The old adage says you practice like you play, and Josh Metellus is apparently living up to that.
Michigan’s junior safety has rebounded from a mistake-riddled sophomore season to lead the sixth-ranked Wolverines in interceptions (three) through the first seven games of 2018.
And heading into Michigan’s Saturday showdown with rival Michigan State (noon, FOX), his confidence is at an all-time high.
“He’s been playing at a high level,” Michigan safeties coach Chris Partridge told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s been practicing at a high level. That’s why he’s playing at a high level.”
Metellus’ latest interception came in the second quarter of Michigan’s 38-13 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, grabbing a tipped pass from Alex Hornibrook out of the air to set the Wolverines’ offense up in the red zone.
It was his third interception in five games — a stretch in which he’s played like a veteran, disciplined player.
“He’s seeing the game really well and how we’re going to be attacked really well,” Partridge said. “He’s taking command, he’s being more vocal and he’s finishing plays.”
Partridge, in his first year coaching Michigan’s safeties, pointed to Michigan’s win over Maryland on Oct. 6 as an example. Metellus, playing the strong safety position, correctly and effectively communicated to Michigan’s defensive backfield a series of shifts and motions and recognized some unbalanced sets in the Maryland offense.
Michigan held the Terrapins, who they beat 42-21, to just 73 yards passing that game.
“From last year, I just felt like I made a big jump in my confidence level,” Metellus said Saturday after the Wolverines’ win over Wisconsin, in which he added five tackles and a pass breakup. “Whether it’s just tackling, man coverage, I felt like I made a big jump on that.
“If I’m confident, the rest of the defense is confident.”
To little surprise, confidence has not been an issue for the Michigan defense this year. The group currently ranks second in total defense this year, allowing just 238 yards per game, just 11 yards short of reclaiming its No. 1 standing from a year ago.
Meanwhile, the pass defense, Metellus included, remains the best in the country, giving up just 129.1 yards through the air per game. But the success hasn’t been without a series of early-season frustration. Metellus (31 tackles, three for a loss) was ejected for targeting in the season opener at Notre Dame, then drew a flag for a late hit on the quarterback the following week against Western Michigan.
“But from there, he’s learned from it,” Partridge said. “He’s grown and he’s gotten better and better. I’m proud of the way he’s practiced and the way he’s playing.”
Partridge says he first saw a change in demeanor from Metellus in the spring, after the 6-foot, 204-pound Florida native drew criticism for his spotty play in the secondary in 2017. Michigan suffered a series of breakdowns in the backfield then (all of which were not exclusive to Metellus), ones that helped contribute to losses at Penn State and Ohio State.
Metellus later acknowledged that he struggled with confidence last season. Being a first-time starter, he was still trying to figure everything out.
“He took it on the chin, he knew he had to improve in certain things,” Partridge said. “The best thing he did is he came in the spring with an open mind and said, ‘OK, what do I have to do?’ And worked to do that and improved, and took those criticisms as learning experiences and turned them into positives.
Said Partridge: “We’ve got to keep that going in practice.”