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Michigan cornerbacks are 'not folding' as heat gets turned up on pass defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Coming out of Michigan’s opening-season victory at Minnesota, the Wolverines felt good about themselves and where they were headed this season.

And then, Mich igan State happened to them. And then Indiana. Both attacked Michigan’s secondary and won that battle time and again, burning the Wolverines for a combined 665 passing yards. Michigan lost again last weekend, a third straight setback, this time to Wisconsin, which took it to the Wolverines on the ground, piling up 341 rushing yards.

Michigan is preparing this week to play at Rutgers, a team that also has lost its last three. Mike Zordich, the Wolverines’ cornerbacks coach, said Tuesday’s practice was animated and insists improvements are being made, starting with overall confidence.

Gemon Green

“Coming out of the Minnesota game, we felt we were in pretty good shape,” Zordich said Wednesday during a video conference with reporters. “And then something happened in that second game. When you don’t have confidence, sometimes you don’t play very well.

“For the first time, and especially since I’ve been here, we got a one-two punch put in our gut, and we didn’t handle it well, to be very honest. Since that time, after the Michigan State game and Indiana game, there was a level of getting better, and I think you saw another level last Saturday, albeit the score would not indicate that. As far as the guys on the outside (cornerbacks), they’re getting better. Trust me when I tell you they’re working really hard had it. That’s what I give my hat’s off to them. They’re not folding for sure.”

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When returning starter Ambry Thomas decided to opt out after the Big Ten originally postponed the fall season, Gemon Green was thrust into a starting job opposite Vincent Gray. Inexperience at the position could explain some of the issues, but Zordich won’t fall back on that.

“We got a couple deep balls throw on us (against MSU); OK, that’s going to happen,” Zordich said. “Again, was it contested or not contested? Was your body out of control at the top of the route? In all those cases, in that game, we were just bad fundamentally, bad technique-wise and bad mentally. We let it affect us. I’m just happy that they’re understanding that, and they bounced back. Each game you can see their confidence is coming back, the bounce in their step is coming back, and they’re getting better.”

Zordich said the issues with the corners go back to “Day 1 stuff.” They’ve not only given up big-yardage pass plays, but Green and Gray have cost Michigan multiple times with pass interference penalties. Against MSU, Michigan had 10 total penalties. It comes down to technique and fundamentals, Zordich said.

“For whatever reason, we’ve had officials at our practices, and there weren’t many flags, and then all of a sudden we go into Game 2 and they’re raining down,” Zordich said. “I think a little part of that, it happened once, and we got a little out of kilter mind-wise and we got a little nervous in routes. We’ve got to have great mind control as well as body control in everything we do. That’s a position in a spotlight.

“We’ve worked really, really hard at practice and individual (drills) and even when we’re in team situations of not having those type of penalties. Shoot, man, I think we’ve already maxed out from last year’s DPIs and or holdings. In the past we might have had one a game. Certainly, that hasn’t been the case this year. It’s something we’re focused on and working on daily in practice. We’re getting better in that respect.”

Vincent Gray

Green's games start slowly, he said, but finds his “groove” as it goes on. Of the pass interference penalties, he said he lost technique during games and understands he needs to stay calm and look for the ball.

“I do have a lot of stuff to work on,” he said. “I feel like I can be the best player I can be in the future.”

Zordich said Gray played with more emotion and was “totally engaged” against Wisconsin. He said it was by no means a perfect game, but Gray showed improvement.

When defensive backs give up big pass plays or get penalized over and over during a game, especially less experienced players, their confidence withers quickly. They’re the last line of defense, and even though the pass rush didn’t get home, if the corners don’t make a play, they get the criticism.

“In that respect, yes, it can affect your confidence. Because of our positions, that is something you just have to live in,” Zordich said. “They’re gonna catch the football on you. How are they going to catch it? Is it going to be an easy catch, or are you going to make it a hard catch, or are you gonna knock it down, or are you gonna get a pick? That’s the mentality. If they catch it, get your butt up off the ground, dust yourself off and go play the next play. That’s the bottom line and that’s what we are starting to see from the back-end guys.”

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After the loss at Indiana, Michigan ranked 104th nationally in pass defense after allowing an average 287.3 yards. Since Wisconsin ran the ball for 341 yards against Michigan and passed for only 127, the Wolverines are now ranked 80th against the pass (247.3 yards).

Don Brown’s defense is aggressive, mostly man, although he bristles when it’s suggested he doesn’t mix in zone schemes. Zordich said they’re trying to make some changes as they head into the second half of the season.

“We have to adjust as coaches as well," he said. "We can’t keep beating our heads up against the wall. We’ve got to give our guys a chance to develop and get settled in with the fundamentals and techniques, and I think we’ve done that, and by adding just a couple wrinkles, it has helped in their confidence in play, too.”

Safety Dax Hill said that the players have to focus on their individual jobs.

“You’re going to have to win every rep of your one-on-one battle,” Hill said. “The last few games haven’t been the outcome we wanted. Just a lot of improvements we have to make. I think it starts with the one-on-one battles with our defense.”