Of all of the observations that came out of Michigan’s spring game last April, the one for which there was an overwhelming consensus is that Joe Bolden turned in a dominant performance. The veteran linebacker seemed to live in the offensive backfield all afternoon. There was but one issue quelling the optimism about what his showing portended for his senior campaign. His standout play the spring prior didn’t translate to similar success on game days last fall.
“I didn’t play good,” Bolden said matter-of-factly. “You don’t have to sugarcoat it.”
That blunt reflection was followed by his unwillingness to to inflate the significance of his memorable spring game. It was, after all, an exhibition. That said, figuring out why he hasn’t performed up to his own expectations was among Bolden’s top offseason priorities. Looking back on it all his diagnosis is pretty simple. He thought too much.
“It’s really like Coach Durkin says, stamp your personality on (the defense),’ Bolden stated. “I’m to the point where my first two years here I didn’t play good football and there is no sugarcoating it. It is not what I came to Michigan to do. It is not what I’ve done the rest of my life. Two years here I didn’t play good football. I didn’t represent Michigan well and I didn’t represent how I play or my family well. I sat down with my brothers and my dad and I was trying to figure it out. (They) talked about how I was playing in elementary school and little league, just flying around. ‘Who cares if you take one false step as long as you get to the ball?’ That kind of registered. I know in the spring game I got a little happy feet… too happy (at times) creeping forward a little bit, not a great stance… which I’m fixing. Coach Durkin doesn’t rip your butt if you’re making plays. He doesn’t care how you get your job done as long as you’re getting it done.”
“Better technique is good because technique at the end of the day wins, but one false step out of the way? If you’re making the play, he’s going to say alright good job and pat you on the butt. He’ll say alright get back in there and try to fix it, but if you’re making plays, it is what it is.”
That might sound sacrilegious to football purists, but it’s all part of Durkin’s plan to nurture his unit’s ability to play fast and avoid suffering “paralysis by analysis.”
“We put a big emphasis on fundamentals and teaching that, but yes, I make (just making the play) a big point with our guys,” Durkin explained. “I want guys to stamp their personality on their job. I don’t want a bunch of robots. So I’m not going to try and totally change a guy because his step is a little different. We recruited these guys to be here. They’re obviously really good football players… let’s let them be good football players. Yeah that is my term for them. Stamp your personality on your job. Do it like you do it, within the scheme and what we ask and what we talk about it, but put your stamp on it.”
That edict was music to Bolden’s ears, especially after he’d heard similar talk from his family. Now when he steps on the football field he doesn’t think as much, he simply reacts.
“(Durkin) says stamp your personality on it. That’s something that has kind of resurrected with me,” said Bolden. “He teaches you a certain way and he expects you to do it that way, but if you twist it just a little bit and you’re still getting the job done, then that is completely acceptable. I think as long as you’re executing and getting the job done and doing what’s best, not only for the defense, but for the team, then he’s okay with it.”
That message is the same for every player on defense, though it will be delivered differently based on who Durkin is talking to.
“We’re coaching individuals in every aspect,” explained Durkin. “We’re talking about on the field, off the field. Some guys can handle getting ripped at practice and some guys can't. That’s your job as a coach is to figure that out. There is a formula for every guy and as a coach your job is to figure out the way to motivate and reach guys.”
It seems he has already done just that with Bolden.