University of Michigan player Jarrod Wilson (22) breaks up a play. The Blade/Andy Morrison
ANN ARBOR — Michigan’s defense had to go outside of its comfort zone. Greg Mattison, Michigan’s fourth-year defensive coordinator, saw the evolution of the game and knew that his defense had to keep up. That meant making a foundational change.
Michigan announced in February that it shuffled its defensive coaching staff in preparation for this season, putting the same faces in different places. Mattison oversees the linebackers. Roy Manning went from coaching the outside linebackers to the cornerbacks. Mark Smith coaches the defensive line after coaching the inside linebackers, and Curt Mallory has the safeties after coaching the defensive backs.
“In today’s football, you’ve got to make a lot of adjustments during a game,” Mattison said. “You have to make a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions. You have the right way to do something, but all of the sudden, a team does something different. You need to be able to tweak a blitz or to bring pressure or be able to change something.
“We also felt very very strongly that with so many spread offenses, you need two guys with the back end. That was really a big part of it. You can’t ask one person to coach six guys in the backfield that are all a little bit different.”
Jarrod Wilson, a junior safety, insists there weren’t growing pains as a result of the shuffle, only a few kinks, even some that will require refining up to Saturday’s opener against Appalachian State. But more players believe they have more confidence in their position. Or they may have gotten the attention they didn’t have by not having a position coach.
“Coach Mattison has been giving us the proper tools we need, all-around,” said James Ross III, a junior linebacker. “He sees the whole defense, and that’s what we need to understand to be successful on defense.”
While Michigan was fifth in total defense in the Big Ten in 2013 (371.5 yards a game), it was seventh in team sacks (25) and didn’t have a player among the Big Ten’s top 10 in tackles, tackles for loss, or forced fumbles.
Mattison explained that the shuffle wasn’t in response to a particular quibble or any particular method of coaching. Instead, Jourdan Lewis said, it’s to fortify the identity of UM’s defense.
“Our game plan is to be a more physical defense this year,” Lewis said. “What we’re focusing on right now is being a better and physical defense.”
Wilson immediately saw the benefit.
“By us dividing our secondaries up to have a corners and a safeties coach, it’s really helped me,” Wilson said. “In the past, safeties weren’t coached up as best as they could be. At times it was a tough job for someone to coach corners and safeties. Those are two different positions.”
Wilson also sees the benefit of the shuffle as a whole.
“It just helps guys understand their position a lot better,” Wilson said. “How they fit into the defense. Having one individual coach coaching you just really helps you.”
With a revamped staff in place, Mattison has set an expectation for his defense. He wants it to be the best one he’s had at Michigan.
“That’s what I plan on,” Mattison said. “They have to do it every day, I have to do it every day, our coaches have to do it every day.
“But we really have pieces now. It’s time that we put it all together.”