The good news for new Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: He's done this gig before, and well. Mattison spent four years in Ann Arbor under head coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr in the mid-nineties, overseeing a pair of Wolverine defenses that held 19 of 25 opponents to 20 points or less 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 turned in the best defensive effort in the nation en route to a national championship as upperclassmen.
The bad news: The group he officially inherited today couldn't be a much further cry from the units that produced Sam Sword and Charles Woodson more than a decade ago. In fact, they couldn't be much further from almost any Michigan defense that came before: Each of the last three Wolverine defenses under coordinators Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson since 2008 ranks among the worst in school history, with the attrition-ravaged 2010 unit redefining the local conception of "rock bottom."
After hitting all manner of new lows in Robinson's first year, the '10 Wolverines were in free fall almost from the beginning, eventually finishing dead last in the Big Ten in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense, and near the bottom of the conference in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and takeaways. They allowed at least 34 points in eight of nine Big Ten games, and went out with a big 52 stamped to their forehead, courtesy of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Nine of 13 opposing offenses racked up at least 435 total yards, including Indiana and Massachusetts. Even if head coach Rich Rodriguez had managed to survive the carnage, Robinson certainly would not have.
At least there's nowhere for Mattison's new charges to go but up, and plenty of reason to expect an uptick with or without the brain transplant on the sideline. In the first case, seven regular starters and 11 of the top 15 tacklers return in the fall, including every member of a beleaguered secondary that was devastated by an apocalyptic plague of attrition and injury before the season even began.
By the end of the year, following yet another season-ending injury to cornerback J.T. Floyd, the rotation on the back end consisted of half a dozen freshmen (Cameron Gordon, Courtney Avery, Ray Vinopal, Thomas Gordon, Carvin Johnson and Terrence Talbott), an overmatched journeyman who spent much of his career at running back (James Rogers) and one walk-on (Jordan Kovacs). None of the above would have seen the field during Mattison's first go-round.
Those growing pains will begin to pay off in 2011, with mainstays Mike Martin and Craig Roh back to anchor the front seven as third-year starters. And if the overall talent level is still well below what you'd generally expect from a Michigan defense, at least the majority of the projected starters this time around were once four-star recruits.
Still, the best thing the Wolverine D will have going for it is Mattison's resumé, which includes successful stops since his first stint in Ann Arbor at Notre Dame, Florida and, since 2008, as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, where all three of his defenses finished among the top three in the NFL. He's a "family" hire, a close friend and former colleague of new head coach Brady Hoke, coming aboard to restore the "Michigan Way," or whatever it was that supposedly sent the program tumbling from its usual perch under Rodriguez. The lineup is in no position for anything like an overnight, worst-to-first turnaround, but Mattison can guarantee the faithful this much: It's not going to get any worse.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.