August 10, 2010
Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
Of the many, many ways that Michigan's sense of the "worst-case scenario" has been radically redefined over the last two years, none have been as baffling or as hopeless as the Wolverines' total collapse on defense. It was bad enough in 2008 that coordinator Scott Shafer was shown the door after one dismal season, heaping the blame on himself as he went for a unit that allowed at least 35 points in six of its school-record nine losses. In 2009, opposite a retooled offense beginning to show some signs of life, Greg Robinson's initial effort was worse: In Big Ten games, the Wolverines allowed more points on more yards than any other team in the conference en route to a sobering finish in the conference cellar. Even the three worst offenses in the league, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, were able to take advantage of the chaos to put up at least 30 apiece – and that was with future first-rounder Brandon Graham turning in an All-America effort on the line.
Such depths wouldn't have seemed possible two years ago. And even after the initial '08 collapse, the assumption at this time last year was still that, with the available talent on hand, there could be nowhere to go but up. At this point, applying the same logic to the '10 defense would be bordering on hubris.
Not that Robinson can't claim a few mitigating circumstances. He was installing a new system, a kind of hybrid 3-3-5 scheme that could toggle easily between a 4-3 or 3-4 look, with mostly new players – only four starters returned from '08, and the starting lineup at various points included two true freshmen (linebacker/end Craig Roh and cornerback J.T. Floyd), a redshirt freshman walk-on (safety Jordan Kovacs) and a pair of veterans (Stevie Brown and Mike Williams, both converted from safety to a linebacker/safety hybrid) essentially playing new positions. One early starter, hyped sophomore cornerback Boubacar Cissoko, was booted from the team before midseason and is now serving extended jail time for a series of robberies. Under the circumstances, any initial optimism for the second complete defensive overhaul in as many years was obviously misplaced.
This year's group won't have so many excuses to fall back on, especially when it comes to experience and/or continuity: Robinson is back with the same basic scheme and eight regular starters to man the same positions. But it's much harder to return to the argument that the talent alone dictates an immediate improvement, especially when you consider that the two most accomplished talents, Graham and All-Big Ten corner Donovan Warren, have left the reservation. Of the 15 four and five-star defenders the Wolverines signed from 2007-09, five are no longer with the team, and another six have yet to make their first start.
Of the four who have played significantly so far, only Roh and defensive tackle Mike Martin seem solidly on their way to living up to the hype. Depending on who wins the competition at free safety, the starting secondary could easily consist of Kovacs and a trio of former three-stars, only one of whom (senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk) has played much, and then only because Cissoko flaked out. The only holdovers from the 2006 class, senior linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh, have been consistently singled out as the root of the issues over the last two years. Find any preseason All-Big Ten team, and stand in awe at the unprecedented absence of Wolverines.
Still, relatively speaking, a third of the conference would probably trade that lineup for its own without thinking twice: Even the most dire assessment will find it hard to imagine any remotely competent Michigan outfit giving up an Indiana-like 33 points per game in Big Ten play for the third year in a row. Improvement worth writing home about, though, could hinge on getting competent efforts from a pair of rising sophomores: J.T. Floyd, whose emergence opposite Woolfolk is the key to a functioning secondary; and behemoth defensive tackle Will Campbell, a former five-star whose immovable presence in the middle of the line would allow Mike Martin to slide outside in a hybrid tackle/end role, where the viable alternatives are few and far between.
On the other hand, there's not nearly enough top-end talent (and even less depth) on hand to overcome an outmanned Floyd in coverage or a flabby Campbell inside. Barring extremely unlikely senior leap by Mouton and Ezeh, the road forward will require every man marching in unison.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.