In the four years he spent as the Michigan football team’s defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison preached experience. In that time, he knew he had young players getting playing time, and that they would be better for it in the long haul.
The long haul he imagined is now, when Mattison’s defensive line features six fourth-year players on the two-deep and appears poised to be a part of a game-changing defense this season.
But the path to get to this year wasn’t quite how Mattison drew it up. He came back to Michigan (after five years as a defensive coach in the 1990s) in 2011 to work for then-head coach Brady Hoke. Last offseason, when Hoke was fired, new coach Jim Harbaugh brought in D.J. Durkin from Florida to be the defensive coordinator.
Mattison, who coordinated a successful defense in 2014 despite the team’s struggles, accepted a position as defensive line coach to complete the progress he had started with his defensive-line recruits.
“It just shows that he cares about Michigan a lot,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Matt Godin. “I know for a fact he wanted to finish out our group of guys, stay with us and coach us through. It means a lot.”
Wednesday, Mattison downplayed the impact he has had as the lone holdover from last year’s staff.
“I don’t know, I don’t ever think about that,” he said. “When a new staff comes in, they’re not new after about a week anyhow.”
Mattison did acknowledge, though, that he has enjoyed coaching the same group of players for four years. His presence, and the continuity it has established, are noticeable.
In Michigan’s home opener Saturday, Oregon State burned the Wolverines with a seven-play, 79-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession. Two plays later, the defense headed back out after a fumble gave the Beavers the ball at Michigan’s 24-yard line.
But Mattison, who has coached plenty of games in Michigan Stadium with the same players, wasn’t concerned.
“There wasn’t any panic,” he said. “You knew it was a breakdown here and there that caused it. You knew that we were going to make the adjustments we had to on the sideline. D.J. does a great job with making sure he knows what’s going on in all parts of it. We just got everybody together and said, ‘This is what’s happened. This is what we can’t let happen.’ And they adjusted to it, and they did it.”
Mattison has also kept expectations constant for his defensive line from last year to this year. Working with the players in the past allowed him to know their tendencies, so while Harbaugh and his staff came in and reevaluated the team as it fit into their system, the Wolverines knew where they stood with Mattison.
That aspect of his presence, Mattison acknowledged, was an asset.
“Me being with these guys, they know what I think they can do and what they have to do,” Mattison said. “So there’s not that (time) where you say, ‘Well, I didn’t know he was that good,’ or ‘He had this to work on.’ ”
That consistency has allowed the defensive line to get to work right away.
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Chris Wormley has become a breakout player, with six tackles for loss in two games. Redshirt junior Willie Henry has moved to the outside, where he has been a capable replacement for the departed Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Even lesser-known names like Godin and junior defensive end Taco Charlton have stepped in and provided depth.
That depth supports the hallmark of Mattison’s defensive lines — rotating bodies in and out to stay fresh. This season, the Wolverines have played as many as eight linemen in their two games this season. The modern spread offense is designed to wear defenses down by going sideline to sideline and pushing the tempo. Mattison’s scheme is designed to prevent that.
The comfort level, expectations and depth have made the defensive line a capable component of the defense coordinated by Durkin, for whom Mattison had high praise as well. Mattison seems as optimistic about this defense as he has been with any of the ones he has had.
“I like the energy,” he said. “I like the intensity. I mean, I like the guys. You’ve been with them a long time, you like them and you want them to have success. It’s been fun. It’s fun seeing them develop.”
And for them, it has been fun developing under him. Three or four years ago, they committed to him, and in the offseason he committed to them in return.
“He recruited me. He recruited all these guys,” Godin said. “It brings us definitely closer because we’ve been with him. He came to our houses. He brought us in. He’s part of the reason we came here, a lot of us.”