Mattison draws from experience with Ravens, eyes turnaround on defense

Steve Ruark/AP
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BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 9, 2011

Just the sight of Bo Schembechler would make Greg Mattison giddy.

When Mattison was the defensive coordinator at Michigan from 1995-96, Schembechler was the Athletic Director and his office was right down the hall from Mattison’s. Sometimes, when Mattison would go into the copy room to print off items for the defense, Schembechler would see him and follow him into the room.

“I would be scared to death, and he’d go, ‘Hey Mattison, you’re doin a helluva job. Keep stopping that run,’ ” Mattison said in his best Bo impersonation on Wednesday afternoon.

And that’s when Mattison would melt.

“And I was like, ‘Oh God, Bo just talked to me. And he gave me a compliment,’ ” he said.

Now in his second go-around as Michigan's defensive coordinator, the trademarks of his defenses have remained the same – stop the run by being aggressive.

That’s the reputation he has built at stops at Notre Dame and Florida and in the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. Leaving one of the best defensive teams in the NFL for Michigan was a product of a perfect combination for Mattison — coaching with Brady Hoke and becoming a Wolverine again.

Mattison explained Wednesday that he and his wife were very close to Hoke and his family — as close as they could be without actually being family.

“When Brady got the job and it was Michigan — I honestly can say if Brady would’ve got another job somewhere else, and it wasn’t Michigan, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Mattison said. “But the chance to come back here, and to be with him, made it special."

At the college level, Mattison has the opportunity not only to recruit again, but also develop recruits into great players. As Mattison put it, in the NFL, if a player wasn’t any good, he was cut. In college, Mattison has the time to mold players.

There will be plenty of molding expected when Michigan starts its spring practices on March 19. While the offense wrestles with learning a pro-style attack, Mattison will be prepping his players to take on a tough approach in their new four-man front defense.

So far, all Mattison has been allowed to do is see what the defensive players can do in t-shirts and shorts, though he was reluctant to pass judgment on any player until he saw them hit. In fact, he didn’t even watch film of last season to avoid unfair misconceptions.

Instead, Mattison pops in tape of his Baltimore Ravens teams to break down. The terminology is the same that he will use in coaching the Wolverines now.

And, as teaching tools for his Michigan guys, Mattison can use Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as examples. He used to let the 35-year old Lewis sit out from plays in practice to try and save the All-Pro’s legs — Lewis would sit out one play and then go back in. And Reed matched Lewis’s work ethic with his preparation off of the field.

“I was fortunate enough to be with players that played as hard as they could,” Mattison said. “The reason Ed Reed is the best safety in the NFL, is not just because he’s a great athlete, he watches as much film as the coaches do. Then the players understand, ‘Maybe, I’m getting really good because I watch tape.’ A lot of players don’t do that.

“To be able to say I was just at a place that that’s why they were good, then pretty soon it’s, ‘Okay, that’s good, maybe I should do that.’ ”

The Michigan players have been receptive to Mattison and all the defensive coaching staff so far. Maybe it’s not exactly how the coach acted around Schembechler, but the coaches did describe the players as eager to learn and play well.

“What we have right now, I’m excited about,” Mattison said. “What I’ve seen so far, I’m excited with the way they work and their attitude — that’s all we can judge it on right now.”

But can a unit that broke Michigan records for the wrong reasons make dramatic improvements right off the bat?

“It has to — you know, it has to,” Mattision said. “Michigan forever has taken great pride in defense. And we’ll take great pride in defense again. That’s our coaching objective in everything we’re doing. That starts with technique, starts with fundamentals, starts with stopping the run. It starts with not giving up big plays and it starts with playing great red zone defense — that’s what we’ll be working on every day.”

POSITION CHANGE NOTES: Mattison said that sophomore defensive tackle Will Campbell will be playing on the defensive side of the ball next season.

When Mattison first saw a player Campbell’s size run the way he does, the coach’s response was, “Watch him run, this is my kinda guy.”

Redshirt freshman hybrid Cam Gordon also may be moving to outside linebacker if Mattison’s hunch turns into reality.

“I think (Gordon’s) going to be an outstanding outside linebacker because he has so much ability to grow,” Mattison said. “He plays so hard, he has such intensity. It’s just a matter of how big he gets and when he gets there. As compared to being a safety, I think he can do that too, but we might have other guys who can do that. So we want to get the best 11 on the field any way we can.”

Senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk will start spring practice at cornerback when he is cleared to play, according to Michigan secondary coach Curt Mallory. Woolfolk has played safety and cornerback throughout his career.