackle earlier this season. Kovacs is one of the main reasons the Wolverines' have an improved defense this season.

Melanie Maxwell |

While Brady Hoke laments the Michigan football team's inconsistency this season, there is one position group that has steadily performed.

The safeties.

Junior Jordan Kovacs and sophomore Thomas Gordon have been terrific this year in forcing turnovers and preventing big plays. They've been consistent tacklers and leaders of the defense.

They comprise the one position group that has consistently put in "A" work for No. 19 Michigan (4-0) during its perfect nonconference season, and they will be counted on during the Big Ten schedule, which opens Saturday against Minnesota (Noon, BTN).

Kovacs and Gordon are the leaders of a resurgent (so far) defense that is 11th nationally in points allowed per game despite being just 54th in yardage allowed. How has Michigan turned that trick?

Two reasons: Limiting big plays and forcing turnovers.

Kovacs and Gordon are a big reason why.


Michigan free safety Thomas Gordon tackles San Diego State wide receiver Dylan Denso last week.

Angela J. Cesere |

Gordon, the free safety, is a co-leader on the team with 30 tackles and Kovacs, the strong safety, has 28. It's somewhat foreboding when a safety leads a team in tackles, because it means opposing offenses are getting to the second level of the defense, but it's also a sign the two are sure tacklers.

Kovacs has an interception and forced a fumble, and Gordon has an interception and recovered two fumbles (each of which came in the past two weeks). As a team, the Wolverines have forced 13 turnovers through four games.

They had 19 all of last year.

"We talk every day about creating turnovers," Gordon said recently. "We all want to be playmakers. That's one thing this program's been missing the last couple years, is people on the back end making plays and turn the ball back over to the offense, and that's what we're trying to do."

Michigan also has prevented big plays. The safeties play a pivotal role in that by keeping the ball in front of them and funneling it to the middle of the field — something they call "cuffing the football." The goal of the maneuver is hold plays to less than 15 yards.

"It's all about angles," Kovacs said this week. "If you take a bad angle, it could cost the defense a huge play, so we try to keep the ball in front of us."

It's worked. The Wolverines have allowed just three 30-yard plays, which is 14th best in the country. They have yet to yield a 40-yarder. They've allowed just six touchdowns, only one of which was longer than 16 yards.

That's the antithesis of last year, when big plays and long touchdowns were the Michigan defense's M.O. That's an early sign things are headed in the right direction, even without elite playmakers.

It's been an "A" start for the safeties. Not bad for a former walk-on and a first-year starter.

How the rest of the positions graded out in the nonconference schedule

Defensive line: B-
This group finally showed signs of life last week against San Diego State. Senior tackle Mike Martin camped out in the Aztecs' backfield and got to know the childhood dreams of Ryan Lindley. (Then probably crushed them.) Junior Craig Roh had his second consecutive strong outing. This group is entirely different when it's getting pressure from that rush end spot. The group is a B- on the season, but trending upward.

Linebackers: B+
Based on expectations, this group would grade out as an A+. The linebackers struggled mightily last year, and now have new starters in junior Brandin Hawthorne and freshman Jake Ryan (at least until Cam Gordon's healthy). Hawthorne and Ryan have wildly exceeded expectations, and junior Kenny Demens leads the team in tackles from the middle — as he should at that spot in the 4-3. There have been some blown assignments, and some of the miscommunication problems come back on the linebackers, but this group has been solid, considering ...

Cornerbacks: B-
Yes, Michigan has held up against the pass the past two weeks — but Eastern Michigan (six pass attempts) hardly counts and SDSU's passing woes often came with Martin nipping at the heels of Lindley. This group definitely is trending upward, but it's hard to be sold on their body of work after Jordan White caught 12 passes for 119 yards for Western Michigan in the opener and Michael Floyd had 13 catches for 159 yards the following week. Yikes.

Offensive line: B+
Sophomore left tackle Taylor Lewan and Hoke both have admonished the consistency of this group, especially with regards to the running game. But, hey, quarterback Denard Robinson still is riding lightning bolts to the end zone, and the tailbacks have combined for more than 100 yards the past two weeks. Moreover, Robinson has had tremendous pass protection. The best sign: When was the last time you heard Lewan's name called? That's exactly what you want from a left tackle, because it means there are no penalties (which were Lewan's specialty last year) and the quarterback isn't getting creamed. He is Michigan's best player without dreadlocks.

