With 15 seconds left in the second quarter of the Michigan football team’s spring game, senior safety Dymonte Thomas lurked deep behind the line of scrimmage.
When the ball was snapped, viewers watching the game on television wouldn’t have been able to see Thomas on the screen — he was that far back.
But when redshirt junior quarterback Shane Morris let loose a deep throw into the corner of the endzone, Thomas flashed onto the screen, ranging over to make a spectacular interception.
Though that type of play hasn’t been seen often in Ann Arbor, the defensive alignment certainly has.
Under former defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, the Wolverines almost exclusively played man coverage with a single high safety that was positioned farther than ten yards from the line of scrimmage — thus able to provide necessary support if any of Michigan’s cornerbacks were beaten on throws over the top.
With this emphasis on man coverage, the Michigan pass defense was among the best in the nation last season. According to cfbstats.com, Michigan ranked seventh in the nation when it came to giving up long pass plays, surrendering just 31 completions of 20 or more yards all year.
And like his predecessor Durkin, asking his secondary to play man coverage is something new defensive coordinator Don Brown isn’t afraid to do — as witnessed in both his previous stops and the coverage schemes employed by Michigan during the spring game. With Brown as its defensive coordinator last season, Boston College followed his game plan to even more success than the Wolverines last season: the Eagles ranked fourth in the nation, three spots higher than Michigan, in giving up the fewest long pass plays.
But Brown is more apt to mix in different coverage schemes in addition to playing mostly man, and he will ask Michigan’s secondary to play more zone coverage, whether that be Cover 2 with two high safeties or other more exotic schemes.
“(You’ll) just have to wait and see, but we’ll have both components,” Brown said at media day. “We’ll have some zone components and then we’ll have man-to-man components, and I see us playing them both.”
Added safeties coach Brian Smith: “Coach Brown, he does his thing. He’s always going to mix it between zone and man and try to keep offenses off-balance so they don’t know what we’re in. Disguising, giving different looks, that’s the key to our defense.”
Both Thomas and senior Channing Stribling are fans of the new approach.
To Stribling, playing more zone defense helps take the pressure off him and his fellow cornerbacks while also confusing the quarterback.
“It helps me out a lot,” Thomas said at media day. “When you play zone, you get to sit in your zone and roam around a bit, and it helps you get more picks. I’m excited about it.”
While the coverages are more varied, the technique employed in each isn’t a ‘dramatic difference,’ according to Stribling.
For many of the returning defensive backs, the method has been the same as last year. When Brown arrived, Stribling says, he did bring more new techniques for guys who wanted to try them out, but those who were comfortable “sliding and jamming” weren’t forced to learn a new approach — they could go with what they knew and were experienced at.
And if all that sounds like the recipe for a smooth transition from one coordinator’s coverage scheme to another, that’s exactly how it has played out this offseason, according to Smith.
“They’ve been picking it up pretty good,” Smith said. “We had a lot of different things that we threw at them, a lot of different packages, but they did a pretty good job picking it up and it was a pretty smooth transition. We’ll see what they’ve retained in the time we’ve had away, but they’ve done a pretty good job of picking it up.”