photo Michigan-Display-Ad-728x90-Die-Hard-Fans-only_zpskcnarkrk.jpg  photo MampGB header 2015 v6_zpsdluogxnr.jpg

Posts Tagged ‘Secondary’

Predicting Michigan 2016: The secondary

Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-SecondaryJourdan Lewis

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers

We’ll go from one extreme to the next as Michigan’s secondary couldn’t look more different than the linebackers heading into Jim Harbaugh’s second season as head coach.

While no starters returned in the linebacking core, Michigan returns a ton of its top talent in the secondary, including one of the best cornerbacks in the country and four other starters.

Returning starters:

Michigan’s secondary – and likely the entire defense – will be led by All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis returned to Michigan for his senior season after breaking out as one of the nation’s best cover corners in 2015. Lewis defended an incredible 20 passes in 13 games and picked off two passes. He locked down each team’s top receiver and figures to do so again this year, allowing Michigan’s other corners to take lesser assignments. There’s no better cornerback in the nation.

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Beside Lewis will be senior cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark. Stribling enjoyed his best season in 2015, breaking up three passes and grabbing two interceptions in 11 games. Stribling is a solid tackler and made strides in coverage last season. He should be the team’s second best player in coverage this year.

Clark had his ups and downs in 2015. While he finished the year with three passes defended and three interceptions, he left some opportunities out to dry and got burned a few times downfield. Clark will likely start the season as the team’s No. 3 cornerback, but he puts himself in more positions to force turnovers than Stribling. His high-risk, high-reward style will reap its rewards.

At safety, Michigan returns two strong veterans who enter their final season as Wolverines. Thanks to Brady Hoke’s decision not to use redshirts, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are in their last year at Michigan.

Hill was excellent in 2015, starting eight games at safety and hitting his stride late in the Big Ten season. Hill broke out in a big way at Indiana, when he recorded 10 tackles and broke up Indiana’s attempt to tie the game at the goal line in overtime. Hill’s greatest attribute is his support in stopping the running game. He gets good reads and isn’t afraid to go up to the line to make stops.

His partner in crime, Thomas, is more of a pass defender. Thomas didn’t have any tackles for loss in his first three seasons, but he did break up seven passes in 2015. He’s a luxury for Michigan downfield, as he can provide help for Stribling and Clark over the top. The safety tandem complements each other in the run and pass game and Michigan will be in good hands in the secondary.

Career Stats – Lewis
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
38 79 29 108 1.0 5.0 1 28 4
Career Stats – Stribling
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 34 6 40 0.0 1.0 1 3 2
Career Stats – Clark
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
32 25 14 39 0.0 0.0 0 4 3
Career Stats – Thomas
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 41 17 58 0.0 0.0 1 7 0
Career Stats – Hill
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
33 47 20 67 0.0 2.5 1 2 0
Potential contributors:

Michigan has two redshirt freshmen who have a chance to contribute for the first time in 2016 after patrolling the sidelines last season. The first is Tyree Kinnel, a supremely talented safety out of Huber Heights, Ohio. Kinnel is another safety who provides great support in the running game. He’s a reliable tackler and athletic enough to make stops in space.

Keith Washington will be a player to watch at cornerback after committing to Michigan out of Prattville, Alabama. He might be the fastest player on the team, but his coverage skills will dictate whether or not he sees the field in 2016.

Career Stats – Kinnel
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Career Stats – Washington
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New faces:

Cornerback isn’t a friendly position for true freshmen on contending teams, but Michigan did welcome some very good recruits to Ann Arbor. David Long projects as an elite cover corner and could probably contribute this season in a backup role or as an injury replacement. Long has all the tools to match up man-to-man with receivers: speed, quickness and very good anticipation. If he can learn the college game quickly, he’ll be an impact corner in the future.

Lavert Hill came to Michigan with even more buzz than Long, thanks to dominance at Detroit King High School and the long recruiting battle between Michigan and MSU. Hill is another very good coverage corner who can stick with receivers and break up passes. Unlike his brother (Delano Hill), he’s much more of a pass defender than a run stopper and his tackling will need some work at the college level.

Josh Metellus committed to Michigan with his teammates Devin Bush and Devin Gil, out of Charles W. Flanagan High School in Florida. Metellus is a solid safety who can step up and help stop opposing running games, but he probably isn’t ready for a major role in 2016.

The final commit in this group is Khaleke Hudson, who is listed at safety but could probably play anywhere on the defense short of defensive tackle. Hudson is an elite athlete who might be the closest thing the defense has to Jabrill Peppers’ versatility. Hudson will see the field this season because he is physically ready to play at the college level, but it’s hard to predict what role he’ll play. Since the team is deep in the secondary, he might see spot snaps as a linebacker or on offense. Either way, he’ll be a fun guy to watch.

Michigan also got a preferred walk-on commitment from three-star safety Tru Wilson, who turned down several scholarship offers to become a Wolverine. Wilson shouldn’t see any time as a true freshman, but he could work his way into the rotation down the road.

Finally, Tyler Cochran joined Michigan as a preferred walk-on safety from West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Meet the rest:

Louis Grodman: DB, sophomore, 5-11, 183, from Commerce, Mich. (Walled Lake Northern)
No career stats
Taylor Krupp: DB, sophomore, 6-1, 186, from New Lothrop, Mich. (New Lothrop)
No career stats
Brandon Watson: CB, junior, 5-11, 203, from Wilmington, Del. (Eastern Christian Academy)
12 games played, 2 solo tackles, 6 assisted tackles, 8 total tackles
Matt Mitchell: CB, junior, 5-10, 186, from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter)
No career stats
Anthony Dalimonte: S, senior, 5-9, 176, from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice)
No career stats
Jacob West: S, sophomore, 6-0, 195, from Pinckney, Mich. (Pinckney)
No career stats
Jordan Glasgow: S, sophomore, 6-1, 210, from Aurora, Ill. (Marmion Academy)
No career stats

Predicting Michigan 2015: The secondary

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015


PredictingMichigan-Secondary

Jabrill Peppers(Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers

The unit with the most room to improve on Michigan’s defense under Jim Harbaugh is the secondary, which has been a weakness over the past few seasons. With the departure of both preseason starting cornerbacks from last season, Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, there’s room for new guys to step in and make some noise under the new regime.

Luckily, there’s plenty of depth at both cornerback and safety for the Wolverines. A few younger players stepped in and played heightened roles during the 2014 season and figure to hold the reins heading into Week 1 against Utah.

Here’s a look at how the secondary will line up.

Probable starters

Jourdan-Lewis-vs-Miami-OH

Jourdan Lewis looks to build on a breakout season in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

While the cornerback group might not have the depth of the safeties on paper, two rock solid starters should give Michigan a big lift against the pass. Jourdan Lewis was clearly the defense’s most improved player last season and burst onto the scene as the most consistent cornerback on the roster. Lewis has elite speed to go along with good hands and instincts, and by the end of the season he was matching up with opposing No. 1 wide receivers.

Lewis started seven games and picked up 39 tackles and two picks. He was Michigan’s best defense against downfield passes and broke up six passes. If he can build on his fabulous sophomore season, he’ll be the leader in the Michigan secondary.

Across from Lewis will be Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons, who played parts of four seasons for the Cardinal. Lyons injured his foot after two games as a freshman, qualifying for a medical redshirt and allowing him to transfer to Michigan as a graduate student.

Lyons enjoyed a decorated career at Stanford, playing 41 games at cornerback and appearing on the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list prior to the 2014 season. He picked up 30 tackles as a senior and broke up three passes. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles, and picked off two passes as a junior in 2013.

Lyons was recruited by Harbaugh in 2011 when he committed to Stanford and will rejoin his coach in Ann Arbor for his final college season. Lyons will likely win a starting job after Countess decided to transfer for his final season.

Harbaugh and his staff have a handful of options at secondary, though one of the starters will certainly be the dynamic Jabrill Peppers. Peppers, the best pure athlete on the team, was moved to safety this offseason after struggling to stay healthy as a true freshman. He played in only three games and recorded eight tackles, but the flashes of his ability have Michigan fans eager for his true coming out party.

Peppers joined Michigan as a five-star recruit who dominated his senior season at Paramus Catholic High School under Coach Chris Partridge. Peppers was a star on offense and defense in high school, but was recruited as a defensive back. In two years at Paramus Catholic, Peppers picked up 134 tackles, seven picks, and two sacks.

If Peppers stays healthy, he’ll likely be the best player on the Michigan defense.

At free safety, Jarrod Wilson returns from a fine junior season in which he recorded 50 tackles and two pass break-ups. At 6-foot-2, Wilson has size to go with his quickness and his ball skills have gotten better throughout his career. Wilson was huge for Michigan last season with the struggles at corner. If the Wolverines improve in front of Wilson this season, he’ll have more reign to force turnovers and break up passes.

Projected Stats – Lewis
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 2.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
25 42 14 56 0.0 1.5 0 8 2
Projected Stats – Lyons
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
45 2.0 3
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
43 81 46 127 0.0 4.5 3 7 3
Projected Stats – Peppers
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
50 3.0 4
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
3 6 2 8 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Wilson
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
40 1.0 2
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
36 56 52 108 0.0 3.0 1 4 2

Returning contributors

Michigan returns only one other cornerback who played a major role during 2014, Channing Stribling. Stribling played 10 games as a backup corner last season, making seven tackles. He has been a decent rotational guy in two college seasons, but will be asked to play a larger role as an upperclassman. Stribling is tall for a cornerback and is fast enough to stick with Big Ten receivers. His playmaking ability isn’t up to par with the likes of Lewis or Lyons, but he can hold his own.

Safety is a different story for Michigan in terms of depth. Delano Hill started five games for Michigan last season and made 21 tackles. He’s only six feet tall, but Hill is a great tackler and stands out as a security blanket downfield. Hill’s value lies in his versatility. He was used to cover both receivers and tight ends in 2014 and has a good nose for the ball. He’ll be on the field for a ton of snaps this season.

