Michigan’s defense is tough to figure out.
The Wolverines have allowed 66 points in two games, but that number is a little deceiving. They ran into an Alabama team that is essentially the best team in the country and followed that up with a disappointing performance against Air Force. However, it’s always tough to analyze yards allowed to a team running the triple option – especially when you have one week to prepare and it’s the only option offense your team will face.
Against UMass, the Wolverines will see their third completely different offense in as many weeks. Alabama runs a powerful pro style, Air Force boasts the aforementioned triple option, and the Minutemen run a no-huddle spread attack that is still in its infancy. If Vegas, player quotes and general harsh reality are any indicators, the Wolverines will be more-than ready for whatever challenge UMass may pose.
Some UMass fans may point to the Minutemen’s impressive showing back in 2010 when they went to the Big House and put up 37 points. However, much has changed since then. In 2010, UMass ran a different offense, under a different coach and played a Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan squad that, to be kind, didn’t exactly focus on defense.
Saturday will likely be a rough day for UMass as Michigan tries to right the ship on defense and prepare for a Big 10 Championship run.
The Wolverines return three starters from last year, and lost only J.B. Fitzgerald from the two-deep. Michigan is hoping its linebacking corps will be a strength for the team this year
After the Spring Game, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke voiced his concern about the Wolverines being a little soft up the middle. He looked toward Kenny Demens, a fifth-year senior, to fix the problem. Demens is Michigan’s middle linebacker and came into this season as the Wolverine’s leading tackler (94). Demens has started a little slow this season (10 tackles) and may face some competition from true freshman Joe Bolden if he falters. Bolden was the No. 7 linebacker in the country last year and looks to be a great get for the Wolverines. Bolden has drawn comparisons to Paul Posluszny, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
The linebacking unit is younger on the corners, but that doesn’t take away from the quality. On the weak side, Michigan is starting sophomore Desmond Morgan, while sophomore Jake Ryan is holding down the strong side. Morgan and Ryan have gotten off to a statistically hot start so far and have 15 and 16 tackles, respectively.
It sounds like freshman James Ross is putting the heat on Morgan for his spot.
Michigan fans are hoping that Hoke can figure out a good balance at linebacker. So far the unit has been unimpressive against the run. With a lot of talented youth waiting to fill in, UMass fans should be ready to see some of the better true freshmen in the country.
Greg Mattison, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, has gotten creative with this group. The Wolverines lost three of their four starters on the defensive line, and Mattison has had to flip-flop a few athletes. Most notably, Craig Roh switched from weak-side to strong-side defensive end. This is his fourth position change in four years.
Before the season, it appeared that Jibreel Black was going to transition to defensive tackle, but Mattison opted to keep him at defensive end. Black only has three tackles so far and is being pushed by sophomore Frank Clark.
Michigan fans have grown concerned with the development of senior defensive tackle Will Campbell.
Michigan was banking on Campbell, a former five-star recruit, to realize his potential after three ineffectual seasons. But he has struggled as a first-time starter, most pointedly with his pad level.
He is playing the position too high, which has caused him to consistently get blown off the ball. At one point, Air Force even seemed to target its runs at Campbell when he was in the game.
Pushing Campbell is freshman Ondre Pipkins and Nathan Brink who, in limited action, already has a tackle for loss.
The Wolverines wanted to go with a little more size this year, which led to Quinton Washington, a 6’4, 300-pound junior, to take over at nose tackle. Washington has six tackles in his first two games as a starter.
The injury bug has already claimed one of Michigan’s best defenders.
Sophomore Blake Countess tore his ACL during the Alabama game and will be sidelined for the season. Countess was supposed to be a young star for the Michigan secondary and is no doubt a huge loss for this group.
Free safety Thomas Gordon looks to take over as the leader of the secondary and has watched the unit go through serious growing pains since 2010. He saw the secondary go through major attrition as Ray Vinopal and Cullen Christian took off for Pitt, and Carvin Johnson went to Arizona. He was also there when the Wolverines had the 112th pass defense in the country in 2010.
The secondary is much improved since then and boasts a lot of experience at cornerback. Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd will start on one side while junior Courtney Avery holds down the other.
At strong safety Jordan Kovacs has impressed and currently leads the team with 17 tackles.
Nearly everything is relative in college football. On one side, Michigan is concerned with its defensive production as it attempts to make a run at the Big 10 Championship. On the other end of the spectrum, UMass is worried about being competitive – against anyone – this season.
Michigan’s problem is about to meet UMass’, and it’s not going to be pretty.
The Wolverines are going to try and prove a point on Saturday. They want to show their fans that the defensive line is tougher than it has shown, that its linebackers have continuity and that its secondary is actually progressing. It will be facing an offense that has no real gimmicks (See: Air Force) and lacks destructive power up front (See: Alabama).
UMass’ offense has no doubt improved since its Week 1 drubbing, but nothing can change the fact that the Minutemen will be starting freshmen in front of nearly 110,000 fans in an offense that is only a few months old. On the other side of the ball, Michigan brings in a defense strewn with four- and five-star athletes that are bigger, stronger and faster than anything UMass has.
Look for the Michigan defense to dominate in what will likely be a learning experience for the Maroon and White.