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Michigan Football: Greg Mattison's 'Team Defense' Succeeds Without Superstars

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 03:  Frank Clark #57 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with his teammates after he intercepted a pass in the second half against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 3, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Joel GreerCorrespondent IJuly 13, 2012

The biggest surprise of the 2011 Michigan football season was the defense's improvement.

Last season's Wolverines allowed 17.4 points per game, compared to 35.2 in 2010.

What's even more amazing is that the turnaround was accomplished with many of the same players.

The 2011 defense was composed  of eight starters from Rich Rodriguez's final squad, along with Blake Countess, Will Heininger, Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan.

Sure, the overall depth was better, but could the four new starters make that much of a difference?

They did make some difference, but the real answer was the arrival of a new coaching staff, the switch to a 4-3 package and the commitment to “team defense.”

There would be no more “spectating” between the sidelines. The term gang tackling would be summoned from the distant past. And once again, you could hear crushing tackles throughout the Big House.

The architect of the resurgence is defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who refined his craft with the highly respected Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League.

He gave us just a glance of Michigan's defense of the future. His squad finished second in Big Ten scoring defense, fourth in total defense and first in red-zone defense. And he did it with no first-team all-Big Ten players and only Mike Martin being drafted by the NFL.

Just imagine how good the platoon will be when youngsters like Countess, Ryan, Brennan Beyer, Frank Clark and the slew of talented newcomers gain some experience.

There are, however, a couple of concerns as the 2012 campaign approaches. The interior line will be an early-season question mark as Will Campbell tries to salvage a disappointing career and undersized Jibreel Black moves from end to tackle.

From the four-man front, only Roh is expected to pressure the quarterback in the early going, so Mattison will be forced to turn Ryan and Jordan Kovacs loose with clever blitz packages, much like we saw at the beginning of last season.

Pass coverage is the other concern, since added blitzing will necessitate more man coverage. Only Countess has proven to be a reliable cover corner, but he's no Charles Woodson, at least not yet. Courtney Avery and J.T. Floyd are average at best.

At safety, Thomas Gordon was fighting to keep his job late last season and Kovacs is best known for his run support.

By midseason, don't be surprised if freshmen are getting increased playing time in the interior line and secondary. Should Mattison be able to shore up these areas, Michigan's 2012 defense could be better than last year's.

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