Right there with Hill is redshirt junior Jeremy Clark, who played in 11 games and made 18 tackles in 2014. Clark is huge for a safety – 6-foot-4 – and shares strengths with Hill. He’s a great tackler, a hard hitter and has good speed for his size. Clark is strong in the run-stopping game as a safety and can match up with any position player on the offense.

Dymonte Thomas also played a big role in 2014, playing in 10 games and making 27 tackles. He’s got the highest ceiling in this group of defensive backs after coming to Michigan as a five-star recruit. Thomas is fast and athletic, which allows him to stay with receivers downfield and play physical with ball carriers in front of him.

Hill, Clark, and Thomas give Michigan a ton of depth at safety and lift much of the weight off the cornerbacks’ shoulders. A.J. Pearson is another name to watch in the rotation, though he didn’t get much time last season. He could fill in anywhere in the secondary.

Projected Stats – Stribling
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 20 3 23 0.0 0.5 1 0 0
Projected Stats – Hill
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
22 0.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
20 14 7 21 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Projected Stats – Clark
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
20 1.5 0
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
19 10 8 18 0.0 0.0 0 1 0
Projected Stats – Thomas
Total Tackles Tackles for Loss INT
25 1.0 1
Career Stats
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
23 24 10 34 0.0 0.0 1 0 0

New faces

Michigan brought in two new cornerbacks this spring, led by Alabama native Keith Washington. Washington is defined by his elite speed in the secondary and will use it to make plays on the ball. If Washington can stick with receivers at the college level, he’ll be a dangerous corner when the ball is thrown to his side of the field.

Tyree Kinnel comes out of high school with just as much upside as Washington, though he doesn’t possess his elite speed. Kinnel is a sound tackler and can defend both the run and the pass.

Both true freshmen will get a chance to earn playing time in 2015, as Michigan’s cornerback group isn’t as deep as others. They’ll have to prove they can effectively cover Big Ten-caliber receivers to get a chance.

Meet the rest

Terry Richardson – senior, 5’9″, 174 from Detroit, Mich. (Cass Tech), 14 career games played
Travis Wooley – senior, 6’0″, 195 from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. (Sault Area), no career stats
Matt Mitchell – sophomore, 5’10”, 179 from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter), no career stats
Brandon Watson – sophomore, 5’11”, 189 from Wilmington, Del (Eastern Christian Academy), no career stats
Reon Dawson – junior, 6’2″, 175 from from Trotwood, Ohio (Trotwood-Madison), no career stats
Francois Montbrun – junior, 5’10”, 183 from Ishpeming, Mich. (Westwood), no career stats
Anthony Dalimonte – junior, 5’9″, 176 from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice), no career stats
Shaun Austin – senior, 6’1″, 202 from Plymouth, Mich. (Plymouth), no career stats

New in Blue: Stanford CB transfer Wayne Lyons

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015


Wayne Lyons

Wayne Lyons – CB | 6-1, 193 | Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – Dillard (Stanford University)
ESPN: 4-star, #7 Saf, 81 grade Rivals: 4-star, #6 Saf 247: 4-star, #4 Saf Scout: 4-star, #8 Saf
Other top offers: Stanford, Nebraska, UCLA, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida
*Class of 2011

Wayne Lyons became the second transfer to sign with Michigan since signing day Tuesday, joining D.J. Durkin’s defense as a fifth-year cornerback. Lyons spent the last four years at Stanford University, playing 41 games from 2012-2014 after his freshman season was cut short due to a broken foot.

Lyons’ calling card is his athleticism. He played both linebacker and cornerback in high school, so his tackling and ball-hawking skills help him stay with bigger receivers. He also ran track and specialized in hurdles, giving Michigan a dangerous speed combination to go with Jourdan Lewis.

Lyons picked up 30 tackles in 13 games last season, breaking up three passes and forcing a fumble. He recorded 69 tackles as a redshirt sophomore in 2013.

As a four-star recruit, Lyons was a top-10 cornerback out of Florida. He joins a Michigan secondary that lost starting cornerback Raymon Taylor to graduation and returns 2014 standout Lewis, senior Blake Countess, and gets mega-hyped Jabrill Peppers back from injury.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Safeties (part two)

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. Part One of our safeties rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of who will be the Big Ten’s 10 best safeties. If you have not had an opportunity to read it yet, I encourage you to do so before proceeding. All set? Excellent! Let’s unveil who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part OnePart Two | Running Backs: Part OnePart Two | Wide Receivers: Part OnePart Two
Tight Ends: Part OnePart Two | Offensive Line: Part OnePart Two | Defensive Line: Part OnePart Two
Linebackers: Part OnePart Two | Cornerbacks: Part OnePart Two | Safeties: Part One

5. Corey Cooper, Nebraska | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 215 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 52 39 91 5.0 2.0 1 1
2012 8 9 17 2.0 0.5 0 0
2012 8 1 9 0 0 0 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 68 49 117 7.0 2.5 1 1
(Lincoln Star Journal)

(Lincoln Star Journal)

Nebraska’s Corey Cooper may have played some cornerback and nickelback earlier in his career, but all it takes is one glance at his stats to see that he essentially plays like a hybrid linebacker. Last season, in 13 starts at strong safety, Cooper led the Huskers in both tackles (91) and solo stops (52). Although it is not uncommon for safeties to lead their teams in tackles, what really reveals Cooper’s linebacker tendencies are his plays made behind the line of scrimmage and lack of passes defended. His five tackles-for-loss, which included two sacks, are the most by any returning defensive back in the Big Ten. On the other hand, Cooper tallied only a measly two passes defended. And it is not as if Nebraska never dropped Cooper back into one-high coverage. The Huskers did plenty. But Cooper rarely ever made a play on the ball in the air. Instead, the crux of his game was to flow down towards the line of scrimmage and make plays or clean up the linebackers’ messes.

Nonetheless, even if Cooper did not knock down many passes in the secondary, it still was his job to help solidify Nebraska’s pass defense and prevent big plays. He did not do this very well, though. To be fair, Nebraska’s pass defense was not half bad. The Huskers were 33rd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 41st in Passing Defense S&P+, and 46th in passing efficiency defense. However, a good chunk of this success can be attributed to Nebraska’s pass rush, which had the seventh-most sacks in the country. When sacks are removed from the equation, Nebraska’s pass defense was not so stout, as evidenced by the 7.2 passing yards per attempt it allowed, which was 69th nationally. This number was so high because, if Nebraska’s defensive line could not get to the quarterback, big plays through the air would ensue. The Huskers were 10th in the conference in both 15-plus-yard completions (72) and 25-plus-yard completions (31) allowed. Safeties are supposed to be the last line of defense. They are the ones that are supposed to keep the play in front of them. So, when Nebraska repeatedly conceded these momentum-shifting completions, fingers must be pointed at Cooper.

It likely will not be much better in coverage for Cooper this upcoming season, either. Cooper is the only returning starter from last year’s secondary as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans and safety Andrew Green graduated. There is some other starting experience in the back-four with cornerback Josh Mitchell still around, but it will not be easy to replace the production of Jean-Baptiste and Evans, who combined for 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 26 passes defended, and eight interceptions last year. Cooper will continue to be a terrific tackler, closing down on the line of scrimmage. It would not be a surprise if he led the Huskers in tackles for the second straight season. But, unless Cooper starts making more plays in coverage or at least does not allow as many throws to get behind him, Cooper and Nebraska’s pass defense will not enjoy the 2014 season.

4. Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 5’11”, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 33 73 2.5 1 5 4
2013 59 30 89 0.5 0 12 2
2013 54 46 100 3.5 0 4 2
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 153 109 262 6.5 1 21 8
Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Very few Big Ten safeties will have as productive of a career as Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell. Campbell is one of the lucky few to have been a starter as soon as he stepped onto the gridiron. After redshirting in 2010, he has been the Wildcats’ starting strong safety each of the past three seasons. In this span, Campbell has totaled 262 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, eight interceptions, and 21 pass breakups. Therefore, he has averaged 87.3 tackles, 2.2 tackles-for-loss, and 9.7 passes defended each season. A Big Ten safety would be pleased if he recorded these numbers in just one season. Campbell has the luxury of claiming he averaged them over three. This would make one think that he should be in consideration for the top spot on this list as he enters his fourth year as a starter.

However, Campbell sits at No. 4 for two reasons. First, his statistics have steadily dropped each of the past three years. In 2011, Campbell led the Wildcats with 100 tackles. In 2012, he was fourth on the team with 89 stops. Last year, he finished fifth on the roster with 73. Although most coaches would prefer their defensive backs not lead the team in tackles, even the number of passes Campbell defended fell from 14 in 2012 to nine in 2013. Second, Northwestern’s pass defense has not been near stellar during his tenure. In 2011, the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating was 108th nationally on passing downs—second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go—and 117th against the pass. This is understandable as it was Campbell’s first year as a starter. But what is not as clear is the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating against the pass slumping from No. 63 in 2012 to No. 73 in 2013. No, Campbell is not the only Northwestern defensive starter responsible for this, but, as the leader of the secondary, he is held more accountable.

Nonetheless, Campbell still is one of the better safeties in the Big Ten. As aforementioned, he has the ability to be a playmaker, whether it be tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or forcing turnovers. He can stuff a stat line. Further, he makes a valiant effort to limit opponents from reeling off big gains. Northwestern allowed only 20 completions that gained at least 25 yards—the second-best in the conference—and 12 runs that gained at least 20 yards—only two more than the number Michigan State and Iowa allowed. Once again, Campbell will do a fine job of keeping plays in front of him as he is supposed to do as a safety. But, given his lack of improvement as his career progressed, he just does not seem to have the talent the next three on this list possess.

3. John Lowdermilk, Iowa | Senior – 6’2”, 210 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 42 78 4.5 0 2 1
2012 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
2011 3 1 4 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 46 88 4.5 0 2 1
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

In John Lowdermilk’s first two seasons at Iowa, he played sparingly, spending the majority of his time on special teams and earning few snaps on defense as a second-stringer. During this time, Iowa’s pass defense was shoddy at best. In 2011, although the number of passing yards the Hawkeyes allowed per attempt was mediocre, ranking 56th nationally, the secondary was much worse according to advanced metrics. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ rating was 72nd-best on passing downs and even poorer against the pass at 83rd. It did not progress in 2012. Iowa slightly upped their S&P+ rating on passing downs to 64th-best in the nation, but its rating against the pass slipped to 89th. The Hawkeyes were missing something. They had talent in the secondary in cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller but needed to find the last piece to complete the puzzle.

