Cornerback vs. wide receiver is just one of the mano-a-mano battles that will happen every play in a football game. It may be the most visible one of those matchups because it’s often isolated on the outside. That battle motivates Michigan sophomore cornerback Ambry Thomas.
“Every play I’ll be thinking like, ‘This receiver is pretty good but he’s not better than me,’ ” Thomas said. “If I do get beat, I come back. That’s the chip. The chip has got bigger and I come back. OK, I’ve got something for you the next play.”
Michigan is expecting more this season from Thomas, who had a good freshman campaign in a reserve role. Thomas has the same expectations after playing in all 13 games last season behind starters Lavert Hill and David Long. Now that he knows where he’s going and who’s going with him, Thomas is garnering praise from his teammates and coaches this spring as he makes a push to earn a starting job.
“Last year was hard. It was just running around hoping the safeties were helping me out,” said Thomas. “I’m already pretty fast but now I can go 100 percent without worrying about making a mistake.”
Hill has been hurt most of this spring with an injury defensive backs coach Mike Zordich described as an issue with his hip and groin. Zordich hasn’t been happy about Hill’s absence from practices but he has been pleased with what Thomas has done with the opportunity.
“He is very comfortable now,” Zordich said. “We were just talking about it over there, the maturity level. Last year, we were so young and now these guys have some playing experience and it’s helped them. That was last year and now he’s walking into a new year and he’s just more confident. Things are slowing down, and he’s been running with the [first team] quite a bit. He’s been showing up a lot.”
Thomas is just part of what should be improved depth throughout the Wolverines secondary this season. They had to replace the entire starting defensive backfield from 2016 with Hill, Long and safeties Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel. Long and Kinnel started every game, while Hill and Metellus started 12 of the 13 contests. Brandon Watson was the third cornerback and made the start for Hill at Wisconsin. J’Marick Woods started at safety in place of Metellus at the Outback Bowl.
All the defensive backs return this season.
“We’re way more flexible,” Thomas said. “We’ve got all the younger DBs, including myself, coming up. You can do more with us now. They’re not worried about the same three, four guys rotating in. There is more depth back there. We feel pretty good about that.”
Thomas made his most significant contributions last season on special teams. He returned 20 kickoffs for a 19.8-yard average and recovered 2 fumbles, including 1 he forced in the opener against Florida on a kickoff early in the second half that led to a 30-yard Quinn Nordin field goal and a 23-17 Michigan lead.
Regardless of the extent of Hill’s injury, Thomas is going to push for the starting job and a bigger role this season. He was an early enrollee as a freshman. It was a decision that helped him get on the field as a freshman. It started his learning curve.
“I came in and me and Benny (St-Juste) used to get chewed out every day by Coach Z, but now I’m thankful for that because I’m just playing now. I don’t have to think about nothing,” Thomas said. “I was messing up everywhere, just playing ball but now I really know what I’m doing and I’m confident.”