Michigan Head Coach, Rich Rodriguez, never makes any predictions about the upcoming season.
Then again, it's very rare when any coach says anything much more positive in the preseason than, "We should be vastly improved," and the all-too-familiar, "We're practicing extremely hard."
When Rodriguez recently was asked whether the defense will be better this fall, the anticipated response probably went something like this: "Are you kidding me? We can only be better from here!
I lied. It went like this:
"I certainly hope so," Rodriguez said, matter-of-factly. "That's certainly one of the team's expectation."
Of course that's always expectation, and significant changes have been made since last season's dismal defensive performance under defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to make it seem a reality.
Last season, Michigan was 80th nationally in scoring defense, while giving up a program-worst average 28.9 points. The Wolverines also were 87th in pass defense (230 yards per game)—think big plays—and 68th in total defense (366.92).
Shafer is now at Syracuse and former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson is the defensive coordinator at Michigan, which has had three coordinators in the past three seasons. With Shafer went a 4-3 base scheme, and with Robinson came a 3-4 base.
"Even though it's a different system defensively, a lot of the same methods and fundamentals the position coaches were teaching (last season) now have the second year to take hold," Rodriguez said. "They're a lot bigger, stronger and faster after being in the weight room with Mike Barwis for a whole year.
"There are some differences in schemes. We're probably more to a pro 3-4 than a 4-3, but there's a little bit of that everywhere you look. There's some 4-3 stuff in there, then you have the nickel and dime and third-down packages that are three-man fronts. We're all over the place, but just about every defense in America does that."
Michigan's defensive players said they deeply respect Robinson's experience and his attention to detail.
"He has a story for everything," said Stevie Brown, now playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role. "He can see something that happens to you and then he can show you on the film, and he has so much archived film. He studies the game more now than he ever has. With him being around, it's very positive for us.
"We know he's someone we can all learn from. He's been through a lot of things. He's won Super Bowls, he's won Rose Bowls, he's a winner, and he knows how to win, so you can believe and listen to everything he says."
He has been a winner everywhere hes gone (coordinator wise not head coach)
What Robinson wants from the Michigan defense is not unique, but with a lack of depth and a good deal of inexperience—only five starters return, including experienced end Brandon Graham—he has been working on the basics while adding layers to the defense.
Even the first day of camp, the defense came out attacking with a variety of blitz packages.
"He wants it very fast, he wants people pursuing, he wants people to hit very hard and cause a ton of turnovers," Brown said. "He wants people to tackle very well. The things he asks isn't like he's asking just ridiculous amounts of things. He wants the basics done, and he wants them done right. Whenever you get the basics done right, that's when you start getting innovative and start doing some different things.
"He wants us to be the best tackling team in America, and he stresses that every single day. Every day in spring practice we were doing tackling drills, open-field tackling drills at that, so we will be the best tackling team."
Wait? Isn't tackling basic? Isn't that something all coaches work on and stress?
"It wasn't tso much they (the two previous coordinators) didn't teach tackling drills, (but) they didn't go into the detail that Robinson goes into teaching tackling drills," Brown said. "He's practicing to make sure we get our angles right and getting into proper position, so we can react either way. He goes more into detail. He spends a lot of time on it." I think thats what makes him such a good Defensive Coordinator
Robinson has brought with him the hybrid positions—called "spinner" and "quick." Guys such as Brown and Brandon Herron fall into those hybrid roles, Brown as a safety-linebacker or "spinner" and Herron, an end-linebacker or a "quick."
The idea is to utilize their athleticism and get the fastest, most physical guys on the field. Also to have a guy close to the line of scrimmage.
Rodriguez said this week he has some concerns regarding the depth of the defensive line, but the heart of the line—Graham, voted the team's most valuable player last season, and tackles Mike Martin and Ryan VanBergen—are solid. VanBergen described the line, including Herron, as "fast, athletic, fit," but there's no doubt that depth is an issue.
That's why freshmen Will Campbell out of Cass Tech and Craig Roh could see playing time, Rodriguez said. We need guys that can help with our depth
"They're getting a ton of reps, that's for sure, and we're trying to get them ready," Rodriguez said this week. "Are we going to be as deep as I want to be defensively? That won't be happening this year. Now, hopefully, through recruiting and development in the next couple years, we'll have more depth. We don't have a big senior class. We have only two seniors that are starting, so it's something we will obviously need to address.
"But we're certainly not where we need to be."