ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two years ago, Tyree Kinnel found several mentors on the Michigan football team in Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson.
Kinnel, a freshman, immediately realized that Wilson, a senior safety, set the mold for him. How Wilson handled himself in team meetings. How Wilson interacted with coaches and teammates. How Wilson carried himself in practice and on the field.
That’s how Kinnel had to carry himself at Michigan.
“Even though I was only with Jarrod Wilson one year, he taught me so much,” Kinnel said Tuesday night. “He took me under his wing. I’m so grateful for that. And now I’m trying to do that for others.”
Wilson is in his second year as a defensive back with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Now a junior, Kinnel has taken on the role that Wilson served for him in the fall of 2015.
That means more than just making plays on the field. It means setting a positive example for his teammates, and being a sounding board for a younger player, who may have been questioning his place in the defense, or who may just be having a bad day.
“Being one of the older guys, I do feel like I need to take on a leadership role,” said Kinnel, who had 17 tackles at safety and on special teams in 2016.
Taking a new role
Kinnel has the most experience in Michigan’s young secondary, and many expect Kinnel to become a starting safety.
Kinnel and his teammates follow a group that included players who are now in NFL training camps, and a secondary that allowed a national-best average of 142.5 passing yards a game.
Don’t expect Michigan’s new-look secondary to be just like its 2016 secondary. Kinnel doesn’t even expect that. He knows the limitations. He knows what people say about the secondary — that its lack of experience is a hindrance. It’s the truth, Kinnel says, but only to a degree.
“Because we did lose a lot,” Kinnel said. “The talent’s still there. The system’s still there. So, I don’t think we’re losing too much.
“We’re just trying to fill that role.”
Kinnel has to be a leader on a Michigan defense that lost all but one starter, and in a secondary that has to replace four NFL-caliber starters. Senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst sees a particular value in leadership within an already young defense.
“It’s everything,” Hurst said. “There’s a lot of young guys, and a lot of young guys need guidance, a lot of the time. Even if it’s not with football, it’s with school, or it’s with life in general. Just being able to be someone who’s there for them, when they’re going through something. During camp can be a tough time, when you’re here all the time, and you’re away from home for the first time, it’s really tough for the younger guys. It’s just trying to be there for them and trying to be that sort of voice of reason for them.”
Returning defensive backs Josh Metellus, Brandon Watson and Keith Washington have taken on bigger roles. Safeties Jaylen Kelly-Powell and J’Marick Woods enrolled at Michigan in January, which Kinnel believes has given the freshmen a leg up.
“It was a good thing they came in the spring,” Kinnel said. “They came [to camp] knowing the plays, knowing what they have to do and now they’re playing much faster,” Kinnel said.
Now, this group has to grow into its own identity, using the collective example that has been set for them.
“We’re not trying to be like them,” Kinnel said. “We’re not trying to be better than them. We’re just trying to come and do as best as we can to do what we’re asked, to play in the system [defensive coordinator] Coach [Don] Brown has us in, and compete every single day.”
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