Max Marcovitch: Are we sure this defense is going to be just fine?

Saturday, April 13, 2019 - 8:06pm

Defensive coordinator Don Brown must deal with losing multiple star players.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown must deal with losing multiple star players. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

There’s a reflexive tendency in Michigan football spheres to defer to Don Brown. It’s understandable, even justified.

In each of his three seasons at Michigan, Brown has guided a top-20 defense nationally. His defenses have given up less than 2,000 passing yards per year each season; the last group to do that was the 2001-2003 Miami Hurricanes (Yes, those Miami teams).

So when all else fluctuates — offensive struggles, widespread coaching change, roster turnover — Don Brown remains, more than any other entity, the linchpin of the program. He annually coagulates whatever group of parts he has into a healthy sum. It’s why Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called him the “king of defensive coordinators” last year. And for many, it will be reason enough to sing kumbaya and expect a seamless defensive transition this year amid what, under any other circumstance, would be worthy of concern.

But while Brown’s presence may add a comfortable layer of trustworthiness, he does not make the defense impervious to questions — of which there are plenty to ask.

Not even the king of defensive coordinators can step on the field and replace Devin Bush’s generational sideline-to-sideline speed, Rashan Gary’s power or Chase Winovich’s tenacity. He cannot mask a woefully thin interior defensive line, nor hide holes at safety and linebacker.  

The buzz within the team remains rightfully optimistic now, as if there’s reason for an alternative four months before the opening kickoff.

“We know that we’re looked down upon as a group out of the old defense to not do as well,” said senior linebacker Josh Uche. “That’s OK because that’s for us to prove to the world wrong.”

This is a team that is losing two top-10 NFL Draft picks, two other early-round selections and a multi-year starter and team captain at safety. It’s forced to replace three valuable interior defensive linemen — and currently looking to a 250-pound converted fullback to slot into one of those roles (Yeah, yeah, I know how much you love Ben Mason).

This is especially troublesome given Brown’s biggest weakness has been his propensity to be too trusting of his players and scheme — to a fault. Ohio State last year, of course, is the classic example. In 2017, Penn State blitzed the Wolverines’ defense for 42 points.

“It’s not the concept,” Brown said on Mar. 27, attempting to diagnose those problems. “What it is sometimes is, ‘My guys are better than their guys’ and I’m just gonna shove it.’ ”

Sure, recognition of this mindset inherently implies a desire to fix it. But this is not a group Brown will be able to take into big games and “shove it.”

None of this is meant to imply roster turnover is worrisome in a vacuum. Roster turnover is the norm at Michigan and in college football — and nothing this coaching staff is unfamiliar with.

“I feel like stuff like this happens every year. My freshman year, we’re losing all those guys and we only had one returner coming back,” said senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson “I feel like every year it’s going to be something — even next year, I’m going to be gone, so they’re going to be asking the next person the same question. Just do what you do regularly, just next person up step up and do what you’ve got to do.”

Many point to the 2016 offseason — the one Hudson is referring to — as being similar, if not worse. The Wolverines lost 10 starters off a top-five defense in the country, including Chris Wormley, Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill and other stalwarts. The following year, Gary, Bush, Winovich and other slotted seamlessly into new roles.

The question of Michigan’s defense next year might hinge on whether they have a similar reservoir of talent waiting in the wings.

For now, amid a swarm of noise about Josh Gattis and the new-look offense, the defense can find its feet away from the spotlight.

It’s different guys, but the same thing,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Dylan McCaffery.

Perhaps, as has been the norm under Brown at Michigan, that will hold true. Maybe the loss of Bush, Gary, Winovich and others will hurt more than expected.

As with any potential spring takeaway 130 days before real snaps, only time will tell.

Marcovitch can be reached at maxmarco@umich.edu or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.