Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown met the media Wednesday, and analyzed the players he has to work with. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — During spring practice, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown called this one of the “fastest” groups he’s been around.
He was asked about that Wednesday during the first media availability of preseason camp, which started last Friday, but Brown opted instead to share how the veteran players are passing along knowledge to the younger, up-and-coming players.
Brown is entering his third season at Michigan. In 2016, his first season, Michigan led the nation in total defense, yielding an average 261.8 yards a game. Last season, the Wolverines were ranked No. 3 (271.0).
“I’m really happy with them,” Brown said Wednesday. “It’s funny, we were having a conversation this morning, and a couple years ago everybody was learning. It was new for everybody. I think it took us a little bit to get up to speed. That was an incredible outfit, but we didn't have a lot of depth.
“It’s nice when a lot of your top-tier guys — and a lot of them are young — can help educate the younger guys in terms of functionality, concept, understanding, those things. It’s been a positive for the young guys. You always have the growth areas in the preseason with the new guys and you’re pulling your hair out, but we’re having a lot less of those kinds of episodes. That’s a good thing.”
Fastest team can mean a few things. The players are literally the fastest he has seen, or, they’ve been in the system long enough and the younger guys, as he pointed out, are quickly grasping the defense, meaning they’re playing fast because of a thorough understanding.
While defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich and linebacker Devin Bush are expected to dominate headlines this season, Brown singled out several other defensive players he believes will have pivotal performances.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown met the media Wednesday. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Junior Khaleke Hudson has turned heads so far during camp at viper.
“He’s a real guy, now,” Brown said. “He’s got it all figured out mentally, physically. He’s 220 pounds. You can tell how far he’s come. He’s just a special player. He can blitz, he can cover, he’s smart. He can relate to the DBs and fit in with those guys in terms of his coverage capabilities. He can also play linebacker when called upon and be a very solid run defender.
“He’s a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous blitzer, and we’re going several things differently in some of our structures and it gives him a chance to continue to be a very significant playmaker.”
Backing up Hudson is Jordan Glasgow.
“He kind of got lost in the soup, but he is a ‘poor man’s Khaleke Hudson,” Brown said. “When he was playing safety, I was constantly in his shirt about one thing, covering the slots. Then why ask him to cover the slots? Get out. Now we’ve moved him to viper, so there’s really nothing left to say.
“He’s a good blitzer. He’s strong enough to play in the run game. He’s a smart guy. And he’s a good run defender. He has all the traits we’re looking for. We’re also using (freshman) Michael Barrett. We recruited him as an athlete and thought this was the best for his skillset. I see potential there.”
Michigan must replace linebacker Mike McCray. Brown raved about junior linebacker Josh Uche, who met with Brown after the bowl game and said he wanted to play more.
“He wanted to fight me, I think. I’m joking,” Brown said, cracking a smile. “He wants to play. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey coach, I want to play, Let me play.’ Well, go earn it. How about that? Well, he’s earned it. He’s now 241 pounds. I want you to think about that for a minute. And he still runs 4.5. He’s not a skinny guy running around getting bounced around and trying to figure out feet and posture and all the things that you’re looking for in a complete football player.
“He certainly has from this spring on, he’s really just kind of picked up where we left off in the spring. He’s become a student of the game. He watched a ton of tape. He’s in talking to me all the time. He’s playing at a high level and utilizing that 4.5 speed.”
Devin Gil, Josh Ross and Drew Singleton are competing at weakside linebacker.
“Those three guys are in a fistfight,” Brown said. “Coach (Jim Harbaugh) likes to use the term, ‘cage match.’ I guess that’s what it is.
“If you ask me today who’s the leader in the clubhouse, I would say there is none. If you ask me, I think Josh and Devin Gil are probably slightly ahead of Drew. So if that would be the case then we’d just let them both play and see who steps up and separates, or if they keep both playing well, then just leave it alone.”
Josh Ross has been working at middle linebacker behind Bush.
“So he’s kind of cross training, so that gives us kind of a three-for-two deal,” Brown said. “But then if you ask me who had the best practice out of those guys yesterday, I would say (redshirt freshman) Jordan Anthony came out of the closest and really had his best practice, so that’s a good thing.”
At safety, Brown said Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel have been playing well. But he singled out sophomore Jaylen Kelly-Powell as the player who has made the “biggest jump” and praised Brad Hawkins as the biggest “surprise” of camp so far.
“He’s really figuring it out,” Brown said of Hawkins. “We fooled around with him at viper, which is a good thing because you get your nose dirty. You’ve got to play against the run and the pass and you get into the blitz stuff, but now he has moved back to the safety thing, and the biggest piece for him that was most difficult was – you know the old saying, you’ve got to get right, well, he couldn’t ‘get right.’ Now he’s getting right.
“We’re seeing that athleticism. You can tell when a guy’s playing fast, it usually means there’s a strong correlation between mentally playing fast in his mind, so physically he has a chance to execute at a high level. If you ask me, he’s probably made the biggest jump of any of our defenders.”
Keep an eye on the unknowns
Gary has said since the spring that he wants this to be known as the best defensive line in the country. Since he and Winovich are known commodities, Brown mentioned players like Michael Dwumfour and Kwity Paye.
“Both guys are going to be counted on to play big minutes,” he said. “Mike Dwumfour had a really exciting spring from a coaching standpoint. You walk away and go, ‘Damn, man, that guy’s really kind of stepped into it.’ Kwity can play either defensive end position, which obviously, position flexibility is a big deal, because it gives you a chance to play at both positions. We still have Rashan (Gary) there, we still have Chase Winovich there and obviously playing at a very, very solid level.
“Got Luiji Vilain, this (freshman) Aidan Hutchinson is going to be a good player. Can we get him ready? I don’t know. My lean is with Coach (Greg) Mattison’s tutelage, he’ll be ready to go. Aubrey Solomon, (Lawrence) Marshall is back, remember he had the injury in the spring, so he’s back playing. Carlo Kemp we’ve moved full time inside, so we have a number of guys we can play up front which is a beautiful thing to rotate and let guys go in there and empty the tank, come on out, get a sip and go back. I don’t leave out (fifth-year senior) Bryan Mone because he’s been a stalwart in the middle. He will be a first- and second-down guy for us. Expect good things out of him. He’s like an immovable object. You put him there and good luck. It’s like a fence post that’s been cemented in the ground, because he’s not moving.”
STRAIGHT A'S FOR THE 'D'
Where Michigan ranked nationally in key defensive categories last season:
Total defense: 271.0 yards (3rd)
Scoring defense: 18.8 points (13th)
Pass defense: 150.1 yards (1st)
Rush defense: 120.9 yards (18th)
Tackles for loss: 8.8 per game (T-1st)
Sacks: 3.23 per game (T-7th