Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Michigan Wolverines, Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Michigan program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Wolverines will do this season.
Last week, I scanned at the 2012 Michigan offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Michigan defense.
2011 scoring defense: 17.4 PPG (second in the conference)
Total defense: 322.2 YPG (fourth)
Rushing defense: 3.99 YPC (sixth)
Passing efficiency allowed: 120.48 (sixth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.0
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: second (2011)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2010)
Returning starters: DE Craig Roh, SLB Jake Ryan, MLB Kenny Demens, WLB Desmond Morgan, WLB Brandin Hawthorne, CB Blake Countess, CB J.T. Floyd, SS Jordan Kovacs, FS Thomas Gordon
Open positions: DE, DT
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: conservative
In the first and second parts of this series, the expectations that surrounded the Wolverines as they began the 2011 season were brought up, as well as how they surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic—though still realistic—fans.
This was especially true on defense.
When taking a preseason look at last year's D, I noted, "despite his reputation and background, Hoke is decidedly an offense-first coach and the numbers bear that out. In eight years as a head coach (he has never worked as a coordinator), Hoke has never had a scoring defense in the top 20. He has only once had a defense in the top 30 (Ball State was No. 29 in 2008)."
I further noted "if Hoke hopes to remedy his past defensive woes, he has certainly hired the right defensive coordinator."
That coordinator (DC) is Greg Mattison, and he, as much as anybody, deserves credit for turning 2010's 107th defense in the country, into a top-10 group.
Part of the reason Mattison and the Michigan defense enjoyed such a quick and egregious turnaround was because the defensive personnel was experienced—10 returning starters—and, surprisingly to some, ideal for what Hoke and Mattison wanted to do.
The problem was former coach Rich Rodriguez and his DC, Greg Robinson, were seemingly trapped in an alternate universe where a 280-pound defensive tackle—Mike Martin—could easily be plugged into the nose tackle in a three-man front.
On the other hand, Martin, and former strong-side end Ryan Van Bergen, were perfectly suited to Hoke's/Mattison's scheme, and not surprisingly, after some early-season hiccups, they took right to it.
This year, three of those ideally-suited defensive linemen have exhausted their eligibility, while almost all of the back seven return.
The issue is that in a conservative scheme like Hoke's/Mattison's, it all starts up front.
If the front can't generate a pass-rush or control the line of scrimmage, the back seven has to compensate a great deal more than in an aggressive scheme.
In effect, maintaining the defense's level of production from 2011 will be as much of, if not more of, a feat for Mattison than his amazing turnaround from 2010.
The 2011 Michigan defense was better than it's been in a long time, and much of the reason for that was due to the proper management of a number of quality upper-class defensive linemen.
The talent was always there for Rich Rodriguez to field a quality defense. He just reached new standards of ineptitude in terms of player management.
Regardless, three of those defensive linemen are gone, which leaves UM starting from something close to scratch.
Senior Craig Roh has a good deal of experience and is a disciplined, quality player. Nonetheless, after three years of starting at both defensive end and linebacker, it is palpable that he is not a game-changer. This season, he will switch from weak-side end to the strong side (per ESPN), arguably his most natural position in a career that has seen him play multiple positions.
Meanwhile, senior William Campbell came to Michigan as Rivals' No. 5 defensive tackle in the country. He has all the talent in the world, but his work ethic, maturity and ability to put it all together has held him back. His recent guilty plea to a vandalism charge (via ESPN) indicates he may be struggling with the same issues.
He is the most likely to replace departed all-conference nose tackle Mike Martin, though Hoke has yet to comment on any disciplinary measures stemming from Campbell's brush with the law.
Other players that will push Campbell include junior Quinten Washington, sophomore Richard Ash and true freshman Ondre Pipkins.
Junior Jibreel Black has the inside track for the defensive tackle position. At 6'2", 270 pounds, he is undersized, which is to be expected, as he recently switched from end to tackle (via AnnArbor.com), where he played last year.
He will be pushed by Washington and sophomores Nate Brink and Kenny Wilkins.
The weak-side end competition, according to Kyle Meinke on AnnArbor.com, was the "defense's fiercest job battle of the spring."
Sophomore linebacker-turned-speed-rusher Brennan Beyer and fellow-sophomore Frank Clark are the two candidates.
Beyer earned the start for the spring game, but Mattison said "not to read too much into that."
On the other hand, Clark's recent arrest and subsequent suspension (per ESPN) might have answered any questions about who would get the starting nod.
Last season, the defense's success was, to a large degree, attributable to the line. This season, the success of the defense will have a great deal to do with how quickly and fluidly the new linemen establish themselves.
Big Ten Position Ranking: Eight
Is Kenny Demens the best linebacker to wear maize and blue since Larry Foote graduated in 2001?
