Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mailbag: Where will Woolfolk play?

The demise of Troy Woolfolk's ankle crippled Michigan's defense in 2010.

Since we won’t have a chance to discuss this ad nauseum for the next eight months (sarcasm), I was wondering where you come down on Troy Woolfolk. Assuming he’s back in more or less the same shape, do you see him as a FS or CB? Last year he was playing CB seemingly out of depth concerns, but next year they’ll at the very least have a lot of bodies to throw out there, and FS would seem to be a role where his experience/leadership might be better leveraged. On the same front, do you think Marvin has the speed to play back there? We know he has the abs.
The deployment of Woolfolk has long been a hot topic with me because I don't think a lot of people respect the role and importance of a free safety.  With a lot of coaches I know, they take their best overall athlete and put him at free safety.  That's one reason why you see a lot of college cornerbacks who played free safety in high school, because they can make more plays from the middle of the field.  Who is Michigan's best overall athlete (speed, size, coverage, tackling ability, and awareness) in the secondary?  I would say it's Woolfolk.  He's 6' tall and 195 lbs. with high level Big Ten track speed (6.86 seconds in the 60 meters); a solid tackler; and the most experienced defensive back on the team. 

When Woolfolk moved from cornerback to free safety in the spring of 2009, his teammates nicknamed him "The Eraser" for how he cleaned up his defensive teammates' mistakes.  When that season began, he and cornerback J.T. Floyd were burned for a long touchdown pass in the opener against Western Michigan.  After that Woolfolk was solid at free safety.  (Ed: And don't even bother bringing up the missed tackle late in the 2009 Michigan State game.  Woolfolk suffered a sprained shoulder earlier in the game but stayed out there, only to have his bum shoulder fail him when trying to tackle Edwin Baker Larry Caper at a crucial point in the game.)  As the season wore on and the defense struggled, Michigan's coaches moved him back to cornerback during Iowa week and kept him there for the remainder of the season.  While playing free safety, Michigan gave up 23 points per game.  Once he moved to cornerback, Michigan gave up 37 per game (minus the Delaware State drubbing).  Woolfolk was still playing cornerback during August practices in 2010 when he dislocated his ankle, despite the fact that Michigan had virtually no experience, athleticism, or depth - and not much talent - to play the free safety position behind him.

Michigan's free safety depth chart at the beginning of 2010 looked like this:
1. Cameron Gordon (RS freshman), a 6'3", 207 lb. converted wide receiver who many projected to be a linebacker in college
2. Jared Van Slyke (RS junior), a 6'2", 196 lb. walk-on who transferred from Southeast Missouri State
3. Ray Vinopal (freshman), a 5'10", 197 lb. borderline 3-star recruit straight out of high school
4. Vladimir Emilien (sophomore), a 6'1", 204 lb. high school star who was hampered by knee problems since prior to his senior year of high school
5. Brandin Hawthorne (sophomore), a 6', 205 lb. special teamer who most projected as a linebacker

We all know how that turned out - Gordon got burned repeatedly and became an outside linebacker, Van Slyke missed the season due to injury, Vinopal was elevated to starter, Emilien transferred, and Hawthorne contributed on special teams and at linebacker.

I can understand why some might feel that Woolfolk was needed at cornerback in 2010, because the cornerback depth chart was arguably worse than at free safety.  But Michigan suffered from horrible defensive back play all season long (outside of Jordan Kovacs), and the poor free safety play hurt Michigan more than the play of its cornerbacks.  Vinopal was an upgrade from Gordon at the deep safety position, but I'm not convinced that he's the immediate or long-term answer.

As for what I would do with Woolfolk, I would put him back at . . . cornerback.  Yep, I said it.  I know this is a reversal of my previous stance, but it comes from a change in defensive philosophy.  Former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson ran a lot of Cover 3 out of the 3-3-5 defensive set, which meant that his cornerbacks didn't need to be in man coverage often.  That's why it would have been nice for Woolfolk to play centerfield, because he could have backed up his cornerbacks and made some plays on throws over the middle.

