Michigan's secondary education is set to enter the next phase in the progress of Michigan secondary schools
No position on Michigans team has benefitted more from the change in defensive scheme this season than the secondary.
A high level of man-coverage under previous coach Don Brown limited the Wolverines cornerbacks, allowing opponents with established offensive lines and a quarterback with nimble arms to throw the ball deep and connect on long pass plays.
There hasn't been a lot of that in 2021 under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald, who has deployed countless odd-man fronts, disguised looks, and zone coverage on the back end. No. 6 Michigan (6-0) has the third-best passing defense in the Big Ten when measured by passing yards allowed (185.7 per game).
Still, turnovers have been difficult to come by with the Wolverines registering just three interceptions in six games - and Steve Clinkscale, the teams defensive backs coach, hopes to see his staff make more plays out there.
Clinkscale, who is in his first season at Michigan, believes that the game must come to him. Were doing a lot of different coverages, so they arent as isolated as they have been before. So teaching them the concepts, the formations, our concepts and what were working on has been the most challenging learning curve, he said.
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Clinkscale believes the foundation for the type of defense he and Macdonald are implementing has been laid I feel like were starting to trend to them understanding that, a player added, but there is still an emphasis on staying aggressive and tackling better.
Clinkscale stated, We must stop letting the ball get over our heads at times." And have better eyes. When Im in that meeting room and teaching them, its eyes. From the nickel to the safeties to corners, theyre everywhere. Im on the offensive side and I watch their eyes all the time, because weve got to make sure we're looking at the right thing.
Nebraska tested that idea last week in a 32-29 victory over Michigan, despite surrendering 29 second-half points, 22 of which came in the third quarter. Adrian Martinez, the Cornhuskers quarterback, was able to spread the field and open up gaps, putting Michigans defense in conflict at times.
Gemon Green, the senior cornerback's manager, said this week that "were improving each week." We still miss assignments, but hey, youve got to learn from those mistakes, he added.
Green, a starting corner with 19 tackles and an interception this season, agreed with Clinkscales argument of having better eye discipline and player-to-player communication on the field.
Thats what weve got to improve, is communication, Green said.
More: Michigan, which has a strong rival on deck, insists its not overlooking Northwestern.
Clinkscale said that as Michigan continues to exert pressure up front and incorporate disguises and different looks with linebackers, opponents will try gimmick plays to distract the secondary. Nebraska did that with Martinez, as did Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral last month, creating some problems for a secondary that includes dozens of veteran safeties (Daxton Hill, Brad Hawkins) and three inexperienced, still-improving backs (Green, corner Vincent Gray, safety R.J. Moten).
I certainly want more takeaways, Clinkscale said. Weve had a lot of opportunities. We havent dropped as many pounds as we did, but we want to capitalize on that when we get the chance.
Hill has been the primary playmaker in that area, making two of Michigans three interceptions this season in the last two games. He caught a tipped ball while lying on his back in the second half against Nebraska. The turnover scored Michigan a field goal in the halftime lead, despite the fact that we later learned that it wasnt enough. Later on, Nebraskas explosive offense tested the Michigan secondary in what Clinkscale called their "toughest test yet."
They passed, but theres still plenty of work to be done, he added, including spacing in coverages.
Clinkscale says the quarterbacks must be forced to make tougher throws. Theres a couple times when I feel like therere obscenely much space between the defender and the receivers, because their eyes are focused on the quarterback rather than the man. We want to work on that for a long time.
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