Speight knows what foes feel from UM’s dynamite defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Chris Wormley (43) and the Michigan defense are No. 1 nationally in five categories.

Ann Arbor – Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight knew what the Michigan defense was like long before anyone else.

Speight faced it in camp and completely understands any frustrations opponents have had with top-rated Michigan defense that coordinator Don Brown has orchestrated in his first season with the Wolverines.

The Wolverines are ranked No. 2 nationally and their defense is ranked No. 1 overall as they prepare to face Michigan State on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans have won seven of the last eight against the Wolverines.

“I say this all the time,” Speight said this week. “It was the probably the worst month of my life going against that defense every day during camp. I feel bad for quarterbacks every Saturday.”

Michigan’s defense is ranked No. 1 in five categories – total (207 yards), scoring (10.0), passing (110.0), first downs allowed (74) and third-down defense (13 percent). The Wolverines are second nationally in pass efficiency defense (84.19 rating), third in sacks (3.57 average) and red-zone defense (66.7 percent) and fourth against the run (96.0) and in tackles for loss (9.1 average).

Brown, who last year molded Boston College into the nation’s top defense, has been the architect of Michigan’s defensive evolution this season.

Michigan’s defense can be ‘special, historic’

After DJ Durkin left Michigan to become head coach at Maryland, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hired Brown without having met him. Harbaugh can rarely contain himself when talking about the 61-year-old Brown.

“If there is a coach of the year in college football, in my mind it’s Don Brown,” Harbaugh said Thursday on the “Jamie and Stoney” show on 97.1. “He’s a tremendous teacher, he’s a tremendous person, and the impact he has had on our team has been outstanding.

“We always look at it as a team effort. Everybody does a little, and it adds up to a lot. We win as a team, but, boy, Don Brown has had a huge impact on all of us, on us coaches, on the players. You really have to look at what the defense is doing as a unit and say, ‘That is really good football.’ And now, our team, I want them to embrace that, I want them to see how good they can be.

“We’re a little over the halfway point, but it has a chance to be something really special. Sure there’s pressure because they are playing so well, but they embrace it and continue at the same relentless, punishing pace. It really has a chance to be a special unit. Historic in that way.”

For Speight, a first-year starter at quarterback, the Michigan defense has given him some space, in a sense, to grow and develop in his role.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “If a drive doesn’t work out the way we want, we know we’re probably going to get the ball back in three plays, if not just a few more. Don’s coaching them up the best of anyone, and he’s got some special players.”

The Wolverines lead the nation in three-and-outs forced – 51 in 91 possessions – hence Speight’s extra breathing room knowing the defense has his back.

“After the season I might grow a mustache in honor of Don Brown,” said Speight, jokingly referencing Brown’s famous facial accessory.

Brown said he absorbed a bit of advice long ago while coaching at Yale that players are not chess pieces. He can’t be void of feeling while moving them around the field at his every whim, and they certainly are not without emotions.

You want them to play hard for you, he was told, make an effort to develop relationships.

“I took that to heart,” he said.

That helped as he made the transition to Michigan from Boston College. A northeast guy most of his long career, Brown had never ventured this far west. He found an eager group of talented defensive players, including a strong core of veterans.

“This is an unbelievable group of guys,” Brown said this week. “To get their attention and get them to buy in has been, I wouldn’t say an easy task, but easier than anticipated.”

After the 78-0 rout at Rutgers, nose tackle Ryan Glasgow said he could tell the Scarlet Knights offense was constantly confused. The players are seeing that more and more as the season continues.

“Especially the last few games,” defensive lineman Matt Godin said. “We’ve thrown a lot of stuff at teams throughout the year. It’s like they’re freaking out about things and in my head, I’m like, ‘We’re not running that.’ It’s a good thought.”

Brown is “Dr. Blitz” to the players for obvious reasons.

“We do blitz a lot more than last year,” Godin said. “Last year we played a lot of base defense. Blitzing is a lot more fun. We move a lot more up front so that’s fun.”

Nothing has changed this week, though, in the way Brown has prepared his defense for the Spartans. He said if he changed now, then what was his message to the players about the previous seven games?

And while he prepares them for the final five regular-season games, which also includes a night game at Iowa and the season ender at Ohio State, he also is looking to the future.

“It is almost like we’re coaching two defenses,” Brown said. “You know what’s amazing? If you look at our first defense, some days I come in and go, ‘Damn, you guys are pretty good now.’ But our second group, I’m looking at it, it’s all young guys. I mean, really young guys.

“Obviously, the Rutgers game is what it is, but those guys played half the game. And a bunch of those guys played last weekend (against Illinois). It’s interesting because our young guys are off the charts, and one of the things we’ve decided to do (after the Colorado game) is give the second team half the reps. We’re trying to keep our first unit fresh, conceptually sharp, but we’re trying to bring that second unit along because you’re going to blink your eyes and that second unit is going to be the first unit. We’re trying to be conscious in that area as we move forward.”

Brown has more substance than just the guy with the mustache his players covet. He’s the guy with the defense Michigan has come to rely on.

‘You’re just kind of riveted whenever he’s saying something,” Harbaugh told the “Jamie and Stoney” show. “He’s got expressions that many of our players can imitate very well. You just like watching him. You like listening to him. He captivates everybody that is around. He’s a dazzling, dazzling coach and person.”

Michigan at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing


Line: Michigan by 23.5

Records: Michigan 7-0 (4-0 Big Ten), Michigan State 2-5 (0-4)