That final puzzle piece was Lowdermilk, who became Iowa’s starting strong safety in 2013. His individual statistics were decent. His 78 tackles were the fourth-most on the team behind Iowa’s trio of starting linebackers, and his 4.5 tackles-for-loss were quite good for a defensive back, even if that defensive back was a strong safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The one drawback of this, though, was that he defended only three passes and did not intercept his first pass until the final game of the season in the Outback Bowl. Lowdermilk’s production still earned him an honorable mention on the media’s All-Big Ten team.

However, Lowdermilk’s biggest impact can be seen in the improvement of Iowa’s pass defense from 2011 and 2012 to 2013, not his individual numbers. Lowery and Miller were back from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, yet, once Lowdermilk was inserted into the lineup, Iowa transformed into one of the nation’s best overall defenses, especially against the pass. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ ratings skyrocketed. They finished 11th on passing downs and 13th against the pass. On top of that, they placed 10th-best in the country in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt. It was a tremendous turnaround by Iowa’s secondary. Thus, when one tries to discover how this happened, one needs to find only the new variable. And that new variable was Lowdermilk.

Lowdermilk returns this fall for his senior season. We know how well he performs when he has battle-tested talent around him, but will he be able to sustain it after Iowa experienced an exodus in the defensive back-seven? Not only did Lowery and Miller graduate, all three of Iowa’s starting linebackers did as well. And with them went 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions from last season. In all likelihood, Iowa’s defense should regress some, but Lowdermilk’s presence will mitigate the slide. However, next season would be the perfect time for him to make more plays in coverage and generate more interceptions now that he is the unquestioned leader in Iowa’s secondary.

2. Adrian Amos, Penn State | Senior – 6’0″, 209 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 32 18 50 4.0 2.5 6 1
2012 31 13 44 2.5 0.5 5 0
2011 9 4 13 0 0 5 1
Career Totals 72 35 107 6.5 3.0 16 2
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

There may be no defensive back as versatile as Penn State’s Adrian Amos. Need Amos to compete at cornerback? No worries. He has 19 starts under his belt at cornerback over the course of the past three seasons. Need Amos to fill in at safety? No problem. He started the first six games there last year. Not only can Amos play both positions, but he also can perform well at both spots. In 2013, he started the first half of the season at safety and the second half at cornerback, producing 50 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, and five pass breakups. Although his statistics are not necessarily overwhelming, his game film illuminates why Amos is so versatile.

Unlike former Penn State walk-on Ryan Keiser, who was ranked at No. 9 on this list yesterday, Amos has the complete package athletically. Let’s begin with his speed. Amos is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players on Penn State. According to his official bio, he reportedly ran a 4.45 40-yard time in the spring, which easily was among the best times on the roster. He then pools this with his agility and quick hips, which allow him to run stride for stride and stick with swift receivers down the field. One can see this in this highlight package here and on this pass deflection that led to Penn State’s game-sealing interception in overtime against Illinois. What one can also see in that highlight package is Amos’ size and physicality. Amos certainly does not shy away from contact. He does not hesitate when he attacks the line of scrimmage to crush ball-carriers and seems to deliver bone-crushing hits to receivers that cross paths with him in the middle of the field often. Not many defensive backs are blessed with these athletic gifts, which is why Amos is able to play either cornerback or safety.

Next season, Amos will return to his role as Penn State’s starting strong safety, which could be inferred from his placement on this list. He will team up with Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas, who was ranked the third-best cornerback in the Big Ten in this series, to form one of the best secondaries in this conference. Last season, the Nittany Lions’ pass defense was so-so, finishing 43rd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 48th in Passing Defense S&P+, and 50th in passing efficiency defense. However, players in the secondary were shuffled around frequently, as evidenced by Amos’ shift from strong safety to cornerback at the midway point. The secondary should be much more settled this fall. And, despite limited depth due to scholarship sanctions, the Nittany Lions have very talented starters in the back-four. Barring any injuries, Amos should be the leader of a secondary that is the second- or third-best in the Big Ten in 2014.

1. Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 49 42 91 3.5 0 6 4
2012 29 24 53 4.5 0 4 2
2011 9 8 17 1.0 1.0 0 2
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 87 74 161 9.0 1.0 10 8
(Robert Hendricks)

(Robert Hendricks)

There is no debate here. None whatsoever. While valid points can be made on behalf of Penn State’s Adrian Amos, Iowa’s John Lowdermilk, Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell, or Nebraska’s Corey Cooper that they are the Big Ten’s second-best safety, none can even try to whisper to the effect that they are worthy of being considered the best. Why? Because Michigan State free safety Kurtis Drummond is head and shoulders above them all.

Drummond is an elite free safety. And when I say “elite,” I mean “most likely the best in the nation.” Just look at his stats last season—his first as a full-time starter. In 14 starts, Drummond tallied 91 tackles, the second-most by any Spartan and the 12th-most in the conference, and 3.5 tackles-for-loss. At first glance, this would be worrisome because a free safety making this many tackles generally indicates that the defense in front of him is a sieve. However, Michigan State’s defense was the exact opposite, ranking second nationally in total defense, second in rushing defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, and first in passing efficiency defense. Essentially, the Spartans’ defense finished in the top three nationally of every major defensive category. So for Drummond to record that many stops from the free safety position on arguably the best defense in the country is quite an accomplishment.

Further, whereas most safeties on this list have demonstrated they are either a tackling machine or a playmaker in pass coverage, Drummond is one of the few who can do both. In addition to his 91 tackles, he defended 10 passes, four of which he intercepted. And, unlike many of the other free safeties on this list, Drummond did not defend these passes because he played only deep center field. As part of Michigan State’s Cover 4 scheme, he was forced to play lots of single coverage. Most safeties would not hold up well in such a scenario because they do not have the hips or the speed to maintain tight single coverage on an opponent’s outside receivers. However, it is clear that Drummond is not most safeties.

Just like last year, Drummond will do it all in the back for the Spartans, whether it is cutting down plays before they break for large gains or swatting passes out of the sky. He, along with Trae Waynes, who should be the Big Ten’s best cornerback, will be the stalwarts in the secondary that propel Michigan State’s defense to the top yet again this upcoming season, even after losing cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis to the NFL. For his efforts, Drummond will earn All-American and All-Big Ten honors for the second straight season before being the first free safety off the board in the first round in next year’s NFL Draft. It should be quite a senior season for what is undoubtedly the Big Ten’s best defensive back.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our rankings? Will Michigan State’s Kurtis Drummond be the Big Ten’s best safety next season? Or will someone else claim his throne? Was there another safety that should have been in the top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will rank all things special teams in the Big Ten.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Safeties (part one)

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This is the eighth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two

11. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan | Freshman – 6’1”, 202 lbs
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Okay, I am cheating. The parameters of this 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series indicate that only the Big Ten players who will be among the 10 best at their respective position shall be ranked. However, an exception must be made for Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, whom you just may have already heard a bit about here and there.

No incoming Big Ten freshman has received more hype, praise, acclaim, etc. than Peppers. For good reason, too. Peppers was the highest-rated 2014 prospect to commit to a Big Ten school. According to 247 Sports’ national composite rankings, Peppers is the third-best recruit in his class; there were no other Big Ten commits in the top 20. Further, Peppers is the highest-rated prospect to commit to the Wolverines since the creation of online recruiting services. Michigan earned commitments from No. 4 overall LaMarr Woodley and No. 5 overall Prescott Burgess in 2003 and No. 5 overall Ryan Mallett in 2007. But never before has Michigan been graced with a top-three prospect.

“But, Drew, how can you place Peppers on this list when he has not even played a single snap of college football yet? How do you know he will not be a bust?” Have you seen his highlights? Have you seen his physique? Have you seen his speed? Peppers is a physical specimen. Or, as fellow Michigan writer Bryan Mac penned perfectly at MGoBlog, Peppers “is basically a glitch in the physics engine.” Even an unnamed assistant coach at USC claimed that the only two high-school football players he had seen with a body like Peppers are Adrian Peterson and Patrick Peterson. That is some fine company. At 6’1” and 202 pounds, with his unbelievable burst, speed, and athleticism, everything about Peppers’ game should translate to the college level. He will be a playmaker the instant he steps on the field for the Wolverines.

However, the questions Michigan fans are asking are where and how often Peppers will play as a true freshman this season. Earlier this month, head coach Brady Hoke indicated Peppers would begin at nickelback, where Michigan previously has positioned its young, talented defensive backs for them to get their feet wet. Yet Peppers is listed in these rankings as a safety, not a cornerback. Michigan needs its best talent on the field as much as possible, and the Wolverines are already set at cornerback with Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, and Jourdan Lewis as the starters. On the other hand, there is a vacancy at strong safety with Thomas Gordon’s departure. While Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas currently are competing for that job, it seems like the perfect spot for the versatile Peppers to make the biggest impact. I have projected that Peppers will be Michigan’s starting strong safety by Big Ten play, where he should flourish and be considered one of the best 10 safeties in the Big Ten. Still, until Hoke makes that move official, Peppers must remain out of the top 10.

10. Michael Caputo, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 212 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 27 63 3.0 0 3 0
2012 8 2 10 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 44 29 73 3.0 0 3 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

Wisconsin strong safety Michael Caputo is a pseudo-linebacker who shortly became a linebacker before reverting back to a pseudo-linebacker. Got all of that? No? Okay, let me explain. Last season, Caputo was the Badgers’ full-time starter at strong safety. However, despite being listed as a safety, he played more of a hybrid position, where he acted as a linebacker who could cover more than anything else. Accordingly, Caputo was Wisconsin’s second-leading tackler with 63 stops, 36 of which were solo, and three tackles-for-loss. Unsurprisingly, And, unsurprisingly, his impact was most felt in Wisconsin’s rushing defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest sack-adjusted yards allowed per carry nationally.

