ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Even though Michigan football’s starters on defense have only played half a game in each of the first two games, the defensive side of the ball has excelled. Credit goes to not only the defensive front, but the secondary, as well.
Currently, the Wolverines are fielding the No. 8 pass defense in the country, allowing just 125 yards per game through the air. Defensive pass game coordinator Steve Clinkscale, who is also the co-defensive coordinator, is pleased with what he’s seen from his unit through two games, but also sees a lot to improve upon.
On Wednesday, he met with the media. Here is everything he had to say.
Makari Paige's emergence, learning zone coverage
Yeah, I think the defense he ran in high school was a lot of man coverage. And so last year was kind of understanding more of the principles of zone, how to communicate how we adjust based on formations. You saw him again, like I mentioned before, grow a lot this spring, and he’s carried over to the summer and now he’s done a good job right now in the fall.
A thing about Makari, he’s been playing very physical, and he had a good opportunity to go get an interception in the game. And he understood the coverage and he understood — kind of baited the guy into throwing a fade ball over there. And so, he didn’t capitalize and get down to the receiver — a did a good job trying to defend the ball. But he’s understanding all the concepts very well. I’ll put them at nickel sometimes. I can put him at corner. He understands the zone concepts there, too. So his growth has been good, want to keep challenging him, give him more, a bigger role.
How does he evaluate when they're not getting INTs, but are still making plays?
We’re contested passes. We watched a lot of games on Saturday, sitting there, getting ready for our game. And there were a few games that you see DBs contesting the ball constantly and it forces the offense to continue to try to figure things out. And a lot of those games, the teams that I was watching, they ended up winning. And I was telling our guys before a game, we have to contest more passes. We’re either intercepting or we’re not. Gotta get our hands on the hands of the receiver. We can’t let him be comfortable catching the ball in an open space and running with the ball and trying to make a tackle in an open field. You put yourself in a more vulnerable position.
Do I like PBUs and contesting the ball? Yes. Do I love him? No. I love interceptions, of course. So you know, we’ve told them it was a good job but we want to continue to push harder and go get and finish on the ball.
And the one thing in practice I’ve seen more this year than we have in the past we are collecting more interceptions during practice. And that eventually, it’ll kind of — we keep playing that seam and it’ll prosper. We’ll reap what we sow, we’ll get more interceptions. They’re coming.
What has he seen from Mike Sainristil?
He’s doing veteran things. So, he’s out there anticipating the issues and doing a very good job of disguising and in understanding what they’re trying to do to attack us. And like I say all the time, he’s doing his job, which makes him a really good player. But he’s also doing things that make him great at times, when he could do his job and do someone else’s job, but making sure his job’s taken care of. You see him do that, really, with his effort.
But his unbelievable effort, unbelievable strain, unbelievable passion on just trying to make plays and do things right. He wants to be the best DB on the team, wants to be the best DB in the nation. That’s his goal. Like he’ll play receiver, he’ll do anything we asked them to do. But he definitely wants to wherever it’s going to be, he wants to be the best at it. And it’s just, it’s really just his drive and his personality, his mental makeup. He’s already a leader, and he’s gonna continue to be great in that role. But I continue to see him getting more of a role at corner, especially this week. And you’ll see, he’s got a lot of upside. He’s very fast, very strong, always physical. But he’s kind of a coach on the field a little bit. I love having him around the room. I do. Just I love being around him.
On Amorion Walker switching to cornerback
Like I said before, said it publicly, I love working for Jim Harbaugh. I like his mind. We can be in the middle of practice and decide, ‘Hey, this kid wants to get a couple reps at corner.’ No problem. It’s my job to figure out, like with Amorion, what he can do.
And so, we’re starting with him in a third down package, primarily man coverages and give him the opportunity to showcase his talents and get comfortable. When you play defensive back, if you’re not confident and comfortable, it’s a little hard to make plays, it’s hard to just want to be out there. So we’re finding his role. He’s a very versatile athlete, like you said, and he’s very natural at corner, to be honest with you, when it comes to the athletic piece. And, we’ve done a lot of meetings and stuff, and he actually picks things up very fast. So he knows the zone coverages and the man now.
But just like he and Mikey and a couple other players, like, the more, you have a head coach that he loves that, those guys want to be more of a team player, and they have the ability to do it, too? As a coach, it fires me up, because every day I know I’m gonna have a different guy that I can work with and see what he can do, and then give those guys the opportunity to be successful.
How can the DBs be the best in the nation?
Well, really is the consistency of practice for me. I think if we practice on a level that we’re not making mental mistakes, we’re communicating, we’re getting opportunities to intercept the ball, and we’re capitalizing on that, I think that carries over to the games. We play against one of the best offenses in the country, as well. Coach Moore was just up here. They were good against the run because we see it every day. We’re challenging the passes because our receivers are excellent receivers, and our quarterbacks are excellent, as well. And so, in order for those guys to continue to get better, and play in the national championship games, and win the Big Ten title and all that stuff, we’ve all got to continue to build on it and keep pulling the best out of one another.
So like I told (Makari), we’ve got to be consistent at practice, consistent in games, bring the passion. The passion you see on the field, that’s how we practice. And I think the more havoc you cause in the secondary, the more the quarterback is confused, the more opportunities you have to be the best secondary in the country. It’s going to be a group that’s communicating great, physical, anticipating the issues. And then we have to take the ball away, of course.
