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ANN ARBOR — Acknowledging that he might be biased, Michigan tight end Kevin Koger believes that when looking at this spring as a whole, the Wolverines offensive players got the better of their defensive teammates.
But when asked if the same was also true of Saturay’s spring game, Koger gave the answer that perhaps all of the roughly 25,000 in attendance would have given.
“I can say they got the better of us today,” said Koger, a Whitmer High School alum.
The Wolverines defense, which hasn’t had many positive things said or written about it the past three years, played with noticeable energy and execution Saturday during what was essentially a controlled scrimmage. It was the public’s first viewing of a unit that many expect to make significant strides under the tutelage of new head coach Brady Hoke and highly respected coordinator Greg Mattison.
“The defense definitely played well today,” safety Jordan Kovacs said. “But I can’t say it’s been that way all spring.”
In actuality, this day wasn’t about the offense vs. the defense. A team comprised of the second-team offense and the first-team defense beat their teammates 14-7 on a late touchdown pass from Devin Gardner to Je’Ron Stokes in the corner of the end zone.
But both defensive units, whether winners or losers on the scoreboard, left the field feeling good about the progress they’ve made the past month. They combined to allow just two touchdowns — Stokes’ reception, and a 68-yard jaunt by Michael Cox — and put up a touchdown of their own when second-team linebacker Jake Ryan stepped in front of a pass from Gardner and ran 20 yards or so into the end zone.
The touchdowns by Stokes and Cox were part of the winning team’s effort.
Official statistics were not kept, but suffice it to say Ryan, a redshirt freshman, came away a big winner. In addition to his touchdown, the outside linebacker was all over the field, making tackles in the run game and keeping Gardner uncomfortable with repeated pressure from the perimeter. After the game Mattison said Ryan exhibits “tremendous energy and speed off the edge, which is something I think we need in our package.”
“The new defense is complicated, but once you’re in there and you get it in your head and know what you’re doing, all the plays are made,” Ryan said.
Others defenders who stood out in a positive light were safety Carvin Johnson and tackles Mike Martin and Kenny Wilkins.
On the play following Ryan’s touchdown, Johnson also recorded an interception, saddling Gardner with back-to-back picks. Earlier in the day Johnson hauled in an easy interception on a bad pass from Denard Robinson but the play was negated due to a defensive penalty. Johnson recorded several tackles, including a sack that amounted to a two-hand touch given that quarterbacks were not allowed to be hit.
Mattison said the sophomore Johnson displayed a knack for interceptions all spring.
“He showed he’s the kind of guy that always shows up where the ball is,” Mattison said.
In an effort to let Martin pressure the quarterback, Mattison and Hoke moved the senior to the end on some plays. It worked well as the speedy 300-pounder managed to penetrate into the backfield more often than not.
“You have to put guys who can make plays in position to make plays,” Hoke said of Martin.
So if the defense played well, what does that say of the offense?
Neither of the two scholarship quarterbacks played well. Robinson, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, completed just 5 of 11 passes for 70 yards with an interception. He rushed five times for 60 yards — including a 55-yard run on the first play of the game — but fumbled twice on exchanges with the center. Gardner threw two interceptions but also the game-winning touchdown.
This is the first season since high school that Robinson will not work out of the shot gun.
“I still have learning to do,” he said. “I’m not perfect yet.”
Asked about the running backs, Hoke paused before saying, “I don’t think we’re where we need to be yet.” He, however, did praise Cox, who has been at a disadvantage this spring as he missed Tuesday practices due to a class conflict.
“I thought he had a really good day today,” Hoke said. “I thought his patience was pretty good and I thought he hit the hole pretty good a couple times.”
Hoke couldn’t have been pleased with what he saw from his kickers. Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons, who combined to make four of 14 field goal attempts in 2010, each missed an attempt — Broekhuizen’s from 30 yards away, and Gibbons’ a 48-yarder that hit the upright and came crashing down.
When assessing what went well for the defense, Koger talked about his teammates creating havoc in the backfield, forcing turnovers, and playing with great energy. In other words, he talked about traits synonymous with a good Michigan defense.
“It’s kind of weird because you don’t want to cheer them on, but you do, because hopefully it translates to the fall,” Koger said.
FOR THE KIDS: More than $350,000 was raised yesterday for the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and specifically an interactive play area for patients at the hospital. Spectators were not charged admission to the game but were encouraged to donate to the cause. Half of the money raised was given by the Beam Family of Brighton, Mich., who pledged to match every other donation dollar-for-dollar.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com or 419-724-6160.