Spring preview: Michigan secondary searching for return to early season form
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The Michigan football team returns all four starters to its defensive secondary. It's all good, right?
Safety Jordan Kovacs was as steady as ever last year, and corners J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess blossomed after Troy Woolfolk was moved from the position. Collectively, with free safety Thomas Gordon, the Wolverines improved their pass defense from 111th nationally (260.2 yards per game) in 2010 to 16th (190.5) in 2011.
Yet, the secondary had two of its worst performances in its final two games. Particularly disappointing was its play against Ohio State, which featured a freshman quarterback (Braxton Miller) and ranked 118th in passing. Only Army and Navy were worse.
Against Michigan, Miller went 14-of-25 passing for 235 yards and two touchdowns. For perspective: His previous highs for completions was eight, attempts was 18 and yards was 130.
Michigan wasn't much better in the Sugar Bowl. So, although the Wolverines are loaded in experience and talent in the defensive backfield -- when was the last time that could be said? -- there are issues that need to be resolved.
What they lose
Woolfolk began the season as a starting cornerback, but kept losing snaps to Countess before finally ceding the position entirely against Purdue. He was moved to safety, where he continued to struggle. With Gordon back at free safety, the biggest impact Woolfolk's departure has is on the Wolverines' depth.
What they have back
Countess, Floyd, Kovacs and Gordon -- really, the four starters, aside from a brief fling with Woolfolk at free safety. And Gordon was better there, anyway.
Kovacs was tremendous last season, both with his consistent tackling and savvy blitzing. He is a virtual lock to be named a captain, now that the former walk-on is entering his fourth year as a starter.
Each of the other guys, though, are a little more uneven.
Floyd looked like an NFL draft pick through much of the season, but was more inconsistent in the final two games. Ditto for Countess, who was nothing short of spectacular throughout his ascent into the lineup. But he was exposed against Ohio State -- often bailed out by Miller's erratic passing -- and flat awful against Virginia Tech.
This pair has potential to be one of the Big Ten's best one-two punches, but will have to pull out of its tailspin.
As for Gordon, he was one of the league's best playmakers last year (he led the Big Ten with four fumble recoveries, forced two others and had one interception). But in briefly losing his spot to Woolfolk -- including not playing at all against Iowa -- coaches noted he didn't always bring it in practice.
Rediscover their swagger. The defensive backs consistently prevented big plays and forced turnovers throughout the season -- coordinator Greg Mattison's two biggest benchmarks for the secondary -- but their play tapered toward season's end.
Much of Michigan's defensive success will pivot on the secondary next year, as well. Three-fourths of its defensive line has graduated, so the Wolverines likely won't be able to apply the kind of quarterback pressure that helped them last year.
Also, don't be surprised if more blitz packages are implemented. When the defensive line struggled early last year, Mattison showed he was unwilling to simply drop back into coverage. Rather, he sent an array of blitzes to mix things up, then faded them out as the line became more disruptive.