ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One of the coaches who came in last year who’s had the biggest impacts is defensive pass game coordinator and co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale.
Clinkscale overhauled a DB unit that was falling apart in 2020 and has completely revived it. What’s more, it appears that it’s getting better and better. Though there are moments when they give up plays, the defensive backs adjust, as we saw this last week against Michigan State, in terms of the coverage.
This week, while Rutgers isn’t necessarily adept at throwing the ball, it will be a challenge, given what happened after MSU in the tunnel with starter Gemon Green and fellow cornerback Ja’Den McBurrows. On Wednesday, Clinkscale touched on a number of issues, from that, to how the unit can improve, and more.
Here is everything he had to say.
Coming off a bye week kind of — you practice, you simulate those type of plays. We knew we were going to get was a lot different, you know, he’s a really good athlete, and he definitely can go up and get that ball. So I really felt like Gemon was in great position, just like for him to look for the ball a lot sooner. We’ve been working on that with them. And they took advantage of it, of course, and, to me, we just got to compete a little bit better.
So we’re going to be in those one-on-one situations, at times, we got to do better come down with the ball, or at least not let him come down with the ball. And so what we tried to do was, still make them feel like we were doing one-on-one situation over there and start putting the safety over top. And then we just started changing it up where we would play underneath them a little bit, and then still get to safety over there, to X-receiver. But their receivers are doing a great job of getting outside of us and trying to throw that ball, get the quarterback to throw the ball away from us.
So we’ve just got to do a good job as corners finding that ball and then changing up, playing some zone, allowing that corner to not always be on the hot seat. That’s always my philosophy — bend, don’t break. I even feel like the touchdown pass he had, if our post player would have made that tackle, we’d have had a chance to line back up. So, you know, we made a few adjustments, and you kind of got to do that every week, because that position is always on the island.
Will Johnson's emergence
Well, really, he’s healthy. And so, just keep stacking, keep building. I know coach talks about it all the time. So for him, it was building more reps at practice, with him being 100% healthy right now. And then he’ll continue to get more reps during the game, with those reps at practice adding it in the game, he gets more experienced, we’re able to, fix all the freshman, rookie mistakes that he would have.
But he doesn’t play like that, he plays like a vet. So we’re just gonna continue to give him more of those and give him the opportunity to go out there and impact the game like he’s been showing us. But I’ve been very pleased with where he’s at, and I want to continue to push him.
Could Gemon or Ja'Den play on Saturday?
They’re as good as anybody would be, you know, in that situation. I think their families are doing a great job, and Coach Harbaugh and all the coaches are doing a good job. And the team just helped us go through the process.
As far as those guys playing everything like that, I know coach kind of addressed that. We just got to keep seeing day by day where they’ve progressed to.
What his conversations have been like in the aftermath
Yeah, well, I express my concern, I definitely express my love and compassion for our guys. And we always have each other’s back. They’re like my sons. And so, we’re just going to band together. I know it’s pretty cliche, but it’s all you really can do at this point. We’re gonna band together, we’re gonna work together, we’re gonna move past it right now and, and focus on the opponent at hand. And those guys, that’s how they would want it.
What's the biggest, most pleasant surprise about the defense?
Well, I think we’ve been doing a really good job of getting our alignments right. You know, we’ve had a lot less tempo issues — we’ve had a few but a lot less than we had last year. We definitely had a lot less structure issues as far as our rotations and our checks. Where I’d like to continue, I think we’re tackling, I’d like to continue to be a lot more physical in that department. And then interceptions and takeaways — we’ve got to get more takeaways. So, they’ve been in plenty of positions to get the ball and take the ball away, and we’ve got to capitalize on it more. I think that’s the biggest area and then continue to grow.
They’re still young, a lot of these guys are young, a lot of them out there, and we want those guys to continue to just be hungry and grow every week because we’jve got to continue to get better each battle so we can win our war which is trying to be national champions.
Has there been more of an emphasis on tempo?
More emphasis on everything — we do takeaway circuits every day. So definitely with the tempo, that’s really getting the call in and the guys recognizing the tempo going from year one to year two in the defense. In all the different checks and things that we have, we try to simplify a little bit more for them, and put them in a position where we don’t have to, they don’t have to think as much in those fast situations. But it’s collectively the players understanding the game plan and the coaches putting them in the right position.
