Michigan Football Preview Excerpt: Defensive Backs Are On The Cusp
The following is an exclusive excerpt from our 160-page Michigan Football Preview magazine, the must-have preseason read for every Wolverine fan!
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Consistency is key when it comes to playing defense and learning schemes, and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff are hoping a fresh start will provide stability to a group that hasn’t had much of it in the past few years. While cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich was a constant for six years, the back end has seen coaches come and go — six different safeties teachers, to be exact, including four in the last two years.
One of them, Bob Shoop, was hired last season but never coached a down on the field for unspecified reasons the athletic department wouldn’t comment on, replaced by analyst Aashon Larkins, who now serves as U-M’s director of recruiting. Maurice Linguist was brought in and spent a few months in Ann Arbor this spring before accepting the head coaching job at the University of Buffalo, leaving Harbaugh to replace both him and Zordich, whose contract wasn’t renewed.
Heading into the summer, though, it appeared the Wolverines had found their secondary coaches for the foreseeable future. Former Michigan receiver Ron Bellamy turned West Bloomfield (Mich.) High into a perennial power, leading the school to a state championship before signing on to coach safeties at his alma mater in January. After Linguist left, Harbaugh had Kentucky rising star Steve Clinkscale on the line quickly and signed him to a three-year deal to coach cornerbacks and serve as the defensive passing game coordinator, in a move lauded by college football analysts.
Harbaugh had pursued both before when he had openings, and more than once. For Bellamy, it’s been a happy homecoming.
“The biggest thing for me getting in the group and being a first-year college coach was showing [the players] I respected and trusted them, and getting that same thing from them,” Bellamy said. “It happened so quickly.
“But the kids looked at me as one of them. They say, ‘You’ve been in this foxhole before. Teach us; show us how to get out of this foxhole and start striking people.’ That’s been the biggest testament, telling them we’re brothers more than anything else. With that, you’ve got instant credibility.”
Bellamy was initially tabbed to coach receivers, but he moved to safeties at the start of spring ball. He inherited a pair some consider the best duo Michigan has had in years, a veteran in fifth-year senior Brad Hawkins and a rising star in sophomore Daxton Hill.
The 6-1, 218-pound Hawkins is the stalwart, having started 16 games and played in 42 overall; nobody on the roster has more in either category. Bellamy teases him all the time that he might be the oldest man in the history of college football, but the coach wouldn’t trade him for anyone.
“There’s talent in this secondary,” Bellamy said. “I love Brad. Brad is the heart and soul of that secondary, having been there. He had a phenomenal spring, showed great leadership picking up the new defense. He did a fantastic job.”
He led by example, Bellamy added, and the defensive players followed his lead.
“He’s not a big ‘rah rah’ guy or a loud guy, but he comes out every day and goes about his business,” he praised. “One of those things I learned throughout the course of my coaching career is you’ve got to have some fun in doing it, too. He does.”
Next to him, the 6-0, 192-pound Hill might be one of the most athletic safeties the program has ever seen, a freak athlete with incredible instincts and ball skills. He’s started nine of the 19 games in which he’s appeared at free safety, finished with 46 tackles in six games last season and should be in line for an All-Big Ten season, if not more.
Hill was all over the field in the spring game in a dominating half, per sources, and is probably the most talented player on the defense.
“He’s a star in the making,” Bellamy praised. “The kid just approaches the game the right way every day. He’s a super competitive kid.
“Dax is a kid with flexibility because he can play multiple positions in the defense. That’s why he was highly touted coming out of high school. Everyone wanted him in their programs.”
He only scratched the surface last year, the assistant noted.
“He made some plays, did some good things, but this year we’re expecting huge strides from Dax,” Bellamy continued. “I think he’s more than capable of delivering that.”
Two young players, second-year freshmen Makari Paige and R.J. Moten, emerged on the two-deep this spring. Paige played 118 snaps per Pro Football Focus (PFF) last year, and is a lanky, rangy safety with cover skills and confidence. The 6-3, 192-pounder notched six tackles, and will be expected to take a leap forward this fall.
He also played for Bellamy at West Bloomfield, and made an immediate impact when he was thrown into the fire, notching three tackles in a win at Minnesota in his first game. Bellamy knew his standout wouldn’t need long to get acclimated to the college game.
“He came in and played early because we ran the same defense at West Bloomfield, or very similar, and he had a lot of traits they were looking for,” the coach noted. “We spent this spring learning a new scheme and new techniques and new verbiage, but they did a great job recruiting those guys, because they went after cerebral kids that understand the game of football, are passionate about the game.
“For Makari, that’s why he was able to play early. That’s why we expect big things from him and a lot of guys that didn’t play last year. Training camp … it’s going to be awesome to watch these guys compete.”
This Year's Michigan Football Preview Magazine includes:
• Exclusive features and interviews with new assistant coaches Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy, two alums who returned to Ann Arbor this offseason.
• Features on top players, including quarterback Cade McNamara, running back Hassan Haskins, offensive lineman Zak Zinter, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and safety Daxton Hill.
• A look back, 50 years later, at the legendary 1971 team that featured All-Americans Mike Taylor, Reggie McKenzie, Billy Taylor and Thom Darden.
• In-depth position previews, a breakdown of what to expect this fall, national college football experts on the Wolverines, an update of former players in the NFL and much more!
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