July 7, 2009

Position Preview: Defensive Backs

Michigan's secondary might possess the most promise of U-M's defensive units but the Wolverines' four potential starters have made just 24 career starts, including 22 from junior cornerback Donovan Warren …







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style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(228, 231, 235); text-align: center; font-weight: bold;">LCB

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(228, 231, 235); text-align: center; font-weight: bold;">FS

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(228, 231, 235); text-align: center; font-weight: bold;">SS

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(228, 231, 235); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">RCB

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style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">Donovan Warren

Jr. • 6-0, 187

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">Michael Williams

Soph.-R • 5-11, 191

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">Troy Woolfolk

Jr. • 6-0, 183

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">Boubacar Cissoko

Soph. • 5-9, 182

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">J.T.
Floyd

Fr.-R • 6-0, 184

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Emilien

Fr. • 6-1, 213

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">Jared
Van Slyke

Soph.-R • 6-3, 197

style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">Floyd
Simmons

Fr.-R. • 5-10, 192


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Overall: Led by second-year defensive backs coach Tony Gibson, the Michigan secondary has much to prove this fall. The Maize and Blue finished ninth in the Big Ten in 2008 in pass defense (230.0 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (131.7 rating), and that was with three senior starters. The good and bad news is U-M is largely starting from scratch.



"They're all young," Gibson said of his emerging secondary. "If you take Donovan Warren off, nobody has had significant playing time. Everything they know now is what they've learned under us in the last year and half, so I'm hoping these guys jell together."



Though the unit does lack game-day experience, safety Troy Woolfolk is a junior with plenty of ability while safety Michael Williams is a redshirt sophomore, also possessing tremendous skill. Cornerback Boubacar Cissoko, a sophomore, started twice in 2008 and appeared in seven games defensively.



There is also talent pushing for starting roles in the form of freshman safety Vladimir Emilien and redshirt freshman cornerback J.T. Floyd. So while the unit lacks the proven pedigree, there is reason to be optimistic this group will perform far better than its predecessors last fall.




The Playmaker: Donovan Warren



Think back to the Warren early in his freshman year, when he made a number of big plays, shed his blocks to make key tackles and generally locked up his man far more often than one would expect of a true freshman.



Michigan fans haven't seen that Warren in quite some time due to a myriad of injuries, most notably a bad ankle, that have plagued him the past 12 months. But he had the ankle scoped in the spring and is expected at full strength in the fall, giving hope that he can finally blossom into the dominant shutdown cornerback envisioned when he signed as a five-star recruit out of Long Beach, Calif.



The Warren of 2007 wasn't a polished product either. He was a good player, getting by exclusively on his natural talent. But noted for his work ethic, film study and determination to improve, Warren could emerge a skilled technician with outstanding physical skills and instincts this season, bringing together three attributes that will strike fear into the men lining up opposite him.



The Breakout Performer: Boubacar Cissoko



At 5-9, 182 pounds, Cissoko won't initially scare a receiver, but the sophomore from Detroit does not lack confidence and he believes he will win most battles of physicality.



"When I first come into a game, I like to make a statement," he said. "On that first play, I'll get real physical, as physical as I can be, and then I'll just play my game the rest of the way. But anytime the receiver needs a reminder, I'll get in there and hit him so he knows he's not going to walk all over me."



In his first career start last season, Cissoko matched up with Toledo's 6-5 Stephen Williams, and most observers would argue he won the one-on-one matchup, finishing with a pass break up while holding Williams to six receptions.



This fall, Cissoko anticipates causing more havoc for opposing wide receivers while also making plays for the U-M defense. He laughs at the thought that he is a risk taker, noting he loathes allowing a touchdown by making a mistake. However, he will gamble a bit here and there if he feels he can get away with it.



The Understudy: J.T. Floyd



Floyd so badly wanted to contribute a year ago, but he wasn't ready physically for college football, necessitating a redshirt campaign. He impressed his coaches and teammates working on the scout team and carried that momentum into the spring. With Warren ailing, Floyd received plenty of opportunity to play with the first string, and he made the most of it.



"I told him, 'The thing I liked about you, is every day you did something a little better,'" Gibson relayed.



At 6-0, 184 pounds, Floyd is now ready physically to make that impact he desired a year ago, and with only two experienced cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart he will likely see a number of meaningful snaps.



The Impact Freshman: Justin Turner



A four-star recruit and U-M's highest-ranked defensive back signee in the Class of 2009, Turner has the ability to play right away, as much as Warren did in 2007. He must learn the system, though, and beat out Floyd for the coveted third cornerback post.



At 6-2, 185 pounds, Turner could play safety or cornerback, nickel or dime back, depending on what is needed. He is a dynamic matchup defender, relying on his size and speed to stay close to his man at all times and relying on his burst and hands to make a play on the ball when it's in the air. Turner is the whole package but he has some obstacles to clear before he'll see the field this fall.





Brewing Battle: Michael Williams vs. Vladimir Emilien



Williams saw action in nine games as a safety in 2008 and was recruited and groomed to one day take over as Michigan's free safety. He is strong against the run, taking great delight in the chance to lower his shoulders and knock a ball carrier to the turf. He was a tremendous centerfielder in high school but has yet to prove himself in that regard at U-M.



Emilien missed his entire senior season due to injury but he enrolled early in January and was one of the top performers of the spring. The coaches crave his speed, smarts and strength but as one of the leaders defensively, he must show capable of handling the responsibilities of the safety position. In the spring, he certainly demonstrated he's learning quickly.



Entering the fall, Williams has the upper hand but only slightly. The two will duke it out in August camp to determine who starts the opener against Western Michigan, and that athlete's play against the Broncos will certainly factor heavily into the decision of who starts a week later when Notre Dame visits. It's entirely possible that both play a significant amount early in the season as the coaches sort out who gives U-M the best chance to be successful.





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