Steve Clinkscale believes the Michigan secondary can be the best in the nation, and he uses tough love to push his players to reach the unit's potential. Alum Allison Engkvist/Daily. Buy this photo.

Every position group at every school says it wants to be the best, but only one does what it takes to actually claim that label.

The Michigan secondary has that type of potential, at least co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale thinks so. And he just might be the guy that can coax it out of them.

“He pushes us to be better because he knows we can be one of the best secondaries in the country,” junior safety Makari Paige said Tuesday. “He knows that for sure. And he pushes hard, but it’s good.”

It’s that push from Clinkscale, his tough love-type approach, that can move the needle from good to great. And it all starts with one thing: the truth.

“I grade tough — period,” Clinkscale said Wednesday. “How I deliver a message when I’m meeting with the players the next day definitely depends on our attitude, how we play, our effort, how we strained. If they did well, love them up, but you could also coach them a little bit harder in that situation. … But I believe in being honest with them. … I definitely like telling the guys the truth, and because we’re secondary guys, you need to know the truth.”

Clinkscale tells it how it is because he demands perfection — and for a good reason. Defensive backs have the smallest margin of error of any position. A slight misstep and the other team picks up a big gain if not a touchdown. There’s no room for coddling when it comes to coaching the secondary.

But the players welcome it. They understand as well as anyone what it takes to be the best. So when Clinkscale pushes them, they don’t push back. Instead, they go in the direction the shove demands.

Pushing isn’t enough without benchmarks for the players to work toward. When asked about what those goals are, Clinkscale had a Jeopardy!-style response:

“What are contested passes,” Clinkscale said. “… You see DBs contesting the ball constantly, and it forces the offense to continue to try to figure things out. And a lot of those games, the teams that I was watching, they ended up winning. I was telling our guys before the game we have to contest more passes — we have to. Whether we intercept it or not, we’re gonna get our hands around the hands of the receiver.”

The Wolverine secondary is focusing intensely on pass break ups (PBUs), not just staying in front of their man and making sound tackles. They want a complete shutout in the pass game. But the goals don’t stop there; there’s one more step in Clinkscale’s demands:

“Do I like PBUs and contested balls? Yes,” Clinkscale said. “Do I love them? No, I love interceptions.”

It’s those coveted turnovers that the defense wants to generate. After notching just eight interceptions last season, upping that number is what Michigan believes will take it from a formidable secondary to the best in college football.

This change all starts in practice. 

“We are collecting more interceptions during practice,” Clinkscale said. “(If) we keep playing (like) that, see and prosper. We’ll reap what we sow; we’ll get more interceptions. So they’re comin’.”

To do so requires consistency. Consistency in practice translates to consistency in games. To do that, Clinkscale wants his defensive backs to cut out mental mistakes and to communicate, and to do so on a daily basis.

Fortunately for Michigan’s secondary —  and its entire defense — it gets to practice against “one of the best offenses in the country,” as Clinkscale put it. This trains the defensive backs how to play against talented receivers and dynamic running backs, ensuring they can put a halt to both facets of the game at a high level. Later in the season, when the Wolverines reach that top competition, Clinkscale thinks the offense will have already prepared his secondary for anything that’s thrown its way. 

But he’s not only looking at the best of the best. Clinkscale understands that on any given week, the opponent in front of his group can make Michigan pay. To prevent that, he brings intensity — every week, every day.

“Everybody can come in here and beat us if we allow, we can’t beat ourselves,” Clinkscale said. “So last week I was crazy, this week I’m gonna be crazy and the following week I’m gonna be crazy. It doesn’t matter.

“You guys watched enough TV last week to see that if you take anybody lightly or you don’t handle your own business, then things can change, your outcome can not be what you want.”

It’s his job to make sure the defensive backs take care of business to prevent that outcome. So Clinkscale reminds them every morning that it starts with each individual guy in the room:

“I tell our guys every day that guy that you wake up and you brush your teeth and you look in the mirror. That’s your competition every day.”