BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published April 16, 2011
Halfway through the spring, defensive mastermind Greg Mattison had a new trick he wanted to try out. So 15 minutes before practice was set to start one day, he pulled his best defensive player, senior nose guard Mike Martin, aside and explained the idea.
“(He) taught me this whole eight different plays in five minutes,” Martin said.
Mattison walked into the defensive line meeting that day and drew the X's on the board — that’s when fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen really knew the fun would begin.
“Mike’s at linebacker right there,” Van Bergen remarked.
“Yeah, I know, you’re going to go to nose for a little while and Mike’s going to play linebacker,” Mattison replied. “We’ll probably stand you up in the fall.”
During Saturday’s Spring Game, the sight of Martin rushing sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson off the edge was just one of the many wrinkles in Mattison’s new defensive scheme based on disguising blitzes. The day was dominated by defense, as the Michigan defensive line corralled Robinson for most of the afternoon and kept the first team offense from scoring.
Having never played on the outside before, Martin bugged Mattison about giving him a shot, never thinking it would become reality.
“It’s another thing offenses have to watch film on,” Van Bergen said. “You’ll see a nose guard at 300 pounds, coming off the edge in a two-point — good luck.”
“Man, he’s a great athlete,” Robinson said, his eyes widening. “So whenever I see him, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta watch where he’s coming from.’ ”
Martin and the rest of the defense harassed Robinson and held him to an unofficial stat line of 5-for-11 passing for 70 yards and 60 yards rushing on five carries — most of which came on one 55-yard run early on.
Those aren’t spectacular numbers considering the explosiveness Robinson displayed all of last season and in last year’s Spring Game. He also threw an interception that was called back due to penalty and twice had a bad exchange with center Rocko Khoury.
Mattison dialed up aggressive blitz after aggressive blitz. He wasn’t afraid to zone-blitz — dropping some players back into coverage and bringing different combinations of other defenders.
“There’s awesome athletes all around you,” Roh said. “And If I’m not getting there, you know someone else is.”
Added Martin: “We’ve been doing a really good job of disguising things and communicating. That’s the biggest thing that we’ve had to work on, communicating and playing with energy out there.”
The confidence the defense has played with this spring has been fueled by their ability to grasp Mattison’s defensive schemes in a matter of three weeks.
And they have their fun out there, too. Martin said they’ll throw in some dummy-words and fake calls to spice it up — only they know who’s coming, which makes it hard on the opposing quarterback.
“The zone blitzes are awesome too — there’s going to be times I drop out and Mike’s going to come in, (and) Will (Campbell) might slant outside,” Van Bergen said. “The thing coach Mattison goes with is unpredictability. You don’t know where we’re going to be, so that way you can’t plan for it. I think that’s going to be successful.”
The battle between the offense and defense this spring ended with the defense, perhaps, getting the upper hand. Besides Robinson’s one long run, he didn’t torch the first team defense.
And though sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner did throw a touchdown pass to junior Je’Ron Stokes late, he also threw two interceptions — one to spring-game standout Carvin Johnson and the other to redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ryan, who returned the pick for a touchdown.
What Hoke and Mattison remembered wasn’t the multiple sacks the defense registered or the interceptions — it was the 68-yard touchdown run Mike Cox broke against the second-team defense and the long run by Robinson.
“The one thing I didn’t like was big plays, especially with the first unit or any unit,” Mattison said, who adding he usually saves his analysis for after he watches the film. “Our unit can’t be what we want to be if we allow them to get big chunks.”
The zero points by the first-team offense and the 14 points scored by the second-team offense was a positive — Mattison is OK with bending, just not breaking.
“We’ve tried to make a big thing about, as long as we have a place to stand, as long as that ball isn’t across that endzone, then we’re still a good defense,” Mattison said. “And we’ve really worked on that. And I think they’re starting to buy it and believe that. I think I heard one of them say that out there in that situation.”
Multiple defensive players used the word fun to describe what they were doing under Mattison.
The defense’s own coach would taunt Robinson, saying he couldn’t throw the football throughout the spring. Robinson would make a play and smile back at Mattison.
His defense had more success than one might expect considering the unit finished close to last in Division I in total defense.
“Our offense has really, really tested us and beaten us during the spring at times,” Mattison said. “It’s helped us that they are going to be a physical, power-type offense, and as well as being able to get Denard to do what he does.
“And that really makes it hard on a defense when you can’t just say this is a spread team and OK, ‘We’re going to run this defense.’ Then all of a sudden you’re going against a power team.”
The estimated Spring Game crowd of about 27,000 people included 1997 Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson, who expressed his pleasure with the return of a defensive emphasis.
It’s starting with Mattison’s NFL-like blitz packages.
When Martin was asked whether he and his fellow defenders were picking up all of the complicated schemes and calls, he was confident they were already comfortable.
“I think the offense needs to try and pick it up better,” Martin said with a chuckle.