Niyo: Old school Don Brown not afraid to 'live and learn' with Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Football coaches tend to be creatures of habit. And old habits  like old coaches  sometimes are hard to break.

That may explain why Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown still spends hours each week drawing up his own scout-team play cards to use in practice. He draws them by hand  about 250 in all, he says, color-coded  and the artwork that starts Sunday typically doesn’t end until late Monday night.

Some of his more tech-savvy peers will use a computer program to create those cards. But Brown?

“Me, not so much,” he said, smiling, as he explained how the process actually helps him dissect plays and design his own plans to stop them. “It’s a quirk. Everybody has their own quirks.”

Everybody has their own principles, too. And not surprisingly, the 64-year-old Brown is holding firm to his after 40-plus years of coaching and plenty of success. While other defensive coaches suspend some of their beliefs and try to bend without breaking in the face of today’s modern college offenses, Brown rubs his gray mustache and defiantly vows he’ll keep doing the opposite.

“I’m gonna say this again so we’re all clear,” Brown reiterated Wednesday, a few days after his defense demolished 14th-ranked Iowa in a 10-3 victory. “The day that somebody tells me, ‘You know, you’ve gotta tone down that aggressiveness,’ I’m out. I’m done. I’m just not gonna do it.”

Now then, that doesn’t mean he won’t adapt. Or admit when he’s been beaten at his own game. 

And among the first subjects he addressed in his monthly media session at Schembechler Hall was Michigan’s disastrous Big Ten opener a few weeks ago at Wisconsin.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown says his focus is on stopping Alabama's potent attack.

Madison meltdown

The Badgers ran roughshod over the Wolverines in Madison, piling up 359 rushing yards in a performance that raised more doubts about Brown’s approach against top-flight competition. (Never mind that his teams have finished ranked in the top four nationally in total defense the last four seasons.)

“We got off to a bad start on the road, made some uncharacteristic fits in the run game and it hurt us,” Brown said. “Everybody kind of questions you. But we just felt like, ‘Hey, we gotta go to work, clean up our run fits.’”

Take that fourth-and-1 play at the goal line that everyone highlighted, the one where 225-pound linebacker Jordan Glasgow effectively lined up as a defensive tackle and Badgers quarterback Jack Coan dived into the end zone almost untouched.

Brown didn’t want to dive too deep into the play-calling on that play, but “I assure you that somebody was (supposed to) fit the A-gap,” based on whether Coan lined up under center or in shotgun.

That somebody presumably was linebacker Cam McGrone, who was filling in for starter Josh Ross after he left that game with a foot injury. But regardless, Brown says he has run that short-yardage “half-blitz” about 60 times in the last four or five seasons with a 60-percent success rate of holding opponents to no gain or negative yardage.

“Obviously, I appreciate people critiquing my stuff," he said, sarcasm no doubt intended. “But you live and learn, too. Adjust, as we do.”

And to be fair, he has, as we saw again in Saturday’s win over the Hawkeyes. Brown still acts like “Dr. Blitz,” but he’s mixing in zone coverages behind all the movement and mayhem he’s trying to create up front. Against Iowa, that played out with 13 tackles for loss, eight sacks and three interceptions from a quarterback, Nate Stanley, who hadn’t thrown one all season.

“There’s several ways to challenge offenses and put ’em on their heels,” said Brown, whose physical comedy in describing all that was a sight to behold Wednesday afternoon. “You sit back on that guy, he’ll carve you up.”

Hurdles ahead

Brown’s way worked last year right up until it didn’t, of course. Michigan’s top-ranked defense got carved up in the regular-season finale in Columbus, and then again in a bowl game that was more notable for the players who opted not to dress than the final depantsing. A similar scenario played out in 2017 when Michigan traveled to face Penn State.

And we’ll find out soon enough just how much progress Michigan’s defense really has made later this month. After this week’s trip to Illinois, the Wolverines head to Happy Valley for another night game at Penn State, then return home to face Notre Dame in Ann Arbor. Then there’s next month’s rivalry games against Michigan State and Ohio State.

But while Michigan’s offensive woes remain a glaring concern  and a reminder, perhaps, that philosophical changes don’t come easily in college football  there’s reason to think Brown’s persistence will pay off in the end.

The depth at defensive tackle remains an issue for the Wolverines, but the return of Michael Dwumfour from injury made a disruptive difference against Iowa. Likewise, McGrone’s emergence as starter the last couple weeks has added an element that Devin Bush used to provide. (“That guy is 230 pounds and can fly,” Brown said.) Ditto freshman safety Daxton Hill, the speedster whose fourth-down pass breakup early in the third quarter was one of many plays that led Brown to call Saturday’s performance one of the best he’d seen from Michigan’s secondary during his time in Ann Arbor.

And just so we’re all clear: On that fourth-down stop, the play Brown drew up had McGrone coming in on a delayed blitz, backed by man-to-man coverage.

Not all habits are bad, it seems.

Michigan at Illinois

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: ABC/950

Records: No. 16 Michigan 4-1, 2-1 Big Ten; Illinois 2-3, 0-2

Line: Michigan by 20

Twitter: @JohnNiyo