Secondary pulls together

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- They can look back now and understand where they were and what they learned from it, that bearing the brunt of the criticism for a Michigan defense having little success in 2010 could correlate with their current position.

They were young then, thrown onto the field often before they were ready in a system that didn't fit their skills or personnel at the time under former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Despite fielding one of the worst defenses in the country in 2010, it was the secondary which heard the worst.

"You always know where you've been," safety Thomas Gordon said. "It's all about progressing through the years, and I think we made big strides."

They have. But understand what it took to reach that point.

Defensive backs came and went. Quickly. Ray Vinopal played safety as a freshman then left for Pittsburgh. Cullen Christian played cornerback as a freshman then left for Pittsburgh. Carvin Johnson flipped between safety and linebacker his first year-plus at Michigan before transferring in the middle of last season.

Even the defensive backs who stayed watched opponents run past them, in what became a revolving door of players in the backfield. Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd and junior Courtney Avery struggled early in their careers even as they were thrust on the field. Fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs pushed his way into the lineup as a walk-on still figuring out Michigan's then 3-3-5 defense.

Gordon, now one of Michigan's starting safeties as a redshirt junior, played a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role in 2010 as a redshirt freshman.

They were a group with little experience and a lot to learn in front of 100,000 people who expected perfection or close to it every Saturday.

"As a whole, we're a persevering unit," Floyd said. "We've been battle-tested, had ups and downs, especially early on in my career."

It included position switches, the alternating of schemes and often playing before they were ready. Now, they can look back and understand. They can dig back into their brains when they struggle now and can pass along to the younger defensive backs who didn't experience what it was like being on the 112th pass defense in the country in 2010, allowing 261.85 yards a game and 13.04 yards a completion.

They can relate their mistakes as they transformed from bad to one of the best and deepest secondaries in the Big Ten this season.

"We reflect on it every now and then," Kovacs said. "We've been playing for three years now together, maybe four. It's been a lot of snaps.

"I think it has made us the players we are today, and we are really comfortable with each other."

The byproduct of playing early began to come to fruition last season as new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's scheme began to show success. What used to be a picked-on unit started to gather some turnovers. A group known for giving up the big play under Robinson turned stingy with Mattison, dropping its passing yards per game to 190.46 and yards per completion to 11.2.

The big pass plays also dropped from 46 in 2010 -- tied for 107th in the nation -- to 27 in 2011 according to information compiled by ESPN Stats and Research.

The on-field improvement gave those same players who were burnt again and again in 2010 the confidence to extinguish those same deep routes last year -- a season-long progression which eventually turned them into a group of players with a definitive belief in themselves this season.

"There wasn't a set day or set moment that, 'Now, this is a turn,' " Avery said. "But during the season last year, you could feel it, things coming together. This is how it is supposed to be, things are how they are supposed to be.

"Everybody just, everybody doing their part, their set assignment and executing that set assignment."

It led to Michigan now boasting one of the deepest, most experienced units in the country. The Wolverines return both starters at cornerback in Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess, both starting safeties in Gordon and Kovacs and key backups in cornerbacks Avery and Raymon Taylor along with safeties Marvin Robinson and Josh Furman.

"I've got two to three guys who have actually played and it's still early to see where I'm at," defensive backs coach Curt Mallory said. "But we certainly have some guys who have a lot of potential to be good and to be deep."

Maybe, but for the first time since Leon Hall played cornerback at Michigan, the secondary looks to be one of Michigan's strengths, carved from a group that for a long time looked like it might not be that at all.