ANN ARBOR - Rich Rodriguez emphasized that defensive struggles at Michigan can be traced to a dearth of experience, bodies, and - gulp - even talent.
That was his message this week.
It was also his message last year.
The company line at Michigan has remained the same, and in this bottom line business, in which UM's defense has consistently failed to reach its quota, change would be welcomed.
The Big Ten's worst defense - and it isn't very close - enters the second half of the season Saturday against Iowa searching for marked improvement all around but particularly in a defensive backfield where four true freshmen are being thrown into a fire that isn't likely to be extinguished now that Massachusetts and Bowling Green are crossed off the schedule.
No. 15 Iowa (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) will travel to play the Wolverines (5-1, 1-1) Saturday, and in a stark defensive contrast, the Hawkeyes are ranked second in defense in the Big Ten, allowing 242.2 yards per game while UM has been shredded for 450.7.
"We're not blind to the fact that we have some glaring issues," defensive lineman Greg Banks said. "We're definitely working hard to get on those."
Banks, a senior, looks at the freshmen on the field alongside him and thinks back to his first year with the program. He admittedly wasn't prepared to play and his coaches during the Lloyd Carr regime agreed. So he was redshirted.
Rodriguez hasn't been afforded the luxury of redshirting many of his defensive rookies. In Saturday's loss to Michigan State, UM played three true freshmen cornerbacks, and one - Cullen Christian - was benched after being burnt for a touchdown pass. It is widely accepted that cornerback, more so than most other positions, is not a spot where teams can get by playing an inexperienced player.
Rodriguez said that because of the abundance of youthful players lining up on defense, the staff has "simplified" its schemes. But the problem with that, Rodriguez said, is simplistic ideas don't usually net positive results, a notion supported by Michigan's national rank of 112th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense.
"All these coaches watch this film and they have a veteran team," Rodriguez said. "If you're too simple they'll find a way to go against you."
Michigan State found a way, rolling up 536 yards in a 34-17 win at Michigan Stadium a week after Indiana went for 568 yards in a loss to the Wolverines. Iowa is averaging 33.6 points and boasts the league's most efficient passer in quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
Rodriguez said personnel changes are being discussed, particularly at linebacker where Mark Moundros and Kenny Demens may soon receive an increased work load. More changes could come next week, a bye week for the Wolverines.
At the very least, Rodriguez plans for his defense to use time away from game preparation to focus on their fundamentals, specifically tackling.
As for the other element to an improved defense, recruiting, Rodriguez said he is pleased with his commitments from this year's high school senior class, both on offense and defense. Thus far, he has six defensive commits, including Jack Miller of St. John's and Fremont Ross' Greg Brown, among his 11-member class. Last week, Orlando running back Demetrius Hart chose UM over Alabama.
Rodriguez's success at Michigan with defensive recruits has been uninspiring. Of the 12 defensive players Rodriguez signed in February, three - Demar Dorsey, Antonio Kinard, and Davion Rogers - did not make their way through the door because of academics.
Additionally four 2009 defensive recruits, including highly-rated backs Vladimir Emilien and Justin Turner, are no longer members of the program. Rodriguez said he is looking to recruit another 10 or so players in this year's class now that the program has mostly rebounded from an NCAA investigation.
"We're not as talented as maybe we'd like to be or we're going to be," Rodriguez said. "That part of it is not just in recruiting. Obviously you can fix some issues in recruiting in the next couple of years and spots where we're really thin or maybe not as talented as we'd like to be, but also in development."
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