Losing a majority of starters from his top-five defense, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown stood in front of the media five days into training camp, reflecting upon how last season could have gone differently.
“The first 19 minutes of the regular season were not very good for the Michigan defense,” Brown said. “The next 10-game stretch was pretty damn good and then we got 19 minutes left (in the final game), and it’s a 7-point game, 8-point game. And the last 19 minutes weren’t very good. If we would have just squeezed out the first 19 and the last 19, which is probably the result of the things we can control, it might have been a historic year.
“That means mentally you gotta be tougher, that means from a preparation standpoint, we gotta be better. That means from my standpoint, we have to be better. So, you know, that’s really the challenge.”
But perhaps an even greater challenge for Brown is figuring out a combination of 11 guys who can line up on the same side of the field and replicate what last year’s defense did.
And though he didn’t give many specific answers as to who the clear-cut favorites are at each position, his answers did often include a plethora of contenders, specifically within the front seven. They showcased the most important thing any defense needs in order to be successful all season long — depth.
With the departures of Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, the trenches lost the most star power of any unit on defense. Though pass rushers like junior Kwity Paye, sophomore Aidan Hutchinson and junior Donovan Jeter were already expected to step up and follow their predecessors’ footsteps, Brown was most impressed with the guys right behind them.
“Probably the most improved guy that I can speak on behalf of is Carlo Kemp,” Brown said. “Stronger, way faster, confident. Just body language and the whole deal, leadership, really playing at a high level. Ben Mason vastly improved, obviously was a former running back but we put him into that mix, and we feel good about him.”
Brown also mentioned that senior Michael Dwumfour is continuing to recover from his injury that ended his junior year campaign but he has practiced already as well, making that six guys who are in a position to win four starting roles.
The linebacker squad suffered perhaps the greatest loss as middle linebacker and defensive anchor Devin Bush declared for the NFL Draft. And with the SAM being one of the weakest positions in last year’s defense, Brown has his hands full trying to figure out the best fits at each spot. But once again, he preached the depth in the middle unit starting with junior Josh Ross, going as far to say that all of his contending linebackers are some of the best in the nation.
“It’s not a challenge to coach Josh Ross — he’s the brightest linebacker I’ve been around in a long time,” Brown said. “Ross, Cameron McGrone, (Jordan) Glasgow, Devin Gil, and Jordan Anthony can play a lot of places in this country, let me just tell you that… this is probably the most depth I’ve had.
“Let the competition just go. Isn’t it a beautiful thing when we have five guys who can play all three positions? So, if you’re not playing at your best, sorry.”
For Brown, this philosophy won’t stick to just the linebacker unit, though. With the depth he has, it’s starting to become a central theme of fall camp.