- Alden Reiss/Daily
By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 19, 2012
Five young men clenched the chain-link fence atop the bleachers at Phyllis Ocker Field, home to the Michigan field hockey team, and peered through.
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The bleachers are located directly adjacent to the football practice fields outside Al Glick Field House, providing a perfect vantage point for the fans to watch practice. The Michigan football team was running its first practice of the spring season under the mid-Saturday sun, and it had already drawn a crowd.
“Oh man, they’re hitting already,” one onlooker said.
“And they’ve got the pads on, too,” added another.
They weren’t. And they didn’t. But from 200 yards away you couldn’t tell.
Since his arrival in January 2011, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has incessantly preached toughness and physicality. Though the pads won’t be on for a few days or weeks yet, Hoke has brought the same mentality into his second year at the helm.
“For us, I don’t know if you look at it a whole lot differently,” Hoke said last Friday. “You’re always trying to meet expectations of competitiveness, toughness, leadership, development (and) discipline.”
So what’s changed in the past year? Just about everything.
Hoke and his staff rallied the 7-6 Michigan team it inherited to a surprising 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory. The expectations haven’t just shifted — they’ve skyrocketed.
For the Wolverines, those expectations cannot be met without a stout defense that shows marked improvement. The defensive numbers were Michigan’s biggest surprise last season, as the unit vaulted from the 107th-best scoring defense to No. 6 in the nation.
But the departures of three starting defensive linemen — Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and Will Heininger — have left the defensive front depleted. The veteran faces will be replaced with fresh, unproven ones.
Fortunately for Hoke, the trenches are his specialty, and he’s adamant that the linemen will set the tone for the defense.
“No question about it,” Hoke said. “Your expectations don’t go down. They better increase because the bar is always going to be set high here at Michigan and should be. Those expectations are for the position, not the person who plays the position.”
Hoke also understands that the pressure will be ratcheted higher after a breakout first season as head coach. And with a season opener against reigning-national champion Alabama staring Michigan down just five months away, spring camp won’t be a cakewalk.
Because even after a year of unexpected success, there are plenty of unknowns.
“As far as this team, Team 133, I think we have a lot of questions. I know I do,” Hoke said.
“… I think we’ve had a good winter. You can see some guys developing, you can see some guys really working hard, but I think you put the pads on, spring football, those things, you learn a little bit more about your football team.”
On the flip side, the players get to learn a little bit more about their coaches.
A year ago, during Hoke’s first spring, three concepts whipped out of Schembechler Hall with alarming consistency — get 11 hats to the ball, finish every play and hear football.
The concepts alone are simple enough. But the players had to learn them, and Hoke made sure they did. If a ball is loose, it’s yours. If the whistle hasn’t blown, you’re still moving. And if your hits don’t pop, you’re not hitting hard enough.
That’s where the five onlookers had it wrong. The key was that you couldn’t hear football on Saturday. If you couldn’t hear it, there were no hits. If there were no hits, there were no pads.
With or without pads, Hoke knows how to motivate. Because, more than anything, members of Michigan’s ‘Team 133’ have learned what drives Hoke crazy.
“A guy not playing with toughness and a guy not running to the football,” Hoke said. “That will drive me crazy.”