The Michigan football team’s defense made a first impression Saturday befitting its hype. The star-studded unit flew around and came at Hawaii from every angle, flustering the opposing offense as they did last year. They didn’t give up so much as a positive play until the third series.
But their defensive backs are old enough to know that if they hadn’t held up their end of the deal, it could’ve been a much different opener.
“If you get beat, that’s a touchdown,” said fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark on Tuesday.
Clark himself broke up a pass on the first series of the game, forcing the first of many third-and-long situations for the Rainbow Warriors, who didn’t convert on any of them.
While Michigan’s secondary was important in getting stops in those situations, it was also crucial for them to create them in the first place. Coordinator Don Brown’s defense features a myriad of blitz packages, which rely on the defensive backs to hold their own.
“That was one of the things we talked about the first day when we came in — we gotta be able to play man-to-man coverage as a secondary, because Coach Brown is going to bring pressure,” said Brian Smith, one of Michigan’s two secondary coaches. “That’s the key to the whole defense — you gotta be able to hold up man to man.”
The defensive backs understand that, along with many other keys to being a top-ranked defense, because of their experience. The Wolverines boast six true or fifth-year seniors, five of whom are three-time lettermen — most in the Big Ten. (Minnesota and Ohio State have as many or more seniors, but a handful are redshirts or walk-ons.)
Michigan can run out a stable of seasoned defensive backs: Clark, senior cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis and senior safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill. Fifth-year senior safety AJ Pearson adds depth. The Wolverines didn’t even use Lewis, who is still recovering from an injury, and still fielded an all-senior defensive backfield on Saturday.
It’s a good group to coach for Smith, who is in his first year at Michigan after leaving his post as the assistant secondary coach for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Though the senior defensive backs already had plenty of game experience before Smith and Brown arrived, they have adapted well to the new coaches.
“With a new system coming in, that’s one of the things you always worry about, especially with an older group — are they going to buy into the system?” Smith said. “They’ve been receptive to everything we’ve taught them. They were successful in the past, and just their willingness to learn the system and be open to it, that was the best thing for me. They’ve been a great group, an easy group to coach, and it’s been a lot of fun so far.”
Together, the defensive backs have 63 career starts, and that doesn’t even count redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers, who came to Michigan as a defensive back but plays all over the field, mostly at linebacker now.
Saturday, 12 of Hawaii’s 23 passes went to Hawaii receivers, while two were intercepted and returned for touchdowns and three more were broken up. The Wolverines gave opponents similar headaches in many games last season.
“They communicate really well,” said sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry. “They messed up like one time (when) I was in (during camp), and after that, they really didn’t make any mistakes. Great communicators, unreal athletes. They’re good. They’re going to be hard to deal with for other teams, for sure.”
That effort Saturday was, of course, without the services of Lewis, the team’s best lockdown cornerback. The All-American should return this week, adding important depth to the unit for a game against Central Florida’s up-tempo offense.
The defensive backs will be out on their own islands again for that game, but after four years, there’s very little they haven’t seen before, which makes it easier for them to learn.
“Just the little things that they pick up on — a lot of younger guys, they don’t get the big picture, but these older guys, having been in three different systems, they kind of get the big picture,” Smith said. “So little things that you normally have to spend more time on, they just pick it up and they go, so it makes it easier.”
Brown and the rest of the defensive coaches will point out those subtleties in meetings, keeping the standard high. After the unit delivered another dominant performance in allowing just three points against Hawaii, the Wolverines were disappointed they gave up even that many.
But even that is something they have done before. Last season, before they went on a run of three straight shutouts, they gave up single touchdowns to UNLV and Brigham Young and still saw it as room to improve.
“To a newcomer, it’s probably difficult,” Clark said. “But if you’ve been here for a while, we’ve been around the same guys, so we’ve been holding each other to a standard from that point, from the get-go.”