So far in 2017, Michigan’s defense has been its saving grace.
While the offense and special teams have dealt with their fair share of growing pains, defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit has suffered no such fate.
Even the fact that the Wolverines’ first two opponents have scored 31 combined points is highly misleading — 14 of those points came off Florida pick-sixes.
Meanwhile, the defense has accounted for 21 of Michigan’s 69 total points. In short, it has scored four more points than it has allowed.
“That’s a good statistic,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. “We’ll try to keep it as long as possible.”
For a unit absorbing the losses of all but one starter from 2016 — all while adopting Brown’s new 3-3-5 scheme — the Wolverines’ learning curve would have been expected to be much steeper.
But that has been far from the case. Just ask coach Jim Harbaugh.
At his media press conference Monday, Harbaugh was asked about the performance of cornerback Lavert Hill. He said the sophomore had “asserted himself,” and was rewarded for his efforts with a pick-six that closed out Saturday’s win over Cincinnati.
But rather than stop there, Harbaugh kept naming players who had impressed him with their performances against the Bearcats.
The list went on and on. They all happened to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Junior safety Tyree Kinnel had a “spotlight” on him after a nod as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his team-high nine tackles and first career interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Sophomore end Rashan Gary had “one of his best games” with a three-tackle outing that was highlighted by a big hit on Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore in the fourth quarter. When the officials called a roughing the passer penalty and then reviewed the play for targeting, Gary got riled up on the field, and the Michigan Stadium crowd responded in kind.
“That was the loudest I’d heard it in a while,” Hurst said. “I think that was the loudest part of the game.”
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. had “another big game” after tallying seven tackles, a sack and a pass break-up. Hurst, for his own part, received the highest praise.
“(He) probably played the best of the up front defensive players,” Harbaugh said.
And that’s not even all of the players who received a mention. For a coach who usually keeps the details to himself, the gesture spoke volumes about the early success of his defense.
“(I) attribute that to hard work, good scheme and good players,” Harbaugh said.
While the Wolverine defense is trending upward, it will face a unique challenge when Michigan welcomes Air Force to Ann Arbor this week.
The Falcons frequently run a hybrid triple-option offense that few teams in the country employ.
“They go back and forth between the conventional and the option,” Harbaugh said.
Though the Wolverines aren’t particularly familiar with it, Hurst joked that he had some understanding of it because he sometimes played with the formation on the NCAA Football video game.
However, they spent a significant amount of spring camp ironing out a specific game plan to handle the challenge.
“We prepared a lot in the spring practices to get ready for what we’re going to face this week,” Hurst said. “So it’s not a complete shock to us. And I think we’ll be ready to have our scout team give us a look that we need — that they’ve been practicing and have done before — so I think that all helps you understand the offense better.”
While that experience could be helpful, Hurst admitted that there is still a lot Michigan’s defense will need to learn before Saturday.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, and there’s a lot of people you have to account for in the option game,” Hurst said. “It’s just really tough for any defense to have to sort of switch what you’re doing on defense just to play this one week and then go back to a normal team.”
After such a strong start to the year, the Wolverine defense now has a new challenge to rise up to this week. If the offense and special teams units remain a work in progress, Michigan will need to lean on its defense to maintain its high level of play despite working out the kinks of a unique Air Force offense.