'Sky's the limit' for Ambry Thomas as Michigan secondary takes shape
Ann Arbor — When defensive coordinator Don Brown began preparing for spring practice this year, he came in thinking with the losses of cornerback David Long and safety Tyree Kinnel, this could be a long upcoming season for the secondary.
Brown quickly reversed that half-empty approach and was buoyed by the play of cornerback Ambry Thomas and young Vincent Gray, not to mention safeties J’Marick Woods and veteran Josh Metellus, who has taken on a major leadership role.
“If you said to me secondary-wise where you thought you’d be and where you are, it’s two different places,” Brown said this spring. “I thought we’d be fighting for our lives at this time.”
Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich also feels good about his position group as spring practice wraps up this week.
“I guess you could say that I’m pleasantly happy that Vincent has come along, that Jaylen Kelly-Powell’s come along and Ambry — the sky’s the limit with that guy,” Zordich said Tuesday before practice. “He’s really had a great spring. So happy for those guys and certainly happy for us as a defense that they’re playing well.”
Zordich said Gray (Rochester Adams), who will be a redshirt freshman, is playing without thinking these days, which means he's playing faster, and he’s looking forward to seeing incoming freshman D.J. Turner, out of IMG Academy.
Long left with a year of eligibility remaining for the NFL Draft, and his stock began to rise after a solid combine performance. Kinnel, a captain last season, is out of eligibility. The good news for Zordich is that veteran Lavert Hill returned for his final season. He is expected to be paired with Thomas, who last week declared himself the fastest player “in the NCAA” — he was laughing when he said it, but looked pretty certain he was stating fact.
Thomas had to wait his turn behind Hill and Long, and he said last week he is seizing the opportunity. Zordich said he has seen Thomas take his game up a notch.
“In his technique, his patience at the line of scrimmage,” Zordich said. “And the fact he knows he has an opportunity to start, he’s really embraced that role, and he’s become a leader. He’s becoming a leader in our room. He’s been great all around.”
Hill has been out this spring after having a medical procedure but has improved his leadership skills.
“Oh yeah, shoot man, he’s great,” Zordich said. “He’s been awesome. He’s been excellent in the classroom. A real leader in there for us. He’s been on the board quite a bit. He’s vocal when guys aren’t doing the right things in the room. He’s locked in, ready to go.
“I think he’s going to be lights-out. I think he’s going to pick up where he left off. I think he sees what his future can be, and I think he sees what he can do to help this team win a Big Ten championship. He’s all in. He’s all about the team.”
Michigan’s pass defense has fared well nationally in terms of statistics, but was scorched in the 62-39 loss at Ohio State the end of last season. That loss haunts Brown and safeties coach Chris Partridge said he still tastes the blood from that knockout punch. Zordich said the loss lingered with him, and he can only point to lack of execution by the defensive backs for so much of what transpired.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw for 318 yards and five touchdowns, including a 78-yarder to Parris Campbell in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes finished with a gaudy 567 yards, including 396 yards passing.
Zordich said the Wolverines’ defensive game plan was sound and they were equipped to handle the Ohio State air attack.
“Oh, absolutely, 100% absolutely equipped, but just didn’t execute it,” Zordich said Tuesday before spring practice.
He said what was most disappointing is that the Wolverines had worked on defending everything Ohio State threw at them.
“I give all the credit in the world to Ohio State, but what we didn’t do, what we should have done on things we work on every single day of the week that we didn’t do, that we didn’t execute, and that’s the thing that stuck in my craw is we didn’t execute,” he said. “If we would have executed, a completion wouldn’t have been a touchdown, it would have been a completion, tackle, completion, tackle. Those were the very frustrating things for me, the execution on those couple plays that turned into big plays for Ohio State.”
Haskins threw two 24-yard touchdown passes, one went 31 yards, another 16 and the 78-yarder.
Many critics and analysts have suggested that perhaps Brown’s defense should go more zone to defend against such an aerial game plan.
“The way we play our man, we have built in protection modes, I guess you could say, so zone takes care of it right away,” Zordich said. “In some of our man schemes we do have that zone principle involved, some checks involved. It’s all there. It’s just execution.”
And it’s all about improving. Brown might have been concerned heading into the spring, but he feels confident the secondary will be a strength. As for the corners, Zordich has seen a renewed focus from his group in part because of jobs being open, with one starter gone from last year and backup spots available.
“That’s the thing,” Zordich said. “They see that there’s light, they see that there’s an opportunity. They see that there’s competition and spots that are open. I think it’s helped everybody along the way get better.”