Through two games, Michigan’s linebacker corps has served as a microcosm of the Wolverines’ defense.
Twelve days ago in Minnesota, it was at the center of everything good the Wolverines did. Junior VIPER Michael Barrett was Michigan’s star performer, recovering a fumble, forcing another one and making seven tackles, while junior Mike linebacker Cam McGrone was a key force in pass coverage and run defense. And as a whole, the defense was dynamic, both making big plays and preventing them.
Then, against Michigan State, the fulcrum swung back. No matter which blitz packages defensive coordinator Don Brown dialed up, the Wolverines couldn’t get home, finishing with zero sacks.
And perhaps more importantly, the linebackers faltered in pass coverage. Spartans running back Connor Heyward emerged from the backfield to score on a pair of receptions, while Michigan State found a handful of first downs on blown coverage over the middle of the field.
“When you give up a couple yards in the pass coverage, it’s just like anything else,” linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said. “Win or lose, you wanna try to clean up anything that you think you didn’t do well. So obviously in pass coverage, we gave up some plays, but those were easily fixable with our scheme.”
This week, Jean-Mary and Brown have turned toward fixing those schematic flaws. But the issue, according to Jean-Mary, extends to problems with the Wolverines’ technique as well — namely using hands well and having good eye discipline.
Against the Spartans, both flaws were on full display. On one third-quarter play, with Michigan State facing a second-and-7 deep in their own territory, Michigan’s pass rush forced quarterback Rocky Lombardi out of the pocket. With receiver Jalen Nailor running a crossing route over the middle of the field, senior linebacker Josh Ross was in prime position to make the play.
Then, inexplicably, Ross fixated his eyes on Lombardi for a second too long, enabling Nailor to shake free for a first down.
“It still comes down to fundamentals,” Jean-Mary said. “We’re not gonna reinvent the wheel. It comes down to fundamentals, putting our eyes in the right place, using the right techniques and doing things that we’ve coaches. We’ve just gotta make sure we do it better as far as in the pass coverage.”
According to Ross, it was hand placement that cost him on a two-yard touchdown to Heyward in the second quarter where the running back beat him to the pylon on a flat route.
“That’s definitely gonna be improvement this week,” Ross said Monday. “Definitely gonna hone in on that.”
Whether that increased focus pays off could prove critical on Saturday against No. 13 Indiana. The Hoosiers, building upon growth from their breakout 8-5 finish a year ago, have been among the Big Ten’s best offenses through two weeks.
And while Indiana’s offense runs through quarterback Michael Penix and wide receiver Whop Philyor, its third-leading receiver thus far is tight end Peyton Hendershot. Against Rutgers last weekend, Hendershot finished with six catches for 34 yards and two touchdowns.
For Michigan, covering Hendershot will be a task largely placed on the shoulders of Jean-Mary’s linebacker corps. It’s a challenge central to Jean-Mary’s job as a modern linebackers coach — teaching players how to cover athletic, receiving-first tight ends. On Wednesday, he compared the change he’s seen at the position to the surge of 3-point-shooting centers in basketball.
“You have to have guys that can play in space, tackle in space, cover in space and can play man-to-man in certain situations,” Jean-Mary said.
Last weekend, Michigan didn’t. The goal for Saturday: Fix that.
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