Wojo: Brown sees no letdown in UM's high-flying defense
Ann Arbor — If they’re concerned, they sure don’t act like it, or sound like it. If 10 departing defensive starters, eight drafted into the NFL, created an unfillable void, they’re not seeing it, or conceding it.
The Wolverines are on a steep learning curve, and defensive coordinator Don Brown isn’t making many brash predictions — uh, other than calling sophomore end Rashan Gary “the best I’ve ever seen.” But Brown’s mustachioed upper lip doesn’t quiver nervously when talking about his young group, and he isn’t moping about who’s gone.
The one returning starter is linebacker Mike McCray, and the overhaul almost assures Michigan’s defense will slide sharply from its top national ranking, right? Probably. But listening to Brown extol the energy and athleticism, you get the sense the slide won’t be as far as some might expect, and might not last that long.
“Who’s providing the leadership, that’s what we’re building right now,” Brown said Thursday. “I’d be nervous if it was like this” — pointing his arm downward — “nobody. But I think it’s starting to happen. That starters thing? We had a lot of guys play last year. (Maurice) Hurst, OK, he wasn’t a starter. He was just one of the most devastating inside penetrators in college football. Just saying.”
There’s a reason Michigan is still considered a top-10 team — No. 9 in the preseason coaches poll released Thursday. A big part of it is Jim Harbaugh’s reputation and recruiting. An underrated part is Brown and his fly-around defense, led by a line that was so deep last year, it returns backups who easily could have been starters.
There are Hurst and Gary, a fearsome tandem eager to take charge. There are Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich on the line, McCray and Devin Bush at linebacker, and lone quasi-veteran safety Tyree Kinnel in the all-new secondary.
Brown admits he might have to dial down his renowned blitzing aggressiveness to compensate for youth, but not much. Touted sophomores David Long and Lavert Hill are expected to take over at cornerback with plenty in the mix, including Brandon Watson, Benjamin St.-Juste and Keith Washington. And yes, they’ll stick to the plan, which features tons of one-on-one press coverage and not much laying back.
Speed is key
Brown, 62, also provides something the Wolverines haven’t had in a while — continuity. He’s in his second season here after excelling at Boston College. With new faces everywhere, it’s good to have a time-creased face in charge.
“It energizes you as a coach,” Brown said. “The corners, I love those guys, they all have a chance to be good. Regardless of how we’re gonna go about doing it, we’re going to be aggressive. That’s just the way we play defense. Obviously, you have a system that needs to be flexible enough so speed can get on the field.”
Speed has a way of accelerating development, and that’s one of the traits the Wolverines have emphasized in recruiting. Long-armed athletes that can move, and preferably get to the quarterback. Brown mentioned freshman linebackers Luiji Vilain and Kwity Paye as possible impact guys, and sophomore viper Khaleke Hudson has drawn raves.
Brown has been touting the young guys since spring ball, and after three days of fall practice, he’s not disappointed. Of course, it’s also his job to pump the confidence, and if there’s one constant in the Harbaugh regime, it’s positive energy.
Michigan might be prone to more big-play mistakes than last year’s defense, which tied Alabama for fewest yards-per-game at 261.8, but Harbaugh summed it up pretty well during the Big Ten Media Days last week.
“Young and untalented — bad; young and talented — good,” Harbaugh said. “I’m excited about coaching guys that are really hungry. … There are a lot of guys on our football team that you don’t know their story, you may not know how good they are. Maybe they don’t know how good they are.”
It’s why national pundits have labeled Michigan the biggest mystery of the season, with the talent to be excellent and the rawness to be exploitable. All the departing stars were Brady Hoke recruits, but Harbaugh’s seasoned staff showed the ability to develop talent. This season, we’ll learn more about their ability to recruit, as two top-five classes play larger roles.
Hurst, a senior, represents the holdovers, while Gary represents the new breed. They’re a tight tandem, on and off the field, and again should make the line the fulcrum of the defense. There’s even more pressure to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks because of the new secondary starters.
“A lot of people say it’s a weakness because of who we lost, but a lot of our backups were keeping the defensive line together,” said Hurst, who had 4.5 sacks. “We got great guys all around, a little bit of depth too. You want your dreams to be big, and my dreams are enormous, bigger than last year.”
It’s hard to imagine Michigan’s defense having a bigger impact than last season, and realistically, it won’t. But Brown thinks he has a lot of the pieces, and one key element of the equation. The quicker you move around the field, the quicker you can go from raw to real.