Position Preview: Safety

Redshirt sophomore walk-on Jordan Kovacs will be Michigan's most experienced starting safety.

[Programming note: I’m headed to Rock the Bells, a ridiculously awesome one-day hip hop music festival, in New York City this weekend. I will be in a car all day on Friday and Sunday and spending all of Saturday at the show. If anything breaks, I’ll do my best to put something up when I have some downtime, but this will likely be the only post of the weekend — if I find some spare time, I might try to squeeze in a special teams preview, but I make no promises. I’ll be back with much more season preview material on Monday.]

Returning Contributors: Jordan Kovacs (RS So.), Kevin Leach (RS Jr.), Mike Williams (RS Jr.), Brandin Hawthorne (So.), Vlad Emilien (So.), Floyd Simmons (RS So.), Jared Van Slyke (RS Jr.), Zac Johnson (RS Jr.)
Ready to Contribute: Cameron Gordon (RS Fr.), Thomas Gordon (RS Fr.)
Incoming Freshmen: Josh Furman, Carvin Johnson, Marvin Robinson, Ray Vinopal
Key Departures: Stevie Brown

Returning Player Stats:

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The Projected Starters: Redshirt sophomore and former walk-on Jordan Kovacs will line up at bandit — essentially what Michigan called the strong safety last year — after starting eight games and finishing second on the team in tackles in 2009. Kovacs surprisingly emerged when safety Michael Williams was benched for poor play last year and surpassed all expectations for a guy who made the team in open tryouts, showing a great nose for the football, solid hitting ability, and good discipline. Kovacs is somewhat limited physically, however, and his lack of top-end speed was exploited on a couple big plays last season. He probably won’t make any all-conference teams, but Kovacs is a steady player who won’t find himself out of position often, which is all the team can really ask from their safeties right now.

At spur — think Stevie Brown’s linebacker/safety hybrid position from last year — the competition is still ongoing for the starting spot, although it appeared heading into fall camp that redshirt freshman Thomas Gordon had grabbed the top spot on the depth chart. Gordon was a high school quarterback at Cass Tech (where he played alongside classmates Will Campbell and Teric Jones) who only started playing on defense as a senior, so he’s relatively inexperienced at the position. Nicknamed “Prison Abs” by Rich Rodriguez as a recruit, Gordon has the physical tools required to be a solid safety, but understandably needed to work on technique coming out of high school — we’ll see how much progress he has made in that regard this fall.

Redshirt freshman Cameron Gordon (no relation) appears to have locked down the free safety position after an outstanding spring followed a position change from wide receiver, where he practiced in 2009. At 6-3, 207 pounds, Gordon is a physical presence in the middle and has earned a reputation as a hard hitter in practice, although he struggled with his tackling during last weekend’s scrimmage. As a former receiver, Gordon should make some plays with the ball in the air, but there are legitimate questions about whether he has the fluid athleticism needed to be a solid cover guy in center field. Since neither Gordon has ever played a down of college football, we will have to wait until the fall to see how they’ll hold up in game conditions.

The Competition: While Kovacs and Cameron Gordon look to have put a stranglehold on their respective positions, there is still a lot of competition at Thomas Gordon’s spur position. Redshirt junior Kevin Leach is a former walk-on linebacker who moved to spur in the spring, and he has game experience after recording 46 tackles in 2009. Like Kovacs, Leach is pretty limited physically in comparison to his scholarship counterparts, but he makes solid decisions on the field, which could give him the chance to play a big role again this fall.

Also competing to start at spur are two highly-touted freshmen, Josh Furman and Marvin Robinson, who each possess tremendous athletic ability. Furman is a speedster who played running back and linebacker in high school, and at 6-2, 207 pounds he has the size to be a physical presence at safety. He was regarded as a raw prospect in need of a lot of coaching, however, which could limit his playing time, especially early in the season. Robinson lacks Furman’s top-end speed, but otherwise is a very good athlete and a strong physical presence. He could see time at any of the three safety spots, and I expect he’ll see the field a fair amount this fall. Redshirt junior walk-on Floyd Simmons brief time at linebacker while mostly contributing on special teams in 2009, and he is also in the mix at spur, although I’d be surprised if Rodriguez decided to go with two walk-ons for the box safety positions.

Another true freshman, Carvin Johnson, could also see the field at safety or potentially cornerback, where he has seen some practice time recently. Johnson was an unknown recruit when he committed to Michigan, but the recruiting buzz around him picked up significantly afterward — it appears Rich Rodriguez and his staff did very well in unearthing Johnson from Louisiana. He was known as a ball-hawking safety who was very strong in run support in high school, but like so may other safeties on the roster he may not have the elite speed necessary to be strong in deep coverage — like MGoBrian, I thought he was ticketed for a spot at spur or bandit until practice reports indicated otherwise. Again, we’ll have to see where he ends up.

At free safety, sophomore and former four-star recruit Vlad Emilien is Cameron Gordon’s closest competition. Emilien burned his redshirt to make one special teams tackle last season after missing his entire senior year of high school with a torn ACL — one day, someone will have to explain why college coaches routinely burn redshirts on players who make a few appearances on special teams. Anyways, Emilien is now a sophomore, but there are still concerns about that senior year injury and its lingering effects after Emilien has been victimized on big plays in each of the last two spring games — he may not have the speed needed to cover deep center field in this defense. With no film on him at safety from the past two years, Emilien is yet another unknown quantity at the safety position.

Others: Redshirt junior Michael Williams is a former Army All-American recruit who saw a lot of playing time at free safety last season, but despite recording 56 tackles he was benched for routinely being out of position and allowing big plays. Williams was supposed to be in the mix to start at spur this year, but reports from spring and fall camps have indicated that he has fallen behind the competition. He has all the physical tools needed to be the answer at any of the safety positions, but it appears he still hasn’t put it together enough mentally to earn the coaching staff’s trust.

Sophomore Brandin Hawthorne somehow managed to use up his redshirt with even less of an impact than Emilien, appearing on special teams in four games last season without recording a tackle. Hawthorne was a wiry linebacker in high school who was initially expected to compete for time at one of the strong safety positions, but when Emilien went down with an injury in the spring he backed up Cameron Gordon at free safety. Wherever he ends up, he’ll have to pass several players on the depth chart before he sees the field in any role beyond special teams in 2010.

A pair of walk-ons, Jared Van Slyke and Zac Johnson, have contributed on special teams, but neither is expected to see the field much on defense this season. True freshman Ray Vinopal was the lowest-rated recruit in the 2010 class — he might have a promising future, but I’d be very surprised if he saw anything more than mop-up and special teams duty this fall.

Outlook: Much like at cornerback, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the safety position for Michigan heading into the fall. Kovacs should be a solid, but unspectacular, presence at bandit, while the two Gordons appear physically ready to make an impact at the collegiate level but lack real game experience. There is so much unknown here that it seems fruitless to even try forecasting how this unit will perform, but it’s safe to assume that there will be some growing pains with so much inexperience on the field, especially as the coaches look for the right combination of players in the secondary. How the players and the staff adjust to those bumps in the road will play a huge role in Michigan’s success in 2010.

Previous Position Previews: Quarterback, Running Back, Outside Receiver, Slot Receiver, Tight End, Offensive Tackle, Interior Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Linebacker, Cornerback

For every position preview, click here or hit the “2010 Position Previews” tag at the bottom of the post.

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