Michigan’s defense is a math problem, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has multiple ways to solve it.
Now in his third season with the Wolverines, Mattison is at the forefront of a defensive transition. In several of his other coaching stops, he’s made do with existing players. This year, he’ll be afforded more opportunities to develop talent that he recruited and push along those already under his tutelage.
Having a number of combinations on the four-man front, at linebacker and in the secondary is a luxury for Mattison, whose pool of talent is filled with possibilities.
Wolverines' Secondary Is Interesting
Maintaining a fifth-ranked pass defense is imperative. The bar has been set, as holes left by safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd must be filled.
Depth at corner is decent. Not great. But decent.
Safety is another story.
With Raymon Taylor, one of the team’s most improved defensive backs, and Blake Countess, an all-league-caliber cover man, Mattison has a steady but short pair of corners defending the deep ball.
Safeties Jarrod Wilson and Thomas Gordon figure to start. However, the coaching staff may have to mix and match at the position, depending on how they perform.
Talented true freshman Dymonte Thomas, a former 4-star recruit with 4.49-second speed in the 40-yard dash, also figures to get playing time at safety and cornerback. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, he also played running back in high school.
Thomas is athletic enough to keep up with dominant receivers along the sideline, and he’s quick enough to be a valuable asset in the middle of the field.
He also likes to hit. And that’s useful anywhere.
Other than senior Quinton Washington starting at nose tackle, the players on the defensive line could change drastically from one week to the next.
Frank Clark, a junior, will be one of the cornerstones at end. Back from a neck injury, Ondre Pipkins, a sophomore, could be one of Mattison's most valuable on the line.
As with the secondary, there are young players waiting to get a break. True freshman Taco Charlton, a 6’6”, 265-pound early enrollee, played well in the spring game. He could make an immediate impact by serving as a third-down pass-rush specialist.
Jibreel Black, a senior tackle, can send quarterbacks into hiding with his improved technique. The senior says that Michigan is on its way to being more effective when pressuring the quarterback.
“You see glimpses of it every day,” Black said of the pass rush’s improvement (via Maize ‘N Brew’s Matt Pargoff). “You see glimpses of us getting better as pass rushers every single day. If we keep building on that, we’re going to be successful.”
Black will likely be a regular whether Michigan runs the 3-4 or 4-3.
Then a sophomore, Brennen Beyer started eight games at defensive end in 2012. However, he’s needed to help fill in for linebacker Jake Ryan, who’s looking to return in October after tearing his ACL in spring activities.
It’s been a competitive offseason for the defensive linemen. Sophomore Mario Ojemudia did well in the spring game, giving Mattison yet another option to replace Beyer.
Playing the merry-go-round game can be a frustrating and detrimental cycle.
However, the defensive line has held together under Mattison. The same will probably be true this season, regardless of personnel decisions.
Linebackers All Around
Which unit will lead Michigan's defense?
Michigan doesn’t have to wait for Ryan to return in order to have a reliable presence in the middle of the field.
Cam Gordon started his career there before moving to safety. This season isn’t his first go-round. Experience is there. Because of the position change, Gordon never had the chance to get set at linebacker.
He now has that opportunity.
With Beyer, James Ross, Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan, Mattison has enough linebackers to tinker with until Ryan returns.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.