ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On Monday, Michigan cornerback coach Mike Zordich waved his arms and sounded the alarm.
The sky wasn’t falling, he said; however, his young corners were failing — at least more than he would have liked to see through the first three weeks of fall practice.
“Not fast enough,” he said, grimacing, when asked about their rate of progress. “How’s that?… Yeah… Not fast enough. They show flashes. I’ll say this: LaVert (Hill), since his injury, he’s been pretty consistent…”
At this time in 2016, Hill, then a true freshman, was in the beginning stages of a highly anticipated debut with the Wolverines. Then he suffered an ankle injury. Then he caught another bump prior to spring. Then he didn’t practice on his own time very much during the spring and summer, disappointing coaches according to Zordich.
He has rebounded well since.
Well, they have some work to do before satisfying Zordich’s demands.
“You can see him increasing every day, and getting better,” Zordich said of Hill, a likely starter in 2017. “The other guys, they’ve shown flashes — they just need to grab it. Somebody’s got to grab it, run with it and take it. It’s just not happening. Hopefully, somebody will within the next 5-7 days, because we’ve got to get ready for a game in less than two weeks.”
On Sept. 2, the Wolverines face the Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. During a pep rally, Florida coach Jim McElwain said (10:25, via Gators Periscope):
“You know what? We’re heading to Dallas here in a couple weeks to go beat the heck out of Michigan, and then come back to you guys — thanks!”
With weaker links in the defensive backfield, it would be easy to assume that the defensive line and linebackers would be forced to overcompensate until things leveled out for the corners. Zordich said that wasn’t the case. He’s concerned, but not panicked. Nobody has to overexert.
Meanwhile, it would be easy to assume that the safeties — and VIPER backs — would also have to carry more weight, picking up the slack while Hill and David Long, also a true freshman in 2016, establish a sense of balance and consistency.
“I’ve got faith in them. They’re young, it takes time,” said safety and backup VIPER Josh Metellus, who has daily talks with his green teammates.
Yes, they’ve had their share of troubles, but Metellus doesn’t feel the need to push too hard, either. Progress will come — they just need reps, he added.
The same happened for Metellus in 2016; he needed time to develop before playing for the injured Jabrill Peppers during the Orange Bowl. Ninety-seven-yard scoop-and-goes on botched 2-point conversions don’t happen overnight. Really big plays — and steady performance — require more than athletic ability.
“I try to make sure their heads are right, so they can get focused,” Metellus continued. “A lot of them don’t know what it takes to stay focused and be consistent, so I try to help them out.”
Metellus will be a key component to Don Brown’s defense, which has been among the elite for the past two years, punctuated by another No. 1 overall ranking in the 2016 season — his first in Ann Arbor. As a whole, Michigan has also had an elite defense since 2015.
Metellus isn’t worried. He’s composed. He realizes the possibilities within the secondary.
Starting VIPER Khaleke Hudson isn’t worried, either.
Like Metellus, Hudson anticipates better times ahead for the corners.
“I feel like that the corners are doing great. Everyone has got to work harder. Nobody on the team is perfect. I feel like everyone is together,” he said, later adding that he’s seen more “flashes” and that corners are getting “more comfortable” with their roles.
Spoken like true cornerstones of the defense — and by a pair of sophomores, no less. The 2016 class will push Jim Harbaugh’s program toward the next level of national respect. Will it be this year? Maybe. However, expectations should be tempered — the Wolverines are young in a few key spots, not just at corner.
That said, their defense will have to once again become the backbone. With the best underclassman defensive end — sophomore Rashan Gary — and arguably the best overall 3-technique tackle — fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst — the Wolverines have two reliable stars in the trenches. Factor in Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich and at least five to six others, and it’s a full and talented bunch.
There will be a couple, and maybe more, All-Big Ten selections from Greg Mattison’s defensive line.
Chris Partridge will probably coach at least one or two all-conference linebackers. Fifth-year senior Mike McCray should have another rock-solid season. Devin Bush Jr., a true frosh in 2016, appears to be on the developmental fast track. During a recent media session, he acted more like a veteran — and less like a sophomore — while discussing his role and his teammates.
Right now, it’s kind of blank, at least for Zordich.
But safety coach Brian Smith should be fine with his current stock: Tyree Kinnel, Metellus, Hudson and Jordan Glasgow, among others. Thus far, it seems that group has shown up on a daily basis.
Metellus and Hudson must continue their ascents, too — it’s an absolute must for the Wolverines. They’re vital to the team now… and tomorrow.
As a true freshman, Metellus — 6-feet, 189 pounds (per 2016 roster) — played in nine games as a special-teamer (plus the Orange Bowl start), whereas Hudson appeared in 13 games on special teams, tying for the team lead with two blocked punts.
While 24 combined appearances and a handful of highlight plays may not seem like much, it’s better than the alternative — which would be far fewer appearances and big plays. They’ve already proven capable of playing at the highest level, and both have been on the upswing, according to several players and coaches.
They probably know that. They’re probably aware that they’re subjects of conversation.
They know they will face pressure from all directions.
But of course, they’re not paying attention to outside influence, even if most expect them to star on defense and special teams.
“I’m just taking it all in and just doing what Coach Brown tells me to do,” Hudson said when asked about the possibility of increased responsibilities. “Just going through the process, you know, just trusting everything and hoping everything falls into place.”
At 6-feet and 208 pounds, up three pounds since 2016, Hudson says he feels stronger, quicker and mentally sharper. He’s moving with more power and speed toward the ball. He understands the defensive concepts more than ever. His reaction time has improved.
“It’s just way easier to visualize,” he said of the game.
Communication is vital. No communication, no success. No argument can support a counter-claim. That’s just how it works, especially in the secondary, where those with zipped lips get ripped by quarterbacks and receivers.
The safeties, Metellus and Kinnel, a junior, have already jump-started the two-way exchanges — both verbal and nonverbal.
“So last year, Tyree and I were with the 2s (second-string), so you know, we built a relationship there, and during the spring, it progressed and took a bigger step,” Metellus said. “And throughout this camp, it’s just been on ‘click’… like everything.
“We basically know each other, it’s like we’re playing half-half (as one),” later adding: “Sometimes we look at each other and we know what we have to do.”