Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Troy Woolfolk

No one wants to make a bigger impact right now more than Troy Woolfolk. The redshirt senior cornerback was unable to have playing time in 2010 because of a severe ankle injury that kept him on the sidelines. Reports indicate that Woolfolk is fully recovered and is eager to make up for lost time.

Before his injury, Woolfolk was probably the best cornerback in Michigan's secondary. When he broke his ankle during fall practice in September 2010, it was the first of many blows Michigan's defense would suffer. It would be followed by player attrition, questionable position changes, and a 3-3-5 scheme that apparently struggled to be effective. The result was that Michigan's defense became the worst in its history. Of course, because he was unable to participate, Woolfolk himself is not to blame, but it is very likely that he wants his return to the field to make a significant difference. With Brady Hoke's adamant focus on defense, Woolfolk knows that he'll be able to do so and that he'll be put to the test. Throughout 2010 Michigan was depleted in its secondary, and now it is desperate to find an effective and talented cornerback. Woolfolk might be the answer.

His father is Butch Woolfolk, who Michigan football history buffs will remember was a running back for Bo Schembechler and rushed for 3,850 yards (a record at the time). Butch Woolfolk also played in the 1981 Rose Bowl, in which the Wolverines won 23-6 against the Washington Huskies; it was Schembechler's first Rose Bowl victory. Butch and Troy share a father-son Michigan legacy with such players as Stan and Braylon Edwards, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, and Bob and John Kolesar, among others.

According to, Troy Woolfolk was a three-star prospect coming out of high school. Chris Balas does a relatively complete profile piece on Woolfolk in last year's Michigan Football Preview Issue of The Wolverine Magazine, listing him as the defensive secondary's best player, and it discusses in large part his journey to adapt to becoming a defensive back. According to Balas, Woolfolk was primarily focused on track in high school ("with football as an afterthought"), and though his speed was what attracted scholarship offers, he didn't entirely understand the game of football.

"Where I first got here, I didn't know cover three, cover two alignments," Woolfolk told Balas last year. "I was so lost. My whole freshman year was a building-up year. It was like I was playing a new sport. The end of my sophomore year was when I actually started picking up on the game and knowing it…I would always get in trouble for not using the proper football terminology. They would say 'use reroute!' to get a receiver off his route. I would say 'push the guy.' I was the laughingstock."

As a freshman at safety, he was initially coached by defensive coordinator Ron English, before Rich Rodriguez arrived and chose not to retain English as part of his new defensive staff. Despite the transition, Woolfolk managed to excel. By the time he was a junior in 2009, he started all twelve games and recorded 46 total tackles.

Rodriguez's defensive staff changed several times, and because the defensive secondary became increasingly spread thin, Woolfolk was moved around a lot. Since he was seen as probably one of the more skilled and reliable defensive backs, the coaches moved Woolfolk from safety to cornerback. And even then, his place in the defense was still in flux. He says the position change meant he had to essentially start over. 

"I think it hurt me a little because I wasn't able to excel at one position," he said in Balas's 2010 article. "Every time I'd get better I just had to erase all those memories and then go somewhere else. For instance, I'd start to get better at corner, then I'd go to safety and forget all the corner details. If I do more [man-to-man coverage] emphasis at safety, I'm going to get beat deep…It was just a hard adjustment. You have to do less chasing people and keep good awareness for other people coming into your zone. It's basically raising your awareness in the new defense. It was kind of hard at first, but you pick up on it, especially through repetition."

He expected to make a huge difference in 2010, which would have been his last year since he was a senior. "I won't be able to come back and to anything," he also told Balas. "I do extra running myself so I can know I gave it my all my last year." Then, on Tuesday, August 17, 2010, Troy Woolfolk suffered an injury in practice that would mean his hopes of playing in the upcoming season were over. He had dislocated his ankle and needed surgery. "[The coaches] said it happened during a tackle," Butch Woolfolk reportedly told the Detroit Free Press. "His foot got stuck in the turf and his ankle just turned. It was dislocated and when they put it back in the socket, they did an X-ray and found out about the ligament [damage] and the bone broke."

Nearly a year later, Troy told Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News exactly how it happened. "We were playing a cover three and it was a tight end, Kevin Koger, and a wideout receiver, which was Martavious Odoms, and Martavious ran a go-route to run me off and Kevin Koger ran a 5-yard out route," Woolfolk said. "The quarterback threw the ball to Kevin, so when I came down to try to make the tackle, I didn't see Martavious on my left. When I planted my foot to make the tackle, Martavious hit me on my left and my weight started coming over here (to the right), but then my foot got stuck in the ground, so my body didn't go with it, and that's when I felt a snap. At first when it happened I thought I sprained my ankle. I guess the adrenaline wore off, and I looked at it, and that's when I realized something may be wrong here. I panicked and I remember (defensive lineman) Ryan Van Bergen was next to me and I looked him in the eye and was like, 'Put it back in place! Put it back in place!' He looked scared. I just wanted it back in place, I didn't care how or who did it. It was bad."

It was a development no one could have foreseen. As Woolfolk was transported to U-M's hospital, news broke across the Michigan blogosphere. "The cornerback position has been hit particularly hard recently at Michigan," wrote Adam Rittenberg, an ESPN Big Ten blogger. "Troy Woolfolk brought leadership and experience to a Michigan secondary lacking both. His leg injury could leave a big hole in the Wolverines' defense." 

The rest of 2010 is history. Woolfolk may not have been able to play that year, but Rodriguez's coaching staff cleverly used it as an opportunity to redshirt him, so that he could possibly return in 2011. 

Like anyone coming back from a major leg injury, Woolfolk's recovery has been steady but slow-going. He has gone from wheelchair-bound to walking, and his physical therapy is coming along nicely. Much to the relief of the Michigan fan base, and possibly Woolfolk himself, he has been finally able to participate in practice and make solid contributions that remind everyone of his talent on defense. However, he was notably absent from Michigan's 2011 Spring Game, where he stood on the sidelines in pads. (It should also be noted that defensive end Ryan Van Bergen was on the sidelines for similar reasons.) In the Spring Game Press Conference, new coach Brady Hoke explained that, despite the contributions in practice, that for the intensity of the spring game, Woolfolk "wasn't quite ready" but that he was getting there.

Things have gotten a lot better since then. According to his father, Troy is fully back to doing seven-on-seven drills in practice, and recently, in June, Troy himself told reporters that he was back to 100 percent. "Right now, I don't even remember getting injured," he said. "Being out there, I don't feel it. It's not hampering me in any way. I can stop and break at 100 percent, so it's not even a factor."

Looking toward the upcoming 2011 season, now only a little over a month away, Michigan will need Woolfolk's abilities at cornerback. Besides his speed, his greatest asset is experience, which the secondary has been lacking. It's also possible that Woolfolk could be moved back to safety if that suits him better. While it's unlikely Woolfolk will suffer another serious injury as bad as the last one, I wouldn't rule it out, but there's a reason why we're naming Woolfolk as a player to watch, so generally I'm optimistic. If he does get injured again and is forced to sit out the 2011 season, this will all look bad.

Still, there are plenty of fans out there who remain uneasy about Woolfolk because they wonder how much his injury has hindered him. According to Woolfolk himself, there's nothing to worry about, and he's ready to make a big impact this season. He knows where the defense stands, and he's ready to bring back confidence to it. He was ready to do it last year, and since that opportunity was taken away, he craves it even more this time.

"I feel like I'm going to hit the ground running right away," he said. "I don't think it'll take a few games for me to get my swag back. I'm going to have it from the jump."

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