MBN 2011 Preview: Defense

Our 2011 preview rolls on with a good look at the defense. Our offensive preview can be seen here.

First things first. If I see anything like this in 2011, I quit.

No. Really.

Key Returners
(projected starters in bold):
NT: Mike Martin, Quinton Washington, Kenny Wilkens
DT: Will Campbell, Richard Ash
SDE: Ryan Van Bergen, Will Heininger
WDE: Craig Roh, Jibreal Black
MLB: Kenny Demens, Merell Evans
SLB: Cam Gordon, Brennen Beyer, Jake Ryan
WLB: Brandon Herron, JB Fitzgerald, Mike Jones, Antonio Poole
CB: Troy Woolfolk, JT Floyd, Courtney Avery, Terry Talbot
SS: Carvin Johnson, Thomas Gordon, Brandin Hawthorne
FS: Jordan Kovacs, Marvin Robinson

Key Losses
(Starters in bold):
SLB Jonas Mouton, CB James Rogers, FS Ray Vinopal, MLB Obi Ezeh,

Improving from 2010
Anywhere you look on the defense...the front 7, pass coverage, tackling, turnovers, run stopping...all of it needs drastic improvement. Hard to believe, but at the end of 2010, Michigan ranked...

stat bullets!:
• Overall defense: 110
• Scoring defense: 108
• Pass eff. defense: 103
• Rush defense: 95
• Pass defense: 112
• Sacks: 98
• Turnover margin: 109
• Tackles for loss: 77

Those are simply astonishing numbers for a Michigan defense. If you would have told me that hiring Rich Rodriguez would have led to this, I would have said you can take you 8th ranked overall offense and hit the road. Make no mistake, defense wins in the Big Ten.

Defense. Wins. Always.

The front 4
It all starts up front. That's not just a cute little saying, it's true. The only lineman worth his salt last year was Mike Martin. And that was with getting double-teamed and held on almost every play. Will Campbell has an amazing opportunity to be coached back to relevance by 3 great defensive coaches...Hoke, Mattison and DL coach Jerry Montgomery. If Campbell can't get it together under these three...

What amazes me is that even with last year's struggles, this group is actually pretty solid, at least on paper. A long off-season can do that sometimes. It's been a while since Wisconsin ran the ball on us something like 34 straight times without us able to stop them. That really did happen.

That solidarity stems from senior leadership. We have it with Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin, who have really held this defense together through the coaching staff change. But as a unit, no group will benefit more from the new staff than the d-line.

Roh will move back to DE where he really showed he can play two years ago. His stint at OLB did no one any favors. Roh put on some weight in the off-season to get back on the line. Roh has also been the rumored to be battling some sort of illness. Not sure how credible these rumors are. Roh back at weak DE, opposite Van Bergen (or similar) on the strong side is the first step in making us a true 4-3 again.

Insert slow clap here.

Now on to internetz rumors...

On Nathan Brink
First of all, any time a walk-on can come into camp and make some noise is always a good thing. There are people out there projecting him as a starter at SDE. I'd say that might be jumping the gun a little, even though he's been running with the 1's in fall camp (and Campbell running with the 2s). This may be just as much of a training tool to push the competition among the scholarship players. Or Brink may indeed be the real deal. We'll see on September 3rd. But either way, if Brink is the man, I'm all for it.

Hoke came out at Tuesday's (8/23) presser and said if the season would start today, Brink would start at the 5-technique DE position.

On Will Campbell
Campbell is the elephant in the room...literally and figuratively. He's big, tough looking, and it sounds like he's trying really hard. But it also sounds like it's just not working out.

Brady Hoke on Campbell:
Will Campbell left spring at 342 pounds and came in at 316, 319,” he said. “Just watching him move around and do those things, you can see that. That’s a commitment. A commitment is always important - he showed his teammates he’s made a commitment."
Hoke says that Big Well has played the 3 and 1 technique in camp. On a side note, Will Heininger has played all 3 techniques well.

