UM expects defense to be strong despite new faces

Greg Mattison, University of Michigan defensive coordinator
Greg Mattison, University of Michigan defensive coordinator

ANN ARBOR — Statistically, a certain standard has been set for the Michigan football team’s defense.

But Greg Mattison has another expectation for this year’s defensive corps: Brains, not brawn. Aptitude, not averages — and Mattison, Michigan’s third-year defensive coordinator, won’t settle for average.

“We’ve made a really big goal of our defense wanting to be a smarter defense, to be a defense that you don’t make missed assignments, that you make sure that the offense can’t look out there and see exactly what you’re in,” Mattison said Wednesday. “To do that, a player has to have attention to detail.”

The Wolverines finished 13th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in 2012 in team defense, allowing an average of 320 yards a game. They finished 20th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (19.85 points) and tied for fifth nationally with Boise State in passing defense.

The Wolverines will attempt to mimic that with a new set of personnel. That will follow the losses of several key players to graduation, including safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd, and UM will start the season without linebacker Jake Ryan, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL.

On paper, Michigan utilizes a 4-3 defense. But it comes with layers that are adjusted when it faces specific opponents, specific situations, and even specific players.

Mattison said the coaches installed the first of the defense on the first day of fall practices, with seven to eight defenses installed every day. If the pattern holds, Mattison anticipates Michigan will have its full defense installed by the third week of camp.

“Everything we’re trying to do with this group, they do appear to want to learn,” Mattison said. “They’re like sponges in trying to want to learn. We’re giving them more. When they were babies, you teach them one thing and hope they get that.

“Now they’ve been in the program for two and three years, and now they say, ‘I got it, this is good.’ When that happens, you don’t just install the defenses, you show them why. And you can tell them, ‘This is what happens if you don’t do it right.’ That’s part of being a smarter defense.”

While Mattison has coached at the professional and college levels, he wouldn’t name a team that would set a “smart” standard for Michigan’s defense. But he made a general recollection of the teams that didn’t achieve that standard.

“Some don’t,” Mattison said. “I’ve been around them before where you’ve said, ‘We’re going to be a smart team, and we’ve got to do this and do that,’ and they don’t ever take pride in that. This group really, really seems to take pride.”

OFFENSE TALK: While Devin Gardner is the starting quarterback, offensive coordinator Al Borges said there’s no timetable set to determine Gardner’s backup. Borges said freshman Shane Morris and walk-on Brian Cleary are splitting practice reps with the second offense.

“You’d love to have it all in place the week you’re ready to play,” Borges said. “Right now, we’re throwing them all out there and see what they do. It will talk back to you eventually.”

Borges also said the coaching staff will pare down the running back corps by next weekend. That stable includes redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint, junior Thomas Rawls, redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes, and highly touted freshman Derrick Green.

“We’re leaving it a little open-ended,” Borges said. “The carries for certain players are going to go down, because you can’t get six guys ready."

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.