ANN ARBOR — For a guy whose trademark is enthusiasm and passion, Don Brown was downright tranquil when he discussed Michigan’s defense five days into fall camp.
The usually spirited defensive coordinator was subdued, lacking the hand gyrations and excitable voice so many are familiar with when he talks about his unit. But that doesn't mean there’s a lack of confidence from Brown. Far from it.
In the spring, he thought this year’s defense might be his quickest. That opinion hasn’t changed. Brown said it could be the deepest defense he’s had in three seasons at Michigan. He still believes it. Brown also isn’t fretting about leadership because, according to him, it’s visible in droves.
“I’m really happy,” Brown said. “It’s funny. We were having a conversation [Wednesday], and a couple years ago everybody was learning. It was new for everybody. I think it took us a little bit to get up to speed. That was an incredible outfit, but we didn't have a lot of depth.
“It’s nice when a lot of your top-tier guys — and a lot of them are young — can help educate the younger guys in terms of functionality, concept, understanding, those things. It’s been a positive for the young guys. You always have the growth areas in the preseason with the new guys and you’re pulling your hair out, but we’re having a lot less of those kinds of episodes. That’s a good thing.”
And one that’s probably to be expected. Michigan returns nine starters from the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense (271 yards per game). The Wolverines managed last season’s top-five ranking after replacing nine starters. On paper, this year’s defense could be the best Brown has had.
All-American defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and linebacker Mike McCray are gone. But there are future NFL draft picks at almost every position — defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebackers Devin Bush, Jr., and Khaleke Hudson, and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long.
“It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine right now,” Gary said. “We’re pushing the best we can be. Iron sharpens iron. That’s our attitude going into every practice, every meeting. We’re pushing ourselves to the best player as possible and be a better team.”
Peel back the curtain and you’ll discover unheralded players who are trying to beat down the playing time door. Brown described the competition to replace McCray as a “fistfight” between Devin Gil, Josh Ross, and Drew Singleton.
Gil played in all 13 games last season as a true freshman, even starting the Florida game. He finished the year with five tackles. Ross also played all 13 games as a true freshman in 2017, primarily on special teams. Singleton redshirted.
“Coach [Jim Harbaugh] likes to use the term ‘cage match,’ and I guess that's what it is,” Brown said. “If you ask me today who's the leader, I’d say there is none.”
There’s no fistfight between junior linebacker Josh Uche and any teammates. He’s doing his fighting with Brown.
“He wanted to fight me, I think,” Brown said. “I’m joking. He wants to play. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey coach, I want to play. Let me play.’ Well, go earn it. How about that? Well, he’s earned it. He’s now 241 pounds. I want you to think about that for a minute. And he still runs a 4.5. He’s not a skinny guy running around getting bounced around trying to figure out feet and posture and all the things that you’re looking for in a complete football player.”
So much was made of the loss of Jabrill Peppers last offseason, then Hudson filled the viper role perhaps better than Peppers. Hudson set a program record with eight tackles for loss against Minnesota, part of an impressive season stat line of 83 tackles, 18½ tackles for loss, eight sacks, and nine pass breakups.
The junior is continuing to impress onlookers in camp. HIs ability to blitz proved to be a strength, so Michigan is finding ways to allow him to make plays.
“He’s a real guy now,” Brown said. “He’s got it all figured out mentally, physically. He’s 220 pounds. You can tell how far he’s come. He’s just a special player. He can blitz, he can cover, he’s smart.”
Add it all up — returners on defense, Shea Patterson, and what Michigan thinks will be an improved offensive line under Ed Warinner — and there’s a reason why the expectations are towering, not just from fans but inside Schembechler Hall. Everything is in place for the Wolverines to end a 14-year Big Ten championship drought.
Of course, it comes down to how they perform in the biggest games.
“There’s no pressure,” Bush said.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.