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ANN ARBOR - Last week, a media member asked Rich Rodriguez just how the University of Michigan's woeful defense of last year could possibly be improved despite the loss of four of that unit's best players.
"That's a good question," the Wolverine coach responded.
For Rodriguez, it is the question entering a pivotal season for the program.
Rodriguez is crossing his fingers, making wishes, and bargaining with the football gods, in hopes that a defense that was mostly unsightly a year ago can somehow be respectable despite evidence suggesting it won't be.
Rodriguez has refused to make this about himself, but entering his third season at UM with just eight wins, the development of that side of the ball, which admittedly is not his specialty, may be the most integral factor in whether he wins enough games to continue collecting a paycheck from the university.
Offensively, Rodriguez has recruited well. He'll have some experience at quarterback unlike the past two years, and his options at running back and receiver are plentiful if nothing else.
Up front, five linemen, along with tight end Kevin Koger, have started 87 games between them.
"It's Michigan, we have pressure every year," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "This is a new season, so everybody's just going out there to win for Michigan. That's our motto for this year."
Another team motto is: Hard Edge. Rodriguez is emphasizing intense, physical play, which probably wasn't always reflected by the Wolverines in 2009, particularly by a defense that entering the Ohio State game was on pace to allow more points than any other defense in program history.
Even with Brandon Graham stalking opposing quarterbacks, and linebacker Stevie Brown and cornerback Donovan Warren providing adequate pass coverage, UM struggled, ranking low nationally in total defense (82nd), scoring (77th), and rushing (91th). An already stiff challenge became more challenging last month when senior corner Troy Woolfolk, UM's best bet in the secondary, suffered a season ending leg injury.
"We've got to get a lot of guys to the ball in case someone misses a tackle," Rodriguez said. "We're fairly athletic defensively. We do run pretty well. I'm anxious to see how that works out."
Starters returning on defense are linemen Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin, linebackers Craig Roh and Jonas Mouton, and strong safety Jordan Kovacs. Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh is also back but he may have lost his job to Mark Moundros.
"The best 11 guys are going to be on the field whether it's a true freshman, or a fifth-year senior," defensive backs coach Tony Gibson said.
Mostly out of necessity, six true freshmen are listed on the defensive depth chart, headlined by Carvin Johnson who is expected to start at the hybrid/safety position. Cornerbacks Terrence Talbott, Cullen Christian, and Courtney Avery, and safety Marvin Robinson, are expected to play early on, and it wouldn't be a stunner if any of them win a starting job before long. Jibreel Black, who many liken as a younger, smaller, and less explosive Graham, will play at end. In all, eight true freshmen are listed on the depth chart, and Rodriguez said a few others are close to getting onto the field.
"It's rare to have this many true freshmen on a depth chart, but that's where we're at right now," Rodriguez said. "In a couple of years from now, maybe we won't, maybe we will. It depends how we recruit and how we develop."
Redshirt freshman Cameron Gordon will start at free safety but as a newcomer to the position he is prone to mistakes, according to his coaches, who noted that Gordon played poorly in a recent scrimmage, missing several tackles.
"My maturity is going to have to kick in," Gordon said. "The expectations of this year, we're going to have to handle in a mature way."
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Last week, a media member asked Rich Rodriguez just how the University of Michigan's woeful defense of last year could possibly be improved despite the loss of four of that unit's best players.