But go back and watch some film from the second half of the 2009 season.  Woolfolk was largely untested in those games, and opponents picked on then-junior cornerback Donovan Warren.  Woolfolk's speed and hip swivel allowed him to stick closely to wide receivers in a defense that was geared more toward man coverage than the 2010 philosophy.  New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is going to run more man coverage than we saw in 2010, which means cornerback play will be emphasized.  The Wolverines have stocked cornerbacks in the past couple classes (Cullen Christian, Courtney Avery, and Terrence Talbott; plus the load of incoming 2011 freshmen), but none are ready at this point.  Avery looks to be the best of the returning sophomores, and a redshirt junior J.T. Floyd should return in the fall from his own ankle injury.  Woolfolk could team with Floyd (whose talent leaves something to be desired but now has the experience of being the #1 guy) or Avery (who has good coverage skills but needs to get in the weight room) for a solid cornerback combination.

Who's going to play free safety?  My guess would be either sophomore Marvin Robinson or the incumbent in Vinopal.  Vinopal won't wow anybody with his speed or physicality, but he's essentially a second helping of Jordan Kovacs.  I don't think Vinopal can be your free safety if you want to have an elite defense, but he's not a disaster, either.  Robinson is the wild card.  Last summer he was reportedly wowing fellow players with his exploits as a free safety in voluntary 7-on-7s.  When the season rolled around, he was backing up Jordan Kovacs, playing defense sparingly, and covering kicks.  There were questions about his speed coming out of high school, but as I watched him chase down some plays on special teams this year, I don't have serious questions about his speed.  Neither Vinopal or Robinson is Ed Reed, but Robinson's closer.


  1. My thought process has always been that you put your players in their best position, not the position they happen to be the best on the team at (one of the reasons I really feel like Mike Martin should be playing 3 tech and not nose, but that's probably a discussion for another time).

    I guess I feel like if I have a guy who could be a great FS or a good CB (not referring to Woolfolk here, just as a an example), and the backup at FS is average while the backup at CB is below average, I play my guy at FS.

    I'm actually pretty tired, and now I'm not sure where I was going with this actually.....

  2. I know this analysis assumes that Troy heals 100% from the leg injury. I agree that he should play corner if he is not gimpy. Unlike last season, UM now has enough capable bodies who are not true freshmen to come up with a decent free safety or two. I actually think Vinopal has some potential - for a kid who had no business playing as a freshman, he could have looked much worse. And his speed is better than I expected. Coming up with two solid corners this season is more difficult if Woolfolk is not in the mix. If UM had recruited a stud true corner for 2011 (like Demar Dorsey), it might be a different story. Regardless, I am much more confident that this staff will get players in the right positions than the previous staff.

  3. Spring and fall practices will be even more interesting than usual this year and will go a long way toward determining this question. Should Avery and another young corner emerge as players that Mattison has confidence in then TW plugs the hole at FS. On the other hand, should someone arise at FS (cough,Carvin,cough) then we can solidify the corner with TW.
    Would like to see M-Rob at SS to complete the Carvin and Marvin Show.

  4. Slight correction:

    Woolfolk's missed tackle at the end of the 2009 MSU game was on Larry Caper, who's beefier than Baker.

    Now for the real part:

    I think Vinopal is a better athlete than Kovacs, but I would be ecstatic if neither started a game this year...because that means someone emerged as a better player.

    Woolfolk should play wherever he can make the biggest contribution, and he's a definite team player. He can't be kept off the field; if we have two sticky corners at some point, he should be put at safety.

    Magnus, is it inaccurate to compare Woolfolk to Ty Law from a purely athletic standpoint?

  5. @ David 4:17 p.m.

    Fixed. Thanks.

    I see some similarities between Woolfolk and Law, but I think Woolfolk is faster. I always thought of Ty Law as more of a physical cornerback. Not that he was slow, but he didn't seem to be blazing fast. It's hard to make that comparison at this point in their careers, because Law was on a trajectory to be a first round pick and Woolfolk is in his fifth year, having started for only one of those seasons.

