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In new role, Partridge takes UM safeties to 'speed school'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan assistant Chris Partridge, right, coached the linebackers last season. This season, he'll be coaching the safeties.

Ann Arbor — When Michigan assistant coach Chris Partridge changed coaching assignments this offseason from linebackers to safeties, he submerged himself in the process, learning as much as possible by studying film and consulting with coaches from smaller schools to the NFL.

While it hasn’t been an enormous adjustment, Partridge had to approach safeties from a different perspective  looking at spacing and route combinations versus linebacker-focused protections and containing the run game.

He has relied heavily this spring on defensive analyst Devin Bush, who played safety at Florida State and in the NFL.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like the first day on the field, obviously,” Partridge said Sunday after practice. “The transition’s been really good. I think it’s been smooth.”

His biggest focus this spring with the safeties is breaking the “Flintstone” habit among them. You know, Fred and Barney running in place while driving their cars.

“We don’t like that,” Partridge said, smiling.

He referred to the spring as the safeties going to “speed school.” That’s not about straight-line or 40-yard-dash speed; it’s about learning efficient movement and no wasted steps.

“I wanted to get really detailed with their footwork,” Partridge said. “Every break means something. The way you break on a route, every step means something. The angles you take, we’ve really honed down on the really basics of that stuff.

“In the winter we really went to like speed school essentially. When we’re breaking on a route or breaking on the ball, it’s all about your directional step, gaining ground, and pointing in the right direction with your first two steps. So I think they’ve gotten faster at that stuff throughout the winter and the spring, which is good as well.”

He worked with his group of eight safeties teaching them crisp technique.

“I’m not talking about their straight-line speed and their agility,” Partridge said. “I’m talking about balls thrown out there, pointing your directional foot, gaining ground with your other foot so you can break better. We call it, ‘Don’t Flintstone.’ Some people teach where you just go up and down with your feet before you can break. We want to gain ground immediately, so that’s what I’m talking about.”

But the safeties’ work hasn’t only been focused on footwork. Partridge said the group has worked on improving their physicality to get off blocks and not allow receivers to get the upper hand.

“That’s been a vast improvement,” he said. “It’s easy for me because linebackers, that’s what you do.”

The Wolverines receivers, conversely, have worked this spring on getting separation and have tested the safeties and corners in spring practice.

“We’re playing against the real deal out there,” Partridge said. “Those guys are really good football players, so the biggest thing is every single time you line up, you’d better be ready to go, because you’ll get burned. So it’s really good.

“Those guys are running around and playing fast and they’re all a year older. Those four freshmen (receivers) who came in last year, it’s a whole different ballgame with them, just the year of growth for those guys. It’s a challenge every day in practice, which is what you want.”

To determine what he wanted the group to focus on this spring, Partridge spent time watching NFL safeties for inspiration. He spoke to as many NFL types as he could, as well.

“We look at a lot of NFL stuff,” Partridge said. “Those guys play at the highest level, the schemes are elite. Looking at how those guys play and how they break on the ball so fast with quarterbacks (that) are throwing lasers, it’s like ‘Well, why are they any different? What to do we need to do to get like those guys and be able to break on routes and understand?’

“They don’t have any false steps. They don’t run in place before they break. Every step is optimal.”

Partridge also took what perhaps might appear to be an unlikely step.

“I also have this thing where I like talking to small school coaches, especially on special teams and even at the safeties,” he said. “Those guys might not get the talent. They also on the other side need to make sure they coach guys that are a little slower.”

In other words, he learned from coaches who spend more time developing players of lesser talent, and he took what he could from those scenarios.

Partridge described his group of safeties as “hungry” but isn’t ready to fill out a depth chart yet, at least not publicly.

“I really have a bunch of guys working, and I’m not really categorizing one, two, three, four,” Partridge said. “They’re all working together. I feel like Tyree (Kinnel), Josh (Metellus), J’Marick (Woods), Brad Hawkins, Jaylen Kelly-Powell … those guys are all really working.

“And I’m not saying, ‘Hey, this is a one, this is the two. We’re just trying to get them to work together and be a whole group together, and we’ll let that sort out the week before the first game.”