Tailbacks: B
Hoke wants a lead back badly, and certainly would name one given the chance. But no one has emerged, and that's a problem. Right? Well, sophomore Fitz Toussaint and junior Vincent Smith have performed well in tandem, and their contrasting styles are a nice complement. They combined for 114 yards against San Diego State and 164 against Eastern Michigan. That's not outstanding production, but it's good enough when they share a backfield with Robinson. I like the combination.

Quarterback: A/F
Do I really have to explain the splits? Probably not. There's just no way to grade Robinson as a whole, because he is such a dichotomous player. He's an "A" as a runner, "F" as a passer and there's no other way to put it than that at this point. The disconcerting part: He's an "F" as a passer after facing four marginal defenses. He won't have that luxury as often going forward.

Receivers/tight end: C-
Is it all their fault? No. But, production is production, and there hasn't been any from these guys. The wideouts caught five total passes last week, and Roy Roundtree paced them with two catches for 15 yards. Yes, a lot of it is on Robinson, but Hoke said this week there also have been problems with routes.

Punt teams: B+
Matt Wile is a true freshman who never expected to punt this year, yet has done a fine job in relief of the suspended Will Hagerup. He was awesome last week, averaging 49.0 yards per attempt. On returns, sophomore Jeremy Gallon has shown something he never really did last year: An ability to catch the ball, an ability to advance the ball. Aside from cornerback J.T. Floyd, Gallon might be Michigan's most improved player.

Kickoff teams: D+
Smith, for as good as he's been in the backfield, just isn't getting it done as the primary kick returner. His long on the season is just 24 yards, and his average is a paltry 18.4. He doesn't seem to have quite enough vertical speed to produce here. Wouldn't Michael Shaw be a better option? As for kickoff coverage ... it's been bad almost always.

Field-goal unit: INC
After landing on a "D," I thought better of judging Brendan Gibbons on just two attempts. Still, the only kick he's made was a gimme, he missed a 40-yarder and was 1-of-5 last year. Not exactly promising. Is Wile waiting in the wings?

Earlier this week, I saw a comment regarding a potential payout to Minnesota for coming to Ann Arbor. Does that about sum up where the Gophers stand in the Big Ten?

Minnesota won't get paid, because they are still a member of the Big Ten (as of deadline, anyway). But it won't stand a chance against Michigan, which is superior in nearly every facet of the game. The Wolverines are far from perfect, but Minnesota simply isn't talented enough to make them pay. Expect an early Michigan lead predicated on quarterback and tailback runs, as well as some short passes and continued improvement on defense. And, if all goes according to plan, a Devin Gardner sighting.

Michigan 38, Minnesota 10



Tue, Oct 4, 2011 : 5:07 p.m.

I think I'd change that passing to an A+ now.


Sat, Oct 1, 2011 : 3:30 a.m.

the corners have been a lot better than we could have expected, and j.t. floyd is playing the best of all of them.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 6:32 p.m.

Pretty much looks pretty good. Only thing I would add is in the passing game. Yes, DR has problems throwing, and Hoke & co. have discussed this. Hoke has also laid blame to the recievers' routes. But the one thing that I haven't seen anybody really talk about is the dropped passes. I know, all recievers will drop a pass here and there, but to me it seems like I've seen A LOT of very catchable balls dropped. and unfortuneity when a reciever drops a pass, it goes against the QB's stats. Don't get me wrong, DR is not the best passer, but his recievers haven't helped him out in routes AND catching. Kyle, could you look into this. It would be interesting to see just how many dropped passes (from clearly catchable passes) there are and comapre this to DR's completion/attempts record. Just curious.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 6:30 p.m.

I'm more of an "Outstanding," "Satisfactory," "Fail," kind of grader. QB: Outstanding/Fail (run/pass) Tailbacks: Satisfactory (Worried this will be a "fail" after a few B1G games) Receivers/Tight Ends: Satisfactory (They caught some miracle balls, but dropped some "gimme" catches, too) Offensive Line: Satisfactory Defensive Line: Satisfactory (Borderline "Fail") Linebackers: Satisfactory/Satisfactory/Fail (Blitz/Run Defense/Pass Defense) Corners: Fail Special Teams: Fail 38-10 sounds right to me, Kyle. Not that I'm brimming with confidence, but considering Minnesota lost to North Dakota State last week, I'll be concerned if Michigan does not win by three scores. That San Diego State game gave me a little more confidence in Michigan's D going into the B1G, but then again, maybe the Aztecs just had a bad game... I love watching this team improve. How I missed having a defense with a pulse! Here's hoping Michigan will continue improving as they play through the B1G schedule. Go Blue! TiM!!!


