What will Michigan’s defense look like in 2010?

What will Michigan’s defense look like in 2010?

March 13, 2010

News this past week has percolated from insiders to Michigan fans that safety Mike Williams will be changing positions from “safety” (he played both strong and free safety last year) to “spur.” This has caused some confusion for Michigan fans, some of whom are concerned that Michigan will employ the 3-3-5 stack look that Rich Rodriguez utilized in his time at West Virginia.

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.

First of all, the defensive line will likely be Michigan’s strength once again in 2010. Michigan’s best player (Brandon Graham) departs, but there are capable components remaining. I expect Ryan Van Bergen to slide over to the strongside defensive end from his old defensive tackle position. Mike Martin should become the 3-tech defensive tackle, who lines up on the guard’s outside shoulder; this will give him a chance to penetrate against slower guards and avoid the double-teams he faced at nose tackle. Either sophomore William Campbell or senior Renaldo Sagesse will play nose tackle, and sophomore Craig Roh will play weakside defensive end.

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).

Deep safety
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.

Boundary safety
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.


  1. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 6:19 PM

    So do you "like" this alignment? I mean you of course can't tell until you see it in action but in theory is this the best course of action?

    Hopefully Vlad is competent back there at the Deep Safety position so the coaches have some flexibility with Woolfolk… we'll see I guess. Come on Michigan Saftey Hating God give us a break this year!

  2. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    As a general rule, I do not like the 4-2-5, especially against some of the teams we'll play (Wisconsin, OSU, Notre Dame).

    However, considering our personnel, I think a 4-2-5 is a good route to go. I wasn't high on Hawthorne or Jones coming out of high school, and while I do like Furman, I don't think he'll be ready to play. This puts our best players on the field.

    The ideal alignment for the 4-2-5, in my opinion, would be the following in the defensive backfield:

    CB – Turner
    CB – Christian/Dorsey
    Spur – Mike Williams
    Deep safety – Troy Woolfolk
    SS – Jordan Kovacs (eventually Marvin Robinson)

  3. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    Thanks for the reply.

    I see what you're saying in regard to Wisconsin and OSU as I would assume you'd like another LB vs. run-oriented teams with larger O-lines. Let me know if there's a different reason, I'm interested.

    I have a question as you mentioned ND. Are you thinking Brian Kelly will be more run/power oriented this year based on the returning personnel? I know most (all?) of their RB's are coming back this year but in general I thought Kelly's offense was more vertical pass oriented. I would have thought that more CB's and safety type substances would be advantageous vs. this type of offense.

    Great blog by the way thanks for taking the time to explain some of this stuff to neophytes such as myself.

  4. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    I think Notre Dame's offense will develop into being a vertical passing threat. I don't know that it will happen right off the bat. I'm expecting Brian Kelly to take advantage of a couple good running backs and then expand the passing game as he gets some more good receivers in there. They have a couple good ones now, but the depth isn't great at WR, in my opinion.

    Thanks for the compliments.

  5. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 9:37 PM

    Thanks for the informative post. I believe that RR's staff called the boundary safety position "Bandit" at WVU – not as good as "Wolfman" but what's in a name? Should be fun to see how this all shakes out. As of now I would like to see:
    CB – Turner
    CB – Dorsey
    Deep S – Woolfolk
    Spur – Williams
    Bandit – Vlad

  6. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 9:39 PM

    I can't argue with the inclusion of Emilien. I've just seen so little of him that I really can't draw a bead on what he's capable of doing.

  7. Comments: 21383
    Mar 13, 2010 at 11:42 PM

    It seems like we're going to be very small on the field.. is this going to be a problem?

    Also, who would play Mike Williams position if he.. well, struggles like he did last season? Or will this position help him out?

  8. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    I think a more ideal secondary would have Dorsey at deep safety, Emilien at boundary and Robinson and spur. Dorsey is all speed. He is too raw to play corner but as a deep safety all he'd need to do is read and react to balls in the air. Emilien is more athletic than Kovacs and Williams and would be a good TE/slot cover who can also come up and stop the run. Robinson seems like an ideal spur to his combination of size and speed. He seems like a ideal spur with his tweener build.

    This way Turner and Woolfolk can play corner and Floyd can back up both.

    What happened to Kenny Demens? Why isn't he in the fight for LB?

  9. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    @ JC

    It depends on your definition of small. Were we too small last year? Essentially, we'll be bigger on the defensive line (Van Bergen is bigger than Graham, and Campbell/Sagesse are bigger than Van Bergen) and Steve Brown was only 212-215 lbs., so plugging in, say, Kovacs for Brown isn't a great loss in size.

    Hawthorne is probably the next best bet to play spur if Williams falters, unless a freshman can pick up the position over the course of fall camp.

  10. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    @ KB

    I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the safety positions. It would practically be defensive suicide to have your three safeties be so young. You're talking about two true freshmen (Robinson, Dorsey; neither enrolled early) and a guy who hasn't played a meaningful snap since his junior year of high school (Emilien).