This does not mean that Caputo did not contribute to Wisconsin’s passing defense, which was 19th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, though. In fact, he played a vital role in it, which was exemplified by his absence in the regular-season finale against Penn State. Caputo missed most of the game due to concussion-like symptoms. Without him on the field, the Badgers allowed a talented but true freshman quarterback to complete 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards, 11.3 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda admitted afterwards how much Wisconsin’s passing defense missed Caputo, acknowledging that there were certain coverages and schematic adjustments that only Caputo did. Caputo may have only had three passes defended all season, but he was a key element to Wisconsin stopping the opponent’s aerial assault.

However, this season will be an interesting test for both Caputo and the Badgers. Wisconsin must replace the entire front seven on defense. Wisconsin tried to mitigate this by shifting Caputo from strong safety to linebacker in the offseason, thinking that Caputo’s play already resembled that of a linebacker. The problem was that Wisconsin had even more inexperience behind Caputo at safety, so Wisconsin moved him back to his original spot.

Even though Caputo will be comfortable with the position he is playing, lining up alongside two returning starters at cornerback, it is unclear just how much Caputo will miss his old partners in crime in the front seven. As aforementioned, Caputo made his biggest contribution stopping the run. But how effective will he be with an entirely new front-seven in front of him? How much did he benefit from the presence of the prior defensive front-seven? Will he not be able to make the same number of stops or have the same type of impact this year? These are the questions that must be answered and the reasons why Caputo, a returning starter from a very good defense, is only No. 10 on this list.

9. Ryan Keiser, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1″, 208 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 12 38 2.0 1.0 11 3
2013 3 2 5 0 0 0 0
2013 2 4 6 0 0 0 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 31 18 49 2.5 1.0 11 3
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Safety Ryan Keiser is Penn State’s version of Jordan Kovacs. In high school, Keiser was a two-time member of the PA Football News Class AAA all-state first team but received little interest from FBS programs. In fact, Keiser was so under-recruited that he was considered a zero-star prospect by 247 Sports. With no scholarship offers in hand, Keiser chose to walk on to the football team at his in-state school, Penn State. He spent his first few seasons in State College doing whatever he could to get on the football field. He became Penn State’s holder and became a fixture on other special-teams units. But it was not until last season when Keiser proved he was much more than a special-teams star.

In 2013, Keiser began the season as a reserve defensive back for Penn State. He earned some playing time earlier in the year, which included an outstanding performance against Kent State, during which he had four tackles, a sack, an interception, and three pass breakups. Keiser continued to perform well and impress the Penn State coaching staff. Accordingly, he made his first career start against Michigan before starting the final four games of the season at free safety. Keiser finished with 38 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, and eight pass breakups. His 11 passes defended were the ninth-most in the Big Ten, which is even more impressive than usual because he started only about half of the season. Further, although Keiser had only 38 tackles all season, 23 of those were in his final four starts. If that average had been extrapolated over the course of the entire season, he would have had 69 tackles, which would have been the third-most on the team. By the end of the year, Keiser had demonstrated that he has a knack for being a ball-hawk and is not a liability in run support.

However, there is a reason why Keiser was a walk-on coming out of high school. This is a total shocker, but Keiser is not the most athletically gifted player. There are times when Keiser can be vulnerable over the top because he does not have the speed to keep pace with some of the Big Ten’s faster receivers. This can be seen even on plays where Keiser makes a positive impact. For example, Keiser made the game-clinching interception in the end zone in overtime against Illinois. However, the tape reveals that he had been beat initially. The only reason why Keiser made the pick was because fellow safety-cornerback Adrian Amos tipped the ball, allowing a recovering Keiser to snatch it out of the air. Nonetheless, Keiser, like Kovacs at Michigan before him, has proven that walk-ons can make an enormous impact at safety. Expect Keiser to have his best season in his first and only year as a full-time starter and be a member of one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten.

8. R.J. Williamson, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’0”, 205 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 17 27 44 3.0 0 2 1
2012 19 8 27 1.0 0 4 2
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 36 35 71 4.0 0 6 3
(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

The power of Pat Narduzzi will strike again. In each the past three seasons, Michigan State has had a top-10 passing defense according to the S&P+ rankings, including the best pass defense the last two years. And Narduzzi and Michigan State have been able to maintain this level of excellence despite losing key pieces to the NFL or graduation each year. This past offseason, three-year starter and All-Big ten first-team selection Isaiah Lewis graduated and moved on to the NFL. If this were any other defense, fans and media alike would be concerned about who would replace Lewis and his production at strong safety. However, because of the reputation Michigan State’s defense has earned the past few years under Narduzzi, everyone expects the next man in line to step up without a hitch.

The next man in line: R.J. Williamson. Williamson saw extensive action last season as Michigan State’s de facto starting nickelback. As the nickelback, Williamson did not produce overwhelming numbers because he played fewer snaps than Michigan State’s other four starting defensive backs. Nevertheless, Williamson was no slouch. He registered 44 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, an interception, and two pass breakups. Williamson also performed very well in the one game in which he played the majority of the snaps, recording 10 tackles in a start versus Notre Dame and seven tackles and a pass breakup after Lewis was ejected for targeting in the first quarter against Northwestern. And, of course, Williamson did all of this for a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense.

In 2014, Williamson is the front-runner to replace Lewis at strong safety. The competition for the spot is not over yet, though. Williamson reportedly left the door open after he had some sloppy moments during spring drills. Even Narduzzi has said that Williamson has all of the ability, but “we have to keep him consistent, and he’s got to do his job all the time.” Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if anyone other Williamson started at strong safety for Michigan State this season. He has the experience, prior production, and size—6’0” and 205 pounds—to complement free safety Kurtis Drummond perfectly. There are various other reasons why Williamson will mitigate much of damage resulting from Lewis’ departure, but, ultimately, all that needs to be said is that very few defensive coordinators get more out of their players than Narduzzi. Narduzzi will wield his magical powers once again and transform Williamson into one of the better safeties in the Big Ten.

7. Sean Davis, Maryland | Junior – 6’1″, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 62 40 102 1.5 0.5 5 2
2012 8 5 13 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 70 45 115 1.5 0.5 5 2
(Andrew Shurtleff)

(Andrew Shurtleff)

There are a few different terms that may be used to describe Maryland free safety Sean Davis’ game. Wrecking ball. Bullet train. Missile. Wreaker of havoc and punishment. Last season, Davis was the full-time starter at free safety for the first time in his career as only a true sophomore. And, in his first campaign as the starter, he laid wood, and he did it often. He led Maryland and was eighth in the ACC with 103 tackles, averaging 9.56 tackles per game over the final nine contests of the season. Davis produced such gaudy tackle numbers because of his full-out attacking style. Once Davis diagnosed the play in front of him, whether it was a run or a short completion, he charged downhill instantly, weaving his way through traffic to deliver a bone-crushing hit. If you look at his highlights from last season, you notice just how often he sticks the ball-carrier and drives them backwards. Davis is a very physical player that can make his presence felt with just one jarring hit.

However, Davis, as the free safety, struggled as the last line of Maryland’s defense. Maryland was 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. This indicates that the Terrapins’ pass defense was just an average outfit. Yet Maryland actually was worse on passing downs. Passing downs are defined as second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go. In these situations, the Terps were only 84th-best in the country. It did not help that Maryland allowed 71 completions that gained at least 15 yards, which would have been the third-worst in the Big Ten. Simply, Maryland’s pass defense was not that great when it could not generate a pass rush.

Much of these woes fell on Davis. Yes, he has a knack for making aggressive plays as evidenced by his two interceptions and three pass breakups. However, a look at his highlights indicates that his two interceptions were the result of two awful throws by the quarterback into no man’s land. They were not the result of an instinctual free safety who read the quarterback to undercut the intended receiver. The problem is that, when Davis did try to make plays in pass coverage, too often he was too aggressive and did not execute his assignment correctly. There is nothing wrong with being an aggressive, attacking free safety. But it can become an issue when that free safety continually allows big plays to get behind him. If Davis can rectify these mistakes and pick his spots better when to be uber-aggressive, he could be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. But it would be a surprise to see that development this season.

6. Jarrod Wilson, Michigan | Junior – 6’2″, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 28 22 50 2.0 0 2 2
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 32 26 58 2.0 0 2 2
(Matthew O, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Although there is much debate among Michigan fans about who will start for the Wolverines at strong safety, there is no such debate at free safety. After having a bit of an up-and-down campaign last year, Jarrod Wilson is Michigan’s unquestioned starter there. As a true sophomore, Wilson played well right out of the gate last season. He started the first seven games, during which he accumulated 33 tackles and four passes defended, including two interceptions. He was on pace for a very solid season statistically and was the back line of a defense that had been commendable until allowing Indiana’s up-tempo offense to explode for 47 points.

However, for reasons unknown, head coach Brady Hoke removed Wilson from the starting lineup prior to Michigan’s next game against in-state rival Michigan State, inserting converted cornerback Courtney Avery in his place. Michigan’s pass defense deteriorated thereafter, and it definitely was not a coincidence. In their first seven games with Wilson as a starter, the Wolverines allowed only 6.60 passing yards per attempt. In their final six games, they allowed 7.48 passing yards per attempt. Some of the discrepancy can be explained by Michigan facing better passing offenses later in the season than the likes of Central Michigan, Akron, and Connecticut. But there is no better example of Wilson’s importance in Michigan’s pass defense than against Ohio State, a game in which he barely played because of a broken hand. The Buckeyes completed only six of their 15 pass attempts against the Wolverines, but still managed to gain 133 passing yards for an excellent 8.9 yards per attempt. This fell on Michigan’s safeties—Thomas Gordon and Josh Furman—who were routinely beat deep. Does this happen if Wilson is healthy and starting? We will never be certain, but the answer likely is “no.”

