Michigan’s cornerbacks will be operating in close quarters this season. The Wolverines want to play a more aggressive defensive scheme in 2015, which means more press coverage in the secondary.
Lining up facemask-to-facemask with opposing wide receivers was common in coordinator D.J. Durkin’s schemes when he was running Florida’s defense the past two seasons. Michigan dabbled in tight coverage in the recent past, but never fully committed to playing that way. This year’s team, says cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich, will make it a fundamental part of what they do. That might come with a few growing pains.
“That’s coach Durkin’s defense,” Zordich said. “We’re totally 100 percent committed. We just have to find the guys that can catch on the fastest and handle the technique the best. … It’s a lot of work. It’s new, a total concept for the defense for these guys that haven’t played it.”
The new technique might be a challenge for players who have grown used to operating with a larger cushion during the past few years at Michigan, but they’re excited about the opportunity to do something different. Fifth-year senior Blake Countess said he’s slowly improving his footwork and learning to get his hands on opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a more aggressive scheme, so we’re definitely going to be pressing,” he said. “We’re going to be up in receivers’ faces. It’s going to be fun.”
Countess is one of three cornerbacks who have separated themselves on the initial depth chart as spring practice winds to a close. Zordich praised Countess’ work ethic. He said returning starter Jourdan Lewis is the most natural press corner on the roster and junior Channing Stribling’s 6-foot-2 frame makes him a strong candidate for playing time as well.
Zordich is open to rotating as many as four or five cornerbacks onto the field on game days as long as the coaching staff believes they can trust all of them equally. The rest of the group in Ann Arbor still has work to do to reach that point, but reinforcements are on the way.
“They’ve been told. The room has been told that there are going to be three guys coming into this secondary,” Zordich said. “They know their backs are against the wall, and we’ve got to see how they handle it.”
Former Stanford starter Wayne Lyons is expected to be on campus this summer and to spend his final year of eligibility with the Wolverines. His 41 games of experience in the Pac-12 should be an immediate boost to Michigan’s depth in the defensive backfield. Freshmen Keith Washington and Tyree Kinnel will also have a chance to compete for spots among the cornerbacks.
Their progress will be monitored by Zordich and safeties coach Greg Jackson, who so far have split the defensive backfield responsibilities equally. In meetings, Zordich takes the cornerbacks and Jackson takes the safeties. At practice, each coach watches half of the field and directs both positions to make sure the unit is working together.
Zordich said the somewhat unorthodox arrangement has worked out well for the first full month of practice. Zordich and Jackson played on the same Philadelphia Eagles defense for two seasons in the 1990s, which he said made it easy to get used to coaching together.
“When I first walked in here and saw him, it was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” Zordich said. “It absolutely helps. Greg and I were both very headsy players – lining people up, directing traffic, telling people where to go. Then to play two years together on a really successful defense, yeah, I think it helps, absolutely.”
Together they are responsible for getting as many cornerbacks as possible ready to play in a new, tougher, riskier defense than in the recent past at Michigan.