Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s name is often associated with college football’s evolving spread offense. It’s no secret his offensive strategy was one of the main reasons he was brought to Ann Arbor.

And through the past two bowl-less seasons, glimpses of offensive development and a potentially electric running game provided some positive moments for the Wolverines.

The defense, on the other hand, provided some of the scariest and gut-wrenching moments.
This spring, it’s up to defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and his coaching staff to prevent those defensive lapses and breakdowns from happening again.

For the first time in four years, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator isn’t coming in and starting from scratch. And at the very least, that means his players understand Robinson and his coaching style.

“It’s just more of a comfort level of being able to trust him,” senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk said Tuesday. “When he first came, I didn’t know too much about him. I like his way of coaching, and I believe in what he says.”

Trusting the coaching staff’s guidance is important for a unit that was the worst scoring defense in the Big Ten last year. The 2009 defense gave up 33.2 points per game, nearly two points more than the second-worst defense in the conference, Indiana’s.

Woolfolk said he’s noticed the defensive coaching staff taking a different approach this spring.

“The coaches are taking it really step by step this year to kind of change the problems we had last year, the blown coverages, missed assignments,” Woolfolk said.

Another change this spring is the increased use of a 3-3-5 formation, a defense that typically showcases speed and puts pressure on its secondary. Woolfolk, who said he’s never played in that kind of a defense before, thinks it could be one of the best defenses for the type of athletes Michigan currently has on its roster.

Offensive players are praising the 3-3-5, too.

“I like it,” senior offensive guard Steve Schilling said. “There’s a lot of things they can do out of it. I think it’s good for us as an offensive line to go against it every day in practice. We see more of a 4-3 look in games a lot of times, and you usually see the odd (set, like 3-3-5) in long-distance situations.

“To be able to go against that and work our run game against that defense, which we don’t see that often, is going to be good for us when it comes time to game-plan for those other teams.”

Rodriguez feels that his defense needs to be versatile enough to challenge a variety of offenses this fall, and he also knows something must change from last season.

“I think it was a combination of things defensively that we didn’t play as well as we like (last year),” Rodriguez said. “We certainly didn’t have the depth and didn’t have the experience that we wanted or needed to have, and it seemed like we played good for two or three plays in a row then gave up a big one. Or played good for a quarter, then let a team go up and down the field on us.”

Michigan fans remember those moments, particularly opponents’ gains on third downs. But Rodriguez seems confident that the new defensive formation, as well as a new focus in practice, will help right the defensive ship.

“I think the defensive staff has a good plan,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’ve made a few moves, as I mentioned, to try and help us and frankly we just have to be better technique-wise. I think we have to play better fundamentally, play more physical, and get more guys to the football. And I think we’ll do that.”

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