  6. I buy that.

    I just thought they were approximately the same size and weight and more athletic than most players their size...Woolfolk even more so.

    Do you think Avery will turn out to be a contributor all four years here (weight room pending)? Or do you think someone will pass him up?

  7. @ David 4:51 p.m.

    I think Avery will contribute on some level, whether as a backup, nickel corner, or starter. I don't think he'll get pushed to the bottom of the depth chart. He's a smart kid and a hard worker, and he's got some athleticism to go with it.

    I think he and Countess will probably be the #3 and #4 corners on the team, if not higher (assuming Woolfolk plays CB). I'm not sold on Floyd, but he's a veteran and all that.

  8. "Ty Law only faster"

    Someone's got a case of FredJacksonitis.


  9. @ Lankownia 11:02 p.m.

    Don't get me wrong - Law was clearly the better player, at least until this point. If Woolfolk becomes Ty Law in 2011, I'll be ecstatic, but I'm not expecting it.

  10. What about Cullen Christian moving to FS? Granted, he's not a burner. However, he's pretty fast and very athletic, and (based on last year) his presence on the depth chart at CB wouldn't be an insurmountable hurdle.

    I'd probably rather have Woolfolk at corner and Christian at FS than the other way around.

  11. @ Blue in South Bend 11:01 a.m.

    I'm not sure about Christian at FS. He's not a very good tackler, which has always scared me about him. If he can improve that, maybe. From the way it looked last year, he's not ready to play anywhere right now.

  12. Its too soon to pass judgment on Christian as a tackler. He was a true freshman who should have redshirted.

    On that front, any chance any of the 2010 freshman DBs redshirt as sophomores? It'd have to be someone whose potential they like long-term (i.e. probably not Vinopal) but isn't ready to contribute this year. A guy like Christian, especially if he moves to FS, seems to be a candidate.

    I know its rare, and the player may not buy-in, but just hypothetically - would there be a benefit to this?


  13. @ Lankownia 12:30 p.m.

    Like I said, Christian could turn out to be fine. But he hasn't been a good tackler at any level. He said as much himself when he was recruited.

    I think Talbott and/or Christian could redshirt. The other guys (Avery, Johnson, etc.) are probably too valuable to sit out the entire year. If nothing else, they might be able to contribute on special teams.

    There would definitely be a benefit to redshirting for some of these guys and for the team. IIRC, Michigan's going to have 9 cornerbacks on the roster for 2011. There's no need to play 9 different guys at a position that only has 2-3 on the field at any given time.

  14. Lank,

    Christian might very well improve on his tackling, but there ARE true freshmen defensive backs who come in and tackle at least soundly already, and I believe there are a couple in this class.

    I'd rather see a sound tackler at safety than an uber-athletic a point. I'd probably reconsider if said safety gets toasted by a tight end for 95 yards.

  15. One wild card: Woolfolk's rehabilitation from a serious injury (dislocated ankle). Can we be confident that he will fully regain his prior speed and athleticism? Will he still be able to change directions fast enough to play corner?

  16. Mustelid,

    Probably. Odoms broke his foot halfway through the season and came back in the bowl game looking as good as he ever did. If nothing else, Barwis was a master of rehabilitation, if Odoms is any example.

    As long as no tendons or ligaments were fully torn, there's no reason Woolfolk won't be back to full strength.

  17. @ Mustelid 4:55 p.m.

    Woolfolk is young and otherwise healthy. I don't know that Woolfolk will be 100%, but keep in mind that he broke his ankle prior to the season. He didn't break it in October or November, so he'll have had a full 12 months of recovery time when the 2011 season opens up.

    Obviously, it's impossible to know whether Woolfolk will be 100% by then. And a bum ankle might prevent him from being as effective of a corner. But I can only assume that he'll be back to his old self.

  18. A little late to the party, but I'd also like to point out that Woolfolk was going for the strip on that last play against MSU. It was clearly shown in the opposite angle of the video feed. The only real hope of winning that game was to get a turn over or a blocked FG.