Deep Michigan defense charged to ‘go all the way’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Chris Wormley

Bradenton, Fla. – They’ve only had three spring practices, but Michigan’s defensive players already feel confident about how good they can be this fall.

Working under their third defensive coordinator in three seasons – Don Brown was hired after the regular season from Boston College after D.J. Durkin left to become Maryland’s head coach – the Wolverines were quickly drawn to Brown’s aggressive, attacking style.

The veterans also like the blueprint they created last year.

Michigan finished the season fourth nationally in total defense, allowing an average 280.7 yards a game, and were sixth in scoring defense (16.4 points). In what was expected to be a battle of top-notch defenses, Michigan walloped Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl.

“We have the guys on the offensive side and defensive side this year to beat the teams like Michigan State and Ohio State,” veteran lineman Chris Wormley said after practice Thursday at IMG Academy. “I think we have the team this year to take it all the way.

“There’s a high expectation for the whole defense. We have a senior line, and the secondary is going to be one of the top secondaries in the country I think.”

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While the defensive line returns plenty of experience -- with the exception of Willie Henry, who opted to leave for the NFL -- the secondary also is deep. And while the starting linebackers from last season are gone, Ben Gedeon, who has had significant playing experience since his freshman year, will be expected to take over as the group’s leader. And then there’s Jabrill Peppers, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year last season, playing at SAM in Brown’s defense to take advantage of his versatility.

“I don’t know what you want to call him,” lineman Taco Charlton jokingly said of Peppers. “He’s an athlete out there (and) he’s going to make plays. I don’t know if you want to call him a linebacker, a nickel. Just put him out there he’s going to make plays.”

Wormley described the 60-year-old Brown as “kind of like Coach Durkin’s dad.” In other words, Brown has the same hyper-intensity that Durkin brought to the job. During practices this week at IMG Academy, where Michigan will hold its last Florida practice Friday, Brown’s voice has been the loudest on both fields, and he has been hands-on in individual drills.

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In fact, Brown, who last season led Boston College to the top-ranked defense, seems to be even more aggressive in his approach than Durkin.

“Coach Brown says he’s going to apply pressure. That’s different from Coach Durkin,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “We played a lot of man but not (with) as much pressure as Coach Brown has. Coach says he doesn’t feel pressure, he’s applying it, so that’s a big up for me. I like playing aggressive -- so do all the guys back there. We’re excited for the season.”

Charlton said the defense made strides last season – the Wolverines had three straight shutouts but also lost to Ohio State, 42-13, in the regular-season finale – but the big-picture goals have been set.

Taco Charlton

“Last year we made a great step getting to a good bowl game, but we had bigger goals we wanted to achieve, like Big Ten champions,” Charlton said. “This year we want to go all the way. We want to go undefeated. We want to put Michigan back where it belongs, back on the national stage.”

While Michigan figures out its quarterback situation now that graduate-transfer Jake Rudock is gone, the defense is focused on being special. Charlton believes the line will be dominant and that he and Wormley can have enormous influence on making that happen.

“I feel we were good last year,” Charlton said. “We lost Willie Henry, so that was a big loss, but we’ve got a lot of guys ready to step up. We’ve got so much experience. I was talking to Worm the other day, I said I feel we can be the best bookends in the nation this year.

“As a D-line, I just totally feel like we could be the best D-line in the nation. I feel like everybody is great at what they do and I feel like once we come together the sky’s the limit for us.”

Wormley likes the direction of the entire defense, but he has a clearer understanding of where the line is and where it can be as a tone-setter this fall.

“Willie Henry was one of our staples in the middle last year, but our expectation this year is to be better than last year,” Wormley said. “We were up there (statistically last season), and I think this year we’re going to take it the next step and be without question the best defensive line in the country.”