At the halfway mark of its season, the Michigan football team is still undefeated. For the most part, the sixth-ranked Wolverines have followed the same recipe each week to reach that point.
On offense, they’ve perfected a style of mistake-free football, buoyed by an explosive rushing attack that demoralizes the opposition. And, on the other side of the ball, Michigan has benefitted from a rejuvenated defense that has left a disastrous 2020 season in the rearview mirror.
Nowhere is the defense’s transformation more apparent than in the secondary. Last year, the Wolverines surrendered 255.5 passing yards per game, the second-worst mark in the Big Ten; this year, they’ve allowed just 185.7, good for the third-best in the conference.
“We’re getting better each week,” senior cornerback Gemon Green said. “… We prepare better each week this year than we did last year.”
Green’s comments are both an indictment on the prior regime — a pair of embattled former assistant coaches in defensive coordinator Don Brown and defensive backs coach Mike Zordich — and praise for the current staff, namely defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale.
Clinkscale was a particularly late addition to the coaching staff: in May, after Mo Linguist departed the program to become the new head coach at Buffalo, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh poached Clinkscale from Kentucky.
Clinkscale’s impact is apparent through the growth of the secondary. On Wednesday, he revealed that the door to his office is always ajar, an open invitation for players to talk through schemes and express their general concerns. When he sees something wrong, either in film or practice, he addresses it immediately with the players.
Clinkscale speaks in thorough, lengthy sentences, reflective of his detail-oriented approach on the sidelines: his goal is to provide his players with “toolboxes,” equipping them with a variety of skills and techniques to use in the game. From there, he provides guidance to help them choose the right tool in different in-game scenarios.
The “toolbox” is something the secondary has relied on amidst the schematic overhaul from Brown’s press-heavy system to Macdonald’s NFL-style unit, which blends together a number of disguises and coverages.
“Teaching them the formations, concepts… (that’s) really been our biggest learning curve,” Clinkscale said. “I feel like we’re starting to trend towards them understanding that a little bit.”
The on-field results would certainly back that declaration. Still, the unit remains driven to further shore up its game.
According to Green, the current focus is communication, a vital component of every secondary. To shore up this area, Clinkscale has deployed a strategy: in certain drills, he’ll rotate the primary signal-caller off the field, delegating that role to a different player. Naturally, it makes the players uncomfortable — they can’t turn to their crutch to run through reads or relay signs.
“That’s how you develop safeties, that’s how you develop nickels and corners,” Clinkscale said. “You teach them the game, teach them how to work with one another. You don’t sit there and yell and scream at them all the time. You have to get them to understand that we all work together.”
Beyond developing chemistry, Clinkscale is hungry for more turnovers. As a unit, the defensive backs work on the jug machine everyday. In addition, a primary point of emphasis is positioning.
During practice, Clinkscale watches from the offensive side, allowing him to see what the quarterbacks and receivers see. His aim is to track the eyes of his defenders.
Against Nebraska, Clinkscale noticed that the secondary suffered a few lapses with its eye discipline, gifting the Cornhuskers multiple big gains on trick plays and other gimmicks.
“Across the board, from the nickel to the safeties to the corners, when I’m in the meeting room coaching them up, it’s eyes,” Clinkscale said. “We have to make sure we’re looking at the right thing.
“There are some times where I feel like there’s a little too much space between the defensive back, the defender and the receiver because our eyes are staring at the quarterback and not the man.”
Clinkscale also recognizes that the secondary’s success is codependent with the front seven, which has generated pressure and proven adept at stopping the run. On Tuesday, addressing the defense during practice, he lauded the unit for not “pointing fingers.”
“They may have good pressure, but if our coverage stinks, they’re going to complete the ball,” Clinkscale said. “We may have great coverage, but if they don’t contain the quarterback, they’re gonna get a first down. … They are a unit.”
Through six games, the secondary is certainly holding up its end of that bargain.