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UM defense bristles

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Michigan coach Lloyd Carr finds something funny as he poses for pictures with offensive lineman Jake Long, left, and linebacker Shawn Crable on media day.

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ANN ARBOR Members of the Michigan defense confidently defended themselves yesterday as they challenged the tag as the Wolverines weak link this season.

Only four defensive starters are back for a Michigan team that is still favored to win the Big Ten based on an abundance of returning offensive talent. But the Wolverine defenders tackled the skepticism with vigor at Michigan s Media Day event yesterday morning.

It does help as motivation, said linebacker Chris Graham, a fourth-year senior. We know the offense is going to hold up their end of the bargain. We bounced back last year in a big way. We had a lot to prove then and I believe we will have a great defense again. Guys will be ready to step up.

Many of the Wolverine defenders said the motivation is similar to what they used when coming off a 7-5 campaign in 2005 that resulted in an 11-2 mark last season.

Our ultimate goal is to repeat what we did last year, said outside linebacker Shawn Crable, who led the team in tackles for loss.

Ron English was named the national defensive coordinator of the year by Rivals.com in his first season at the helm after his defense ranked first against the run, giving up just 43.4 yards per game. It finished fourth in sacks with 43, was 10th in total defense (268.31 yards per game) and 15th in scoring defense (15.9 points per game).

However, English lost four All-Americans that were among the first 47 players selected in this year s NFL draft. Cornerback Leon Hall and defensive linemen LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch and linebacker David Harris leave huge holes to fill.

But English, who served as the team s secondary coach from 2003-05, said he welcomes the challenge.

I think it s going to be fun. We have a lot of talent, English said. We have great pride here. Everyone wants to be good here. We want to live up to the standards we ve set for ourselves.

We ve had a lot of success here over the years. The number of All-Americans and All-Big Ten players we ve had bears that out. I think the same thing is going to happen again this year.

Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, the only returning starter along the line, said the players try not to pay attention to skeptics and suggested they wait until the end of the season to make comparisons to last year s defense.

This is my family and when they say these guys aren t good enough, you take it personally, said Taylor, who is 6-foot and 310 pounds. But you don t take it in anger. You take it in stride and use it to push yourself.

It s a good thing because we re under the radar. When we pop up on people, they re not going to expect it.

Coach Lloyd Carr acknowledged that his defense is being scrutinized, but he expects it to play hard and be quick and mobile.

They read the paper. They know what people are saying about our defense, Carr said. I think that is a motivating factor. We are going to play some young players. What I expect is that we ll get better as the season goes on. I certainly hope so.

Most critics are focused on the linebacking corps and the cornerback position. Senior corner Morgan Trent, who struggled against big threat receivers from Ohio State and USC in Michigan s two season-ending loses, said he is ready to take over for Hall (a first round draft pick).

It s an honor to even be in the position I am in, Trent said. It s something that I have to make the best of. I ve had great cornerbacks in front of me that have shown me the way, so I m excited.

The Wolverines are loaded offensively with senior quarterback Chad Henne set to break a number of school passing records and senior running back Mike Hart in line to establish new rushing marks. Big Ten offensive lineman of the year Jake Long also returns along with talented receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington.

When you play against great players you are going to get better, English said. I m counting on that.

Junior cornerback Johnny Sears said practicing against that group should serve as perfect preparation for early home games against Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State.

With Mario, Adrian and Greg [Mathews] our receivers will prepare you during the season day in and day out to be good and be able to go up against those other great receivers, Sears said. The chance is there. The coaches say the position is wide open. I just want to have a good camp and get the job.

Crable said while it will be difficult to replace players like Hall and Woodley, he said fellow linebackers John Thompson and Chris Graham are similar athletes. He said Brandon Graham, a 6-2, 276 pound sophomore, should be a force at end.

We have some talented guys, Crable said. We ll plug people in that can play those positions. They were backups and were rotating in. They were overshadowed. But they did a tremendous job. Now they get the chance to step into a full time job.

Contact Mark Monroe at:mmonroe@theblade.comor 419-724-6354.

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