Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said the final two losses last season were the most disappointing experiences he's ever been through. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is more than aware the defense had issues in the Wolverines’ final two games, losses at Ohio State and then to Florida in the bowl game.
It’s hard to forget the glaring final scores, 62-39 in Columbus and 41-15 against the Gators. To be fair, there was a punt returned for a touchdown and two interceptions gave Ohio State the ball at the Michigan 22-yard line and 19-yard line for easy scores. And in the bowl game, Michigan was without defensive starters Rashan Gary and Devin Bush, and before the end of the first half, starters Devin Gil and Michael Dwumfour left the game with injuries.
But the bottom line is the bottom line, and Brown has owned it.
“The most disappointing experience I’ve ever been through my entire life,” Brown said Wednesday night after spring practice, referring to both losses. “It’s all about preparing yourself and picking yourself up off the ground and making adjustments.”
He knows the criticisms of the defense, and how it gave up crossing routes to both teams, and even the week before the Ohio State game to Indiana. He knows. He knows. He knows.
“I kinda chuckle because (people say) I’m set in my ways,” Brown said. “Well, can I just make one comment? In this passing thing, we’ve given up since I’ve been here under 2,000 passing yards a year (1,843 yards last season). I know, that’s not a big deal. The last team to do it was Miami (2001-03) when they had 10 first-round draft picks, OK? It’s not the concept. What it is sometimes is, my guys are better than their guys and I’m going to just shove it. Well, you know, sometimes you’ve got to do a little better job.
“Trust me, it’s being addressed. Our guys are totally into it. I’m just excited for the chance to redeem myself.”
Brown didn’t quite explain how it has been addressed when asked, but shared that after the Ohio State loss, hitting the road for recruiting probably was a miscalculation.
“I made a tremendous mistake,” he said. “Game ended, next day I got on a plane on a Sunday and went recruiting for 2 1/2 weeks. Think about that. Is that very smart? Guys are left lingering for 2 1/2 weeks. I come back and I’m like, ‘Holy (crap), we’ve still got a little hangover here.’ That’s just me, now. That’s my perception. It’s nobody else’s. I’m just giving my perception. It just leaves doubt in your mind as a coach, ‘Did I do everything I could to prepare my guys?’That’s all. I take that stuff personal.”
Last week, Michigan players revealed that coach Jim Harbaugh gave them T-shirts not meant to celebrate a 10-3 season but to motivate by pointing out on the front of the shirt that Michigan was co-Big Ten East Division champions. The point being, there’s no trophy, no chance to play for the Big Ten title with that designation. On the back of the shirt are listed the Wolverines’ three losses and the scores. Those have been seared in their memories and now preserved on the shirts.
Offensive lineman Ben Bredeson said last week he tossed his shirt at the bottom of his locker. He knows what happened and he knows those scores.
Brown is certain the players have all the motivation they need.
“I think it drives us all. Yep,” Brown said. “The thing I really sometimes feel a little is, it’s hard to win 10 games in a row in the Big Ten, I’m just saying. I’ve only been in the league three years, but it’s hard to do that. In fact, nobody’s gone 9-0 since they’ve gone East-West (divisions). It’s hard. But you got to do it, you’ve got to do it. That’s the reality of it. Whatever you gotta do, you do. We have tremendous leadership from the boss. He does everything he possibly humanly can to get us ready each and every weekend. Bad thing is when you let ‘em down, you feel you let the guy down.
“But hey, I’m not gonna cry about it. It’s time to go. Hey! Let’s go! We’re getting that kind of response. That’s the positive.”
Safety Josh Metellus is expected to be a leader on the defense this fall. He wasn’t much interested in discussing how those two final games affected the defense.
“But there’s this one quote, ‘Let the pain you suffered be the strength to move forward and get better,’ ” he said. “I take that every day. Every loss I’ve had here is motivation to get better and motivation to not have another one.”
Brown said there is plenty to like about this defense that lost a considerable amount of talent in ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush, cornerback David Long and safety Tyree Kinnel.
“The one thing, and I can’t really put my finger on it why, but we’re playing much faster than we were, and I thought we were pretty fast last year,” Brown said. “I think part of it too, and some people are probably unhappy about it, but the bottom line is our guys are in the fourth year of the same defensive — similar defensive system because obviously we’ve made some changes — but the nuts and bolts part of it is intact, so they can keep going and get better, get faster, understand the playbook better. And, there’s an older group of guys who can help the younger guys which is a beautiful thing.”
He highlighted several players from the line to the secondary, including linemen Donovan Jeter and Luiji Vilain, and at linebacker, while it will be a challenge to replace Bush, he likes what Josh Ross can do and he called Gil “the most improved guy body-wise, speed-wise.”
“He’s gotten through helping this football team by being a steady Eddie classic guy that knows what to do and he’s hard to knock out of there,” Brown said of Gil. "Well, now he’s playing at a high level. He should walk in and give (strength coach) Ben Herbert a kiss right on the lips, because he’s really helped him a lot. Cam McGrone, Jordan Anthony and this Michael Barrett, who’s a freshman, I’m seeing really good things out of all those guys.”
Ross started in place of Bush in the bowl game and while he might not yet have those elite qualities that are making Bush a top NFL Draft prospect, he’s impressive as an enforcer in the middle.
“We’re going to have to do some things different, but I’ll tell you what he can do, he will knock the paint off the top of your helmet,” Brown said of Ross. “You don’t want to get in a physical confrontation with this guy because I don’t care what he weighs, maybe 225, maybe 228, but he’s mean as a rattlesnake. He’s fast enough. I’m really excited with not only his play, but his command and now we’ve had all winter to get him ready for this role. I’m really happy with him.”
They are in the early stages of working Ben Mason, a fullback last season, into roles on offense and defense where he’s playing on the line, but Brown likes his hard-hitting ways. As for the secondary, Brown entered the spring fully expecting to have issues.
“If you said to me secondary-wise where you thought you’d be and where you are, it’s two different places,” Brown said. “I thought we’d be fighting for our lives at this time. (Cornerback) Ambry Thomas is really taking the next step leadership-wise, he’s a good role model for young guys. This Vincent Grey is going to be a real guy. (Safeties) Brad Hawkins, J’Marick Woods are both vastly improved, more confident. This Josh Metellus has turned himself into a real player.”
What has made Brown even more optimistic is the depth with which he finds this defense as the team enters its second week of spring practice.
“I like to do this little task. You guys might think this is crazy, but who would you really trust to put in the game, and we have about 16 or 17 names right now I could write on and think by the end of spring and preseason,” he said. “The larger you can get the group, the better, and I think there are a bunch of guys sitting on the fringe. Jaylen Kelly-Powell, I can think of off the top of my head, he’s playing full-time corner and doing a really good job, so he’s a guy. Upfront, the Swiss army knife is (Josh) Uche. He’s 253 pounds. He can play a lot of places and he will. He’s a fast, explosive guy. Those are things I feel really good about a number of guys.”