Michigan defensive staff aiming to fit scheme to talent, not talent to scheme

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In recent years, when Don Brown led the charge on Michigan’s defense, you knew that the Wolverines were trying to play one particular style of defense: man coverage on the back-end with punishing blitzes up-front. But if the talent wasn’t there on either end, chances were, the defense would bust.

Bust it did in 2020 when the Wolverines could not get into the offensive backfield up-front, while those left on an island in the secondary got scorched repeatedly.

With new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald now leading the charge, he’s promised to be more multiple in approach — saying the team would play both odd and even fronts, while the secondary would play man, zone as well as pattern match on the back-end. But would this new-look defense be married to scheme or the talent? That is, would players be put in a position to showcase what they’re best at or would they be asked to perform precisely within the confines of the system?

Linebackers coach George Helow met with the media for the first time since coming to Ann Arbor on Thursday, and he has one player in his ranks that isn’t a natural fit, per se, in former VIPER Michael Barrett.

Barrett was once a dual-threat quarterback at Valdosta (GA) Lowndes, but since coming to Ann Arbor, he’s played both linebacker and the hybrid-safety role. Helow had announced that Nikhai Hill-Green won the starting WILL spot opposite to Josh Ross’ MIKE — a position thought to be Barrett’s to lose. But in transition, while Barrett assuredly will be a part of the rotation, he was given the opportunity to earn the job due to being skilled as a player.

“Mike’s doing a good job,” Helow said. “I’m sure you’ve all heard it from Mike Macdonald, but if a guy’s earned the right to go out, play and compete, it’s kind of in their hands. We’ll create every opportunity possible to get guys out on the field. Mike was a VIPER in the last scheme he was in, so he’s kind of transitioned to the DIME-slash-WILL. He’s an instinctive guy. You’re kinda looking to see who — after the first two, you’ve got Ross or as I’ve mentioned Nikhai in that first group. He’s in that mix, working hard every day to compete.”

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Overall, Helow likes his group. In terms of versatility, he feels like they’re capable of playing the various looks being installed by the new staff.

“We’ve got a good group of guys. I see all of them fit to the scheme and what we’re doing,” Helow said. “You know, when you just look at it, at the end of the day you guys, whether you’re 3-4, 4-3, whether you ran what they did last year, it’s football at the end of the day. We’re trying to get linebackers to come downhill, play with good stance, play with your hands, whether you’re in a seven or eight-man box. Understand where your help is, whether you’re hitting it inside-out or outside-in. And playing fast.

“Playing fast comes with confidence and knowing what to do. That’s what we’ve been preaching. We’ve got a good group of guys that have been working their butts off every day to execute that. And doing a great job.”

But still, what’s the answer to the big question: is it talent that matters more or is it scheme?

Helow says that if a player has the talent, they’ll find a role for them, even if they don’t have the physical prowess that matches up with the position they’re being asked to play, ideally.

“There’s not one specific — there might be a guy that’s a shorter guy to play a different position,” Helow said. “Like London Fletcher is 5-foot-9, Zach Thomas is 5-foot-9. We’re not saying just because this guy’s not 6-foot-1, even though we could be looking for more length in a position moving forward — we could be. It’s not like he doesn’t fit the scheme and what we’re doing. Good coaches find out the ability of what this player can do and do the best job to make it fit — how to beat the other team. That’s what I think Mike (Barrett) has done a good job of doing and that’s coach’s strategy as well.”

With that in mind, we’ll see how much of a role Barrett plays now that we know he isn’t the starter at WILL. Of course, as Helow mentioned, he could play in dime packages, but if it’s a question of talent, certainly, players like Barrett, who already had it wait his turn as it was, will still see the field early and often.

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