The nation’s stingiest secondary is not without its stars. Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis tweeted earlier this week that he didn’t want to leave school early for the NFL, and more than 3,000 people clicked to retweet or favorite his message. Sophomore nickel back Jabrill Peppers was a source of intrigue before he arrived on campus two years ago, and is now the man who consistently puts the team in a position to succeed.
But senior safety Jarrod Wilson, according to his coaches and teammates, is often the one quietly pulling strings in the Wolverines’ secondary. They are unanimously effusive in singing his praises, even if Wilson would rather the outside public pay him no attention.
“I kind of shy away from the spotlight,” Wilson said. “That’s who I am. Those two guys (Lewis and Peppers) have been having exceptional years. Pretty much everybody in the secondary does a great job.”
They do a good job thanks in many ways to Wilson’s help. He has quietly collected 27 tackles (third-most on the roster) for the top-scoring defense in college football. No team has allowed fewer receiving touchdowns (3) or passing plays that go for 20-plus yards (12) than the Wolverines this season. Wilson’s secondary is rated No. 1 in pass efficiency defense.
“Couldn’t do it without him,” safeties coach Greg Jackson said. “He’s the quarterback of the secondary. He controls everything back there for us. He’s done an unbelievable job.”
Most of what Wilson does escapes the public eye because it happens before the ball is snapped. Jackson said the senior from Akron, Ohio, is in charge of calling out coverages and making sure his teammates are lined up properly before each play.
“Jarrod knows the play before it comes,” said junior safety Dymonte Thomas. “It’s great to have a leader like that beside you.”
Thomas credits Wilson with helping him settle into a new position after bouncing between linebacker and various spots in the defensive backfield during his first couple seasons in Ann Arbor. Thomas said that Wilson regularly pulls him aside during practice or on the sideline during games to explain an upcoming situation and how the younger safety should react. More often than not, it plays out exactly how Wilson predicted.
Wilson developed his knack for anticipating an offense’s next move while playing at Buchtel High School for former Michigan running back Ricky Powers. Powers remembered a game during Wilson’s junior year against Ohio powerhouse Massillon when opposing coaches were yelling at him from the sideline to keep his mouth shut because the budding prospect kept calling out Massillon’s plays before the snap.
Usually when football coaches are yelling at Wilson it’s to get him to do the opposite -- speak up. He was quiet in high school, happy to let teammates like Arizona Cardinals linebacker Shaquille Riddick (Wilson’s cousin) and Ohio State wide receiver Corey Smith (his best friend) soak up most of the attention.
“Same thing there,” he said. “They were the guys getting all the attention and all the interviews and stuff. I was just in the back just doing my job. I really don’t want (attention). I always stepped away from that.”
Michigan’s coaches had to convince Wilson to speak up more on the field when he first arrived on campus. He said he figured out how to lead without changing his personality by watching former walk-on Jordan Kovacs control the defense from the safety position. He’s happy to talk now, as long as no one outside the locker room is listening.
“It's something that the public doesn't see,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Because he does it in such a steady, non-show type of way, but I can assure you he's one of the top leaders on the team. ... Maybe not breaking down the guys in the middle of the huddle or getting the fans hyped up waving a towel or something like that. He just doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself.”
He doesn’t need to. His play and the play of his teammates around him speak volumes.