It’s no coincidence that the Michigan football team’s defense suffered its worst half of the season so far with Josh Ross on the sideline.
The fifth-year middle linebacker departed last Saturday’s game against Rutgers in the second quarter with a stinger injury. At the time of his exit, the Wolverines had allowed just three points; in his absence, the Scarlet Knights notched ten points and a series of lengthy drives.
Following a full week of practice, Ross returned Saturday against Wisconsin and keyed a dominant defensive performance. Though Ross’s personal statistics — three tackles and half a sack — were far from extraordinary, his importance was certainly apparent.
“He looks quicker,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh noted on Monday. “Don’t have a time, but the eye time sure says it. His instincts — the way he’s able to diagnose plays two steps in the right direction, time after time… it’s a combination of his experience, his instincts, the coaching he’s getting, how much he’s studying, all those factors. His anticipation of diagnosing a play is high-level.”
The offseason stood as a period of seismic change for Michigan’s defense and Ross in particular. In four seasons under Don Brown, Ross often dropped back into coverage, matching up with slot receivers instead of playing near the line of scrimmage.
When Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald from the Baltimore Ravens as the new defensive coordinator in January, Macdonald brought an NFL-style defensive scheme with him. Gone were the days of the “VIPER,” an atypical hybrid linebacker position that Brown deployed. A more traditional role would soon be in store for Ross, who seemed poised to anchor an inexperienced linebacker group, with Cam McGrone departing for the NFL.
Ross spent this past offseason training accordingly. Upon last season’s end, he identified the weaknesses in his game and set out to turn them into strengths.
“For me, that was my movement,” Ross said. “And it wasn’t like I couldn’t move, but I knew I needed to move better and I wanted to move better myself.”
He honed in on his speed and quickness, attending group yoga sessions at Tiny Buddha Yoga twice a week. Already, those efforts are paying dividends; through five games, Ross leads Michigan with 32 tackles.
Those numbers are also a vindication of Macdonald’s scheme as a whole.
“The defensive staff has done a great job of maximizing the talent,” Harbaugh said on Saturday. “(There’s) a whole list of guys that the system fits and the amount of things they’re letting them do, letting the playmakers, putting them in a position to make plays.”
That’s applicable to Ross as much as anybody. He can focus on his role as a primary run-stopper, rather than having to worry about matching up with a quicker receiver in single coverage. This weekend, that means Ross will likely lead the effort to contain Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez, a particularly mobile quarterback designed to give defenses fits on the ground.
Along with the individual and schematic changes, Michigan’s defense, too, has undergone a cultural shift. Few players are more qualified to speak on that change than Ross, who, through five seasons in Ann Arbor, has been privy to both the highs and the lows.
This year, he maintains, is “like no other.”
“Honestly, the different feelings as far as our defense is our defense plays for each other this year,” Ross said. “… We all watch film together, whether it’s after practice or even days before the game, we all prepare together. Communication is a big piece for our defense. That’s something that moves the train and has us play so well.”
In April, Ross insisted that he wanted to return for a fifth season because of “unfinished business.” The 2-4 season had taken a toll; he didn’t want to leave at the nadir of the Harbaugh era.
So far, he’s certainly making amends for the subpar campaign.
“One thing we preach about every single day, especially in the defensive room, (is that) we’re chasing perfection every time we step on that field for practice, every time we go into a game,” Ross said. “We’re just looking to keep getting better, perfecting our craft, chasing perfection. The sky’s the limit for this defense.”