Greg Mattison is always testing his defense. He says the only thing that holds players back at this point is not understanding how they fit into the greater scheme of his defense.
“Hey, what do we do here?” he’ll ask.
Even during walk-throughs he’ll throw something at them — maybe a certain scheme or situation — and they’ll step through the chairs or bags, going through the motions.
If anything is out of line, Mattison will stop them and make them do it over again.
“Because if they know where to line up and they know where they’re supposed to be, that’s half the battle,” he says. “Now the rest of it is going to be playing hard.”
With less than a week before his defense’s first game, Mattison has done all he can this offseason to give this defense enough “bullets.”
“When he says ‘enough bullets’ he means he’s never going to put us in a situation where we can’t defend something or that we don’t have an answer for something,” fifth-year senior defense end Will Heininger said.
Added Mattison: “We’re not going to go out there and play one defense. And that’s why our guys have worked hard to understand what we want from them. That’s why my belief is to give your guys every opportunity to be successful. Now, if they can’t pick it up in the heat of the battle, then that won’t work.”
But they have picked it up. Redshirt sophomore safety Thomas Gordon said that everyone’s understanding what’s diagrammed in the film room and both Gordon and Heininger stressed that Mattison’s complicated defense wasn’t too hard to grasp.
By all indications, Mattison will unveil a complicated defense Saturday against Western Michigan. And once Mattison has enough players understanding his scheme, he can roll players in and out of the game just how he likes.
Last season the Wolverines had trouble finding enough substitutes due to inexperience and injury. This season, Mattison expects two have 22 players who can contribute.
“I believe in two starting lineups, that’s how important it is,” Mattison said. “Whoever’s not in after that opening kickoff, whenever that next group of guys comes in, they’re just as valuable as the one’s that are there.
“Play as hard as you can and you can’t do that 75 plays a game. You can’t do it. So we have to have guys behind them — the guy goes in and he goes as hard as he can. He may not be as good, but going hard is good enough.”
Mattison said that he will substitute his defensive lineman much more often than players in the secondary. While a single cornerback or safety could backup a few positions on occasion, he will certainly want to keep his big guys fresh up front to go as hard as they can, then tag-in a teammate.
The perfect example may be fifth-year senior Will Heininger’s situation at defensive end. He’ll start but the coaches have been impressed by his backup: redshirt sophomore Nathan Brink.
“(Heininger’s) a big, strong physical kid,” Mattison said. “He’s a senior, a fifth-year senior, and he’s been around a long time. That’s what we’re looking for.
“We’re looking for, alright, ‘The two of them, (Brink and Heininger), make one.’ ”
Some players might play six plays, then sit two or three, Mattison said. At other spots, it might be four plays, then switch — then four plays for the next guy. It all depends on how close of a talent gap the coaches feel there is by the end of each week.
Not only will there be players flying around the field, but they’ll be flying in and out of it too.
“There’s no point in going 80-percent to the ball,” Heininger said. “You’ve got to go 100-percent and that’s why you have to have depth and guys who can play.”
Always rotating players may motivate some to do their best to make sure Mattison doesn’t take them out. The starters aren’t set in stone for Western Michigan because there’s still practices for guys to prove themselves and they are far from permanent.
“Some of them haven’t played,” he said. “Others, I know deep inside of them, they want to prove that they’re a Michigan defense.”
“I don’t care if you’re a guy who started for four years straight, if you don’t play up to your ability, there’s going to be consequences. I think every one of them knows that you always have to go as hard as you can go.”
Mattison preaches playing “Michigan defense.” To Heininger, that means guys are hustling to the ball, getting there together, celebrating together.
“Just really (ready) to unleash what we have on other teams,” Heininger said. “That’s exciting.”