ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Whether or not Michigan’s underwhelming 7-6 2013 season has anything to do with it, Wolverines’ defensive coordinator Greg Mattison says competition is open at every position during spring practice.
“Every year there’s 11 positions and nobody is every guaranteed that position,” Mattison said. “Now, you hope that there aren’t a lot of guys getting beat out if you have the right guys in there and they have the pride they’re supposed to and as they become juniors and seniors, it’s their team, and they don’t let that happen.
“But, everybody, every week and every season has got to fight for his job cause we’re always going to put the best players on the field.
One of those key players is Jake Ryan who finished his junior season with 30 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in eight games, five starts, after returning from successful surgery for a torn ACL.
Recently moved to middle linebacker in order to be involved in more action, playing and being coached directly under Mattison who was reassigned to linebackers’ coach this off-season, Ryan’s production and impact could increase significantly.
“You have to evaluate every year on your team, who are the guys that can make plays or who are the most consistent playmakers?” Mattison said. “As you all know my feeling on Jake has always been that he’s one of our best defensive players and he’s a guy that gets to the football and he’s a really good blitzer.
“The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now, his position, he was always out in the flanks and spread out so, if they’re not running at him your best player is not involved in the game as much as he should be.
“Brady and I talked and felt that would be a good move to put him so he’s right in the middle of everything.”
“I expect, from all the linebackers, to be the leaders, to communicate, to get the defense set and to do everything way above that bar,” Mattison said. “And that was the first thing we talked about.
“Forever at Michigan, linebackers have led the defense, it’s been forever, and this group has played a lot of football and now it’s time for this group of linebackers to lead this team in every way.”
Philosophically Michigan shifts from a 4-3 under to more of a 4-3 over base defense for many different reasons including the constantly changing offensive approaches around the Big Ten, but also to increase pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Michigan recorded just 25 sacks in 2013, good for seventh in the Big Ten.
“When you play an under defense the person you call a defensive end is on an offensive tackle with a tight end outside of him,” Mattison said. “What happens is that’s a lot of size and a lot of weight coming after a guy where you’ve got to have a real big guy right there to be able to withstand that.
“We feel like some of our best football players, Brennen Beyer for example, he’s a better guy on the edge, he’s a better guy that’s a six technique. Last year he played a five technique in the Big Ten conference at 255 pounds and played his heart out.
“So, to get our players in the best position, Frank (Clark), Brennen for example, on the edges is better and therefore if you go to an over defense you have a six technique and a five technique without tight ends outside of them and that kind of gives you the start of it.
“And the other thing as I keep mentioning, so much of football today is three wide and that’s why you go to a nickel defense. Well, a nickel defense is almost always over therefore you’re not changing from a regular defense of under to an over whenever that situation happens. You can play more of an over throughout the game and they become better at that position.”
The switch to the over defense could also provide an opportunity for incoming defensive back Jabrill Peppers, rated as the No. 3 overall player in the country in the 2014 class.
Peppers, at 6-foot-0, 190-pounds, could project at several positions in the secondary.
“We happen to feel a guy like Jabrill, who you’ve seen and we all know is very talented, the key then would be to put him in a position where he can make the most impact,” Mattison said. “And whatever that is we’ll figure it out as we get close to that time.
“But, he’s such a talented young man and he’s so versatile and has been really well coached at his high school, you know, he’s played safety, he’s played corner, he’s played what would be a nickel, so, there’s a lot of places where a very talented young man could help that team.”
Despite tying for second in the Big Ten with 17 interceptions a year ago, Michigan’s defense, specifically the secondary, was oft criticized and rightfully so for soft coverage and too many big plays. Working to clean that up this spring, Mattison hopes that changes.
“I think we all have to be a lot more aggressive,” Mattison said. “That’s where we are now in our defense where as you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get pressure and things like that.
“We’ve got to play more aggressive on the receivers, tighten the coverage up and that’s kind of a big emphasis for us this spring and as we go to the fall.”
Mattison noted early-enrolled freshman defensive back Brandon Watson is rotating at safety right now.
With the shift to the 4-3 over defense redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Chris Wormley could see significant time in the middle of the defensive line, while redshirt freshman Henry Poggi could play at his current weight as a six technique.
Mattison also singled out defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. as someone that stood out during bowl practices and could see snaps, noting also that sophomore defensive tackle Matt Godin is up 15 pounds and healthy after experiencing several stingers in 2013, playing little after contributing during the non-conference.