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Michigan has new-look secondary following quartet of transfer additions
College Football

Michigan has new-look secondary following quartet of transfer additions

Updated May. 22, 2024 10:59 a.m. ET

Sometime after his appointment as Michigan's new defensive coordinator, Don "Wink" Martindale placed a phone call to one of his former players during a meeting at Schembechler Hall. 

Martindale, then 60, had spent a decade with the Baltimore Ravens from 2012-21, learning and refining the scheme that two of his pupils, Mike Macdonald and Jesse Minter, would later imprint upon the Wolverines with enormous success. It was during his time in Baltimore when Martindale crossed paths with safety Eric Weddle, by then a five-time All-Pro and an eventual Super Bowl champion with the Los Angeles Rams. Martindale considered Weddle "one of the smartest safeties I've ever coached," he said in a news conference earlier this spring, and wanted to tell him about Rod Moore, a linchpin in Michigan's secondary. 

"He gets him on the phone," recalled LaMar Morgan, the Wolverines' new defensive pass game coordinator, "and says, ‘Hey Weddle, I've got a guy here that's going to be a really special player just like you.'"

The similarity Martindale saw between Weddle, who scored 27 on the Wonderlic test after a standout collegiate career at Utah, and Moore, who was named third-team All-Big Ten by the coaches last season, centered on the football intelligence of both players. Stories about Moore's unquenchable thirst for knowledge have permeated the program for several years, since 2021, when former head coach Jim Harbaugh said Moore, then a true freshman, had logged more iPad study hours during fall camp than anyone on the team. By his junior year, Moore was anchoring a secondary that ranked second in the nation in pass defense. His decision to bypass the NFL Draft and return to Michigan for a fourth season was viewed as a boon for the Wolverines.


But everything changed late in the evening on March 25, shortly after 10 p.m. local time, when a report from 247Sports informed the outside world that Moore had suffered a torn ACL during spring practice, compromising or potentially canceling his involvement in the 2024 campaign. And just like that, following a cruel twist of fate, a Michigan secondary that already said goodbye to three of its six leading contributors from last season was handed another crippling blow. 

"I hate that he got hurt," Morgan said, "but I am really excited about his future, man. He's going to be a stud."

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Still, the combination of what could be a season-ending injury for Moore (500 snaps) and the aforementioned departures of nickelback Mike Sainristil (684 snaps), cornerback Josh Wallace (616 snaps) and safety Keon Sabb (360 snaps) was enough to catalyze a transfer portal shopping spree last week. The same Michigan program that had only brought in five transfers from December through early May — tied with Northwestern for the second-smallest class in the Big Ten — suddenly added four defensive backs in the span of three days, with two players apiece at cornerback and safety: Aamir Hall from Albany (CB), Ricky Johnson from UNLV (CB), Wesley Walker from Tennessee (S) and Jaden Mangham from Michigan State (S).

Both the timing and the targeted nature of Michigan's latest portal venture suggest that what Martindale and his assistants saw during spring practice wasn't to their liking at certain positions. With Sainristil and Wallace out of eligibility, the Wolverines have known for months that they would need to replace both players entering the 2024 campaign. And they've also known since mid-February that they would be without Sabb, who transferred to Alabama after splitting reps with Moore and fellow safety Makari Paige last year. The only events they couldn't have planned for were Moore's devastating injury and the decision by sophomore defensive back DJ Waller Jr. (123 snaps) to enter the transfer portal in late April. 

That the coaches waited until long after spring practice had finished to replenish the secondary is an indication that they likely expected more growth from certain players already on the roster, especially in the battle for the No. 2 cornerback spot and the snaps vacated by Sabb and Moore at safety. Two of the transfers Michigan added — Johnson and Hall — have been in the portal and available since February. A third, Walker, originally entered the portal in late December before spending the spring at Louisville and then re-entering on April 23. Mangham, who recently went into the portal on April 30, is the only newcomer whom the Wolverines couldn't have pursued months earlier if they viewed those players as can't-miss options. 

"We'll see," head coach Sherrone Moore said at his post-spring news conference when asked about potential targets in the portal. "Different needs at different spots. Won't get into all the particulars, but we'll see how we progress. Excited for the building of this team."

With rising junior Will Johnson entrenched as the No. 1 corner following an All-American performance in 2023, newcomers Johnson and Hall should challenge for a starting spot on the opposite side of the field, just as Wallace did after arriving from UMass last summer. Sophomore Jyaire Hill, a highly touted four-star prospect from the 2023 recruiting cycle, will likely be their primary challenger. Outgoing members of Michigan's defensive coaching staff were giddy when Hill committed and always viewed him as a future star.

