- Said Alsalah/Daily
BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 10, 2009
Before the season started, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson felt his unit was flying under the radar.
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He understood concerns about the defense's depth, but at Michigan Media Day, Robinson couldn't help but express a hint of confidence in its improvement from last year.
"You're going to like the way they play," he said.
By that, Robinson probably didn't mean a defense that gives up almost 400 yards per game, nearly 30 yards more than the 2008 defense, which was led by Scott Shafer. Sure, Michigan is giving up 2.5 fewer points per game (26.4) this season. But on paper, the defense looks unimproved under its third coordinator in three seasons.
Nevertheless, there probably won't be a fourth in four years. The stagnation in defensive statistics is secondary to the comfort Robinson brings to the team.
"I really like the chemistry of our staff," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday when asked about the difference on defense this year. "I think the players have bought into what we're doing. But our production at times has not been as good defensively at times as we'd like. There are a lot of factors that go into that."
Junior cornerback Troy Woolfolk points to one factor — execution. The defense that comes running out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel on Saturdays isn't the same one Woolfolk sees in practice all week. He doesn't think the Wolverines are learning from their mistakes, which they make over and over again.
For Woolfolk, there's one quote that embodies the solution: "Always make new mistakes."
The coach that told him that? Michigan's defensive coordinator two years ago, Ron English.
English was the last coordinator to find success at Michigan. The current Eastern Michigan head coach held the position for two seasons before Rodriguez took over in Ann Arbor.
But Woolfolk isn't stuck in the past. He likes the progress the defense is making under Robinson.
"Honestly, I feel way more comfortable in this system," Woolfolk said. "Last year, I think we had great execution, but just the defense wasn't working. Versus this year, the defense is working. ... It's just a matter of us being able to do it all the time."
Woolfolk's frustration with that lack of consistency showed Monday.
"It just hurts that you know you have the ability to beat the team," Woolfolk said, pounding the podium. "Michigan beat Michigan (on Saturday). It just hurts that you know that it shouldn't have went that way."
But even with Rodriguez's vote of confidence, Woolfolk's concerns are alarming.
Michigan's defensive Achilles' heel — missed assignments — rears its head week after week after week.
"I don't think you can use the excuse anymore saying it's something new because we've been doing it for the whole season so far," Woolfolk said. "These little mistakes just cause us to lose games sometimes."
Part of the problem is that Robinson is dealing with a defense that lacks depth. And that issue is solved more through recruiting over the next two seasons than in the next two games.
But for the rest of the season, the big question for Robinson will be if he can figure out how to get his defense to execute.
"We can do it," Woolfolk said. "It's just a matter of focusing during the game."