Since we won’t have a chance to discuss this ad nauseum for the next eight months (sarcasm), I was wondering where you come down on Troy Woolfolk. Assuming he’s back in more or less the same shape, do you see him as a FS or CB? Last year he was playing CB seemingly out of depth concerns, but next year they’ll at the very least have a lot of bodies to throw out there, and FS would seem to be a role where his experience/leadership might be better leveraged. On the same front, do you think Marvin has the speed to play back there? We know he has the abs.
The deployment of Woolfolk has long been a hot topic with me because I don’t think a lot of people respect the role and importance of a free safety. With a lot of coaches I know, they take their best overall athlete and put him at free safety. That’s one reason why you see a lot of college cornerbacks who played free safety in high school, because they can make more plays from the middle of the field. Who is Michigan’s best overall athlete (speed, size, coverage, tackling ability, and awareness) in the secondary? I would say it’s Woolfolk. He’s 6′ tall and 195 lbs. with high level Big Ten track speed (6.86 seconds in the 60 meters); a solid tackler; and the most experienced defensive back on the team.
When Woolfolk moved from cornerback to free safety in the spring of 2009, his teammates nicknamed him “The Eraser” for how he cleaned up his defensive teammates’ mistakes. When that season began, he and cornerback J.T. Floyd were burned for a long touchdown pass in the opener against Western Michigan. After that Woolfolk was solid at free safety. (Ed: And don’t even bother bringing up the missed tackle late in the 2009 Michigan State game. Woolfolk suffered a sprained shoulder earlier in the game but stayed out there, only to have his bum shoulder fail him when trying to tackle
Edwin Baker Larry Caper at a crucial point in the game.) As the season wore on and the defense struggled, Michigan’s coaches moved him back to cornerback during Iowa week and kept him there for the remainder of the season. While playing free safety, Michigan gave up 23 points per game. Once he moved to cornerback, Michigan gave up 37 per game (minus the Delaware State drubbing). Woolfolk was still playing cornerback during August practices in 2010 when he dislocated his ankle, despite the fact that Michigan had virtually no experience, athleticism, or depth – and not much talent – to play the free safety position behind him.
Michigan’s free safety depth chart at the beginning of 2010 looked like this:
1. Cameron Gordon (RS freshman), a 6’3″, 207 lb. converted wide receiver who many projected to be a linebacker in college
2. Jared Van Slyke (RS junior), a 6’2″, 196 lb. walk-on who transferred from Southeast Missouri State
3. Ray Vinopal (freshman), a 5’10”, 197 lb. borderline 3-star recruit straight out of high school
4. Vladimir Emilien (sophomore), a 6’1″, 204 lb. high school star who was hampered by knee problems since prior to his senior year of high school
5. Brandin Hawthorne (sophomore), a 6′, 205 lb. special teamer who most projected as a linebacker
We all know how that turned out – Gordon got burned repeatedly and became an outside linebacker, Van Slyke missed the season due to injury, Vinopal was elevated to starter, Emilien transferred, and Hawthorne contributed on special teams and at linebacker.
I can understand why some might feel that Woolfolk was needed at cornerback in 2010, because the cornerback depth chart was arguably worse than at free safety. But Michigan suffered from horrible defensive back play all season long (outside of Jordan Kovacs), and the poor free safety play hurt Michigan more than the play of its cornerbacks. Vinopal was an upgrade from Gordon at the deep safety position, but I’m not convinced that he’s the immediate or long-term answer.
As for what I would do with Woolfolk, I would put him back at . . . cornerback. Yep, I said it. I know this is a reversal of my previous stance, but it comes from a change in defensive philosophy. Former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson ran a lot of Cover 3 out of the 3-3-5 defensive set, which meant that his cornerbacks didn’t need to be in man coverage often. That’s why it would have been nice for Woolfolk to play centerfield, because he could have backed up his cornerbacks and made some plays on throws over the middle.
But go back and watch some film from the second half of the 2009 season. Woolfolk was largely untested in those games, and opponents picked on then-junior cornerback Donovan Warren. Woolfolk’s speed and hip swivel allowed him to stick closely to wide receivers in a defense that was geared more toward man coverage than the 2010 philosophy. New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is going to run more man coverage than we saw in 2010, which means cornerback play will be emphasized. The Wolverines have stocked cornerbacks in the past couple classes (Cullen Christian, Courtney Avery, and Terrence Talbott; plus the load of incoming 2011 freshmen), but none are ready at this point. Avery looks to be the best of the returning sophomores, and a redshirt junior J.T. Floyd should return in the fall from his own ankle injury. Woolfolk could team with Floyd (whose talent leaves something to be desired but now has the experience of being the #1 guy) or Avery (who has good coverage skills but needs to get in the weight room) for a solid cornerback combination.
Who’s going to play free safety? My guess would be either sophomore Marvin Robinson or the incumbent in Vinopal. Vinopal won’t wow anybody with his speed or physicality, but he’s essentially a second helping of Jordan Kovacs. I don’t think Vinopal can be your free safety if you want to have an elite defense, but he’s not a disaster, either. Robinson is the wild card. Last summer he was reportedly wowing fellow players with his exploits as a free safety in voluntary 7-on-7s. When the season rolled around, he was backing up Jordan Kovacs, playing defense sparingly, and covering kicks. There were questions about his speed coming out of high school, but as I watched him chase down some plays on special teams this year, I don’t have serious questions about his speed. Neither Vinopal or Robinson is Ed Reed, but Robinson’s closer.
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