Walker and Mangham, the new safeties, will likely battle with Paige and graduate student Quinten Johnson for snaps on the back end of Martindale's defense. Another candidate at safety is rising junior Zeke Berry, who flashed at times last season and took significant steps forward this spring. Berry is also in the running to replace Sainristil at nickel. 

Here's a closer look at Michigan's new defensive backs: 

Jaden Mangham, safety, Michigan State

Height: 6-2
Weight: 185 
Experience: Two seasons
Recruiting profile: Four-star prospect in the 2022 cycle (No. 311 overall, No. 13 ATH)

An in-state prospect from Franklin, Michigan, a northwest suburb of Detroit, Mangham had a scholarship offer from the Wolverines in high school but never took an official visit to Ann Arbor. He started two games for Michigan State as a true freshman in 2022 before blossoming into a full-time starter last season. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition from the coaches and media after racking up 53 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. Of the 606 snaps Mangham played last year, nearly 74% of them came at free safety. The rest were divided between slot corner/nickel (15%), box safety (11%) and perimeter corner (less than 1%). Opposing quarterbacks completed 10 of 16 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 106.3 when throwing in Mangham's direction, according to Pro Football Focus. Mangham missed eight tackles and was flagged for two penalties last season.

Wesley Walker, safety, Louisville/Tennessee/Georgia Tech

Height: 6-1
Weight: 200
Experience: Five seasons
Recruiting profile: Three-star prospect in the 2019 cycle (No. 572 overall, No. 58 CB)

Walker's long and winding career will make its final stop at Michigan thanks to an extra year of eligibility left over from the COVID-19 pandemic. He entered college as a slot corner/nickel for Georgia Tech before transitioning to safety. Three years and 13 starts for the Yellow Jackets gave way to two productive years with Tennessee in 2022 and 2023. Walker started 10 games last season and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 53, including one sack. He played nearly 63% of his 636 total snaps at free safety with the rest split between box safety (21%), slot corner/nickel (15%), defensive line (less than 1%) and perimeter corner (less than 1%). Opposing quarterbacks completed 16 of 18 passes for 212 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 115.7 when throwing in Walker's direction. He missed 11 tackles but did not commit a penalty last season. Walker originally transferred to Louisville over the winter but re-entered the portal after completing spring practice with the Cardinals. 

Ricky Johnson, cornerback, UNLV

Height: 6-1
Weight: 180
Experience: Four seasons
Recruiting profile: Three-star prospect in the 2020 cycle (No. 1,935 overall, No. 151 S)

Johnson was a low-level three-star recruit from Cypress Falls High School in Houston, Texas. He committed to UNLV over Air Force, Army, Fordham, Grambling State, Navy and Rice, among others, but did not receive any scholarship offers from schools in power conferences. After earning limited playing time as a freshman, Johnson developed into a solid contributor during his sophomore season. He appeared in 11 games in 2021, including two starts, and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. An injury sidelined Johnson for most of the 2022 campaign before he bounced back to earn a full-time starting role last year. He made 36 tackles (three for loss) and recorded seven pass breakups for a team that reached the Mountain West Conference Championship game. Of his 522 total snaps, Johnson played more than 85% of them as a perimeter corner. The rest were split between the box (11%), free safety (less than 2%), slot corner (less than 2%) and defensive line (less than 1%). Opposing quarterbacks completed 25 of 39 passes for 411 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 116.5 when throwing in Johnson's direction. He missed four tackles and was flagged for three penalties last season. 

Aamir Hall, cornerback, Albany/Richmond

Height: 6-1
Weight: 201
Experience: Four seasons
Recruiting profile: Zero-star recruit in the 2020 cycle

Hall was a four-year letterwinner at Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore, Maryland, and committed to Richmond over additional scholarship offers from Air Force, Army, Maine, Morgan State and other lower-level programs. He started 14 of the 15 games he played during his first two years with the Spiders before his involvement decreased in 2022, after which he transferred to Albany. Hall recorded 57 tackles, 12 pass breakups and five interceptions for the Great Danes last season to earn FCS All-America honors during his lone year with the program. Opposing quarterbacks completed 62 of 100 passes for 641 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions with an NFL passer rating of 73 on passes thrown in Hall's direction. He missed 15 tackles and was flagged for five penalties. Hall is the latest high-profile transfer from Albany searching for greater success in the power conferences. Defensive end Jared Verse, who played for the Great Danes from 2019-21, developed into a two-time All-American at Florida State before the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the first round of last month's NFL Draft. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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