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 6:40 p.m.

@ Kyle: Have you asked the coaching staff about why Denard does not slide after runs to avoid some hits? I understand there are times when he is playing the traditional runningback role, sacrificing his body to get a first down, but, in my opinion, there are too many situations where he sacrifices his body well after a first down is secured for an extra yard or two. If/When it costs him a game (or more) because of an injury, those yards will not be worth it. Thanks!


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 4:40 p.m.

One more thing, I think Minnesota's a little better than we're giving them credit for. While I think we win, I don't see that blowout score you predicted Kyle.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 6:26 p.m.

It will be a blow out. MInn is pretty bad.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 4:34 p.m.

I know I'm on an island here, but I'm just not a fan of Kovacs. Yes, he's made a few good plays this year, but most of his tackles come from the "trail" technique. He's also liability in coverage, as he's never closer than 5 yards to the guy in his area. Now whether this is because their playing zone or they play zone because he can't play man, I can't say. Look, he's a great kid and great story, but his starting role says more about our recruiting than it does about his abilities. DLine, you are being REALLY REALLY generous. Personally, I'd rate that unit as a "D". They showed nothing against the only big time opponent we've played. For a unit that was supposed to be carrying the D, they've been more of a liability. Cornerbacks: I think we'd be better off with Countess and Avery starting. Woolfolk, injured or no, has been disappointing. Linebackers: I really like Ryan, but he's much like Kovacs. If the recruiting had been up, he probaby wouldn't be seeing as much of the field as he is. OLine: Lewan has been much improved. He's kept his name out of the scoresheet. A little disappointing though, as we've not really been able to manhandle any of these weaker opponents and impose our will. That happens with the offensive line. RB: Too much Shaw early in the season. He's not good. We also need to line up in the power I and really commit to that in order to get the RB's untracked. Is that DRob's preferred formation? No, but the ball won't go to DRob either, so line up and smash some one in the mouth. QB: Any thing other than an "A" for DRob is off base. W/O him, we're 2-2 at best. Yeah, he stinks at throwing the ball right now and he looks like he's getting worse, but he's the horse we're riding and he's a really good one. Receivers: They're getting open. DRob can't get them the ball. Punting: Wile had one good game, otherwise, its been mediocre. This team needs Hagerup back and ready to go. Kicking game: Stinks. Period.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 3:44 p.m.

@ Kyle: yeah, you did a good job on this analysis. I also agree on giving Denard a split grade at this point (hoping he and those very talented receivers Roundtree and Hemingway start clicking together soon). Improved running attack and field goals and kick returns would bring the Wolverines to the top level. Adding: this analysis also reminds us all: this is a team made mainly of juniors with sophomores and freshmen in the mix. Barring unforeseen setbacks, this team will be a major power in the Big Ten next year.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 3:13 p.m.

Denard and his RB's are deadly, they have lots of run formations and if the play is broken, Denard can run the ball. This is an awesome running game. The long passes are the problem but no QB is perfect. I would like to see an offense ran by Devin Gardner in the 4th Quarter!

Kyle Meinke

Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 2:43 p.m.

What do you guys think? Am I too high/low on the position groups? I'd be curious to see what grades you'd give.


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 3 p.m.

Looks pretty spot on to me, except maybe you're a little too generous on grading the LB corps, IMO anyway. They haven't stood out or made any offenses fear them (yes, Herron's TD's were nice but they were gift wrapped). I did like your line: "Senior tackle Mike Martin camped out in the Aztecs' backfield and got to know the childhood dreams of Ryan Lindley. (Then probably crushed them.)" Good stuff!


Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 1:32 p.m.

Good analysis and agree pretty much. Denard's passing gets at D+ through 4 games because he was successful in the 4th quarter vs Notre Dame. The past two games, he gets an F. A 38-10 win looks good.

Kyle Meinke

Fri, Sep 30, 2011 : 2:49 p.m.

MRunner, that's a good point about the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. He was 7-of-10 passing and carried the team not only on the ground, but also through the air. Doing it over again, I guess I wouldn't give him a failing grade. Not sure sure I'd go higher than a D-, though.