Let me assure you that this will not be the case, at least not in my opinion. I expect Michigan’s base defensive package in 2010 to be a 4-2-5 defense, and hopefully the remainder of my post will explain what personnel we should see this coming season and why.
With only two “capable” (and I use that term loosely) linebackers returning, it would behoove Michigan to employ as few linebackers as possible. Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh are both fifth-year seniors, and while they both underperformed last season, their backups (Kevin Leach and J.B. Fitzgerald) weren’t much better, if at all. Last year’s starting SAM Steve Brown has moved on, and his replacements were to be one of two second-year players (Brandin Hawthorne, Mike Jones) or incoming freshman Josh Furman, who won’t arrive on campus until June. That’s a lot of youth and inexperience. Further evidence that last year’s SAM position will disappear lies in the fact that Mike Jones will be competing at the weakside linebacker position in the spring. I sincerely doubt the coaches would stock such an important position as the SAM with only Hawthorne and Furman.
Recent reports indicate that Troy Woolfolk, who played deep safety last year, will start spring ball at the cornerback position. While I don’t think that Woolfolk will remain at corner through the season, this makes sense for spring ball. Why? Michigan’s only returning scholarship cornerbacks are Justin Turner and J.T. Floyd, and Floyd would likely be a safety if the depth weren’t so shallow. Reinforcements arrive in the summer in the forms of freshmen Cullen Christian, Demar Dorsey, Courtney Avery, and Terrence Talbott. Unfortunately, no cornerbacks (or defensive players, period) enrolled in January.
I’m going to break this down into three components, since terminology and positioning will likely change for this season. If you remember, last year’s “free safety” was an in-the-box player, like Jordan Kovacs. The “strong safety” was the deep safety, which was manned by Troy Woolfolk before he moved to cornerback halfway through the season.
Spur is the name used to define a traditional strong safety-type player, someone who can play the role of a run-stopping outside linebacker but with better cover skills. However, the spur plays on the weak side of the defensive formation. Therefore, this year’s spur will be much like 2009’s free safety. As mentioned above, Mike Williams will play spur in the spring, and he could very well be our starter to begin the season. Other players who will likely play spur are redshirt freshmen Thomas Gordon and Brandin Hawthorne. He would usually have outside contain against the run. Both the spur and the boundary safety (see below) could have a deep zone against the pass, depending on the coverage called. In man coverage, he would have the #2 receiver (the second receiver from the sideline).
I hesitate to call this “free safety,” but that’s basically what it is. This is the safety who has the deep middle in a Cover 3, a deep half in Cover 2, etc. This spot will most likely be filled by Vladimir Emilien in the spring, but it’s also where I expect to see Troy Woolfolk in September. I also think Cameron Gordon will get a tryout at deep safety, although eventually he’ll likely play closer to the line. This is the safety who has the deep middle in a Cover 3, a deep half in Cover 2, etc. In straight-up man coverage, he could have the #3 receiver (the third receiver from the sideline) against a trips formation, but defensive coordinator Greg Robinson likely won’t put him in that kind of call.
I hesitate to call this “strong safety,” but that’s basically what it is. Jordan Kovacs, Teric Jones, and others will get a shot at the strong safety position. This player will likely have outside contain against the run and the strongside flat in zone coverage. In man coverage, he would have the #2 receiver (the second receiver from the sideline), whether it’s a slot receiver or a tight end.
What does it all mean?
Well, what it all means is that the coaches are trying to get the best players on the field. They think that the team would be better off with someone like redshirt junior Mike Williams on the field than youngsters like Brandin Hawthorne and Josh Furman. And they also realize that there’s no point in removing a player from the most talented and experienced unit (the defensive line) to put in an extra defensive back, which they would have to do in a 3-3-5.
If you’re looking for further resources on the 4-2-5 defense, check out The Football-Defense Report, which is where I got the diagram above.