Following late-season collapse, defense looks to retool
Don Brown is passionate, of course, but he isn’t known to mince words. The defensive coordinator’s feelings on how last season ended for Michigan football — 103 points allowed in the final two games — are an obvious example.
“The most disappointing experience I’ve ever been through in my entire life,” the 63-year-old said Wednesday evening. “The whole thing.”
Hyperbole or not, the epic defensive breakdown marred an otherwise remarkable year for the Wolverines’ defense, which still finished second in the country in total defense.
But when faced with dealing with an inscrutable, season-ending collapse, Brown said he made “a tremendous mistake.” He hopped on a plane for the recruiting trail the day after the Peach Bowl loss before circling back with his current unit, leaving almost three weeks to let his defense’s shortcomings marinate.
“I come back and I’m like ‘Holy shit! We’ve still got a little hangover.’ ” Brown said. “... It just leaves doubt in your mind as a coach — ’Did I do everything that I could to prepare my guys?’ That’s all. I take that stuff personally.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta do a bit of a better job. Trust me, it’s being addressed. Our guys are totally into it. I’m just excited for the chance to redeem myself.”
Getting that redemption is undoubtedly an uphill battle. That climb is exacerbated with the departures of soon-to-be NFL Draft picks Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, David Long and Chase Winovich, as well as the lost veteran presences of Tyree Kinnel, Bryan Mone and Brandon Watson.
Though par for the course for spring football chatter, Brown and his players have shown little concern about replicating last year’s accomplishments and righting the wrongs. Brown listed the names of improved players through five spring practices and claimed that the defense can go 16 or 17 guys deep right now.
“It’s college football,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “It’s always next man up no matter what happens. Losing big guys like Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, David Long, that’s the game of football. We have Coach Harbaugh, who does a great job recruiting, bringing in guys to step up, getting ready for a role.”
A number of younger players have generated buzz early on to fill the void, including sophomore defensive back Ambry Thomas, sophomore linebacker Josh Ross, incoming freshman defensive tackle Mazi Smith and redshirt freshman defensive end Luiji Vilain, who has missed the past two seasons with knee injuries.
With Bush and Kinnel gone, the defense will also need two new captains — a role that could be filled by Metellus and junior defensive back Lavert Hill. But with fewer household names on the defense, leadership will come from more subtle places.
“There’s a lot of young guys on the team, younger than the D-line actually,” said sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye on how to fill Gary and Winovich’s roles. “I have to be the guy to pull the guys aside who’s messing up in practice and say ‘Let’s work on this today, let’s work on that today.’ ”
Despite working in Brown’s system for another year, the defense is also making adjustments in practice against a new-look offense. With newly-hired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis implementing a pro-spread offense, the defense is now facing an up-tempo, no-huddle style that it isn’t accustomed to seeing.
In practice, the Michigan defense would operate on a 16 to 18-second timer to get into new formations, but has never faced the threat head-to-head.
While the schematic alterations are minor and the team has displayed confidence in potential new starters, a change beyond fundamentals is where focus lies in hopes to reverse course for the 2019 season. For them, it’s a matter of confidence.
“Everybody has a part to play, everybody does their role,” Metellus said. “… We don’t need a star, we just need to play how our defense plays.”