This season, unless injured, there is no chance Wilson will be replaced by anyone behind him on the depth chart. He will have a full season to exhibit that he has great instincts in the back of Michigan’s secondary. Not only will he continue to make smart, athletic plays in coverage, he will continue to take the right angles to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Also, with some starting experience under his belt, Wilson should not be as prone to mental errors as—like his untimely pass interference penalty in the fourth overtime against Penn State. Wilson should fulfill the potential he had as a four-star recruit and become a solid, boring free safety this fall. Although “boring” has a negative connotation, given the big plays Michigan allowed at the end of 2013 while playing roulette with its safeties, boring should be refreshing for Michigan. And, if Wilson demonstrates he is more than boring and defends more passes in the secondary, he will have an argument that he is one of the five best safeties in this conference.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Part One of our 2014 Big Ten Safeties Rankings? Should Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers be in the top 10? Should Michigan’s Jarrod Wilson be in the top five? Is there a blatant omission from the top 10? And what would your top five be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part two)

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our cornerback rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 cornerbacks. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Fantastic! Then let’s unveil who will be the five best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part OnePart Two | Running Backs: Part OnePart Two | Wide Receivers: Part OnePart Two
Tight Ends: Part OnePart Two | Offensive Line: Part OnePart Two | Defensive Line: Part OnePart Two
Linebackers: Part OnePart Two | Cornerbacks: Part One

5. Desmond King, Iowa | Sophomore – 5’11”, 190 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
Career Totals 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
(AP)

(AP)

Iowa’s Desmond King is one of two rising sophomores to make the top five on this list. Last summer, King arrived in Iowa City with little fanfare. He had been only a middling three-star recruit, not even in the top 1,000 of 247’s composite national rankings. King, who had offers from only MAC schools throughout most of the recruiting process, was set to attend Ball State before a late offer from the Hawkeyes convinced him to play in the Big Ten. It turned out to be the correct decision for both parties.

As a true freshman last season, King flashed potential that could turn him into a star cornerback in this conference. He started 12 of 13 games for one of the best defenses—against both the run and the pass—in the nation. The Hawkeyes were ninth nationally in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, and ninth in passing yards allowed per game. Thusly, it should be no surprise that Iowa’s pass defense was considered to be just as stout by advanced metrics. Iowa was 10th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 17th in passing efficiency defense, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Simply, Iowa’s pass defense was exceptional, and King was a big reason for it.

Although King was the No. 2 cornerback on the roster behind B.J. Lowery, what made his campaign so impressive was the versatility he displayed as only a true freshman. In coverage, King tallied eight pass defended. Although he failed to grab one interception, there have been freshman cornerbacks in the past who have were unable to earn one their first season before recording a heap of them later in their career. For instance, see a certain Michigan cornerback below. But what was most important was that King showed he could succeed both in Iowa’s Cover-2 scheme and on an island in man-to-man. Further, King also proved he can be an asset in run support. He posted 69 tackles, 44 solo stops, which were the most by any Iowa defensive back, and three tackles-for-loss. There are few things King cannot do.

It is clear that Iowa landed a gem in King. He appears to be a blossoming stud in the Big Ten. However, there is one concern that must be noted about King’s upcoming sophomore season. Although it was already implied that Lowery graduated, the Hawkeyes also lost safety Tanner Miller and the entire corps of starting linebacker. Among the five of them, they accounted for 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions last season. How much will Iowa’s pass defense suffer with the departure of five starters in the back-seven? Can King do enough to replace that production? Or will Iowa’s pass defense experience a significant dip? It will be interesting to see how King performs without the help he had from these talented teammates last year, which is why he is No. 5 on this list.

4. Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’9″, 172 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
Career Totals 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

The other rising sophomore that should become one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this season is Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton. Like Iowa’s Desmond King, Shelton was a true freshman that started 12 of 13 games at cornerback for the Badgers. Unlike King, though, Shelton proved that he can be an elite cover corner. At 5’9” and 160 pounds, Shelton was not the biggest corner by any means, but he had the speed and agility to keep pace with any receiver in the conference. Accordingly, he had nine passes defended last season. But, more importantly, four of those nine were interceptions. His four interceptions were tied for the third-most in the conference and led Wisconsin. Because of his speed and reflexes, Shelton will always be a threat to pick off passes thrown in his direction.

However, although Shelton has beefed up to 172 pounds this year, he still is very small. This negatively impacts him in two ways. First, Shelton will struggle to be effective in press coverage. He does not have the size to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage and may be too vulnerable to being torched over the top. Second, Shelton will not provide much assistance in stopping the run. While it is clear that Shelton does not shy away from delivering physical hits, his lack of size makes it easy for blockers to escort him out of the area. This is a big reason why he had only 36 tackles last year, even if 31 of them were solo stops. Shelton still will be an excellent corner in the Big Ten, but his lack of size will always be something that holds him back a bit.

Yet, with a year of experience under his belt, Shelton should be ready to improve upon a fantastic freshman season. He returns to a secondary that performed very well last year. Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 19th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 18th in passing efficiency defense, and 28th in Passing Defense S&P+. This was essentially a top-20 pass defense that returns three of its four starters. Shelton will be comfortable with his fellow teammates in the secondary and may be able to contend for All-Big Ten honors, assuming Wisconsin can adequately replace its entire defensive front-seven.

3. Jordan Lucas, Penn State | Junior – 6’0”, 198 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 45 20 65 4.5 1.0 16 3
2012 1 0 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 46 20 66 4.5 1.0 16 3
(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

With the two sophomores—Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton and Iowa’s Desmond King—sliding in at No. 4 and No. 5 on this list, we are left with three juniors that will vie for the label as the Big Ten’s best cornerback. One of these juniors is Penn State’s Jordan Lucas. Lucas became a full-time starter last season and demonstrated very quickly that he was the best cornerback on Penn State’s roster. He defended a remarkable 16 passes—three interceptions, 13 pass breakups—in 2013. Not only was this five more than the number of passes defended by any other Nittany Lion, it also was tied for the third-most in the conference with Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste—both of whom were selected in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. And, unlike Indiana’s Tim Bennett, who led the nation with 21 passes defended, Lucas earned that number as the leader of a passing defense that allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per attempt in the conference.

Further, Lucas exhibited a level of physicality on the perimeter that few Big Ten cornerbacks exuded last season. In addition to his 16 passes defended, Lucas added 65 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and one sack. He was the third-leading tackler on Penn State, and no Nittany Lion had as many solo tackles as he did (45). Plus, as discussed yesterday when breaking down Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose and Maryland’s William Likely, 4.5 tackles-for-loss is an exceptional number for any cornerback. It indicates that he can knife his way into the backfield to make key stops against the run. And, if you want even more proof that Lucas can lay the wood, he also forced two fumbles. There are many cornerbacks that can provide tight coverage against the pass, but there are few that like to hit as hard as Lucas does.

In 2014, Lucas should be able to do much of the same as he did last season. He once again will be the top cornerback in a secondary that returns two other starters. Lucas will benefit from having Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last year, alongside him. The two of them will form one of the best corner-safety tandems in the Big Ten. If there is one area where they need to improve, though, it is their pass defense in third-and-long situations. Last season, Penn State allowed its opponent to convert 13 first downs when the opponent needed 10 or more yards on third down. No other Big Ten team conceded as many first downs in such a distance-and-down situation. If Lucas can rectify this problem, not only will Penn State’s pass defense improve according to basic and advanced metrics, he also will contend for All-Big Ten first-team honors this fall.

2. Blake Countess, Michigan | RS Junior – 5’10”, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 20 46 2.0 0 4 6
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 30 14 44 1.5 0 6 0
Career Totals 56 34 90 3.5 0 10 6
(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

The two cornerbacks who will be the best in the Big Ten in 2014 both reside in the state of Michigan. Once again, fans of the Wolverines and Spartans will have something about which to bicker and debate. And, to be fair, both sides have several solid arguments they can offer to support the idea that their player will be the best cornerback in the conference. But the best guess is that Michigan’s Blake Countess will have to settle for No. 2.

Entering last season, there was a giant question mark hanging over Countess. After an impressive debut season in 2011 that unfairly drew comparisons to Michigan legend Charles Woodson, Countess tore his ACL while covering a punt in the opening quarter of the 2012 season. He was forced to miss the rest of the year and redshirt. Although players, especially the more athletic ones, generally can recover quickly from an ACL injury given today’s advances in medical science, there was anxiety among the Michigan fan base about whether Countess would regain his freshman form. Not only did he regain it, he significantly improved upon it.

Last season, Countess had one of the best campaigns by a Michigan cornerback in quite some time. After not intercepting one pass as a freshman, he completely flipped the switch last fall. He led the conference with six picks, which also was tied for seventh nationally. Further, his six interceptions were the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard also had six in 2000. Countess was an interception magnet because he became adept at suckering the quarterback into poor throws. He would feign that he was playing a certain coverage, tricking the quarterback to believe that another receiver in the nearby area was open. But, as the quarterback began to step into his throw, Countess would quickly shift into that area and undercut the pass for an interception. It was beautiful to watch. Although, Big Ten quarterbacks would disagree as they began to avoid Countess’ side of the field later in the season.

However, Countess could not top this list because there is a red flag about his press coverage, which he will be playing much more of this season. Michigan’s passing defense regressed in 2013 and was only an average unit. The Wolverines were 66th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 57th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 51st in passing efficiency defense, and 54th in Passing Defense S&P+. The mediocrity of these ranks can be attributed to the soft coverage Michigan played, which involved its corners lining up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. And, given referees’ inclination not to call defensive pass interference on every play, Michigan believes its passing defense will be more effective with more press coverage.

But Countess is not the most physical cornerback at 5’10”, 180 pounds and has struggled in press coverage in the past. The best example is when Michigan left Countess on an island against Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who then proceeded to haul in 10 catches for 176 yards and three touchdowns. The good news for Michigan is that Lockett was one of the best and most explosive wideouts in the country. Countess likely will not have that a challenge like that in the Big Ten this fall. Nonetheless, there is still a concern about being beat over the top, which is why Countess should be the second-best, but not the best, Big Ten cornerback in 2014.

