At the beginning of the season, the defensive line looked like it might be one of the stronger units on a defense full of question marks. With a secondary that, including injured free safety Ryan Mundy, was missing three starters from last season, the thought was that the line had to be impressive if Michigan was going to do well.
But through the first three games, Michigan has managed just two sacks from starters in the front seven. In total, the Wolverines have six sacks this season, but cornerback Leon Hall has two, safety Brandent Englemon has one and backup rush linebacker Tim Jamison got one last week in the final minute of Michigan’s blowout victory against Eastern Michigan.
“Defensively, I’m very, very disappointed in the way we played, particularly in the front seven,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said after the season opener against Northern Illinois. “We’re just not where we need to be. We need to play harder. We need to play more physical. That is our intent.”
After that game, Carr made some adjustments to the front seven, hoping that it would spark some change. He sat nose tackle Gabe Watson and started Will Johnson in his place. He also started Rondell Biggs in place of Jeremy Van Alstyne at defensive end. Neither Van Alstyne nor Watson, who last year was an All-Big Ten first team selection, started last week against Eastern Michigan either – leading some observers to believe that no position is guaranteed.
“I think it puts pressure on us to do our best,” Biggs said earlier this week about the changes in the line. “I think it can be a good thing. The way we look at it is it’s good. It sends a message that we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do and probably exceed what their expectations are.”
But still the defensive line cannot seem to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks without help from blitzing safeties and cornerbacks. Last season, the defense didn’t fair much better, racking up just 21 sacks in 12 games. But 20 of the 21 sacks were made by linemen or linebackers – senior cornerback Marlin Jackson picked one up, as well.
The decline in sacks is part of a larger, more disturbing trend for the Michigan football team. Four years ago, the defense picked up 50 sacks, the next year it was 42 and two years ago the total was a meager 29 before dropping to 21 last year.
Michigan brought in new defensive line coach Steve Stripling this year to try to stop the decline in sacks. He was hired to replace Bill Sheridan, who was naturally a linebackers coach and left Michigan to take that position with the New York Giants. Stripling has spent 19 seasons in the Big Ten, and the last two years he coached just up the road at Michigan State. In 2003, the Spartans were fifth nationally in sacks with 45 – 27 of which came from the defensive line.
“At the beginning of the spring, we gave him a hard time for coming from Lansing,” senior co-captain and defensive tackle Pat Massey said. “But he’s an intense guy. He’s got certain goals for us, and he’s definitely determined to get us to where we need to be. If you look at the film from the beginning of the spring to the end of the spring, I think you’ll see some significant improvement, and I think that’s because of him.”
Even though there haven’t been many bright spots for the Wolverines’ defensive line this season, rush end LaMarr Woodley has been an exception. The defensive line this year has just two sacks, and Woodley has accounted for both of them. In one of the biggest defensive plays of Michigan’s loss to Notre Dame, Woodley lined up at right defensive end, beat the left tackle and sacked Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, pushing the Irish back eight yards. Last week against the Eagles, Woodley again got to the quarterback for a 12-yard loss – this time from the left end. Woodley is fourth on the team with 12 tackles, including four tackles for loss. But it is the two sacks that stand out – especially considering the rest of the team has combined for just four.