There are no cornerbacks set in stone as Michigan starters yet, but safety Daxton Hill certainly has a key role that is not exactly defined, and that’s how defensive pass-game coordinator Steve Clinkscale wants it.
Clinkscale, who was hired from Kentucky after Michigan had completed spring practice to replace Maurice Linguist, now Buffalo’s head coach, spoke Thursday during a Zoom call with reporters about playing chess with offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. He wants to build a menu of options from which his defensive backs can order and confuse opponents.
As Michigan continues preparations in preseason camp ahead of the Sept. 4 opener against Western Michigan, Clinkscale knows Hill, a 6-foot, 192-pound junior, is the marquee player in the secondary. He intends to have Hill as involved as possible.
“Our plan right now is for Dax to do a little bit of everything,” Clinkscale said. “We’re gonna need him to kind of be a jack of all trades. He has a skill set of a corner with the ability to make plays as a safety and a mindset of a safety. I’m really excited about all the plays he can make.”
Returning defensive captain Aidan Hutchinson had time to observe during spring practice — he was held out of contact although recovered from ankle surgery — and said he looks forward to seeing what Hill can do this season.
“He was a monster,” Hutchinson said last month at Big Ten media days.
Brad Hawkins will be at the other safety, but Clinkscale has not yet settled on starters at the corners. DJ Turner, Gemon Green and Vincent Gray are the primary candidates.
“I’m rotating everybody, giving some of the young guys the opportunity to show me what they can do, but those three have really set a rotation with each other,” Clinkscale said. “There’s nobody, in my opinion, who is solid where they’re gonna be the guy for sure.
“Gemon has done some really good things, Vincent has, DJ — the more we keep that where it’s a challenging situation, I think we can elevate everybody’s game. I’ve been in a conference (Southeastern) where you can’t play with two guys. You need two, three, four. You need guys to continue to build off of. Some games are good matchups for one, maybe not the other, so you continue to build off that.”
The overall objective, Clinkscale said, is to confuse the quarterback and keep him guessing in terms of the scheme regardless of the personnel. Michigan will play man and zone and mix up coverages.
“We want to be able to kind of play chess with the offensive coordinator and the quarterback to give them multiple looks,” he said. “If you have all those elements, you don’t give the quarterback clean looks and clean pictures. We’re going to be a variety back there. We want to blitz guys, we want to cover guys, pattern match, play man, give you a whole menu for you to try to figure out where we’re coming from.”
Starting O-line still unclear
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said last month at Big Ten media days that three starters are set on the offensive line — Andrew Stueber, Ryan Hayes and Zak Zinter.
Zinter is the key piece to how the rest of the line will shake out. The sophomore, who last season played right guard when Stueber moved to right tackle to replace injured Jalen Mayfield, has been called Michigan’s best offensive lineman and could play center.
Andrew Vastardis, who is back for his sixth season, was the starting center last season before he was injured. He and Zinter continue to take snaps at center during preseason camp.
“We’re really trying to keep them balanced, keep them all fresh, but make sure they understand each position to keep the variation going,” said Sherrone Moore, who in his first year as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach after coaching tight ends the previous three seasons.
“(Zinter’s) getting reps there as well as guard, so we’re keeping it rolling.”
Zinter (6-6, 320) brings versatility to the line.
“He has everything you want in a lineman,” Moore said. “He’s tall, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s athletic, he’s smart. He can make every call that you need to have made. He can block every front. He can block any defender and he does it with a violence and a physicality that you want, that you need, that you have to have.
“He has the versatility to do it. That’s the main reason we chose to be able to move him and work him around because he can do that versatility-wise.”
Stueber has been working at right guard and tackle, and if Zinter moves to center, he likely would move to right guard. Karsen Barnhart and Trente Jones would be the primary candidates at right tackle in that scenario.
Left guard isn’t decided as Trevor Keegan and Chuck Filiaga continue to compete. Filiaga started every game at left tackle last season.
“Obviously with Chuck you have an experienced guy that started some games. Then Keegan, a little bit younger of a guy who started a game last year and gained some game experience,” Moore said. “We’re going to need both of them to win this year. It’s been a great competition, and I’m just ready to continue it as we go through the rest of camp.”
Outside looking in
Clinkscale is known as a top recruiter with Michigan and Detroit as part of his territory when he was at Kentucky and, before that, Toledo and Cincinnati.
He was asked about his perception of Michigan in terms of recruiting before he joined the staff.
“My perception was, ‘I’m gonna keep taking these players out of this state until somebody call me, damn,’” Clinkscale said with a laugh. “My perception was I’m gonna do what I came here to do.”
Clinkscale said his recruiting approach is simple.
“Just keep it real and do what’s right,” he said. “I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t sell a pipe dream. I tell the kids the truth, their families the truth, what I really like about the program, what I like about the administration, the environment, what can be suitable for a young man.”