1. Trae Waynes, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’1”, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 35 15 50 1.5 0 5 3
2012 2 3 5 0.5 0.5 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 37 18 55 2.0 0.5 5 3
(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

Michigan’s Blake Countess may have had the better individual numbers last season, but Michigan State’s Trae Waynes arguably was a starter for the nation’s best passing defense. Under the tutelage of head coach Mark Dantonio and, especially, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans have set the standard for passing defense the past three seasons. Michigan State has finished in the top 10 in Passing Defense S&P+ each of the past three year and in the top spot in 2012 and 2013. Further, looking at last year’s stats alone, Michigan State was third nationally in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense. So, if you were starter for a secondary that put up those numbers, you probably are alright at this cornerback thing.

Last season, Waynes started all 14 games in his first season as a full-time starter. He registered 50 tackles, 35 of which were solo, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery, and eight passes defended—three interceptions and five pass breakups. None of these numbers are super exciting, especially when offenses were more inclined to target Waynes rather than future first-round selection Darqueze Denard. But it is always important to note the context in which Waynes produced these numbers. Michigan State prefers that its safeties are uber-aggressive. They play closer to and attack the line of scrimmage more frequently than other teams’ safeties, which leaves Michigan State’s corners on an island more often. Yet the Spartans still had the best passing defense in the nation. This is because Waynes, at 6’1” and 183 pounds, not only has the size to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage but also can run step for step with the receiver if he does release. Sure, there were times when Waynes would be beat over the top, like on Stanford’s opening drive in the Rose Bowl, but it usually took a perfect throw from the quarterback to do it.

Next season, Waynes will be Michigan State’s top cornerback now that Dennard is in the NFL. Given the trend the Spartans have set as consistently being one of the best pass defenses in the nation, accordingly, Waynes should be considered one of the best cornerbacks in the nation as well. In fact, he is ranked as the second-best cornerback prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft class and already projected by some to be a first-round selection as an early entrant in next year’s draft. No cornerback in the Big Ten has the size, press skills, and cover skills that Waynes has, which is why he will be the best cornerback in the conference this fall.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? Should Michigan State’s Trae Waynes or Michigan’s Blake Countess be ranked No. 1 on this list? Or should it be someone else? And was there another Big Ten cornerback that should have made the top five on this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will tackle the remainder of the secondary by ranking who will be the best safeties in the Big Ten.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part one)

Thursday, July 24th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This is the eighth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two

10. Nick VanHoose, Northwestern | RS Junior – 6’0”, 190 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 21 61 5.0 0 8 0
2012 26 7 33 0.5 0 7 3
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 66 28 94 5.5 0 15 3
(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

Despite having fewer tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups than Indiana’s Tim Bennett, Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose cracks this top-10 list while Bennett is left out in the cold. In fact, Bennett—even with 73 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, and a nation-best 21 passes defended last season—was never really in consideration. There were two or three other Big Ten cornerbacks, including Michigan State sophomore Darian Hicks, who participated primarily on special teams last year, that had better odds to knock VanHoose out of the top 10 than Bennett. How so? There is more to an evaluation of a cornerback than just individual statistics.

Although Bennett led the country in both pass breakups (20) and passes defended (21) last season, he was a member of one of the worst secondaries in the nation. You may want to look away. The following numbers are quite horrifying. Indiana finished 118th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (290.2), 112th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (7.7), 103rd in passing efficiency defense (147.15), and allowed more 25-plus-yard completions than any other team in the Big Ten. While all of this cannot be blamed on Bennett, it was his responsibility to cover and contain the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. And Bennett was quite irresponsible. He allowed top wideouts like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (14 catches, Big Ten-record 369 yards, two touchdowns), Penn State’s Allen Robinson (12 catches, 173 yards, two touchdowns), and Illinois’ Steve Hull (9 catches, 224 yards, two touchdowns) to have their best performance of the season against the Hoosiers. Therefore, do not let individual statistics like passes defended fool you. There is always a bigger picture. And, here, the picture is clear: Bennett is not near one of the best 10 cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

One who will be this upcoming season is VanHoose. He has experience—he started 22 games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and sophomore the past two seasons—and has produced in various ways. As a redshirt freshman, VanHoose notched 33 tackles and seven pass breakups but made his biggest impact generating turnovers. He intercepted three passes—his average of 0.30 picks per game was fourth-best in the Big Ten—and recovered three fumbles. The following year, the turnovers vanished, as VanHoose forced only one fumble and intercepted no passes. Nonetheless, he found other ways to contribute. Mainly, he improved his run support, accumulating 61 tackles and five tackles-for-loss, which are the most among returning Big Ten defensive backs. And, despite failing to record an interception last season, VanHoose still was in the vicinity of the receiver, breaking up eight passes. Entering his third year as a starter, VanHoose should be able to demonstrate all of these abilities as a pass and run defender in one season and put together the most all-around campaign of his career.

Similar to Bennett and Indiana, questions will be asked about VanHoose and Northwestern’s pass defense overall. The Wildcats’ national rank in passing yards allowed per game was dreadful (99th), but the advanced metrics indicate their pass defense was better than that suggests. The Wildcats were 52nd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (6.1) and 73rd in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Northwestern’s pass defense was not nearly as poor as Indiana’s last year, but it still was below average.

9. William Likely, Maryland | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
Career Totals 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

At 5’7”, Maryland’s William Likely will be the shortest cornerback on this list. However, Likely has never allowed his limited stature to prevent him from excelling as a cornerback on the football field. In high school, Likely was considered a high three-star recruit in 247’s composite national rankings, but two recruiting services—Rivals and ESPN—rated him as a four-star. And Likely certainly had the offers of a four-star prospect, too. Reportedly, he received scholarship offers from LSU, Stanford, and Miami (FL) but chose to enroll at Maryland.

As a true freshman last season, Likely did not expect much playing time in the secondary with experienced starters Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson on the roster. However, McDougle broke his shoulder blade and Johnson fractured his toe early in the year, thrusting Likely into the lineup just a few weeks into his collegiate career. For a true freshman cornerback, Likely performed well in his 11 starts. He led the Terrapins with seven passes defended, one of which was an interception against Syracuse. Likely has a significant height disadvantage when marking outside wide receivers but compensates with his superb speed and agility to maintain tight coverage on his man. In case you are wondering just how superb, he was also Maryland’s kick and punt returner last season. What was even more impressive for a player of his size, though, was his willingness to provide solid run support. Likely had had the fifth-most tackles on the team with 70 and 4.5 tackles-for-loss, which is a high number for any cornerback, let alone one listed at 5’7”. Likely still had his freshman flaws throughout the year, but it was an impressive debut considering the circumstances.

Accordingly, big things are expected from Likely as a sophomore this fall. The question is whether Likely will sufficiently improve to shape up an experienced secondary that was only average against the pass last season. The Terrapins finished 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. However, these probably would have been worse if not for Maryland’s pass rush. The Terps averaged 2.85 sacks per game, which was 18th-best in the country. Consequently, with sacks included, Maryland allowed only 5.7 passing yards per attempt, good enough for 26th-best in the nation. Some of these sacks were the result of excellent coverage where the quarterback had nowhere to throw, but the prevailing thought is that Maryland’s front-seven saved an average secondary’s behind. The bad news for Maryland is that it lost one of its top pass-rushers in linebacker Marcus Whitfield (15.5 tackles-for-loss, nine sacks). The good news is that it returns all of its other key defensive contributors, including the rest of the pass-rushing front-seven. If Likely makes the sophomore leap that many expect, Maryland’s pass defense should see a boost in its performance.

8. Raymon Taylor, Michigan | Senior – 5’10”, 182 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 61 25 86 1.5 0.5 9 4
2012 33 12 45 0 0 1 2
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 95 38 133 1.5 0.5 10 6
(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

For much of last season, Raymon Taylor was the subject of frequent discussion among Michigan fans about whether he had developed into an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. When Taylor became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup early in the 2012 season as a true sophomore, his impact was limited. Although he intercepted two passes, including a key one he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to ignite a rout of Purdue, he broke up only one other pass all season long. Three passes defended in 11 starts and 13 games? This is the sign of a cornerback who either had such tight coverage that quarterbacks did not throw in his general direction or struggled to stay close with his man. Given that Michigan was ranked No. 54 nationally in Passing Defense S&P+ and eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt, the latter option is the answer here. Plus, Taylor provided little in run support, registering only 45 tackles and zero tackles-for-loss. Accordingly, fans began to look at the depth chart and incoming recruits to see if there was a suitable replacement for Taylor for 2013 season.

Yet Taylor demonstrated that there was no suitable replacement for him, even after Michigan brought in a blossoming crop of freshmen defensive backs in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Dymonte Thomas. He showed improvement in all facets of the game. Against the pass, Taylor transformed from a cornerback that rarely made plays on the ball into one that got his hands on multiple throws. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the Big Ten, and his four interceptions were tied for the third-most. What was most impressive about his interceptions was that they were created by his coverage, not by lucky bounces or ricochets. He played much tighter coverage on his man and, accordingly, saw favorable results. Against the run, Taylor still had issues, but he was much better in 2013 than in 2012. He actually led Michigan with 86 tackles, 61 of which were solo, almost doubling the number of tackles he had the prior season. Although many of Taylor’s stops can be attributed to tackles he made after he allowed his receiver catch the ball underneath against soft coverage, the large increase in tackles indicated he was more willing to assist his teammates in run support.

So, to answer many Michigan fans’ question, yes, Taylor is an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. He still has room to improve in defending and containing the run on the perimeter, but his coverage is much tighter and more technically sound. Plus, this season, Michigan plans to play more press coverage, which suits Taylor’s abilities more than dropping him into a soft zone where he has a tendency to let free the receiver he is supposed to mark. Of course, even in press coverage, there still are concerns that he will be beat over the top like Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and everyone from Indiana did time and time again. However, Lockett was one of the best wideouts in the nation last season, and Indiana’s no-huddle tempo was the reason for the slipups in coverage. Entering his senior season and third year as a starter, Taylor will put together his best campaign yet. He should have fewer tackles because he will not allow as many catches underneath in press coverage, but his passes defended should increase. Teams will try to test Taylor to avoid Michigan’s other cornerback, who is a bit higher on this list, only to discover that Taylor, too, is one of the better corners in the Big Ten.

