There’s not much new to say about Michigan’s 2020 defense.
The numbers tell the story: 12th in the Big Ten and 89th in the country in total defense; 13th and 96th in passing defense. Put simply, the Wolverines weren’t good enough, especially defending the pass.
For new defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, though, what’s past is past.
“It wasn’t that (the players) didn’t want to talk about it,” Clinkscale said to reporters Thursday. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I just really feel like, if coach (Jim Harbaugh) is going to hire all these coaches, let’s be real, he wants a different mindset. He wants a different attitude, a different approach.”
It seems he got what he wanted.
When the dust settled from all the offseason reshuffling, his staff consisted of six new coaches, and the average age plummeted from 46 to 37. One presumed goal of that shift was to reinvigorate Michigan’s recruiting department, and it’s already partially paid off with the continued commitment of Will Johnson, a five-star cornerback from the class of 2022.
But on the defensive side of the ball, the youthful coaching staff is targeted at the existing players, too. The Wolverines’ defensive struggles in 2020 were just as much schematic as they were personnel issues. The hope is that the young coaches will bring more creative schemes that play to the strengths of the current team and don’t leave first-year starting corners without help. More specifically, that means passing downs should feature less one-deep man-to-man packages and more zone and pattern-matching looks.
“As a defense, you can’t show the same things,” fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins said. “You can’t show the same pressures and things like that, so you gotta disguise, you gotta rotate. That’s what we’ve been doing, working on in camp, just showing different looks. If we’re in Cover 2, show Cover 4, or things like that.”
Still, those changes take time. A team that’s been playing defense one way for five years can’t just flip a switch and start playing another way. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, for his part, joined the program in January, so he had some opportunity to introduce the team to his ideas during spring ball. Clinkscale, though, wasn’t hired until May. Even with an entire summer of studying, a team can’t truly learn a new system without reps, so any concepts he wanted to bring in have had to wait until fall camp.
Even so, it helps to return some experience to the secondary. Seniors Gemon Green and Vincent Gray — who struggled in one-on-one coverage last season — seem likely to spend significant time at corner again in 2021. However, junior DJ Turner could also challenge for snaps on the outside.
Clinkscale also said that junior safety Daxton Hill has rotated between secondary positions in practice. If he takes more snaps as a nickel corner instead of as a deep safety, he should be in a better position to leverage the athleticism that earned him five stars coming out of high school.
“I think the guys are excited about it, because they see how it’s all coming together,” Clinkscale said. “I think in the spring, they just wanted to create a foundation. … And now that we have that baseline understanding, we’re starting to be more creative, and the players are really excited about it.”
Nobody can be sure what that translates to in the immediate term. After last season, it was clear that things needed to change on defense, and obviously, doubts over Harbaugh’s longevity at Michigan have crept in. His gamble with assistant coaches this offseason could determine which way that question goes.
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” Clinkscale said. “So we’re gonna go out there and prove people wrong.”