Greg Mattison: "Until we play error-free, 100-percent effort and great technique, you're not there." (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — Think back.
Remember Michigan's defensive numbers after the 2010 season?
"I could take a guess, yeah," Michigan senior safety Jordan Kovacs said this week.
The defense was ranked 108th at the end of that season. But now, two years later and with three regular-season games remaining, the Wolverines are ranked seventh nationally. Michigan also is 13th in scoring defense and first in pass defense.
But those numbers aren't good enough for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who came here with Brady Hoke in 2011, after spending two seasons as defensive coordinator in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.
"We aren't close yet," Mattison said of the defense this week during a break in preparations for Saturday's game against Northwestern at Michigan Stadium. "It's a ways away. Until we play error-free, 100-percent effort and great technique, you're not there."
Mattison is a perfectionist who believes that hammering the details — technique and fundamentals — is the only way to become a great defensive player.
Great, of course, is relative.
Hoke has known Mattison for years, and they've coached together for nine.
"I'm not surprised at anything Matty does," Hoke said this week. "He's a great teacher of the game. He's a guy who, preparation-wise, is second to none, in my opinion, in how he looks at an opposing offense and how you take those breakdowns and have the ability to communicate it to your players where they understand it.
"It's not what we know, it's what they know. He does a tremendous job of that."
From all accounts, Mattison is never satisfied.
"You can't be," Hoke said. "If you're satisfied, you're getting passed by."
Mattison's demands are sky high, but they are not unreasonable. Kovacs joked that the expectation is every tackle has to be for a 15-yard loss. The point is, Mattison has set the bar high for a defense that two years ago was treading water.
"That's what you look for in a coach — you want a coach who is never going to be satisfied," Kovacs said. "He's got unbelievable expectations, and that's kind of rubbed off on these seniors and on this defense."
Linebacker Desmond Morgan started as a freshman last season, so he has known no other defensive staff at Michigan. He can't imagine this defense without Mattison's direction.
"He brings fire and energy," Morgan said. "We play off that."
Former lineman Ryan Van Bergen's final season at Michigan last year was under Mattison's direction. He said Mattison has many layers that have made him so respected by the players.
"His role as a mentor and his role as a motivator is underplayed in comparison to his coaching ability," Van Bergen said recently. "He has tremendous coaching ability, but this ability to mentor and lead players, the way he runs things, makes him so much more than just a coach.
"He's almost like he's another head coach. His ability to adjust what he's saying, his demeanor — he says all the right things at the right times. He's not hard-nosed, but he's definitely not easy going. He relates to everyone on the team, and the result is everyone is more cohesive."
Kenny Demens, a fifth-year senior linebacker who grew up in Oak Park and played at Detroit Country Day, wasn't interested in discussing the early part of his career on the Michigan defense. But what he's seeing now, after a slow start this year that he says turned in the loss at Notre Dame, is what he always imagined.
"Growing up in the state of Michigan, all I heard about Michigan was the great defense, the linebackers, the secondary, the great guys who were coming through Michigan," Demens said. "Just to be part of something when I hear stuff like, 'Michigan defense is coming back,' — that makes me proud. I just want to be part of it."
Michigan's defense will be challenged Saturday by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. The Wildcats have an impressive 20 runs of 20 or more yards this season.
"You've got to keep erasing the technique mistakes and keep adding to the great technique and then pretty soon it's there," Mattison said. "The good news is we still have time. These are big games to get it done."