Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown works with Jake Butt during a workout on Feb. 29 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
ANN ARBOR — If you expect Michigan’s defense to take a conservative approach this season because they’re replacing virtually the entire unit, well, guess again.
That’s not Don Brown’s style. The Massachusetts native, with his thick New England accent, quickly made his intentions known. As in, on the fourth day of fall camp.
“We’re going to be aggressive,” Brown barked. “I mean, that’s just the way we play defense.”
Brown’s forceful style is well-known. He’s taken on the nickname of “Dr. Blitz,” and he constantly harps on his players to solve problems with aggression. It will be the hallmark of another Brown-coached defense this season, although Michigan returns a single starter.
But that number already is an annoyance to Brown. While it’s technically correct, he debunks the inexperience myth by illustrating how often Michigan’s backups played last season. One-by-one Brown rattled off the names: Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich, Tyree Kinnel, Devin Bush, Jr.
Sure, it will be their first season as starters. But it’s a group that’s high on experience.
“Who’s providing the leadership, that’s what we’re building right now. I’d be nervous if it was like this,” Brown said pointing down, “nobody. But I think it’s starting to happen. That starters thing? We had a lot of guys play last year. Hurst, he wasn’t a starter. He was just one of the most devastating inside penetrators in college football. Just saying.”
Perhaps the best news for Michigan is Brown is a no-nonsense, tell it like it is defensive coordinator who’s short on coachspeak. So when he espouses his belief in the defense, a unit that had eight players drafted, it’s a signal things might not be so bleak for the Wolverines. They were, after all, just voted ninth in the preseason coaches poll.
The first semblance of praise arrived in the spring when Brown saw the potential for reloading instead of rebuilding. The speed and talent is evident, it’s just about performing when the lights shine brightest.
“To be honest, it energizes you as a coach that you have to teach them a concept. That’s what we do as teachers,” Brown said. “But I think the bigger challenge is creating a picture and a vision for what you want the defense to be, and then getting them to go buy into it. That’s the bigger challenge on a year-to-year basis.”
The biggest challenge this year will be forming cohesion in the secondary, which only allowed 142.5 passing yards last season, best in the nation. All the missing pieces have moved on to the NFL.
Brown, of course, views aggression as the equalizer. But it could put stress on a young defensive backfield.
“Let me ask you this question,” Brown said in an animated tone. “I’m going to cover you. I’m going to go back here and you’re going to run all over the place, and I’m going to go cover you. Do you think that’s easy, with all that space on the football field?”
“Or I cover you,” Brown added, leaving just enough space for a piece of paper to fit between himself and the would-be receiver.
College football has undergone multiple makeovers in the 30 years Brown’s coached. One constant, according to the 62-year-old, is the willingness of defensive backs to play press coverage.
“The minute you say to them, ‘Hey, you’ve got the option.’ They all immediately play press,” Brown said. “Players know what they want to do. Whether they want to accept the one-on-one challenge and play or let great players run around in space and chase them around the field.”
Now, Brown and defensive backs coach Mike Zordich have to sort through myriad options and zero in on the playmakers. Converted receiver Drake Harris is of particular intrigue, but Brown also mentioned Lavert Hill, Keith Washington, Brandon Watson, David Long, and Benjamin St. Juste.
“I have tremendous confidence in [Zordich’s] ability to analyze and provide technique and concepts,” Brown said. “I love those guys when they put their hands out and they’re nice and long, and then [Harris] goes up and high points the ball. It’s fun to see.”