Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What to expect: Secondary 2012

Previously: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide ReceiversOffensive Line and Tight EndsDefensive Line, Linebackers

Projected Corner Starters: Blake Countess, JT Floyd

Two years ago, starting JT Floyd in your secondary was a bad idea:

That was 2010 when Michigan had Penn State in 2nd and 21. For almost any functional defense, that's a "Keep it in front of you" situation. For Greg Robinson-led Michigan, it was a wide-open out route as Floyd retreated to the endzone because things like technique were not really taught during the Rodriguez years.
The PSU receiver takes one stop toward the inside of the field and then breaks to the outside. Floyd immediately turns his back on the play to run with the receiver to the inside, despite having help defense toward the middle of the field. By the time Floyd gets his head turned around, the receiver has settled into a completely vacated zone 22 yards down the field and makes the first down catch.
Absolutely everyone involved in this play is to blame, but almost all of it has to fall on Greg Robinson. These players have absolutely no idea what they're doing here. The underneath defenders get no depth. Floyd doesn't know where his help defense is and once again shows how poor his technique is (like on those wide-open slants against Iowa) by turning away from the play. I mean, this is 2nd and 21 against a walk-on quarterback in the second drive of his first career start. How does this happen?
Oh how things have changed. Over the course of last year, Floyd not-so-quietly became a really solid Big Ten cornerback. He struggled covering Michael Floyd against Notre Dame because, duh, but otherwise, he was aggressive, timed throws well, and stayed sound in the running game. He doesn't have elite speed but will be able to hang with most receivers he faces this year as long as he has help over the top.

Last year, Floyd racked up 31 tackles, 17 assists, 8 PBUs, a forced fumble, and two interceptions. For someone a year removed from arguably the worst coverage play I've ever witnessed, those are pretty impressive numbers. That's probably his ceiling though. As a senior, he's not going to get demonstrably better. Teams aren't afraid of his coverage abilities, so they'll probably throw at him about as much as they did last year, and his numbers will hover around where they did last year.

Across from Floyd will be Blake Countess who saw progressively more time throughout the year. As a true freshman, he racked up 30 tackles, 14 assists, 1.5 TFLs, 6 PBUs, and a forced fumble. Countess is about as natural of a cover corner as you can get. At 5'10" he'll never be elite, but he is basically Donovan Warren (though Warren was two inches taller, they play effectively the same game). Countess frequently got beaten on double moves last year in man coverage, but that's the kind of thing that's designed to beat man coverage. He'll probably get lost a few times this year on similar moves, but expect his technique to be better against those sluggos. Otherwise, by the middle of the year, he may supplant Floyd and take on the more difficult wide receiver matchups.

The Backup Corners: Courtney Avery, Delonte Hollowell, Raymon Taylor, Terry Richardson

Long ago, when Courtney Avery was just an inexperienced former quarterback recruit, he seemed to me like the kind of guy who found his assignment and stuck to him like glue. At a relatively diminutive 5'11", 173 lbs, Avery has become the premiere slot cornerback on the roster. His rookie season, I spent the year praising his ability to cover receivers in man-to-man coverage. Last year, he came off the bench in the nickel corner position as a relatively sturdy addition to the defense until the above picture when he picked off Braxton Miller to end the Ohio State game.

This season, Avery will continue his role as shifty slot corner and filling in for either Floyd or Countess should either of them get hurt. Come next year, Avery will be in a battle with Terry Richardson for the starting CB slot across from Countess, but that's for another preview.

Behind Avery on the depth chart are sophomores Raymon Taylor and Delonte Hollowell, both of whom saw little action last year. Taylor only registered in the box score twice last year, and Hollowell didn't do much more, despite having an awesome profile photo on MGoBlue's site (right). Hollowell will likely be the first off the bench, but we won't see any of these backups unless there's an injury.

Finally, there's highly touted freshman Terry Richardson hovering somewhere around the depth chart. He's probably more suited to back up Avery in the slot given his diminutive size (5'9" according to MGoBlue), but his recruiting profile suggests he lines up to guard outside receivers.

For the first time in, well, a long time, Michigan finally has a talent and depth at the corner position. Without any true standouts at the spot, we'll probably see Hollowell, Taylor, and Richardson all rotating in and out of each position sporadically throughout the year with Avery as the primary backup and nickelback.

Projected Safety Starters: Jordan Kovacs, Thomas Gordon

You know Jordan Kovacs. Everyone knows Jordan Kovacs. Chances are you love Jordan Kovacs. In the long, long ago, I wrote a now hilariously wrong post on here called The Jordan Kovacs Problem in which I asserted,
The mere presence of Kovacs on the field presents a gaping hole in the defense and an obvious weak spot for opposing offenses to attack.
So, nevermind that. Over the last year, Kovacs has proven that 1) he's a really good strong safety and 2) Greg Robinson is an idiot. (Though that last point was proven by a number of players throughout the last year.) Expect nothing more or less from Kovacs this year: the defense's most consistent performer and one of the best strong safeties in the Big Ten, despite not having elite athleticism.

Playing across from Kovacs will likely be redshirt junior Thomas Gordon who was totally nondescript last year (in a good way). Free safety, like offensive line, is the kind of thankless job in which you usually only get mentioned if you're doing something wrong. Last year, Gordon was almost completely anonymous to your average viewer, but filled up the stat sheet: 41 tackles, 26 assists, 1.5 TFLs, 2 PBUs, and 2 force fumbles. Together, Kovacs and Thomas proved to be a pair of sure tacklers downfield and in space, and mostly negated the long touchdowns that plagued the defense for the previous few years. Expect the same from them this year.

The Safety Backups: Marvin Robinson, Jarrod Wilson, Josh Furman, Jeremy Clark, Allen Gant, Floyd Simmons

If you're thinking to yourself, "Wow, that's a lot of backups for only two safety spots", you're right. Under the Rodriguez/Robinson regime, hybrid linebacker/safety types were all the rage, so the team stocked up on them. Unfortunately, most of them have gone on to have completely ineffectual careers. Super recruit Marvin Robinson should be a linebacker but isn't. Josh Furman should be great but isn't (though his camp-legendary speed will supposedly be used on kick returns this year). And the rest are young recruits stuck behind two of the team's most consistent performers.

Kovacs and Gordon, barring injury--please God, barring injury--should rarely come off the field during the season. Kovacs is an every-down safety and Gordon proved himself to be reliable in almost all situations. Getting playing time for the backups will likely only come in mop-up duty against the early-season scrubs or if there's an injury to one of the starters.

For the first time in years, the secondary should be one of the strongest units on the entire team. Kovacs, Floyd, Gordon, and Countess are probably one of the strongest corner/safety lineups in the conference this year and we should expect a performance as such. A slight uptick in interceptions as Floyd and Countess both improve their technique can probably be anticipated, and the dirge of long touchdowns against the D should continue. This season, Michigan's defensive weakness is in the front end, not the back.


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