7. Doran Grant, Ohio State | Senior – 5’11”, 193 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 43 15 58 2.0 0 13 3
2012 15 4 19 1.0 1.0 2 1
2011 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 61 22 83 3.0 1.0 15 4
(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

Ohio State’s Doran Grant is considered by NFL scouts and personnel to be one of the best senior cornerback prospects in the nation. In fact, some scouts foresee Grant being the fourth cornerback selected in the next NFL Draft, meaning he would be taken in the one of the first two rounds. NFL personnel drool over Grant because he oozes with physical talent that can translate to the next level. As a former high four-star prospect in high school, he drips with the type of athleticism that gives him the ability to frequently make game-changing plays. Just look at the impact he had as Ohio State’s second corner in his first full season as a starter last year. Grant posted 58 tackles, 43 of which were solo, two tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, three interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the conference, and he proved he could be an asset in run support. Ultimately, with his athleticism, Grant is a player that has unbelievable potential as a cornerback.

However, there is a “but,” and, in this case, it is significant. For all of the positive momentum-shifting plays Grant makes with his dynamic athleticism, he makes just as many negative ones. Grant has too many mental mishaps that allow opponents to break what should be no or small gains into huge plays. Whether it was misplaying his coverage or taking a poor angle on a tackle attempt, Grant simply made too many mistakes. And he was not the only Buckeye defensive back with this problem either. For example, no Big Ten team allowed more completions of 15 yards or more than Ohio State with 77 of them last season. Further, Grant was a member of an Ohio State secondary enriched with NFL talent that was only eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0). The Buckeyes had one of the best pass rushes nationally, so their sack-adjusted numbers are much better. Nonetheless, this indicates that Ohio State, including Grant, pass defense struggled if the pass rush from the front-seven did not get home. This was a very poor reflection on Ohio State’s secondary.

And it is difficult to see Ohio State’s secondary improving this upcoming season. The Buckeyes lost both of their starting safeties and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL this past spring. Grant is the only returning starter of the defensive back-four, and Ohio State’s returning safeties have very little experience. It will be upon Grant to replace the impact lost with Roby’s departure as the top cornerback on the depth chart and shore up the holes in this secondary. Grant continues to receive praise from NFL personnel and Ohio State coaches that claim Grant just needs to continue to “make strides in man coverage” to rise up the draft boards. But how much improvement mentally can be expected from a cornerback that fell asleep too often last season? If Grant realizes his full potential, he easily would be one of the top five cornerbacks in the conference. But the best guess is that Grant will continue to make too many dumb errors next season, which is why he is No. 7 on this list.

6. Eric Murray, Minnesota | Junior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 8 52 1.0 0 10 0
2012 4 1 5 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 48 9 57 1.0 0 10 0
(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

Minnesota’s Eric Murray probably was the best Big Ten cornerback that no one talked about last season. After contributing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012, Murray stepped into the starting cornerback role as a sophomore last year. Although Minnesota’s defense was somewhat below average, finishing 81st nationally in yards allowed per play and 65th in Defensive S&P+, much of those woes fell on Minnesota’s front-seven, not Murray and the rest of the secondary. Minnesota’s passing defense was slight above average, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per play and 47th nationally in Passing Defense S&P+. And Murray played a big role in this, leading the Gophers with 10 pass breakups, which already ties for the 11th-most all-time in school history. Additionally, Murray registered 52 tackles, 44 of which were solo, one tackle-for-loss, and a fumble recovery. By the end of the season, the Big Ten coaches and media began to recognize his performance, giving him an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. But, during the season, he received no attention.

The key reason why Murray received little press was because, unlike many of the other corners on this list, he did not accumulate any interceptions. Interceptions are flashy and easy indicators that a cornerback is performing well. But there is always a bigger picture. A look at Murray’s game film reveals why he has yet to nab his first interception. Murray thrives in press coverage when Minnesota lines up in man-to-man. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, he is able to jam the opposing receivers on the line, preventing them from releasing into their route. Accordingly, Murray did not have many passes to defend because the quarterback only occasionally had the opportunity to target Murray’s man. On the other hand, many of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers had their worst days against Minnesota. Penn State’s Allen Robinson, who averaged 119.3 receiving yards per game, gained only 18 yards in the nine times he was defended by Murray. Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, who averaged 105.6 receiving yards per game, had only 30 yards in the 11 plays he was guarded by Murray. Indiana’s Cody Latimer, who averaged 91.3 yards per game? Only 25 yards in the 13 plays Murray locked him up. The trend is pretty clear: despite the lack of interceptions, Murray’s press coverage is a difficult challenge for even the Big Ten’s best wideouts.

Expect much of the same from Murray in 2014. With a one year of starting experience under his belt, he will be able to fine-tune his press technique and improve upon it even further. Wideouts will continue to have a hard time releasing off the line of scrimmage against him. There will be times when those wideouts are successful and beat Murray over the top, but this is the consequence of banking on your ability to press and press some more. Also, it certainly would not hurt if Murray decided to record a few interceptions either this year. Because, if he does, he may be better than one—or some—of the next five cornerbacks on this list. And then he would receive all of the attention he would ever need.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with the first five names on this list? Did we leave someone out of the top 10 that deserves to be here? What about Michigan’s Raymon Taylor? Should he be higher or lower than No. 8 on this list? Who do you think will round out the top five tomorrow? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Predicting Michigan: The secondary

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014


Predicting-Michigan-Secondary

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

Greg Mattison owns all of the tools to turn what was a shaky secondary in 2013 into a strength of the defense during his fourth season under Brady Hoke at Michigan.

Last season Michigan’s tendency to surrender the big play allowed teams to hang around before eventually costing the Wolverines in a late comeback by Penn State in Happy Valley. This unit has all the tools to shut down Big Ten receivers, but a few key players need to make major spring adjustments.

The Starters

Blake Countess was the clear-cut top defensive back for Michigan during the 2013 season, snatching a team-high six interceptions and taking on opponents’ best receivers every week. But this is an important offseason for the redshirt junior, as his ability to turn when the ball is in flight stands between him being a good defender and perhaps becoming one of the best in the conference. Countess often got beat despite tight coverage because he was looking at the receiver rather than finding the ball. If he can make an adjustment to look for the pass while staying in front of his man, offensive coordinators might stop throwing his way.

Countess was joined in 2013 by Raymon Taylor, who made 12 starts and grabbed four interceptions of his own as a junior. Big Ten quarterbacks were much more willing to throw at Taylor last season, and he was largely outmatched by most of the tougher receivers. Taylor is likely to start at cornerback, so his improvement through the offseason is one of the most important factors in improving the defense as a whole.

If Countess ends up playing the majority of his minutes at nickelback it will make room for talented sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who caught two interceptions during the spring game and sparked a buzz among the defensive coaches during the early spring. Much like Taylor and Countess, Lewis is around 5’10″ and 175 pounds. He played a limited role as a freshman, but did appear in eight games and batted down two passes.

Jarrod Wilson is ready to become the full-time starter at safety after picking up two interceptions and 50 tackles as a sophomore. Wilson gives the Michigan secondary an aggressive ball hawk that loves to support the running game. Mattison takes advantage of the junior’s versatility to send him into the backfield when he’s not dropping back in coverage.

The other safety position appears to be wide open for a cast of younger players trying to earn a starting job. Dymonte Thomas spent some time in the secondary as a freshman, but Delano Hill took most of the first-team snaps during the spring game. One of these sophomores will separate themselves during the offseason, but they are both in the running heading into fall camp.

Career Stats – Countess
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 30 14 44 0 1.5 1 6 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 26 20 46 0 2.0 0 4 6
Totals 56 34 90 0 3.5 1 10 6
Career Stats – Taylor
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
2012 33 12 45 0 0 0 1 2
2013 61 25 86 0.5 1.5 0 9 4
Totals 95 38 133 0.5 1.5 0 10 6
Career Stats – Lewis
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Totals 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Career Stats – Wilson
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0 0
2013 28 22 50 0 2.0 0 2 2
Totals 32 26 58 0 2.0 0 2 2
Career Stats – Thomas
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Hill
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0

Veteran Depth

Michigan developed an abundance of depth at the cornerback position during 2013 as Mattison used a packed rotation while trying to find players that could hang with Big Ten receivers. Though many of his combinations faltered, Michigan now boasts plenty of corners to make the spring competition more productive.

Senior Delonte Hollowell hopes to play the most important role of his career in 2014 as he tries to crack the lineup behind a host of younger players. Hollowell has played sparingly at cornerback throughout his Michigan career, including four times as a backup last season. The Detroit native contributes predominantly on special teams and will need a strong offseason to stay in the mix for a secondary position.

The perfect scenario for Michigan’s defense would include sophomore Channing Stribling stepping up during camp and earning a major role in the secondary. Stribling offers the Wolverines a weapon that many of the other cornerbacks lack: Size. At 6’2″, the sophomore is equipped with the tools to defend some of the biggest and most dominant receivers in the Big Ten if he can earn a spot in the rotation before August 30.

Career Stats – Hollowell
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 5 1 6 0 0 0 0 0
2012 1 3 4 0 0 0 0 0
2013 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 7 5 12 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Stribling
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0
Totals 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0

Newcomers

Michigan fans are eagerly awaiting Hoke’s most prized recruit as a head coach: Jabrill Peppers. The five-star defensive back owns the talent to step on campus and start at cornerback right away, and Mattison will likely give him every opportunity to do so. Though the early comparisons to Charles Woodson are premature, Peppers arrives at Michigan with as much talent as any recruit in recent memory and could greatly improve the defense single-handedly. In Drew’s latest mailbag last week, he projected Peppers to start the season as a reserve nickelback, but eventually snag the starting strong safety spot. The ideal situation would be if Hill or Thomas can win the spot and Peppers gets his feet wet at nickelback, but if Peppers does beat out the other two, he’ll be well on his way to living up to the hype.

Predicting Michigan: The secondary

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013


(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

The final defensive position group for our Predicting Michigan series is the secondary, a group with a good blend of experienced talent and up-and-coming stars. Previously, we previewed the quarterbacksrunning backswide receiversoffensive linetight endsdefensive line, and linebackers.

