At a glance, the Michigan football team’s defense appears to have successfully stymied the offense throughout Saturday’s Spring Game. The offense scored just a pair of touchdowns, both on scampers by sophomore tailback Thomas Rawls.
But when asked if the defense was simply set up for success because the star of Michigan’s offensive attack — senior quarterback Denard Robinson — played only one set of downs, Michigan coach Brady Hoke was blunt in his response.
“I didn’t see the defense have a better day (than the offense),” Hoke said.
It didn’t seem like a matter of high-expectation coach-speak, either. Hoke elaborated on a number of areas where the defense failed. Regardless of what the scoreboard said on Saturday afternoon, the defensive unit has a long way to go to be ready for the season opener against defending national champion Alabama.
“I didn’t feel like we were tackling like we need to, and that’s concerning,” Hoke said. “The point of attack defensively, especially up the middle, is not where it has to be before we get to September 1. That’s bothersome.”
It’s somewhat understandable that the middle of the front seven would need improvement at this point in spring. The Wolverines’ returning playmakers are mostly in the secondary and the outside. Names that come to mind are fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess, senior defensive end Craig Roh and redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Jake Ryan.
The middle two on the defensive line, conversely, have a daunting task ahead in replacing key components of last season’s defense. Senior nose tackle Will Campbell and junior defensive tackle Jibreel Black — who is making the move inside this offseason — are replacing last season’s standout seniors Mike Martin and Will Heininger.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has liked what he’s seen out of Black, but the junior will need to gain more weight this summer and really hone his technique to tussle with Big Ten guards and tackles. Campbell, listed at 322 pounds, has all the size he needs and is looking to establish consistency.
“We need (Campbell) to not just knock people around, but tackle the football,” Mattison said. “Will and I have talked a lot and hard about that, that the ball is the issue, not how many lumps you can put on that guard or that center. Will’s getting it, and Will’s a key. Will is a big key.
“You’ve heard me say it before — you’re only as strong as you are down the middle. That’s going to be our whole deal this year because we’ll be fine outside.”
Campbell actually made his spring debut in lighter fashion than usual, as he and some of his defensive cohorts were recently tasked with losing weight leading up to Saturday. Some players showed off their new look by sporting cutoff tees exposing their trimmed bellies.
“I felt good today, actually — a lot lighter than I usually am,” Campbell said. “I feel comfortable with the D-line we have right now. We got some more nooks and knots to pull out, but I feel pretty good with it right now.”
Moving back from the line, Mattison noted that his middle linebackers also have a their work cut out for them this summer. Fifth-year senior Kenny Demens is currently the leader of the unit, but there will be competition up until the start of the season.
Senior Brandin Hawthorne also moved to the middle from his typical strongside position for some plays on Saturday. He made a couple of solid defensive stops and reeled in a one-handed interception in coverage toward the end of the game.
“(Hawthorne) has been doing a great job,” Demens said. “He has the heart of a champion. He might be a little undersized, but I wouldn’t put it past him to go out there and hit the biggest guy and put him on his butt.”
But sometimes, a defense needs more than heart to succeed. Mattison is looking forward to working on the little things this summer.
“A lot of it is technique,” Mattison said. “One of the biggest things we have to improve on is using our hands and not using our high-school forearms. That’s what some young freshmen linebackers are doing right now.
“The beautiful thing is they’ve got sleds to work on all summer.”
NOTES: Sophomore outside linebacker Desmond Morgan appeared to hurt his left knee after being stopped on a blitz early in Saturday’s game. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jerald Robinson tweaked his ankle as well. The extent of the injuries are unknown at this point.