For much of last season, Michigan’s defense couldn’t look any better. And then in the biggest game, it couldn’t look any worse. That’s the dichotomy and the debate the Wolverines face, as they open another training camp chasing weighty expectations.
By almost any measure, Don Brown has been an outstanding coordinator. When his defense has been questioned, it’s rebounded. In 2017, after losing 10 starters, the Wolverines finished third in the nation in total defense. In his three seasons here, Brown’s group never has ranked lower than third in the country.
And then Ohio State happened (62-39). And then Florida happened in the Peach Bowl (41-15). And then many of Michigan’s defensive stars left for the NFL, leaving only five returning starters. Jim Harbaugh rebooted his offense, hired young Josh Gattis to spread it out and pump it up, and with a senior quarterback in Shea Patterson and an experienced offensive line, Michigan is the Big Ten favorite and a semi-popular pick to reach the playoff.
It seems unseemly to suggest, but here we go: Is it possible this is the year pressing questions switch from offense to defense? Is it possible Brown will feel compelled to alter his attacking style and man-to-man coverages, which can destroy lesser teams but couldn’t slow Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes?
Sure, it’s possible. Brown is 64 and perhaps a bit stubborn, but he’s not oblivious. He’s a terrific motivator and aggressive player-caller, but if he has to mix in more zone coverage to shut down crossing routes by speedy receivers, he says he can be flexible. Oh, and one more thing — he knows he has plenty of talent returning, even if their names aren’t Bush and Gary and Winovich.
“(The end of last season) was as disappointing an experience as I’ve been through in my entire life,” Brown said this spring. “It’s all about preparing yourself and picking yourself up off the ground and making adjustments. Trust me, it’s being addressed, our guys are totally into it. I’m just excited for the chance to redeem myself.”
Redemption is a common theme for the Wolverines, awaiting fulfillment. Under Harbaugh, they’ve been on the 10-3 carousel — with a clunky 8-5 tossed in — and haven’t won the Big Ten or beaten Ohio State. Good team, good talent, not good enough in the biggest games.
Gattis will get the most scrutiny, and it will be fascinating to see how much control the first-time playcaller gets. But the response from Brown’s defense could be the most impactful, and while he has potential playmakers, there’s a lot to prove.
“I think there’s a real system that’s been in place now for three years on our defense,” Harbaugh said. “Don Brown has brought that defense, coaches that system on a daily basis. There’s a pride with playing defense at the University of Michigan that we all know and believe to be true. And there’s some real good players.”
Does this have the potential to be an excellent defense? Yep.
Is an accurate measure only possible after the three big rivalry games, especially Ohio State? Yep.
There’s size and experience in the front seven — Khaleke Hudson, Josh Uche, Kwity Paye, Carlo Kemp, Michael Dwumfour, Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross, Devin Gil — but not a ton of depth. The secondary has two fine players in Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus and a lot of possibilities.
Losing Rashan Gary and Devin Bush Jr., both first-round picks, and Chase Winovich, a pass-rushing beast, would seemingly guarantee a step back. But then you’re reminded of the 2017 defense, which was mostly dominant while returning one starter, and you realize Brown is pretty good at what he does.
The key will be the pass rush, because if the Wolverines aren’t hitting the quarterback, the man-to-man coverage is vulnerable. Pop in the Buckeye tape, if you’re so inclined. Haskins threw 30 times for 318 yards and wasn’t sacked once.
Uche led the team last season with seven sacks and can play multiple positions, but the Wolverines need Hudson, the viper linebacker, to regain form. Two years ago, he was a revelation, with 18½ tackles for loss and eight sacks. Last season, he posted 3½ tackles for loss and two sacks, and admitted he was tentative after getting ejected for targeting penalties in back-to-back games.
“Our goal is to win that national championship, but it’s about reaching your goals every day,” Hudson said. “I think it’s going to be the best year we’ve had. … Guys left and guys are going to leave to the NFL, but we know we’ve got guys coming back.”
Brown doesn’t seem worried. But then, he usually doesn’t, and usually finds capable replacements.
The key is, can Michigan generate more pressure up the middle with its line, freeing Hudson, Uche and others to attack from the outside? While Michigan was second in the nation in total defense last season, it was tied for 32nd in sacks.
“The one thing, and I can’t really put my finger on why, but we’re playing much faster, and I thought we were pretty fast last year,” Brown said. “I think part of it, too, our guys are in the fourth year of a similar defensive system — 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.”
Last season ended in the ugliest way, as the Buckeyes rolled up 567 yards and the Gators followed with 427. If the Wolverines crank up the pass rush, the secondary won’t get isolated as often and the defense could be just as good overall, maybe better when it matters.
That’s the theory, wrapped in a heavy cloak of motivation.
“I think it drives us all,” Brown said. “Hey, I’m not gonna cry about it. It’s time to go. Let’s go! We’re getting that kind of response. That’s the positive.”
Brown is confident in his ways, not necessarily set in his ways. Defense generally is what defines Michigan, and that’s unlikely to change. The offense’s adjustments are more dramatic, but a reloaded, rejuvenated defense is what the Wolverines really need.