Greg Mattison had a point he wanted to get across to his new defense. First he showed them a picture of a baby rabbit. His next slide was a picture of an armadillo.
The Michigan defensive coordinator told them: “If you’re going to be on this defense, you have to have tough skin.”
Having armor-like skin of the armadillo would’ve helped in the summer film sessions that followed. Mattison and Michigan coach Brady Hoke were going to be brutally honest with the Michigan football team’s 107th-ranked scoring defense in the country, and this was fair warning.
“You can’t have skin like a baby rabbit in our room now,” Mattison said Tuesday. “If you do, you won’t make it. … It’s never personal, but I don’t care if you’re a four-year starter and an All-American, the bottom line is what you see on film, it is going to be corrected and it is going to be addressed.”
Even after Michigan’s 31-14 win Saturday over Illinois — even after Mattison emotionally declared that the defense finally looked like a “Michigan defense” — the defensive coordinator said there was still plenty of bad tape he could put on in the meeting room.
There was the 4th-and-26 Illinois converted, the final touchdown drive the Fighting Illini orchestrated and a few bad reads defending the run at the end of the game.
“I wouldn’t say he was emotional,” fifth-year senior Ryan Van Bergen said of Mattison. “He was just a little more praising than normal.
“As far as coach Hoke and Coach Mattison, they haven’t said too much (lately). And when they’re not yelling at you, that’s all the praise you need. Just silence sometimes is good.”
Junior defensive end Craig Roh said he has come to appreciate the silence.
No one group has been criticized more than the defensive line — the unit Hoke and Mattison used to coach. It took the line, and the whole defense, time to adjust to the tear-you-down, build-you-up coaching style.
“Well, during practice you have a good idea if you’ve messed up or not messed up,” Roh said. “And you kind of know which play it’s going to be next on the film. So you’re kind of hoping you don’t get to it — you’re hoping time runs out and you have to get out to practice before that play comes up on the film.
“But then it does. And you’re just like, ‘Ahh, man.’ And they just keep rewinding it, and rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it. And you don’t make that mistake again.”
The best compliment Mattison ever paid Roh was, “You played hard.”
That’s as warm as it gets considering the goal is perfection. At least Van Bergen admits they’ll never play the perfect game, but they’re getting close, he says. The journey from No. 107 to No. 5 started with that belief in mind, with the expectations as high as ever. Then the honesty infected everyone.
Hoke doesn’t outright bash Mattison’s calls, but he’ll question decisions and offer advice. Roh was asked Tuesday if he knew where Michigan was ranked last season.
“Yeah, really bad,” Roh said unflinchingly.
The players have been more honest with themselves. With each other.
They know now when they make a mistake. And the coaches’ criticism has waned with each passing week.
Roh quietly fist pumps to himself under the table when Mattison chooses not to pick apart his play on film.
On the field, it’s far from silent, but that’s a good thing. Mattison’s hearing his players talk more. They call out how the opponent lines up and what they see coming.
“Great defenses, if you’re ever out there with them, it sounds almost like a stock market,” Mattison said. “Well, first few weeks it was like a morgue out there. I mean, ‘Come on, talk.’ And the guys (are) going, ‘Oh my God.’ Now you’re hearing it.
“It’s talking and taking care of your buddy, and when you make a mistake, not hanging your head, coming off and getting ready for me to rip them, but them saying, ‘OK, coach, I got it.’ And then (you’re) not having to yell at them because you know it means something.”