  11. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 3:03 PM

    @ KB

    Demens was overrated coming out of high school. There's no way he should have been a 4-star linebacker, in my opinion. I've maintained since he was recruited that he'll be nothing more than a special teamer, and I stand by that analysis. He's too small, too slow, and not cerebral enough to be a solid contributor at this level.

  12. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Great breakdown, Magnus. Thanks for the information. Do you plan on going to the Spring Game for some up-close looks at the defense, etc? I seem to recall you living in the metro DC area, so that would be quite a drive.

    Good stuff as always, see you round mgoblog.

  13. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    @ MH20

    Unfortunately, I won't be able to be at the spring game. I'll be in Michigan the previous weekend for an unrelated event, and then we're having our spring football fundraiser on April 17, the day of the spring game. So I'll be doing some manual labor while you're all enjoying the spring game. Maybe next year…

  14. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    How is the spur different from the SLB last year?

  15. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    @ Anonymous

    The spur plays on the weak side of the formation. The SLB played on the strong side.

  16. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    To clarify, is it the more or less the same with regards to responsibilities, but the spur lines up on the weak side?

  17. Comments: 21383
    Mar 14, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    @ Julian

    As far as responsibilities go, the spur is basically the weak safety. Therefore, there are certain defensive calls where he will have a deep half or a deep third in coverage. There are also times where he will have flat coverages.

    Steve Brown never had a deep zone in 2009. People say he was a safety/linebacker hybrid, but that's not true, in my opinion. To be a safety, a player has to be "the last line of defense" in certain calls. Brown never was. He also never filled an alley against the run – he was purely a force player, keeping outside contain and trying to funnel the running back toward help coming from the inside.

    The spur is actually a safety. The SAM was/is purely a linebacker.

  18. Comments: 21383
    Mar 19, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    I think, just from this generic alignment, the running lanes up the middle for power running teams are fairly obvious. Which is and was a huge problem for us last year. This alignment doesn't even force the offensive line to reach to make blocks. Simple trap type plays will suffice and the running back only has to make one person miss for significant gains.

  19. Comments: 21383
    Mar 19, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    @ Anonymous 10:51 a.m.

    First of all, this is a generic alignment, so there will obviously be some wrinkles.

    However, against those traps, that's why it should pay off to have a stud (Mike Martin, for example) at DT to fend off the trapping guard. And hopefully our linebackers can learn to get off blocks.

    Every defense is susceptible to certain things. That's why you gameplan. In situations where a power running team might run a trap, that's why you might call an ILB stunt or for the DT to slant. No defense is perfect.

  20. Comments: 21383
    Mar 20, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    I would definitely agree with your points and I understand that our d-line should be our strength this year-thus the four man front. I've just never personally been a huge fan of shading both the nose and the dt. I will concede that a lot of people have had success doing this. It just makes me nervous and as an offensive guy I love it when teams do this. Im just not sure our young d-line will have the gap discipline nor will our linebackers( judging from last year)stop free-lancing enough to be in position to make plays. Which would leave, in your scenario, vlad-who is virtually untested and unknown at the collegiate level or our best defensive cover guy-troy, to continually fill and make tackles. Kind of scary.
    All of this being said, I think we've got a shot at surprising a lot of folks this year and I get excited just thinking of the possibility. If our defensive front plays the way I think most of us think they are capable of playing it could hide a lot of our deficiency in the back end. Boy, would it be nice if the season were hear already.

  21. Comments: 21383
    Mar 20, 2010 at 4:12 PM

    @ Anonymous 8:16 a.m.

    Just out of curiosity, what alignment would you rather see Michigan play?

  22. Comments: 21383
    Mar 21, 2010 at 1:32 AM

    Interesting to see Teric Jones as a Boundary Safety and Cameron Gordon as a Deep Safety. I would have guessed/assumed those two would flip flop positions. As I think about this maybe Cam Gordon has better range?

  23. Comments: 21383
    Mar 21, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    Thunder- just to make this clear, I wasn't trying to argue that Michigan should run a different scheme. Just pointing out what seemed to be an obvious hole.( why wouldn't i tear something down instead of offering an alternative. this is America, duh) The 4-2-5 is probably the best way to get our best players on the field and depending on the offenses we would be facing week to week it could give us some flexibility in regards to standing up roh or rvb and giving some 3 man front looks, while having an extra defensive back on the field to cover. I just hope our line plays the way it should and that our db's, even though they may be inexperienced, are athletic enough to make some big plays.

  24. Comments: 21383
    Mar 21, 2010 at 6:50 PM

    @ Anonymous 2:45 p.m.

    That's a fair enough analysis. I was just curious if you had a different idea of how the defense should look.

  25. Comments: 21383
    Mar 22, 2010 at 1:04 PM


    Do you know of any other teams (collegiate/professional) that run this package often so we could get a better grasp of the concept?

  26. Comments: 21383
    Apr 28, 2010 at 2:51 AM

    @ Anonymous

    Sorry for the delayed response, but South Carolina is one example of a 4-2-5 team.

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