FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When Don Brown first came over from Boston College to become Michigan’s defensive coordinator, he was stunned at what he saw from the Wolverines.
Hired to replace former coordinator D.J. Durkin at the end of 2015, Brown came to Ann Arbor with a plethora of concepts and ideas that he wanted to install in Michigan’s defense. The response he received from his new locker room was not what he expected.
“This is an unbelievable group of seniors,” Brown said Wednesday, two days before that group of Wolverines will take the field for the last time in the Orange Bowl. “That’s all I’m gonna say. Here’s some clown from the East Coast coming to the Midwest, (saying) ‘Hey, this is how we do it, this is what we’re gonna do, here’s all your checks, we’re gonna do overhangs, this is how we’re gonna defend the run…’
“And there was never, ‘Get back’ from the players. It was, ‘Alright, let’s go.’ ”
Michigan’s stalwart defense is loaded with seniors with that kind of dedication, many of whom have taken different paths to reach their current level. All of them have made an indelible impact on the field, but it’s what they’ve done off the field that has coaches like Brown raving about them in the days leading up to the Orange Bowl.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chris Wormley was elected co-captain of the Wolverines prior to the season, and he embraced the leadership role from the get-go. A captain’s duties can be week-to-week — for example, Wormley said his main objective this week was to keep everyone focused after three weeks of preparation for the same game — or can take on a year-long arc.
The biggest lasting impact for Wormley may come from his ongoing mentorship role, helping players like freshman defensive end Rashan Gary mature and refine their natural talents. Gary called Wormley his “big bro” earlier in the season, and Brown has seen the impact of that relationship as well.
“Wormley’s a big part of (Gary’s growth),” Brown said. “He’s right there, saying, ‘This is how we do it.’ You’ve got a knucklehead trying to teach a guy — that’s a problem. (Wormley) is not a knucklehead. He’s a sharp, articulate leader that has provided great leadership, not only for Rashan, but for the entire defense.”
A senior doesn’t have to be a captain to make a difference, either. Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow is the only starter on defense who came in as a walk-on, and he has instilled a strong work ethic in some of his teammates that stems from the feeling of having something to prove.
During bowl practice, Glasgow has seen that hard-working mentality come out of two other walk-ons: his brother Jordan, a redshirt sophomore safety, and freshman defensive lineman Carl Myers. As someone who’s been through it all before, Glasgow is happy to set an example for them.
“When I was a freshman, I looked up to (former walk-on safety) Jordan Kovacs,” he said. “My camp roommate was (former defensive tackle) Nate Brink — he’s a guy that was on the two-deep and got a scholarship, until he got hurt. As a younger walk-on, you always look up to those type of guys, and I think when you get older, you look down hoping that you can pass the torch to someone else.”
Though Michigan will be losing a lot of leadership next year, the coaching staff takes solace in knowing how far the underclassmen have come under the guidance of their peers. If the Wolverines continue their success next season despite the roster turnover, Brown knows who to thank.
“The way these (seniors) have been role models for those younger guys, and the way they go about doing their business — I think there’s no fear in our younger guys,” Brown said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, it’s my turn.’ ”