Returning Starters

Perhaps one of the biggest unknowns for the 2013 Wolverines is how the secondary will follow up an extremely strong season in defending the pass. Michigan had one of the best secondary units in the nation during the entire season, but looked lost in the bowl defeat to South Carolina. Competition is the name of the game this spring, as several of the players from that great 2012 group return to battle 10 freshman that have Brady Hoke singing the praises of his depth. Since the veterans have proven their worth, they will likely have every chance to win the starting jobs this offseason and repeat what they’ve done under Greg Mattison the last two years.

Blake Countess' return from injury will give Michigan a very talented secondary

Coming into 2012, one of the most exciting players on the defense was cornerback Blake Countess. The sophomore had won a starting job during the second half of 2011, and acquitted himself very well with 44 tackles and six pass breakups. Unfortunately, injury struck Countess in 2013, and it didn’t wait long to do so.

In the very first game of the season, against Alabama in Cowboy Stadium, Countess blew out his knee and missed the rest of the season. The 5’10″ Maryland native never got a chance to build on his impressive freshman year, as he was forced to take a medical redshirt and watch the remaining 11 games from the Michigan sideline. This season, he could be the leader of the secondary if he is able to regain the form he showed during his first full season. So far, everything has gone smoothly for Countess, who is now fully participating in training camp. He will spend the next few weeks trying to stop the freshman from doing what he did just two years ago: beating out an upperclassman for a starting spot.

On the other side of the field, Raymon Taylor was securing his own starting spot in 2012. Taylor ended up starting 11 games at cornerback after being named a backup to J.T. Floyd and Countess out of training camp. The sophomore had a nice performance to start the season, recording seven tackles in week one against the Crimson Tide. His most memorable moment was the 63-yard interception return for a touchdown during the dismantling of Purdue, which came just one week after his first career interception in South Bend.

Taylor didn’t record an interception in Michigan’s final eight games, but he continued to be a steady defender for Mattison’s battered secondary and will likely continue to start in 2013 across the field from Countess, barring a training camp setback.

When a young player takes over a starting job, that means there is a player that has to swallow his pride and take a back seat. In 2012, that player was Courtney Avery. Avery started all four of Michigan’s non-conference games, but gave way to the younger secondary players during the Big Ten season.

Avery has an interesting case for starting in 2013, as he has played in all 39 of his games in Ann Arbor but has only started 13. He made his biggest splash during the 2011 season when he picked off two passes despite starting only three games all year. As a senior, it is Avery’s last opportunity to hold onto a starting job during his college career, and it will be very difficult because of the competition. At worst, Mattison will have a backup veteran cornerback who is familiar with a role off the bench.

At safety, Thomas Gordon represents the only player who is almost assured a starting spot. In 2012, Gordon started all 13 games for the strong Wolverines secondary and seems to be the top candidate to take the reins from safety Jordan Kovacs as the leader of this unit. The redshirt senior recorded 81 tackles last season to go along with his two interceptions, and his only sack of the season came against Ohio State. Despite the absence of flashy statistics, he did his job well at strong safety. Gordon will have a tough job filling the hole that Kovacs left when he graduated, and Michigan’s defense will rely heavily on his play on the field and leadership off of it.

Career Stats – Countess
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2011 30 14 44 0.0 1.5 1 0 6 0
2012 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Totals 30 14 44 0.0 1.5 1 0 6 0
Career Stats – Taylor
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2011 1 1 2 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
2012 33 12 45 0.0 0.0 0 1 1 2
Totals 34 13 47 0.0 0.0 0 1 1 2
Career Stats – Avery
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2010 22 14 46 0.0 0.5 1 0 4 0
2011 17 9 26 0.5 2.0 1 2 4 2
2012 14 5 19 0.5 2.0 1 1 0 0
Totals 53 28 81 1.0 4.5 3 3 8 2
Career Stats – Gordon
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2010 13 10 23 2.0 4.0 0 0 0 0
2011 41 26 67 0.0 1.5 2 4 2 1
2012 46 35 81 1.0 4.0 1 0 2 2
Totals 100 71 171 3.0 9.5 3 4 4 3

Dark Horse Candidates

A couple of minor contributors are battling for their lives in training camp, as they try to increase their role against an even deeper group of defenders. Jarrod Wilson gained the trust of his coaches during his true freshman campaign, playing in 10 games as a reserve safety. Though his main job last season was on special teams, Wilson showed why he was ranked highly as a recruit when he did get his few defensive snaps. Coming out of high school, Wilson was ranked a four-star safety and one of the top in the country at his position. Being a talented recruit means very little in Ann Arbor these days though, and the sophomore will have to prove himself more capable than the fresh faces during training camp to increase his playing time.

Junior Delonte Hollowell is another long-shot candidate to win major minutes in the secondary. Hollowell played in three games as a reserve cornerback in 2012 and will likely have a similar role in his third college season.

Career Stats – Wilson
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2012 4 4 8 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Totals 4 4 8 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Career Stats – Hollowell
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR P Def INT
2011 5 1 6 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
2012 1 3 4 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Totals 6 4 10 0.0 0.0 0 2 0 0

The Freshmen: Who Will Stand Out?

Brady Hoke has quite the log jam on the horizon in the secondary. This season, there are six true freshman listed as defensive backs on the roster and four redshirt freshman. It’s a great problem to have, though, and Hoke has stated that this offseason he will keep an eye on everyone’s performance and let the competition decide who starts the season in which roles.

Of the five secondary players recruited in last year’s class, Jarrod Wilson was the only one who earned the chance to play as a true freshman. The other four players were all given redshirts and sat out the 2012 season because of an already-strong secondary. In 2013, three-stars Allen Gant and Jeremy Clark are the strongest candidates of the four redshirt freshman to earn major minutes, but will probably play most of their time on special teams because of a more talented 2013 class.

Three true freshman in the secondary should really interest Michigan football fans this season. At cornerback, Jourdan Lewis could be a fan favorite during his career in Ann Arbor if his knack for making big, flashy plays in high school translates to the college game. Lewis separates himself from other players because of his incredible athletic ability; and like many great cornerbacks, his play at receiver in high school makes him a threat to pick off passes on defense. The combination of playing both wide receiver and cornerback means Lewis will take a ball-hawk approach to defense, allowing his instincts and strong hands to force turnovers. Unfortunately, the freshman is very small at 5’9″, 160 pounds, which makes it hard for him to match up with some bigger receivers. Size is one hurdle Lewis will have to overcome while battling for a position in training camp.

Dymonte Thomas should be Michigan's nickel back as a true freshman (Scout.com)

Perhaps the most important secondary storyline during camp is the fight for the second starting safety spot. There is almost no chance that Mattison would start two true freshmen over senior Thomas Gordon, so Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas will battle for one spot during the next few weeks.

Though his commitment didn’t generate as much buzz around Ann Arbor as Thomas’, Cass Tech safety Delano Hill is built to play safety in the Big Ten. The scouting report on Hill is that he is a great form-tackler, and understands the game better than incoming freshman usually do.

Since his hiring two years ago, Mattison has preached damage control on the defense. Under Rich Rodriguez, the defense would often gamble and give up huge plays. Now, the defense limits gains and lives to play another down. Hill fits this mold and could play his way into the starting lineup as a result. His ability to diagnose plays and make smart reads means that Hill can prevent getting beat and allowing huge plays.

An added bonus with this young man is his ability to defend in coverage. Though he probably isn’t quick enough to cover speedy slot receivers, he can take away a tight end in man to man or zone coverage, which is an important asset to have in a physical conference. Whether he wins the starting job or not, expect Hill to play an important role in the Michigan secondary this year.

Hill’s competition is a player that likely everyone in Ann Arbor has already heard of. Thomas was one of the jewels of this year’s top-10 recruiting class, and was given a rare five-star by Scout.com. Like Hill, Thomas is 6’1″, so he can match up with big tight ends as well as smaller, quicker receivers if necessary. He also played running back and linebacker in high school, developing a punishing, physical approach to the game. Thomas will put a big hit on opponents on either side of the ball, but will focus on doing so to ball-carriers at Michigan.

The only knock on this five-star safety is his discipline in coverage, an ability in which Hill is very strong. Talent-wise, however, Thomas is the best defensive player in the recruiting class and will get every opportunity to win a starting spot as the nickel back in 2013. Awareness on defense is something that he will gain as he learns to play in the Big Ten, so the only way to get the maximum production out of Thomas is to put him on the field. Hoke and Mattison may feel the same way and give the freshman a chance to wreak havoc on the field to start the season.

Wrapping Up

During Mattison’s current tenure as Defensive Coordinator his pass defense has been effective, but it hasn’t been flashy. The turnaround that the defense showed in 2011 is a prime example of just how much one great coach can impact a college team. With essentially the same roster as Greg Robinson had the year before, Mattison turned a terrible defense into one of the top in the country. This season, Mattison will apply his legendary coaching ability to the outstanding recruits he has brought in the past two years.

It’s very difficult to win Big Ten games with freshman, so even though all these new five- and four-star players are generating excitement around Michigan Football, bounce-back seasons from Avery and Countess will be the most important factors to this year’s secondary. If Countess can bounce back from his injury and play like he did during Michigan’s Sugar Bowl run, and Avery can find some consistency as a senior, the secondary will be one of the best in the country.

Ramon Taylor and Thomas Gordon are going to be steady, as they were last season, leaving the Wolverines with four veteran defensive backs that can lead the young recruits. If a few of the freshman are able to step up during the 2013 season, this will be a deep secondary and should follow up the 2012 dominance with another great year.

Meet your 2012 recruiting class: The secondary

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012


Michigan had a great recruiting weekend by picking up eight commitments on Saturday and Sunday, but we’re still not done talking about this year’s recruiting class. You know, the players who will be suiting up for the Wolverines this fall, some of which will see the field come September. We’ve already profiled the offensive line, the running backs, the receivers and tight ends, the defensive line, and the linebackers. Today, we culminate our recruiting profiles with the final position group – the secondary. Two of them are consensus four-stars and the other two consensus three-stars. They have an average position rating of 38. Let’s take a look.