Three games into the season, the Michigan football team does not yet have a definitive identity. The offense has mixed and matched pieces, and the team’s defenders have given their own unit varying reviews.
But spending just a few minutes with senior linebacker James Ross and junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis makes it clear what the Wolverines’ defense wants its identity to be.
They arrived to their media availability Monday wearing the same logo — Lewis wore it on a fleece sweatshirt, and Ross wore it on his baseball cap. The logo had the wings of a carnivorous bird with a skull head between. It read “Ballhawks.” Defensive coordinator DJ Durkin has given out the gear since the spring, as a reward for creating turnovers in practice.
The gear is a way to emphasize what has been an area of weakness for Michigan in recent years. Last season, the Wolverines recorded just five interceptions and recovered five fumbles, which was tied for 108th among all Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
The need to create takeaways has been a constant teaching point in practice ever since the new coaching staff took over. They have drilled it into the players’ heads to the point that it is a mantra the players often repeat.
“When we get on that field, we want to get that ball back for our offense,” Ross said.
The new strategy manifests itself in multiple ways. When tacklers hit ball carriers, they are encouraged to do so with force and to make an effort to punch out the ball.
“We probably coach turnovers more than any defense I've ever been around, and in the camp and throughout practices we’ve had more turnovers than I can ever remember,” said Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison last week.
Mattison has held defensive coaching positions with eight different colleges and one NFL organization since 1977.
So far, the new mentality most evidently paid off when Michigan played Oregon State in the second game of the season and junior defensive end Taco Charlton knocked the ball out of the grasp of Beavers’ running back Victor Bolden. Michigan senior linebacker Joe Bolden snatched the ball out of the air in what became a game-changing play.
“We just learn to be way more aggressive than we’ve ever been,” Ross said. “That’s ripping the ball out, that’s making it very uncomfortable for the ball carriers no matter what. I’m not saying I punch the ball out rather than make the tackle. It’s not that. It’s just I’m reaching for that ball every time I’m taking you down.”
The secondary takes a similar approach with balls in the air. With the way they speak about their desire for interceptions, it’s as though they believe they have the same opportunity to catch a ball as the intended receiver.
Lewis had four pass breakups in Michigan’s win against UNLV. For some cornerbacks, the absence of pass breakups is viewed as a positive. It merely means the offense is scared to attack them. Lewis is different. He hopes the passes keep coming his way.
“Honestly, I wanted a pick,” Lewis said. “Pass breakups are great, but the ultimate goal is the interception.”
Lewis will have another chance to prove his point Saturday against No. 22 Brigham Young. The Cougars are a team unafraid to air out the football, illustrated by quarterback Tanner Mangum’s 47 pass attempts in his team’s loss to UCLA last weekend.
Mangum, a freshman, took over the starting job when Taysom Hill was injured in BYU’s season opener. He has had bright moments and game-winning drives early on, but the Wolverines will attempt to lure him into mistakes.
Lewis asserted Monday that Michigan’s secondary can be the best in the country. The unit recorded two interceptions Saturday to bring its total to three this season. Ross went a step further than Lewis, saying that he believes the entire defense can be the best in the country. He thought back to four-hour spring practices and the Wolverines’ taxing fall camp in stating his opinion.
“It would be criminal to not think we could be the best,” Ross said. “When you put in so much work, that’s the only belief you have.”