Michigan football's Dax Hill called perhaps best cover guy in Big Ten by Don Brown
A year ago, Daxton Hill was just trying to figure it all out.
The former five-star prospect (one of four to sign with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan football) arrived in Ann Arbor with more hype than any other player in his class. The high expectations included Hill immediately finding the field as a true freshman.
And he did. It was just a process.
Hill admitted last October that he dealt with homesickness. And the transition from high school to college proved difficult, as Hill had to learn how to balance football and schoolwork.
But that's all in the past now. As Hill enters his second season, the Wolverines expect a lot more out of him.
"I’m not sure he isn’t the best cover guy in the Big Ten, to be honest with you," said defensive coordinator Don Brown during a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon.
Hill began last season as a special teams ace, then gradually saw his role increase on the back end of the defense. He was the third-string safety behind the now-graduated Josh Metellus and Brad Hawkins, but won the nickel cornerback job. In Michigan's defense, that meant Hill often saw the field on passing downs covering the slot receiver.
In a 10-3 win over Iowa on Oct. 5, Hill finally broke out with six tackles, one for loss, and a crucial pass breakup across the middle on fourth down. After that game, he began earning more reps in practice. And by the end of the season, he started the final three games in place of an injured Hawkins.
There were bumps along the way, of course. Hill gave up a couple completions against Indiana in his first collegiate start (although he also recorded an interception on a tipped ball). He was part of a defense that got bombed by Ohio State for 56 points. And he also gave up a 75-yard touchdown pass to Alabama's star receiver Jerry Jeudy in the Citrus Bowl.
But Hill's potential was evident.
"Boy, he can run," Brown said. "Some guys, they run hard and fast and all that and you go, ‘Boy, is he working hard.’ Sometimes you wonder if he’s working hard. Of course he’s working hard. He makes everything look easy. We all wish we had those traits, right?”
Now, Hill is essentially penciled into a starting role. Brown has already noticed a marked improvement in Hill's knowledge of the defense and that Hill is "much more comfortable schematically."
"He’s way more accomplished in terms of understanding concepts and knowing what to do as an every-down safety," Brown said. "He plays faster on his feet, primarily pre-snap. He’s just lining up, playing football."
But the Wolverines aren't limiting Hill to one position. Brown said Wednesday that Michigan would be comfortable playing Hill on the outside as a cornerback "if we had any problems at all."
“He can fit in anywhere he wants to fit in," Brown said. "That’s how talented this guy is. He can play anywhere in the back end."
Since Brown took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, the Wolverines have had a few players with the versatility to play multiple roles. In 2019, hybrid linebacker Josh Uche served as the team's top pass-rusher, while also dropping back in coverage and still defending the run against larger offensive personnel groupings.
Brown brought up Uche as an example to illustrate how the Wolverines might use Hill this season.
"You try to take what the man is elite at and let him do that," Brown said. "With Dax, he can cover the slots. Let him do it. He can rush the edge. Let him do it. Is he a good internal blitzed? Eh, he can. But the guy can cover.
"It’s funny. Some guys are just always around the ball no matter if they know what they’re doing or not. He was one of those guys. 'Oh, the ball is over there and there’s Daxton.' Even when he was going through the learning curve and we were taking him through that, he was always around the ball. If you ask me what he was elite at, he was always around the ball."
Hill's development will be integral to the defense. The unit's top two coverage cornerbacks, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, have both moved on. So has Metellus, a multi-year starter and dependable presence. There are plenty of questions facing Michigan's new-look secondary. But with his talent and versatility, Hill could answer those questions.
"We think he has a high, high ceiling," Brown said. "He has not reached that ceiling in terms of potential turned into every-down performance, but he is certainly going in the right direction."
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