Michigan football’s defense is asking a lot about their cornerbacks.
While they mixed in more zone looks this past season, the Wolverines often play pressman coverage. And while that’s a tough question, Michigan has developed plenty of starting caliber cornerbacks over the past five years that can handle their own in coverage.
It has to do it again this season after Lavert Hill graduation.
The All-Big Ten cornerback was a cornerstone of Michigan’s secondary for the past three seasons, and his departure opens a starting place along with returning starter Ambry Thomas.
Hill’s replacement may be the player who filled in for him last season when Hill was injured.
In a Zoom talk with local reporters Thursday, defensive coordinator Don Brown had a big praise for the red shirt in the second cornerback Vincent Gray (Rochester Adams).
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“This is a guy who’s 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, and I just hope we can stick with him throughout his career when it comes to not coming out early,” Brown said. “Not because I supposed it, because I wouldn’t at all, but I think he’s an outstanding player with a huge range.”
Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson catches a long pass against Michigan defensive back Vincent Gray during the first half Saturday, November 30, 2019 at Michigan Stadium. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Gray, who appeared in all 13 games in 2019, finished the season with 20 tackles and five pass breakups. He was Michigan’s third cornerback on the depth map after Hill and Thomas, who filled in for Hill as he put out a contest in Illinois because of injury, and played significant snaps against Ohio State in place of injured safety Brad Hawkins.
Brown praised Gray’s ability to handle the transition at the end of the year from cornerback to safety and said it was “not an easy task” and believes Gray has the confidence to succeed at cornerback.
“I can think of a corner road versus Alabama where he hits the ball which is a big-time game, and I think it was against (Henry) Ruggs,” Brown said. “Sky is the limit for this guy. He’s an outstanding player, an outstanding young man and I just see nothing but good things for him going forward.”
Last season, Wolverine presented more three-safety looks in passing situations, bringing in rookie safety Daxton Hill to cover the spot on third downs. In previous years, like 2018 with Brandon Watson, Michigan has been more inclined to get a real nickel back at third down. And based on Brown’s comments about cornerbacks Thursday, it seems the Wolverines could go back to using a cornerback on nickel.
“Andre (Seldon Jr.) is really capable of doing that,” Brown said. “DJ (Turner), if you can play corners you can play nickel. Both guys have outstanding ability.”
A freshman last season who showed up in four games on special teams, Turner “had an injury plagued case,” according to Brown, which hindered his development. Losing this year’s spring practice due to coronavirus outbreak compounds is important – although Brown remains high on Turner’s potential.
“He’s another guy, when you see him running around and doing things, and just like he carried himself in winter training, he’s come out of the newborn fall,” Brown said. “Some guys go through it, especially when they get injured, and I think he went through it. And I think we will see a guy who is ready to compete for playing time. Very anxious to see where he goes.”
Seldon, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2020 from Belleville, signed up early last winter, went through the Citrus Bowl practice with the team and impressed with the Under Armor All-American Game, and his coverage ability could give the real rookie a shot early in the game.
“With Andre, that was one of the reasons we signed him, was because of his ability to play nickel,” Brown said. “Obviously we feel very strongly that he will be able to do a run in that position because that position is not a position that requires crazy amounts of mental process. The physical challenge is the most important bit, and we think he is up to see him I really don’t say any pressure on him, but I’m excited about him.
“I will say this: He did very well academically for his first tournament here. It’s always a good sign, because it shows that a guy is making the right adjustments to college life.”
In addition to Thomas, Michigan’s hearing aids are relatively untested. But Brown believes in their potential and seems eager for an opportunity to evaluate the team’s progress since the end of last season.
“(Gray) and Ambry (Thomas), DJ Turner, I don’t want to talk about anybody moving in there for those guys, I don’t want any expectations, pressures, things like that placed on them,” Brown said. “We’re just going to find out who’s the fourth guy and who’s the nickel and all that.”