Two-way players, versatiliy
Well, I was started with recruiting, I believe Mikey was recruited here as both as well and so was Amorion. We kind of identified those two in recruiting, and then — just kind of the versatility piece of it — and you asked me a lot of different things at once, but to just summarize, the big thing is, like I said, what do they do well? Mikey can play nickel, and corner, and the slot receiver. And so we always give him the opportunity to do those, do those situations in practice. Amorion, the same thing. Want him to specialize more at receiver, we felt that our offense has a lot of complexities, and I can find my way, my groove with him as a corner. Corners don’t have a lot of responsibility. They just have to really be well to do a great job out there on the island. Now we mixed in zone and in man coverages, but I can do a good job with him one on one, touching base with him to teach him the aspects that we need.
Who it starts with, definitely always starts with the head coach. Nobody’s gonna make that move without the head coach. And sometimes we bring it up, sometimes he sees it. And with Mikey, he saw it, he came to me about Mikey, and it was the best decision that we’ve made in secondary thus far.
Does he have a preference for left corner and right corner?
So, back in the day, we used to do field and boundary corner all the time. And I do still have a preference on that. I think the boundary corner, if you have two corners and one is a lot more physical in the run game, understands, read the keys better in the boundary, we definitely try to cater towards that. The problem is, the offenses dictate that you can’t do field and boundary. They go too fast. And you can’t keep traveling guys across the field. By the time they go from the right side to the left side, back to right side, they feel like they played a whole game. So it’s best to just keep them on one side.
I think that benefits the player though, because now you get an opportunity where you know both sides of the defense. Because people think, ‘Oh, he just plays corner.’ Well, the boundary corner has different responsibilities and different checks and different techniques than field corner. Now that they play left and right, they’re doing boundary and field.
So the same thing with the safeties. You got to free safety, strong safety. We got left and right safety. I want them to know how to play to the open side as well to the tight end side. And the same thing we do in base. And I think the more kids you train that way — I’m a versatility guy. The more two-way players, the more corners that can play field and boundary, the more safeties that can play field and strong, then you don’t have to put who’s ever on the depth chart next, just because that’s where he plays. You always got your best four or five or six players on the field.
Is it more difficult to have a corner travel (positions/sides) in college?
Well, I think it’s two different games. In the NFL, the ball’s in a tempo. Yeah. So yes, it’s definitely, depending on the teams you face, most of the time, it’s gonna be more challenging for us. Because in the NFL, they huddle. There’s no huddle for us, everything’s fast, they line up right away on the ball. And they’d call the offense while they’re lined up, so you can’t be running around trying to do those things.
Playing against tougher passing offenses like Maryland
Well, not really who we playing. A lot of times, you want to be extremely detailed all the time. They should deliver, it’s not harsher (the grading). I grade tough — period. How I deliver a message when I’m meeting with the players that next day, definitely depends on our attitude, how we play, our effort, how we strained. If they did well, love them up. But you could also coach them a little bit harder in that situation. If you’re not doing well, sometimes you got to find a way to get the message across to them.
But I believe in being honest with them. How you deliver the message depends on the player, depends on the situation, the mood, and so forth. But I definitely like telling the guys the truth. And because we’re secondary guys, you need to know the truth. If you’re gonna continue to do this certain deal, then you’re not going to get opportunity to play much because you’re gonna give up touchdowns. Well, you don’t want to give up touchdowns? Let’s do this this time. And you see the guys, they grow throughout the game, from game to game, and definitely at practice. So I hope I answered your question.
How do you prepare for tougher competition?
Everybody can come in here and beat us if we allow them, we can’t beat ourselves. Last week was crazy. This week I’m gonna be crazy, and the following week I’m gonna be crazy. It doesn’t matter. You guys watched enough TV last week to see that take anybody lightly or you don’t handle your own business, then things can change, your outcome cannot be what you want. So it doesn’t matter who the competition is. The competition, I tell our guys every day is that guy that you wake up and you brush your teeth and you look in the mirror, that’s your competition every day. It doesn’t matter who they’re lining up in front of you, you got to do your job, you have to battle yourself every day. So it is my job to help them pick their battles and how they’re going to win. So we don’t look at the competition, we look at ourselves and handling our business. I know it’s cliche, but that’s how I’m building this. I’ve always believed that as a player and as a coach.
On Mimi Bolden-Morris
I think she’s very smart. Definitely, always upbeat, excited about being here. She’s willing to learn — that’s the biggest thing. You know, there’s two parts of people — you’re willing and able, and I think she’s both and I think she’s extremely willing to learn. She’s always asking me questions about secondary, ‘Hey, what’s this coverage? What are you guys doing here?’ And I think that’s going to be great for her in his industry. She’s a humble person and doesn’t have an ego and I think she’s in the right profession. And I look forward to seeing what happens for her down the line.
Is being a two-way player a novelty and would he like to keep Walker at corner?
It is in a lot of aspects. But for us, the way we practice, our guys are built for it. We practice pretty hard — conditioning, our strength conditioning, coaches do a great job. And then like I said, as a coach, we’re very creative from trying to find ways and packages for those guys to play.
Would I want him to be a permanent corner? I want him to be a permanent athlete here on the team, period. I like to see him catch a touchdown when he threw that ball to him. I’m standing there watching the play, and he beat the guy on the first step and I’m excited — Here we go. Here we go!’ And then he comes right back over, switches his jersey, we go right to corner. So I like for him to continue to just get better at both, to be honest with you. I think he can be a very exciting, electrifying weapon for us. So, I look forward to seeing what he can do.
Thoughts on Mason Graham
Mason, even though Rayshaun Benny — a lot of people don’t mention him much – those guys have been doing a really good job. Of course, the veteran guys have helped lead them, but they come in sometimes we don’t miss a beat. They’re physical, they’re smart. They’re doing their job and they’re playing fast. I think the rotations that our coaches have done up front, in the linebacker corps and the edge guys have really helped those guys stay fresh. So they’re really doing a good job of capitalizing on their opportunities.