The lesson of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s tenure isn’t to solve your problems with aggression. Nor is it to play zone coverage or rush four on every play. It’s much, much more basic.
Players make the scheme work. Not the other way around.
In one of his first press conferences at Michigan in August 2016, Brown was asked about the perception of his defense as high-risk, high-reward. He interrupted the question.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s a bunch of baloney,” he said. “The high risk — no. We don’t just throw this stuff against the wall and take it and go, ‘Oh, I’m gonna run this play.’ Come on. We’re not doing that. … Whether you’re running or passing the ball, we’re gonna have the ability when we dictate to come. That’s what it’s all about.”
And for the better part of Brown’s first three years at the helm, that worked. Michigan played an aggressive style of defense. It got within inches of beating Ohio State in 2016 and gave a more talented Buckeyes team a run for its money in 2017.
That was when the Wolverines had defenses loaded with NFL players. Nine defensive players on that 2016 defense got drafted, with safety Dymonte Thomas getting signed as an undrafted free agent. Maurice Hurst followed the next year, with four more drafted the next season.
Brown made some tweaks to his scheme following the 2018 and 2019 losses to Ohio State that marred his tenure. In the end, he never found replacements for those players.
When looking for Brown’s replacement, Jim Harbaugh might want to keep that in mind.
Michigan didn’t sign a defensive tackle in 2018, and signed just one cornerback above four stars the same year. Lo and behold, when 2020 rolled around, Brown’s defense struggled to pressure quarterbacks and cover receivers downfield.
There will be a lot said in the coming days and weeks about what went wrong this year, as more staff changes are announced and rumors about replacements fly in every direction.
It would be wrong to boil down Michigan’s issues to a singular cause, but the biggest is that it failed to recruit at the level necessary.
If you’re arguing Brown stubbornly refused to change what he was doing on the field, you’re wrong. He worked in more zone coverage. He tried to change, if not his base philosophy then certainly enough to negate the argument that he couldn’t run anything but the same base package.
But recruiting-wise? Brown had connections in New England that he leveraged consistently. That’s about it.
Michigan had one player from the state of Ohio in its 2021 class, who signed last week. A year earlier, it had zero. In those two years combined, it also had no players from Indiana, no players from Wisconsin, no players from Pennsylvania and only three players from Illinois.
That’s a problem. And it’s one that needs to be fixed if this is going to work.
The Wolverines need to recruit the Midwest if they’re going to compete at the level this program desires. It’s really that simple.
That’s not all on whoever replaces Brown. It’s a philosophy that needs to be embedded in any and all staff changes Michigan makes this offseason.
For the record, that doesn’t mean Harbaugh should disregard scheme, experience or any other factor. Former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, already rumored as a prime candidate for the job, doesn’t have recruiting as one of the biggest things on the list of reasons to hire him, though to be fair, it’s hard to recruit at Vanderbilt.
In any case, that may be fine, if the staff is filled out with other coaches proven to be high-level recruiters. Six other assistants have contracts expiring in January, and safeties coach Bob Shoop is widely presumed to be leaving after he was unable to coach on-field last season. There’s room to address the problem, even if not in a defensive coordinator.
But the lesson here is still worth remembering. No hire Harbaugh makes is going to right this ship with a new scheme — if you still don’t believe me, ask offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. If Michigan really wants to succeed and compete for the Big Ten on a yearly basis, it needs to recruit at every position, every year, without fail.
Otherwise, it’ll find itself in the same position three years from now.
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears.
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