Rod Moore's work ethic
Well, I think just continue to push Rod. Rod had a pretty good season as a freshman, he still has some different issues I work on with him all the time. And he tries to do a lot, that’s probably the biggest thing I tell him — just don’t do so much, do your job, let it come to you, the ball will come to you, the plays will come to you. And he’s starting to embrace that.
They know, that sounds like, hey, that’s easier — no, but when you’re a safety and your guide is trying to help the teammates all the time, they tend to do a little too much. So he’s really done a really good job of focusing in on his task at hand. And then being able to perform like we want him to, and he’s just been in the right spot where he’s supposed to be and he doesn’t feel like he’s capitalized on all his opportunities, either. He feels like he’s finally starting to play like he did last year, which is huge. When you’ve got a player that’s not happy with his performance and everybody else is, he’s not — he wants to continue to get better. He feels there’s three or four things he could have done a lot better in the game last week, but I’ve definitely seen a big emphasis on him just trying to just be that leader on the defense and continue to elevate the play of all the defensive backs.
What do they have to do to get more takeaways?
Oh, my gosh, I mean, the defense, collectively, we all gotta get takeaways. Every level, we’ve got to bat the ball down, we’ve got to strip the ball, we’ve got to tackle, be violent, we’ve got to go intercept the ball from the linebacker corps to the defensive back corps. We just continue to show them ways, you show them, you reinforce it with what we did this year, how we continue to get better, show NFL clips, you can do different drills to put them in that position. And you try to make sure it’s more realistic than just a drill.
And then when they get the opportunity in the game, really, a lot of times it’s about tips and overthrows, it’s about effort and hustle. There’s been plenty of times where that ball’s just floating in the air. If we just hustle a little harder, or we get that opportunity, we got to make — we got to capitalize on it.
So like I keep saying, it’s just the emphasis. It’s football, it’s defense. It’s not rocket science. Play your (expletive) off, play hard, be physical. Find the ball, go make a play.
Sorry, I got a little worked up!
How much healthier is Will Johnson?
Well, he’s healthy. He’s 100%, he’s where — like I said, it was building, he’s a freshman, got a lot. Everybody’s — he’s a five star, he’s this, he’s that. Like I said, when I’m bringing the players in here, Coach Harbaugh and myself, we treat them like they’re our children. No, we wouldn’t want anybody to treat him any different. And so, we’ve done a really good job with these young guys and just continue to feed them that medicine. A little bit at a time, little bit at a time until they’re ready. And I feel like he’s where he needs to be. He’s ready, he’s ready to take on a bigger task. And, I think that you guys will get a chance to see him each week and improve, increase the reps and improve his play.
Did Keon Coleman push off on Gemon Green on the TD play?
Yeah, there’s no such thing as a push off. Like, we’ve got to find the ball. We’ve got to squeeze them to the sideline, we’ve got to get him off the maize line, we call it — five yards from the sideline, not giving them the opportunity to stack us, which when they stack us, it gives us an opportunity to go up over us and get the ball. So we’ve got to squeeze them and give the quarterback a smaller window to complete that ball.
There’s a lot of things we can do. I don’t give him the you don’t get help, you don’t get pushed off. That’s not an excuse. For us, we’ve got to battle through it. You guys have seen it. I mean, I’ve coached DBs 22 years. I see that every day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a call. So we’ve got to understand the technique, what the coach is teaching, and they’ve got to execute it. I don’t give them excuses.
Does today's game favor WRs over corners?
I think today — the, in my opinion, favors the wide out or to dB? No, I think it’s competitive both sides. I think they give us opportunity. You know, it was a game they didn’t call ticky-tack stuff. We got our hands on them, their DBs, we got our hands on their guys like, they were letting the guys play, and they let them play. And that’s, I thought it was — my opinion, we got to go make a play with the ball in the air, period. You know, we wouldn’t be having that question of Gemon or anybody else, Coach Clink, squeezed a guy out of bounds, went up, intercepted the ball, we wouldn’t be talking about how it’s officiated, or you know, if it’s fair to the DBs or not. So we got to capitalize.
Y’all getting me worked up, man! I don’t give excuses. We got to make plays.
How do halftime adjustments work?
The team gets in there, and they get situated, they talk amongst themselves. Coach goes in and talks to everybody. But we go in the back as an offensive, defensive unit, special teams, we talk about what we see, what we’ve already corrected, and then what we can do to counter what we’re seeing, and then what to expect.
