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Amid high-flying offenses, starting late might be silver lining for Michigan defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

With the Big Ten’s late start to the season, which begins next weekend, league defensive coordinators and assistants have watched as offenses have been decimating defenses in other conferences' games.

Look no further than last Saturday’s matchup featuring No. 2 Alabama and Ole Miss in which the teams combined for 1,370 yards, a Southeastern Conference regulation-game record. Alabama’s 723 yards were second-most in program history – the Tide had 833 against Virginia Tech in 973 – while Ole Miss had 647 yards and converted 9-of-17 third downs and 4-of-4 fourth downs. Ole Miss currently has the nation’s No. 2 offense, averaging 573.0 yards, while Alabama is No. 3 with 560.3 per game and is averaging 8.66 yards per play.

Carlo Kemp (2) and Kwity Paye (19)

Top-ranked Clemson had 550 yards of offense in a 42-17 win over Miami last weekend, the Tigers’ second-highest total this season, just behind the 561 they had against Wake Forest. Clemson has scored at least 37 points in each of its first four games for the first time since 2011. And who can forget the Texas-Texas Tech overtime shootout on Sept. 26? Texas prevailed, 63-56, in that wild high-scoring affair.

As Michigan prepares to open its nine-game season at Minnesota on Oct. 24, the defensive coaches have taken note of offenses having their way.

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“Why are there high scores?” Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua said Wednesday during a Zoom conference with reporters. “We’re definitely addressing that and making sure we are not going to follow that same trend."

The Gophers return a veteran offensive line; quarterback Tanner Morgan, an All-Big Ten second-teamer who became the first quarterback in program history to finish with more than 3,000 passing yards and 30 passing TD last season; and Rashod Bateman, the Big Ten’s receiver of the year in 2019. Bateman had 1,219 yards on 60 catches and scored 11 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.

Minnesota finished fourth in the Big Ten in total offense last season, averaging 432.0 yards, and also was fourth in scoring, averaging 34.1 points.

Nua said defenses might be behind because spring practice was canceled for the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer workouts also were affected and fall camp has been hardly traditional. Padded practices are when defensive players in particular make their biggest improvements.

“I personally think that has been a big reason for defenses struggling, but then you also gotta ask, ‘How the heck are the offenses being successful?’” Nua said. “They missed the same amount of time, so is it easier to catch a snap and throw it or run it than defending it?”

But Nua said there also is an intangible missing when defensive players don’t have all that contact in practice. Zoom meetings with position groups can only take you so far, after all.

“There was another interesting thing that came out – it was harder to build a team thing and defense is all team,” he said. “If you don’t have all 11 guys bought in, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to play sound, aggressive defense if you don’t have all 11 guys bought into it. You may see the physical stuff that they miss from practice, but the camaraderie and the morale of these defenses, where is it at? You’ve got to make sure you answer that.”

Shaun Nua

Sitting on the sideline and watching other conferences play these last few weeks has made defensive coaches not wary but more aware of how their defenses need to start the season and play throughout.

“Does it benefit us for a late start?” Nua said. “Yes, because we get to see them struggle and we’ve got to try to address all those issues from tackling to team chemistry. We can’t always blame it on, ‘Oh, they missed spring ball or fall camp,’ because the offense is doing good. Hopefully, we can figure it out and not follow that path.”

Defensive coordinator Don Brown said recently his eyes were wide open after seeing the high scores around college football. It’s always important for a defense to play to its strength, he said, but that will be stressed this fall as the group tries to contain offenses.

More: Harbaugh on Michigan secondary: Sammy Faustin moves to CB, Dax Hill earns top billing

“We’ve done a good job of evaluating our strengths and implementing them but also tweaking our coverage base, what we’re doing there,” Brown said. “Really tweaking our pressures, our non-pressures, where people are coming from. Obviously, that’s a big deal. And that’s what you’ve got to do on a year-to-year basis. In 2016 we’re No. 1 in the country on defense. It’s not like in '17 we didn’t make changes. From (2019 to this season), our strengths on our defense are in different places, so we’ve got to play to our strengths, and I think we’re doing that. That’s important – play to your strengths, and the guys who can make plays for you.”

The strength is Michigan’s front seven, its defensive line in particular with ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson and tackle Carlo Kemp. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show on Monday that Paye and Hutchinson, who play aggressive and hard-nosed, are the identity of the defense.

Nua, who has called Paye and Hutchinson the best ends duo he has ever coached, said both have improved their pass rush and knows the line will have to be imposing if offenses are going to stall this fall.

“To have three leaders in one room is very unique and my challenge to them is actions will always be louder than words,” Nua said, also referring to Kemp, a returning captain from last season. “What they’re doing is very contagious throughout the whole team. Everybody is like, ‘Well shoot, those guys are doing it, let’s just follow them.’ That’s the best way to lead. They’ve done a great job of manning up and accepting all the challenges, not just football, but with all the pandemic going on around the world, around the country.”

Does all this mean Michigan’s defense will be able to contain offenses, which would be bucking the trend of the early part of this season?

“I’ll answer that after the first game," Nua said, "the first two games."