- Terra Molengraff/Daily
By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 31, 2013
Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that his defensive line could rotate three deep, even if that means constantly swapping players. Some would play more than others, but Mattison had enough faith in the second and third string players to consider them a part of the regular rotation.
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On Saturday, we saw what Mattison has been seeing all off-season — a deep, talented group strong enough to comfortably rotate more than ten players on the line even though it’s a group without much experience.
In Michigan’s 59-9 drubbing of Central Michigan, the defense registered four sacks, two of them by the defensive line. The Wolverines posted four sacks in a game just once all of last season, when the defensive line contributed just 12 sacks all year.
“(The defensive line) had a lot of energy,” said junior linebacker Desmond Morgan. “They were flying around. Stunts came a little bit cleaner and guys communicated a little bit better. It’s something we kind of pride ourselves on, having depth and rotating guys in as much as possible.”
The Wolverines were at it from the get-go, rotating different defensive lineman in on just the second play of the game. The game officially became a blowout in the second half, but even while the game was still close, the rotation never stopped.
Veterans like fifth-year senior Quinton Washington played. Rookies like redshirt freshman Willie Henry played. There were budding stars like junior Frank Clark and lesser knowns like junior Brennan Beyer, who got the first sack of his career against Central Michigan. (Beyer switched to linebacker from defensive end, but played on the line at times Saturday.)
Mattison had them all in there, in-and-out, almost like he had a limitless stream of depth to pull from.
“It was good to get a lot of the young guys in,” Hoke said. “Willie Henry on defense and those guys. It will be good to watch some tape with them and really coach them off that tape.”
The last time Mattison could remember this much depth on the defensive line was when he was a defensive coordinator at Florida. He had six first-string guys. Five of them were NFL Draft picks. Last week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he’s “never had that much on depth,” on the defensive line .
That doesn’t mean the unit played perfectly. Hoke mentioned a specific drive in the second quarter where the Chippewas rushed for 48 yards. Rush, first down, rush, first down, and so on. There were missed tackles and gaps in the line. It’s a young group that could afford to make some mistakes against a vastly inferior Central Michigan offensive line. Down the line, maybe next week against Notre Dame, that youth will rear its inexperienced head.
“There’s discipline and things like that you need to play with,” Hoke said. “That’s something they’ll learn. They’ll learn a lot off this game. We took 68 guys to the hotel last night and 36 of them were first and second year players. That’s a lot of babysitting and teaching going on. And it is babysitting.”
But still, the defensive line depth speaks to the depth of the defense as a whole. Playing without three of its starters, the defense held Central Michigan to 210 yards and forced two turnovers.
The biggest example: star linebacker Jake Ryan is out until mid-October. His replacement, fifth-year senior Cam Gordon, was a wrecking ball and finished with two sacks.
Make no mistake — Central Michigan is not a Big Ten team. Notre Dame will make this defense look a lot younger next Saturday, even with starting safety Thomas Gordon back from a one-game suspension.
But for one Saturday, the first Saturday, it was important to see what the defensive line was capable of, even if it’s not the finished product.
“You can say you gave up nine points, so I guess they responded,” Hoke said. “But did they respond well enough? This is all about winning a championship. If we get satisfied, for one effort, then we aren’t going to win it.”