From the Outback Bowl, Don Brown describes his approach with the Michigan defense. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Tampa, Fla. — For Michigan, it seems these Outback Bowl practices are as much about preparing for next season as they are about getting a ninth victory to seal the 2017 season.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown said the practices have been exceedingly valuable for a young defense that is bracing to lose starters Maurice Hurst and Mike McCray.
“Every minute, every second that we’re spending out here you know is well spent, because it gives us a chance to A, work on techniques and fundamentals, B, broaden our scheme, C, just see how guys can grow now that they’ve been through a season, took a quick break and rechanneled their thinking,” Brown said Friday after practice. “Who’s really serious and focused and can take the next step schematically? All those things are important. Work with a great staff and great kids. Life’s good.”
In his first season coordinating Michigan’s defense last year, the Wolverines finished first nationally. This year, with only one returning starter — McCray — Michigan finished third nationally, giving up an average of 268.6 yards a game.
Despite an all-new starting secondary, the Wolverines finished first nationally in pass defense. But against the run, Michigan was 21st, allowing an average 125.9 yards a game.
“That’s not good enough, if you want my opinion,” Brown said. “We needed to be better. Penn State game, we needed to be better. If I had the same piece in that I had in for a couple of the later games, we’d have been in much better shape in that game. Whose fault is that? Mine. Not the players, it’s mine. Right here, put it on my shoulders, I’m a big boy, I got it. That’s one piece. But we need to be, in my opinion, in the top five or six against the run.”
Michigan did not generate an abundance of turnovers, namely, interceptions, but that’s because of the nature of its man coverages, Brown said.
“We’re batting balls down,” Brown said of the Wolverines, who had 47 pass breakups, to 27 by their opponents. “We’re unbelievable at pass breakups. That’s an area we do a really good job in. By nature, it’s what do you want to be philosophically.”
Brown’s defense has been criticized for being too much risk for reward. And there are those who wonder why Michigan doesn’t play more zone.
“I don’t really care. I don’t get tired of it,” Brown said of the questioning. “If you played more zone, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you play man?’ All I know is, where did we end up in pass defense in the country? I mean, what do you want from me? My point is, we’ve had 12 opponents, 11 of them we held under 200 yards. We averaged 140-something. If coach (Jim Harbaugh) don’t like it, he’s going to tell me and I’m going to go to the Cape Cod, OK? But I don’t really care.
“I want to contest every throw. I don’t want these quarterbacks to have anything easy. That’s the premise, that’s the philosophy. And on top of not having anything easy, we want to still have the ability to make his life miserable by rushing him. I just saw somebody put out stat, we were the second in the country in most pressures on the quarterback at 47 percent. That means he goes back two times and one time, somebody is hitting him. That’s what we practice for, that’s why we do all this stuff, we want to make his life as tough as we can make it.
“In my humble opinion, at the end of the day we had well over 400 yards in minus yards. For us, that’s almost two games worth of minus yards we take and put in our back pocket. That’s a lot yards. Do we evaluate it? Sure. Do we need to mix a little bit more? Great. Those are discussions we’re having as a defensive staff all the time.”
Brown keeps his approach simple. With a young group, he said by throwing more at them, the quality of play “erodes.”
“I’ve got good players, I let them play,” Brown said. “That’s what I do.”
Despite the losses, Michigan will have a strong group of returning players next season with defensive end Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush, who will both be juniors, along with corners Lavert Hill and David Long, who Brown described as the most improved defensive players from the start of preseason camp through bowl practices. End Chase Winovich is still weighing his options for next season.
Winning this bowl game is considered a springboard into the 2018 season, which is exactly why developing the young talent during bowl prep is vital heading into next season.
“It will be a big momentum (boost) going into next year,” Bush said. “We lost some games this year and to go out with a win would mean everything.”
The linebacker likes what he has seen in bowl practices.
“We could be real good next year,” Bush said. “Depends on what we do this offseason.”
Brown said he has seen plenty from all the players this past month to feel good about his group heading into winter conditioning before spring practice.
“Their approach is, get better,” he said. “I feel really good about it from the older guys all the way down to the younger guys. Everybody’s getting better. That’s what you’re looking for. Come out, got some juice. It’s easy to coach when guy’s got energy and they’re flying around. Just creates a positive working environment.”
On the defensive line, Brown has been impressed by Lawrence Marshall, who will be a fifth-year senior.
“I see him doing unbelievable things,” he said. “Mike Dwumfour, if you ask me pick one of the D-linemen who might be the most improved guy on defense I’d say he has to bee in major consideration. That’s a positive. Kwity Paye, I’ve got to single him out front. He’s really growing.”
Brown anticipates considerable competition at linebacker.
“Josh Uche, obviously, we know he has great instinct as a pass rusher,” Brown said. “Josh Ross — I’m going to be really excited to watch him and Devin Gil compete. A healthy competition in the spring. That’s going to be interesting now. Josh is probably one of the more physical guys I’ve been around in terms of pound for pound striking people, and he likes it. A lot of guys do it, but they don’t like it. He likes it. That’s a positive.
“I’m really excited about Jordan Anthony and Drew Singleton, who came in to us with an ACL. He’s nine months removed. They say it takes a year to get the elasticity back. He’s got it back. Those young guys, pretty exciting. That’s fun stuff.”
The secondary has plenty of upside, although freshman Ben St-Juste has missed bowl practices with a pulled hamstring.
“Jaylen Kelly-Powell is playing every position in the secondary,” Brown said. “Probably not fair to him, good for us. He’s a smart guy, he can handle it, he’s an athlete, and he’s really growing leaps and bounds. Ambry Thomas, leaps and bounds.
“If you ask me who are the two most improved guys on the defense from the first day of August, it’s real easy. It’s David Long and Lavert Hill. Who would have predicted the way they’ve played all year long? The discussion, ‘Ah, coach is in man all the time,’ and all that, take a look at their numbers and you’ll wonder why I am. It’s real simple, those guys can perform. Tyree Kinnel continues to get better. J’Marick Woods has really had a great December. Excited about our future.”
Brown will be coaching opposite a new offensive coordinator for South Carolina, Bryan McClendon, who is hoping to stay in the role after the bowl game. The change in offensive coordinator does not faze Brown, who said his players are prepared for just about anything.
“You can’t coach against ghosts,” he said. “You can’t be looking around the corner, ‘I guess he’s going to do this,’ and then you take your eyes off the prize. Our guys have seen everything. Think about this -- 1,000 repetitions of South Carolina, what are they not going to know? So, if they give us a few new plays, you just hope from a scheme standpoint our guys can go on recall and compete and we’ll deal with it on the fly.”
Michigan vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Noon Monday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Records: Michigan 8-4, South Carolina 8-4
Line: Michigan by 7.5