Michigan calls on old hands to run the defensive voodoo down

Matt Hinton
View photos

Part of Big Ten Week.

When Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez in January after three mostly depressing seasons, it wasn't for any personal or nostalgic reasons. It was because he lost too many games, and lost them to the wrong teams. But his demise didn't come without a note of irony: When he was hired in December 2007, Rodriguez's mission was to reinvigorate a stale culture with the kind of 21st Century spread scheme that had turned West Virginia into an unlikely national contender on his watch, and by 2010, that mission was largely accomplished.

The Wolverines led the Big Ten last year in total offense and yards per play, made a true sophomore the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year in his first season as a starter and averaged more than 30 points per game for the first time since the Wolverines' last Big Ten championship team in 2004. Contrary to its run-first reputation, at 239 yards per game rushing and 250 passing, it was as balanced as any attack in the country. It also returned essentially the entire lineup in 2011.

In that sense, if in no other, Rodriguez did what he was hired to do. But the men he hired to run his defense — Scott Shafer in 2008, followed by ousted Syracuse head coach Greg "Gerg" Robinson in 2009-10 — could not even begin to say the same. The gap between the two sides was as wide as Lake Erie, and the depths almost as deep.{YSP:MORE}

After hitting all manner of new lows in Robinson's first season, last year's edition was in free fall almost from the beginning, eventually crash-landing at the bottom of the Big Ten in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. It barely missed the bottom in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and takeaways. The Wolverines allowed at least 34 points in seven of eight Big Ten games, and went out with a bright maroon "52" stamped on their helmets courtesy of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Nine of 13 opposing offenses racked up at least 435 total yards, including Indiana and Massachusetts.

View photos

By almost every important measure — points allowed, yards allowed, pass efficiency, third down percentage — it was the worst Michigan defense on record. Even if Rodriguez had managed to survive the carnage, his hand-picked defensive coordinator certainly would not have.

If you wander into certain Maize-and-Blue-colored corners of the web, you'll run into a backlog of long-running debates over the roots of the collapse, and how they took such deep hold. Were Shafer and Robinson really that inept? Or were they forced to adapt to an unfamiliar scheme? Can you really hold them responsible the parade of injuries and attrition that afflicted the secondary? Or for the apparent drop-off from the usual talent level? Whose fault was it that, after three years, more than half the starting lineup still consisted of freshmen and sophomores?

But there is no debate about the all-encompassing reality of the failure itself. (Given the facts, there couldn't possibly be.) And wherever individual Michigan fans fell on the spectrum of reactions to Brady Hoke as Rodriguez's replacement, there was no disagreement that a) Yes, the Wolverines did need to make a defensive-oriented hire in the top job, and b) Once in the job, Hoke made the single best hire of the offseason when he lured Greg Mattison from the NFL to become his defensive coordinator.

View photos

Mattison has done this before, and well, as the brain of some of the best Wolverine defenses of the modern era. He spent four years in Ann Arbor under head coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr in the mid-nineties, overseeing a pair of units that held 19 of 25 opponents below 21 points in 1995 and 1996, and didn't allow 30 points even once. After his departure for Notre Dame in 1997, the group he helped develop as underclassmen — including Heisman winner Charles Woodson and eight other players who would go on to spend at least four years in the NFL — turned in the best defensive effort in the nation en route to a national championship. Mattison has spent the last three season as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, where all three of his defenses finished among the top three in the league. You don't hire a guy like that to dictate to him what to run.

Regardless of who took on the job, though (or even, heaven forbid, if Gerg returned for another season) the pit of despair would be looking a lot less desperate going into this fall. The untenably young outfit that wore its growing pains on its sleeves last year now consists almost entirely of juniors and seniors — only one projected starter, sophomore safety Carvin Johnson, has been on campus less than two years — almost all of whom begin the season with significant starting experience, if not draft-worthy talent. It still lacks speed or depth in the secondary and a reliable pass rush, but assuming it hasn't permanently succumbed to shell-shock, this group can do mediocrity. After the last two years, mediocrity sounds like a pretty significant step forward.

A step forward in the box score, anyway. How effectively that translates to the win/loss column also depends on how effectively the offense transitions to the less Denard Robinson-centric philosophy installed by new offensive coordinator Al Borges in the spring. If Borges' attack comes anywhere near last year's production, an improved turnover margin and a halfway decent kicker could make a small step forward on defense go a long way in the standings. Under the circumstances, that's probably the best the Wolverines can hope for: The lineup is in no position for anything like an overnight, worst-to-first turnaround, but Mattison can guarantee the faithful this much: Under no circumstances could it possibly get any worse.

- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.