Our biggest thing that we’ve done, I feel, is anticipate the issues. And every time we come back out in the second half, we anticipate the things that they’re about to do to us. And, even if they don’t change, we’re ready for the change. And so we explain that to the guys. And they definitely, they click right away, they grasp it, they understand the game plan. Now all they have to do is go and execute it. But we adjust and then we’ll go back out at halftime and talk to them. Get them riled up and let’s go.
Has the defense been better in the second half of this season?
Oh, yeah. I don’t know if better is the word. Compared to last year? I don’t really remember. But I think we made some really good adjustments last year, too. I think there’s a whole — this defense is different every year with the players. I think the players that we have now really locked in, and they see it and there’s no comparison to last year. It’s just that I feel like we’re all on the same page when we go out there.
Why is it tough for offenses to score in the red zone?
Well I think in the red zone, there’s a couple things I tell our guys: quarterback run increases, find the tight end, the running back getting out of the backfield in low red zone. High red zone, those guys trying to attack the middle of the field. So you anticipate those issues, and then the closer they get to the goal line, or the endzone, the less room they have. So you can be a lot more aggressive. You can tighten up the coverage and move closer to the line of scrimmage verse the run. They’re really, in essence, it gives the defense a slight advantage, so the offense a little less, but, you know, we just try to adjust, take advantage of those situations. They let us play a little bit more physical down there. But offense has done a really good job. You know, they had a couple situations last week. Those coaches are great coaches, they’ll get it, they’ll get it where they want.
Is a backyard football mentality innate or coached?
So many guys have it when they get here. Rod, for example, when Rod got here, he had a backyard, junkyard, hard-nosed mentality. And there’s some guys that kind of gotta build it with the culture. It just depends. But, you know, it starts with him, the head coach’s vision and how he structures and builds his culture. And then it trickles down to us on offense and defense, special teams. And all the guys, the coaches, the players, everybody is all about it and we’re all drinking the Kool Aid. Coach Harbaugh is doing a great job. The players love playing for him. Coaches love working for him. And so that culture, everybody’s got that backyard mentality. We love the game. We love going to practice.
I love coming to work. You guys come here with me, I’m here at 5:30 in the morning, I leave at whenever. But I love being here. Like, it’s great. And so, you know, if you as a coach had that, that demeanor, the players gonna take it on, too. And so we’re doing a really good job with that. And the players, the leaders are trickling down to the young guys and so yeah — we’re trying to build that culture with the junkyard — with a backyard football mentality. But you try to recruit it if you can.
Playing in or out of phase (Keon Coleman catches vs. DBs)
It was probably a little bit of both, really. If they’re looking for the ball depends on the route concepts and what they have. And then everybody wants the DB to look for the ball but we have a thing called bing in-phase or out-of-phase.
If you’re out of phase, you can’t look back for the ball. Because you’re gonna be running, the ball is gonna go to the receiver, and you’re looking at the quarterback, and you never gonna know where the ball is, or the receiver. So you want to get in phase, you want to get with the receiver. You want to, but when you guys pause film, good man-to-man coverage is where you can barely tell it’s two people standing next to each other. And so once you get in that position, you have to have the awareness and confidence to find the ball, not look back at the quarterback, but find the ball in the air. And the biggest thing I want our guys to always understand is always expect the ball, always expect to make the tackle, always expect to be the guy they’re throwing the ball at. If you do that, you’ll always be in the right position.
How has NIL changed recruiting?
Yeah, I think you asked me this before. I think, I’m not sure how it’s changed recruiting. I know for me, recruiting is about relationships, I still have those relationships with the coaches and the players. I think it may change or modify people’s why, the reason why they make decisions. You know, so I can’t really speak when I’m not in a position as a player or a parent to make that decision on what my, where my son goes. Is it based on NIL or is it based on academics? Is it based on football tradition? So I think it has affected it a certain degree. To what degree, I’m not sure?
As far as the position I recruit over and over and the areas I recruit, it’s still about relationships. You know, those kids want to feel like they belong, they want to feel like you want them. And then like everybody’s not getting those crazy NIL deals like you see. So you still have to recruit and build out that trust with the family through coaches and the player. So I think in certain situation,s when it is a big number of factors, it may factor in for the most of the guys. Majority of guys, it’s still you know something that is equal across the board.
So that was a damn good answer!