2021 Football Preview: Five Wild Cards, Defense
We are at DaxCon 3. I repeat, DaxCon 3. Prepare yourselves accordingly.
Previously: Five Wild Cards (Offense), On Hassan Haskins, Foreboding Ticket Promos, Preseason Mailbag Podcast
Was this post tougher to narrow down than the offense version? Yes, it sure was.
Let’s do this?
1. The #2 Cornerback Spot. While Gemon Green had his rocky moments in 2020, he found his footing and played decent football in the latter part of the season. He’s locked in as the #1 corner and should be a solid Big Ten starter.
The other corner spot has no such certainty. To put it gently, Vincent Gray had trouble staying with his man in 2020. The numbers, per 247’s Zach Shaw:
Appearing in all six games, Gray allowed 18 receptions on 31 passing targets for 367 yards and a touchdown, while recording just two pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, Gray was 26th out of 40 Big Ten cornerbacks in passer rating allowed, and graded out 32nd in overall coverage as he also ranked fourth among cornerbacks with four penalties.
Those numbers look worse when you remember which passing offenses Michigan faced (Minnesota, Michigan State, post-COVID Wisconsin, Rutgers) and which they avoided (Ohio State).
It’s unsurprising that Gray hasn’t taken hold of the #2 corner spot. The primary name mentioned as his competition is redshirt sophomore DJ Turner II, who played special teams last year with a cameo at cornerback in the Wisconsin game. It’s best if we don’t discuss that appearance.
Meanwhile, when asked which defensive back had given him the most trouble so far in fall camp, #1 receiver Ronnie Bell went off to board to respond with redshirt sophomore George Johnson III, who didn’t play at all last season and may be a corner or a safety, it’s unclear. Last year’s four-star signees, Andre Seldon and Darion Green-Warren, have produced worryingly little offseason buzz.
So, yeah, we’re on move-Dax-to-corner watch:
Sliding Dax Hill from safety to corner is far from an ideal solution, even though Hill’s remarkable physical talent could make him the team’s best player at the position. Hill can be more impactful in a safety role that moves him around the field and keeps him near the football.
It might be the way to get the best 11 defenders on the field, however, and we’ve seen how difficult it is for a defense to hide bad cornerback play. (Many times, in fact.) The best news that could come out of fall camp for the defense is that someone who’s not Hill has taken a strong hold of the job.
2. Redshirt sophomore NT Mazi Smith. While the program has continued to produce excellent edge defenders since Greg Mattison absconded for Ohio State and Shaun Nua took over the D-line, developing interior lineman—particularly those with enough heft to hold up against double-teams—has been a different story entirely.
Under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, Michigan will move from a 4-3 scheme that didn’t require a true nose tackle to a 3-4 front that does. After multiple years of a maxed-out 300-pound Carlo Kemp anchoring the line, there’s going to be more meat in the middle.
At 6-foot-3, 326 pounds, Smith brings the beef. After a quiet 2020, he’s also bringing the offseason hype:
“Mazi has stepped up,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “I’ve seen the most improvement in him in this spring ball. The best I’ve ever seen him and the best football he’s played right now.” …
“He’s going to be a really big asset for us in the season, just watch. He’s going to light it up,” Hutchinson said. “He’s a really good ball player. He’s got the frame and got the body. He can do everything. He’s just got to do it in the games, and then you guys will see.”
Smith was a high school All-American and defensive tackles take time to develop. While grad transfer Jordan Whittley also fits the scheme as a space-eating nose, the upside is highest if Smith holds down the middle of the line. Smith and Chris Hinton living up to their recruiting hype would turn the line from a question mark into a strength.
3. The #3/#4 Safeties. Whether or not Michigan goes to DaxCon 1, the backup safeties are still going to be a regular part of the rotation. Hill is going to spend a fair amount of time covering slot receivers while the defense has five or six defensive backs on the field.
We’ve discussed the cornerback situation. It gets hairy after one (1) player. Playing three or even four safeties may be preferable to fielding extra corners, especially on potential running downs. (Maybe also especially on passing downs.)
There’s emerging talent at the position behind Hill and Brad Hawkins. Redshirt sophomore Quinten Johnson was a four-star recruit, as was redshirt freshman Jordan Morant. Those two may be surpassed by redshirt freshmen RJ Moten, a four-star who could have potentially ranked higher if he weren’t also a high-end baseball prospect, and Makari Paige, another four-star who played for new safeties coach Ron Bellamy in high school.
Hill’s ability to play virtually anywhere and the added versatility of the other safeties give Macdonald and Bellamy a lot of options for how to deploy the secondary. To get all they can out of that talent, however, they need someone who hasn’t seen much of the field to prove themselves reliable.
4. Junior DT Julius Welschof. Obligatory:
That tall, lanky German kid finishing his moguls run with a backflip is now a tall, robust defensive lineman who’s maintained enough athleticism to earn a spot on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List:
The 24-year-old first got on European football scout Brandon Collier’s radar with videos of a then-220-pound Welschof doing backflips on his skis and walking 50 yards on his hands. Welschof is now up to 288 pounds and can still do some ridiculous athletic feats, running a 4.68 40 and still broad jumping 10-5, and Hutchinson said his friend could be in line for “a breakout season” in a new defensive scheme.
The redshirt junior flashed interior pass-rushing talent as an undersized three-tech DT in 2020, getting in on a sack in the opener against Minnesota. He wasn’t ready to hold up against the better run-blocking lines in the Big Ten, though. With another offseason of bulking up, he could be a fascinating player as a 3-4 end, whether he grabs a starting job or plays as a situational pass-rusher.
5. Redshirt sophomore EDGE David Ojabo. Speaking of foreign-born defensive linemen, redshirt sophomore David Ojabo is still quite early in his football career—he didn’t play football until his junior year of high school after coming over from Scotland.
Despite Ojabo’s obvious rawness, he earned four-star ratings across the board as a recruit. As Brian Dohn’s scouting report from his 247 profile indicates, the combination of size and athleticism is tantalizing [emphasis mine]:
Ojabo carries 240 pounds like it is 220 pounds. Has two years of experience. Elite burst, body control and speed. Very good length. Fires off the ball and is full speed in two steps. Disruptive on the edge. Runs 100 meters in 10.9 seconds. Changes direction well. Chases plays down from behind. Is physical and plays fast. Quick feet developed as a soccer player growing up in Scotland. Strong upper body. Can redirect down line of scrimmage. Extremely raw and needs to learn technique. Plays too high. Needs to improve hands to keep offensive lineman from engaging. Multi-year starter at high-level Power 5 school. Second- or third-round NFL draft pick.
He’s now listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, and has a more natural fit in the scheme as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He provides the defense with a higher ceiling than his primary competition, Taylor Upshaw, who’s more of a run-stuffer. Ojabo becoming a three-down player would be phenomenal; being a one-down terror this year while he works on rounding out his game would also be a fine outcome.
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Nice write up, Ace. I'm guardedly optimistic.