It's hard to say, but the only other Michigan linebacker that has been in Demen's league was David Harris, who graduated in 2006.
Demens is gearing up for a big senior year, and he will have to be on top of his game, given the graduation of three of the UM front four.
He will get help from returning starters Desmond Morgan, Jake Ryan and Brandin Hawthorne, all of whom will be much improved from their 2011 campaign.
This is especially true of Morgan and Ryan, the former of whom was a true freshman last year.
Ryan has the most upside. He will man the strong side, and this year, he could begin to take his place as the future leader of the Michigan defense. As a testament to his explosiveness, he lines up at defensive end in obvious passing downs.
Morgan will have first dibs at the weak side, the same position at which he started seven games last year. Via Michigan blog MGOBlog.com, he "wrested the job away from a couple veterans once he got healthy, whereupon he was okay for a freshman; problems in coverage; problems with misdirection; a big chunk of Michigan's outside vulnerability; will either improve or see someone yoink his job."
Hawthorne is a senior that was ideally suited for Rich Rodriguez's linebacker/safety hybrid position. Now that Rodriguez is gone, he finds himself without a position, though he did grab a few starts at weak-side linebacker last year.
The more likely players to push Morgan are red-shirt freshman Antonio Poole and true freshman and early-enrolee, Caleb Ringer.
Also, receiver-turned-safety-turned-linebacker, junior Cam Gordon, is in the mix on the strong side, though he will not unseat Ryan.
This is a good group that will be expected to compensate for the losses on defensive line.
Big Ten Position Ranking: Four
The Michigan defense took huge steps forward last season, but it still was vulnerable through the air.
Despite notching 30 sacks—fourth-most in the conference—the UM pass defense was ranked sixth in the Big Ten.
This season, Troy Woolfolk is the only non-returning key contributor.
Senior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Blake Countess will man the cornerback spots.
According to UM blog Maize n' Brew, Countess "is quickly becoming Michigan's best cornerback in a while," and, according to yours truly, he will be one of the Big Ten's nine breakout players for 2012.
J.T. Floyd will look to end his eventful, up-and-down career on a high note. He is the team's most fundamentally sound cornerback. Maize n' Brew noted, "he's not going to be an elite player, but he could have the best season of any Michigan corner, and he should be what every corner should be: good enough not to notice him."
Junior Courtney Avery is the third cornerback, and as long as he's not pressed into covering elite receivers, will be fine in that role.
Three-year-starting senior Jordan Kovacs will man strong safety. He is the quintessential walk-on safety—not going to wow anybody with his speed or measurables, but hits hard, is always dependable and is a large reason for Michigan's lack of big plays allowed last season (second fewest plays of 30-yards-or-more allowed). He is also the defense's emotional and tangible leader (from AnnArbor.com).
Thomas Gordon will start at free safety. He had a breakout 2011, but Mattison (via AnnArbor.com) used a word that one rarely associates with safeties when describing what he wants out of Gordon this year: "'...he must play faster. He must play more reckless.'"
If he does play "'more reckless,'" he could, according to Maize n' Brew, "be one of the better defensive backs in the conference this season."
Overall, this year's secondary will be one of the four best in the conference, but it will be left on an island more than it was last year, as the front four, due to the issues previously mentioned, will be a liability, at least at the beginning of the season.
As an Iowa fan, I am more than slightly familiar with Greg Mattison's scheme, which is similar to that of Kirk Ferentz and his former DC Norm Parker.
It is big on responsibility and fundamentals and has no tolerance for allowing big plays.
As Mattison himself noted last August (via AnnArbor.com), "'Our biggest goal and our biggest purpose with this defense is do not give up the really big plays.'"
The key to limiting those big plays starts with a fundamentally-sound defensive line that creates pressure without the help of much blitzing, and that allows the back seven to stay "back."
As has been covered, this year's defensive line lost three major contributors. Even more glaring, as Kyle Meinke of AnnArbor.com noted, "when you have a career bust (Campbell) replacing one of the team's best defensive linemen in a decade (Martin), with similar questions elsewhere, a regression is to be expected."
Despite the talent and experience in the back seven, there will be a slight regression.
It won't be anything major—nothing like Rich Rodriguez levels—but the Michigan defense won't produce at 2011 levels.
This will both true on the field—due to the aforementioned graduations—and in the stat book—due to the graduations and a brutal schedule that will test the Wolverines considerably more than last year's slate, which featured two ranked teams during the regular season.
The Big Blue D will not collapse, but it won't be in the top 15, and it will struggle to make it into the top 30.
Coming next Monday, an overview and breakdown of Michigan's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Wolverines will finish the 2012 season.
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