Looking at Big Ten defensive statistics from 2020, it’s easy to notice a common thread: No matter the category, the Michigan football team finished at or near the bottom of the conference. Total defense, scoring defense, passing defense — you name it, the Wolverines flubbed it. They were burned over the top, gashed up the middle and blown off the line of scrimmage en route to the program’s first losing season since 2014.
But so far this season, No. 9 Michigan ranks top-three in the Big Ten in both scoring and total defense. As the Wolverines’ defense has transformed, so has their place in the standings — Michigan is 5-0 for the first time since 2016 and boasts a top-10 national ranking.
Much of that turnaround comes from the changes to the Wolverines’ defensive staff. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Don Brown early in the offseason and gutted most of Brown’s staff, retaining only defensive line coach Shaun Nua. In their places, Harbaugh hired first-time coordinator Mike Macdonald, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, safeties coach Ron Bellamy and linebackers coach George Helow.
Clinkscale, in particular, has helped overhaul a secondary that looked helpless at times in 2020. He came to Ann Arbor after a five-year stint at Kentucky, where he developed four NFL defensive backs and coached the group that led the SEC in interceptions last year.
“Just listening to what he has to say, you can just take the coaching,” junior cornerback D.J. Turner said Tuesday. “He knows what he’s talking about. Just do what he says and he’s going to put you in the right spot to make a play.”
Another advantage working in the secondary’s favor is the Wolverines’ improved pass rush. Last season’s defensive line had the potential to be dominant, but early-season injuries to defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye proved costly. Paye was a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and Hutchinson is a consensus top-10 prospect in 2022 mock drafts.
Through five weeks, Michigan is tied for the third-most sacks per game in the conference. In addition to Hutchinson, junior edge David Ojabo and senior Taylor Upshaw each have multiple sacks. The Wolverines’ strong pass rush has saved the team’s defensive backs from covering downfield routes for more than a few seconds — a major change from last season.
“Having the dudes we have up front, D-line is a (defensive back’s) best friend,” Turner said. “It’s good having them up front and not in the pocket forever.
“It’s wonderful because the quarterback doesn’t know where the pressure’s coming from, what’s coming at him, if we’re even blitzing or anything, so we can play more comfortable and bait stuff and all kinds of stuff. We can play confident.”
Beyond Turner, senior defensive backs Vince Gray and Gemon Green are getting the most reps in outside coverage, while junior nickel corner Dax Hill is starting in the slot. None of them are new.
What’s most intriguing about Michigan’s defensive transformation is the fact that the secondary stayed almost entirely intact between seasons. Now, they’re riding the roller coaster from laughingstock to legitimacy on the back of newfound confidence and coaching.
“This year, you know the guy next to you is going to do their job,” Turner said. “That’s just belief and confidence. Once you know the guy next to you is going to do the job, it’s just an energy out there.”