Ron Bellamy: Rutgers Presents A 'Big-Time Challenge' For Michigan Secondary
Michigan football's strength of schedule ranks 91st in the country, according to ESPN. The Wolverines' defense has taken on offenses that check in at 64th (Western Michigan), 67th (Washington) and 112th (Northern Illinois) in yards per game (it's important to note that their low rankings are partly due to having gone against Michigan).
While Rutgers, the Wolverines' first opponent of the Big Ten schedule, hasn't posted gaudy numbers to this point, U-M safeties coach Ron Bellamy believes his group and the defense as a whole is in for a bigger test this week.
The Scarlet Knights have thrown for 206.7 yards per game, 91st in the country, but their 70.9 completion percentage ranks 14th. Senior signal-caller Noah Vedral has been efficient in quick-game passing, having completed 32 of his 34 attempts behind the line of scrimmage and 21 of his 32 throws of less than 10 yards in the air, according to PFF.
"Every week presents its own challenge within the secondary, depending upon what the opposition wants to do and what they’re capable of doing," Bellamy said. "It’s different. Washington ... what we thought we were going to get, we got from them. And the same is true of Western and NIU.
"Rutgers is going to present its own challenge. Those guys are talented. [Rutgers head coach] Coach [Greg] Schiano has done a great job with that group. The offensive coordinator is a very smart guy; he’s going to move the guys around. [Senior wide receiver] Bo Melton is a guy you’ve got to watch, and the rest of their receivers are pretty good.
"They’re going to present a big-time challenge for us, and we’ve got to be dialed in every snap to make sure that we’re playing our best game."
A big piece of the Wolverines' defense that alters slightly in look and strategy each week depending on the opponent is sophomore Daxton Hill, who has lined up at cornerback, nickel and free safety this season, moving around based on formation and matchup. He ranks second on the team with 13 tackles and has registered two pass breakups.
"He’s playing at a high level -— you guys could see that on Saturday," Bellamy said. "He’s learning, but every week — which makes this defense so good — a new challenge creates new opportunities.
"We don’t know until Sunday, until we start breaking down the next opponent, what the game plan is going to be. And for Dax, that’s what he’s learning, and there’s some wrinkles he hasn’t seen yet, but so far, so good.
"Dax has individual goals for himself that he has to play at a high level to achieve."
Second-year freshman safety R.J. Moten is going a stellar job in his own right, having accumulated the fourth-most tackles on the squad (11) started two games. His emergence at free safety has allowed for the Wolverines' coaches to move Hill around and use him where he's most beneficial.
After playing in just one game last season, Moten made quite the jump during the offseason, earning the trust of Bellamy and Co.
"He’s worked his butt off," Bellamy said of Moten. "From a physicality standpoint — he’s always been a physical kid. You can pop on his film from high school, you can see that.
"But I think the area he’s grown most at is becoming a complete player. We’re asking a lot of him, putting him in different situations. And for a young guy, he’s responded."
Another who has helped in that same area is freshman Rod Moore, a former three-star recruit in 2021 who has played the fourth-most snaps among the safeties (behind fifth-year senior Brad Hawkins, Hill and Moten). He's been the Wolverines' sixth defensive back in dime packages, primarily lining up over a slot receiver.
"For a young kid to come in and take command during training camp — that’s why he’s able to get some of the early snaps," Bellamy said. "But Rod’s a kid with a bright future. And every day, he’s learning; we’re all learning.
"Rod has been a pleasant surprise thus far, and we’re just going to keep developing him and putting more on his plate, and see how he responds to it."
There were high expectations for the safeties entering the year, and they've lived up to the hype to this point. Hawkins has nine tackles and a team-leading four pass breakups, and he's been able to lead the rest of the group along with Bellamy.
"You want positivity in your room — you want accountability and positivity," Bellamy explained. "And one of the things is that we’re going to lift our brothers up. By doing that, they know how to check each other in a respectful, positive way.
"The younger guys see it, they fall in line. It’s a system that we have in place that [has gone] so far, so good for us."
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