Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Secondary

If you want a full fledged preview of this year's team, you are in the wrong place.  Your first stop should be MGoBlog or your local newsstand for a copy of this year's Hail To The Victors (also written by Brian from MGoBlog).

Hopefully the secondary isn't glass number 3.
Over here at Dreaded Judgement, we (the royal we of course, lets keep these Lebowski references going) like to deal more in abstract scenarios.  How could things turn out?  What should send the majority of the fan base scurrying under the nearest rock, and what possibilities are there for large scale improvement?

To answer these questions, I will try to look at each position group individually and give one reason for overjoyed optimism and one for suicide inducing pessimism.  This Half Full/Half Empty series will touch on all of the position groups by this Saturday, when we will start to get a real idea of where we stand.  With that said, lets start with the bad news...

The Secondary.

Glass half empty?  Last year was bad.  If you watched  this team for any period of time you witnessed a unit that seemed to grow less and less able to defend the passing game as the season progressed.  This is because the team did get much worse defending the pass.  After only allowing 4 TD's in the first five games (three coming in the shootout with pass-happy Notre Dame and the other coming in garbage time against WMU) the last six games   not counting the curb stomping of DSU   saw the team give up 14 TD's through the air.  This includes four TD allowed against both Wisconsin and Penn State and another two each in the Iowa and Purdue games.  The only teams to not put up at least 230 yards through the air were OSU (67) and Illinois (123), which is most likely the case because you don't need to throw the ball when the other team's offense has an epic meltdown.

Let those numbers sink in a bit.  Bad, right?

What would you think if I told you that almost all of the players who participated in meaningful minutes last year were gone, to be replaced by underclassmen?  To add insult to injury, two of the players (three if you count Adrian Witty) who were supposed to step in to contributing roles this year are not on the team for various reasons.

What we have left is no depth at corner back, a free safety who played wide reciever last year, and a former walk-on at Bandit (strong safety in layman's terms).  It is hard to imagine this unit turns in anything better than its performance last year.  This unit is full of freshman and players who couldn't crack the rotation when we were a bottom of the pack pass defense last year.  To top it all off, our best hope in the secondary, Troy Woolfolk, will be watching from the sidelines this year on a surgically repaired ankle that might mean the end of his career.

The glass isn't half full because it had some pretty strong liquor in it, and I am currently using that to forget that the forefathers of the game ever decided to allow that damned forward pass.

But, could the glass be half full?

Woolfolk, victim of God's vengeance.
We have all heard it before:  addition by subtraction.  While it is true that we lost almost every reason to think the pass defense would improve this year to the draft, transfer, failure to qualify, and a divine smiting from God almighty, we also lost something that just might make a positive difference.

Mike Williams.

I hate to pick on college athletes, so I will try to do this delicately.  Remember when Iowa scored two (TWO!) TD's by releasing the tight end down the field right under Mike Williams' nose?  Remember the 3rd and 24 disaster from the same game?  Remember how awesome Juice Williams looked against UM?  Remember poor Jordan Kovacs being forced to play a deep zone as free safety?  All these moments and more are courtesy of Mike Williams.

Scrolling backwards through the Upon Further Review recaps from MGoBlog from last year the first mention of Williams comes in the Wisconsin recap.  He posted a -3.  Brian's comments were simply, "I'll take it," a bad omen if I have ever seen one.  Against Illinois he posted a -12(!!!!!).  Some of that incompetence was spread to the run game, but any game where you make Juice Williams look like a bona fide Heisman candidate shouldn't be overlooked for lack of passing numbers.  The game before he posted a now relatively modest looking -4 against Penn State coupled with a -6 against Iowa, both of which featured a number of crippling mistakes that contributed to big plays for the other teams.  These were the games where Williams was tasked with a large role in the secondary.  These were also the games where Michigan looked the most helpless defensively.  Coincidence?

Kovacs saw a lot of this at deep safety.
The fact of the matter is that Williams appearance on defense usually meant bad things.  What's more, his inability to play the deep safety spot meant that everybody's favorite plucky walk-on safety, Kovacs, was forced to play center field with less than ideal speed (example on right).  So the good news?  Mike Williams is buried on the depth chart this year.  When a player vastly under-performs and is pushed from the two-deep the next year, you can generally breathe a sigh of relief (remember this when we get to the linebacker position).

We now have what looks to at least be a solid option at free safety (if camp reports hold true) in Cam Gordon, which means Jordan Kovacs is able to slide in to the box safety that saw him deliver his best performances last year.  The corner backs are still a mystery, but JT Floyd seems to have made strides in the off-season.  If one of the other corners can establish himself as even a slightly below average big ten player, competent safety play and a healthy dose of three deep coverages designed to prevent plays over top could see this secondary cut down on the biggest source of face-palm moments:  the big plays.

So yes, there is room for optimism in the secondary.  Don't confuse that for confidence.  This is still as green a  back four as you will see in Big Ten play, and they will take their lumps.  Hopefully this year there is enough athleticism and depth to allow this team to match or maybe slightly exceed last years production.  If this is the case, things could be looking up.  If not, don't try to scurry under my rock.

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