There were a lot of questions to be answered that Monday afternoon, and the Michigan defense’s unofficial spokesman was clearly baffled by the truth himself.
Ryan Van Bergen stood in the hallway at the Junge Champions Center, having already withstood more than five minutes of inquiry. And he had to keep talking about it — Michigan’s 48-28 loss against Wisconsin.
What was it like during that second half when the Badgers called one pass play during the final 30 minutes of the game? How could Wisconsin — already missing John Clay — rush for 357 yards?
As a student of the game, Van Bergen had already watched the tape — he was just disgusted with what he saw.
Van Bergen and his teammates knew what Wisconsin was going to do. The Wolverines had practiced against the play the entire week. That Saturday, Wisconsin kept running it.
The same damn play.
They bullied the Michigan defense until it said uncle.
Watch the film for yourself. The guard on the backside of the play pulls to the strong side and the entire line pushes downfield — it has many names, but Brady Hoke and Al Borges call it the “power” play.
Ironically, that’s going to be an important part of the Michigan offense this season.
As for the defense, this spring has Van Bergen and the rest of the unit ready to make some big changes — starting with the little things. If you piece together the evidence from this spring, the defense will be significantly better this fall, thanks to the two coaches at the top. And you can guarantee, with Hoke and Greg Mattison around, that and no team will bully the defense around.
“We will hit as much as any team hits,” Mattison said. “And that’ll be our trademark before we’re done.”
No way anyone’s going to push Michigan around in 2011 — not when Michigan has its biggest and best defensive players on the defensive line. Not with Hoke challenging the unit every single day, expecting more of them than anyone else.
The former defensive line coach holds Mike Martin, Van Bergen, Will Campbell and Craig Roh to higher standards.
And they’re the first line of defense. The first one’s who get a chance to get after the football. Michigan is going to be the bully this fall.
“The defense will be slightly more aggressive,” Van Bergen said. “We’ll put more people in the box and are more inclined to bring the pressure on third-and-long than we might’ve been in the past.
“There’s definitely a change in attitude that we’re going to get after people and take our shots when we get a chance.”
No more sitting back and getting manhandled. Hoke and Mattison want their guys to throw the first punch, to be the aggressors. That’s why technique and fundamentals are being shoved down the defense’s throat this spring:
Blow delivery — “Everything in defense starts with delivering a blow,” Mattison says — escaping blocks, shedding blocks and getting to the football, which was sorely missed last season.
And if the 2010 Wolverines did shed a block, they probably missed the tackle.
“We’ve got to teach stance,” Mattison said. “We’ve got to teach alignment. We’ve got to teach punch. We’ve got to teach tackling.
“And that’s how great defenses become great again. You do that so you can run to the football.”
No one’s cutting corners, either. Mattison lives by the motto that, “It’s going to be perfect, or it’s not good enough.”
On Tuesday, Van Bergen mentioned the sense of urgency that everyone on the team feels. They need to get up to speed, and then they need to get better while the whole Big Ten builds off what it did a year ago.
As evidence, look no further than the resurgence of the prodigal son, Will Campbell. He was lost, gone to the offensive side of the ball, probably wasting a unique skill-set that talent evaluators saw when they slapped him with that five-star recruit label. This spring, he’s worked hard and Hoke says he will certainly have an impact this fall.
Van Bergen said Campbell has an improved work ethic and attitude this time around. He’s putting in the extra time, paying attention to details and improving on a daily basis. And, the best part? Campbell has been coachable — everyone’s listening and improving this spring.
As Hoke and Mattison are testing the defense, the coaches can hold it accountable too. No longer is Michigan handcuffed by a lack of experience.
Take a quick look at the very unofficial depth chart: there are the big names like Martin, Roh, Van Bergen; Kenny Demens and Cam Gordon at linebacker; and Troy Woolfolk, J.T. Floyd and Jordan Kovacs in the secondary.
And the key is the depth behind all of these veterans.
Hoke wants his whole team to play with a toughness — and he said the seniors are leading by example in that way.
Van Bergen’s one of them. And he and the rest of the class don’t have much time left. There’s only one year left to turn it around.
Hoke’s personally seeing to it. As Rich Rodriguez would spend time with the offense, Hoke’s fingerprints are leaving marks all over this defense. He puts pressure on the defense in practice situations. During Saturday practices, he simulates the game-day experience and lets the players figure their problems out on their own.
That would’ve been nice against Wisconsin last fall.
Ever since Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon declared he wanted the ball boys to be defensive-minded, the fate of the Michigan football team has been redirected. It’s a transformation on defense that has been occurring this spring — as Mattison slows down his defensive install to teach the younger players the fundamentals and make sure everyone understands the plays before they move on to the next set.
That’s a journey that has started this spring and could end this fall.
At practice on Tuesday, after the defense had completed a drill, the entire unit gathered in a huddle, with one arm raised.
“We’re getting better every day, ‘D,’ ” one voice exclaimed.
And it sounded like he truly meant it.
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org