Greg Mattison on Campbell:
"He has come out every day as tough as he can. He listens to [defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery] on every word. When he tells him to step a certain way, he tries to step a certain way. And he's really, really physical." …
"In the spring it was mentioned a number of times because his toughness stuck out like crazy," Mattison said.
A lot of effort...which is good to hear. But trying as hard as he can and getting run out of camp by a walk-on is disheartening. The internet can be harsh place sometimes.

A year or two ago, I would have said that replacing Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton would have not been easy. And even now it's tough to come on here and say that they won't be at least a little missed. Ezeh made a career, at least over the last two years, of playing obnoxiously out of position...which led to him being benched after 5 games last year at MLB in favor of Kenny Demens, who will likely be a solid at the MLB. Mike Jones is seeing some time at middle, and also weak side.

Outside linebackers will be a revolving door. And that's ok. What Greg Mattison brings to Michigan is a pro-style substitution system. A flexible defense is key in terms of personnel playing different positions. Cam Gordon has been looking solid at SLB and should see the bulk of his time there, as will Brennen Beyer and spring standout Jake Ryan. WLB is a little more up for grabs with JB Fitzgerald, Brandon Herron and now Desmond Morgan (!?) all looking strong in fall camp.

But honestly, I really think that scheme alone is going to be the strongest addition to this unit. Even with suitable talent, GERG never was able to squeeze anything useful out of Ezeh, Mouton, or any of the returning linebackers on this team. Blame the 3-5-5, and I'm sure we all will, but frankly I think it just boils down to poor coaching.

Actually not as freaked out as I was a year ago about this group. Why? I don't know...just not. Troy Woolfolk coming back is good news for Wolverine fans. He and JT Floyd bring some experience to the corners which hasn't seen much over the last few years. Courtney Avery and Terry Talbot will also see some playing time this year for sure. We're hearing really good things out of fall camp about all of these guys...especially Woolfolk who is the senior leader of the D backfield.

Safeties also get some experience and depth with former walk-on Jordan Kovacs and Carvin Johnson looking like starters. Kovacs seems to be impressing the current coaching staff just as he did the previous staff. Brady Hoke calls Kovacs the QB of the D. The fact that he impresses Hoke/Mattison means much more to me than him impressing RR/GERG, for obvious reasons. Backing them up and likely battling for starting roles are Thomas Gordon, Brandin Hawthorne and Marvin Robinson.

Honestly, a good front seven makes your DBs better. We left a lot of these guys out on an island last year because of sub-par play by our front seven. Proof was in the 20-yard buffer that our corners would give opposing WRs. Bad defense all around was evident in not just the secondary last year...but the secondary gets exposed easier. I could go on and on, but you probably see what I am trying to say here.

Realistic expectations
Those rankings I listed above are simply unacceptable for a Michigan defense. Had Rich Rod focused on defense more, he might still be here. But those numbers meant that RichRod and GERG had to go. You clean house when you rank that low at Michigan.

I expect a significant improvement in all aspects of the defense. Why drastic? A few reasons. Good old fashioned solid coaching. Strong senior leadership. Schemes that suit the players we have. It's not outside the realm of possibility to see improvement in each of those rankings above...improvements of maybe 30-60 spots in each category. We're not going to be a dominating defense in just one season, but we're going to take the first good step in that direction...and lay the foundation for better defenses to come. I mean, just check out the 2012 recruiting class.

One thing is for certain, this staff is going to be really hard on this defense. They're going to push and scream to get every ounce of effort out of each player. Some guys, especially at this level, thrive in that type of atmosphere. Some shy away. I think a lot of rumors we're hearing out of fall camp with some guys stepping up and some not aren't just hot air. I think this defense is being simplified, but also being pushed to it's breaking point in order to weed out the guys who were most responsible for the 110th ranked defense in the country in 2010.

In almost any category, there's nowhere to go but up. But if what we're hearing out of camp is any true indication of progress, then I expect to see a fierce unit that is committed to getting better on each play, in each game. And when you're trying to build something from scratch, that's what you're looking for. I believe this defense will have it's moments. But it will also struggle against some teams. But I do think, overall, it's going to be fun to watch Michigan play defense once again.

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