Michigan keeps its defensive lines on a roll

Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — In the rapid-fire world of spread offenses, defenses have been challenged to find ways to combat wear and tear and weakening exhaustion during games.

Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison likes to use the hockey analogy of having lines that can come into the game with fresh legs to give the previous group a breather so they can recover and go back in.

“A lot of them try to negate a good defensive line,” Mattison said Wednesday, referring to spread offenses. “They try to tire them out. They try to get them running from sideline to sideline.”

For that reason, Mattison has preached since returning to Michigan in 2011 as defensive coordinator the approach of having interchangeable lines. And now he has the veteran pieces, with a few talented young players sprinkled in, to have what essentially is two starting defensive lines.

He raved on Wednesday, just a few days before Michigan opens its season against Hawaii on Saturday, about veterans Chris Wormley, recently voted a co-captain, Ryan Glasgow, Matt Godin and Taco Charlton, and praised Bryan Mone and freshman Rashan Gary. He has a solid rotation of at least eight and possibly as many as 10.

Michigan won't share scrimmage film with Hawaii

The players have bought in and Mattison has seen the evolution of trust. The defensive linemen don’t question Mattison and aren’t caught up in who’s going in first, who’s the backup. Why? Because they’re all going to play a lot.

“You’re the first starter and you’re the second starter, and you’re going to play, as long as you earn it in practice,” Mattison said.

Michigan has not yet released a depth chart, and Mattison chose not to reveal who will start Saturday on the line largely because he believes the starters and the backups are indistinguishable.

“We have two starting lineups,” he said. “Who goes out there with the very first play, we still have a couple days to decide that.”

He said Gary, the nation’s top recruit, will be in that rotation.

And while Gary is immensely talented and has devoted himself in camp to learning from his older teammates and absorbing the playbook, he still doesn’t have the experience of the others.

Mattison loves the flexibility he has with the older players, because they can be plugged into different spots on the line. Some linemen, he said, get stuck and just learn one position.

“The good thing about having a veteran group of guys, they all can play at every position,” Mattison said. “I can take our inside guys and put them outside and I wouldn’t worry as far as them knowing the defenses and knowing what to do. That’s the experience they have, and that’s a real credit to them.

“You always want to build your fronts. You know four guys isn’t going to make it in this league.”

The expectations are high for this defensive line. The players started raising that bar very high during spring practice, saying they think they could be the best in the country.

Mattison likes their attitude and goals, but the bottom line from his perspective is, go ahead and stake your claim for being the best, but the work better be there in practice and film study.

“If you’re a defensive lineman at the University of Michigan, average doesn’t work,” Mattison said. “And sometimes good doesn’t work. You’ve got to play up to your ability.”

And there is no relaxing even though you’re rotating into a game.

“There can’t be any of, ‘Well, OK, I’m going to rotate. Hey, mom, I’m rotating. Watch me,’ ” Mattison said, “and you go out there and you don’t run hard to the football. The thing we talk about is, ‘OK, I’m going to ask you to play three plays.’ You’re telling me you cannot go harder than you’ve ever gone for three plays?

“And they’re all in that. They look at each other, you’re watching the film, what are you saving it for? You’re not saving this for anything. Go. They don’t even have to talk about it anymore. It’s just expected.”