ANN ARBOR - Essentially admitting what was becoming too obvious to ignore - that his defense was a mess - Rich Rodriguez began replacing starters on a weekly basis toward the end of the last college football season.
"We're reaching," the worn down University of Michigan coach said at the time.
To enhance their odds against that happening again, the Wolverine coaching staff is implementing changes this spring, both in the curriculum being taught and at what pace the players are expected to learn.
Perhaps the most notable shift - although a fairly subtle one - is the installation of a 3-3-5 package, which should bolster the overall speed on defense. A change to a more deliberate style of instructing is also being made to augment the development of some of the younger players - an area Rodriguez admittedly was disappointed in last year.
To read between the lines, Rodriguez believes the staff didn't do a great job of preparing some of the freshmen and sophomores for significant playing time. That was revealed greatly in November when options at linebacker and in the secondary didn't grow.
"The coaches are really taking it step-by-step this year to correct our problems from last year," cornerback Troy Woolfolk said yesterday.
The 3-3-5 system is designed to field a speedy unit while hoping the trade off in size isn't significant. It remains to be seen how much UM employs the formation, but it shouldn't be a dramatic change from the 3-4 played in Robinson's first year. The object, once again, involves combating multiple-receiver sets with an athletic back eight.
"What we're trying to do is tweak a few of our packages to fit the different types of schemes that we're facing offensively," Rodriguez said.
With the departures of Brandon Graham, Donovan Warren, and Stevie Brown, UM is without arguably its three best defenders from last year when it allowed an average of 27.5 points per game. A strong defensive recruiting class arrives in August, and a solid group of sophomores and redshirt freshman are expected to be sprinkled all over the depth chart. Former blue-chip nose tackle Will Campbell, who played sparingly a year ago as a true freshman, is receiving strong reports from camp.
"I think he's gotten better each day," Rodriguez said. "He still has to play lower at times, but he's using his hands a lot better. He's had a pretty productive first three days and I think he's going to continue to get better."
Woolfolk is expected to start at one corner, but solid competition envelopes the other four spots in the secondary. Jordan Kovacs and Mike Williams started frequently at safety a year ago, but to keep their jobs they'll need to stage off sophomore Vladimir Emilien (currently sidelined with a knee sprain), redshirt freshman Cam Gordon, and a crop of incoming recruits. It appears sophomore J.T. Floyd is high on the list to replace Warren at corner opposite Woolfolk. Floyd is looking "really, really good," according to Woolfolk.
INJURY REPORT: Since camp began, four Wolverines have suffered injuries, although none are expected to require surgery. Safeties Vladimir Emilien and Jared Van Slyke could miss a few weeks, each with a sprained knee, and the expected return for Je'Ron Stokes (ankle) and Anthony LaLota (elbow) is a week or so.
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