How the Michigan Defense Could Fail
This was, admittedly, a more straightforward post to write than the optimistic case.
Y’all didn’t think I’d just leave it there, right?
Last week, I looked at how the Michigan defense could be solid—good, even!—if the right pieces fall into place. This is the flip side: what could prevent first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s unit from making satisfactory progress after last year’s unmitigated disaster.
Was this list easier to put together than the last one? Who’s to say, really. (Yes.)
The Coaches Are Too Inexperienced to Pull This Off
The coaches themselves are wild cards. Only 34 years old, Macdonald has never been the sole coordinator of his own defense. He wasn’t even supposed to be the sole coordinator of this defense until Maurice Linguist grabbed the Buffalo head job. The rest of the coaching staff consists of:
D-line coach Shaun Nua, the only holdover from the previous staff, is in his third season at Michigan. He’s 40 years old and had one season of experience at a Power 5 program (Arizona State, 2018) before coming to Ann Arbor.
George Helow, 34 years old, was originally hired to coach safeties but slid over to linebackers when Linguist left. He’s focused on LBs in only three of his nine seasons as a coach, working with Colorado State’s OLBs as a quality control coach and grad assistant in 2016-17, then coaching Maryland’s ILBs and special teams in 2020.
Former Michigan wide receiver Ron Bellamy (39) got the safeties job after Linguist departed. His entire 11-year coaching run to this point has been as head coach at West Bloomfield High School.
Jim Harbaugh poached defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale from Kentucky to replace Linguist. At 43, Clinkscale is the grizzled old man of the group, and he’s also easily the most experienced, having worked his way up the ladder as a DBs coach since 2001. He did an impressive job in Lexington both on the field and the recruiting trail.
This green group is installing a new scheme for a defense that played awfully last year, lost multiple key contributors, and enters this season with some massive personnel-related question marks. They don’t have the luxury of patience; they may be new but the head coach is not. It’s possible they’re being asked to do more than they’re able to pull off this season.
Second Cornerback Remains a Disaster
This can’t happen again:
According to Pro Football Focus, [Vincent] Gray's receivers were targeted 31 times, and caught 18 of those passing targets for 367 yards (11.8 yards per attempt; 20.4 yards per completion) and a touchdown.
While the bulk of that production came from the Michigan State and Indiana games, those two performances were outcome-determining catastrophes. Meanwhile, Gray’s late-season statistical improvement coincided with the defense making a desperation move to more zone coverage that deemphasized the cornerbacks covering over the top or let them sink into deep zones without worrying about underneath stuff.
Michigan had to change their entire defense mid-stream last year to cover for one major sore spot. Cornerback play is that important. Gray is battling with DJ Turner II for the #2 CB job across from Gemon Green. There isn’t a big-time incoming freshman or an experienced grad transfer to add to the competition. If that gives you a sense of foreboding, I can’t blame you.
The Line Only Has Situational Standouts
While I believe the defensive line has good upside, the group hasn’t produced much at the college level yet. In a 3-4, the primary job of the linemen is to occupy blockers, but you also want them to be capable of more than taking up space.
The jury’s out on whether Michigan’s (admittedly talented) DL can make plays without requiring situational substitutions. Fifth-year senior Donovan Jeter has yet to record a tackle for loss in 23 career appearances. Former five-star Chris Hinton is at 2.5 TFLs across 18 games of spot duty. Third-year sophomore Mazi Smith has three career tackles, total. That’s the projected starting line.
The backups? Try not to stretch your collar as you tug. Transfer nose tackle Jordan Whittley is in the neighborhood of 350 pounds, 25 years old with a reconstructed ACL, and practicing for the first time since 2019 after doctors found (and successfully treated) a tumor near his heart prior to the 2020 season.
DT-turned-DE Julius Welschof has mostly been utilized as a situational pass-rusher and will need to hold up stronger at the point of attack. Beyond those two, there are untested returners who’ve needed to bulk up before seeing the field, walk-on Jess Speight, and a couple large true freshmen.
The line is going to need to rotate players. The hope is that’s because even the best linemen get tired instead of the coaches choosing between an immobile run defender and a lighter pass-rusher they hope doesn’t get stuck on the field.
Aidan Hutchinson Eats an Extra Blocker
While the new scheme allows Macdonald to bring pressure from a variety of positions and fronts, playing three interior linemen also puts a larger burden on the outside linebackers to produce big numbers. The DL is there to collapse the pocket for others to benefit, not rack up sacks themselves.
Michigan has a potential All-American OLB in Aidan Hutchinson on one side. On the other, they need someone to step up. Taylor Upshaw, the favorite to win the job, produced two sacks in six games (including two starts) last year and looked more like a high-floor than a high-ceiling player. The upside guy, Scottish import David Ojabo, is playing his fifth year of organized football at any level.
If that second OLB spot can’t consistently threaten the cornerback, two things happen:
Macdonald has to get riskier with his blitzing. Aggression is usually good; predictable aggression is bad.
Opponents can focus extra attention on Hutchinson, whether that’s with help from a tight end, a chip from a back, or a full-blown double team.
A major reason Wisconsin has been so successful with their 3-4 defense is they’ve had wave after wave of dangerous outside linebackers, from Joe Schobert to TJ Watt to Zack Baun, and those waves overlap. If, as is possibly the case on the DL, the coaches are stuck choosing between the solid run defender and the guy who can get to the quarterback, the pass-rush will be in trouble even before accounting for the secondary.
The Depth is in All the Wrong Places
Even before the shift in schemes, Michigan’s defensive talent and depth was distributed in a suboptimal way. Imagine if a cruise ship had opulent cabins and first-class restaurants but not enough lifeboats to get many of the passengers to safety in an emergency and then decades later it became a blockbuster film and—sorry, lost the plot for a moment, you get what I’m saying.
There appear to be more viable safeties than cornerbacks, to the point M’s fifth and sixth defensive backs could come from the safety ranks, and that may limit what coverage schemes Macdonald can deploy. That lack of cornerback depth could also force former five-star safety Dax Hill into a more predictable, avoidable role than the one he’s best suited to play.
The Wolverines have two (2) inside linebackers with significant experience and one of them (Michael Barrett) is sliding to the middle from the hybrid VIPER position. There are more bodies to throw at the one OLB spot not occupied by Aidan Hutchinson than the two backup ILB spots.
The line needs to stay healthy, full stop. The size and experience drop precipitously after the projected rotation players.
A defense with this much talent and this many potential contributors would normally be in better shape. The combination of late stage Don Brown recruiting deficiencies (particularly at CB) and the move to a 3-4 may exacerbate some roster issues before the turnaround.
It’s Obvious the Linebackers Were Recruited For a 4-3
Somewhat counterintuitively, 3-4 inside linebackers generally have to cover more space than their 4-3 counterparts—they align farther inside but have play sideline-to-sideline and drop into coverage while the OLBs rush on most snaps.
Josh Ross has already had an enigmatic college career, standing out as a sophomore, getting hurt as a junior, and looking like he’d taken a significant step back in 2020. Downfield coverage hasn’t been his strength.
That should be less of an issue for his ILB counterpart, Michael Barrett—but that’s because Barrett occupied the hybrid VIPER position, so he’s new to playing this close to the line of scrimmage. The players in best position to take snaps away from the starters, meanwhile, are 2020 three-star Nikhai Hill-Green (one special teams tackle in three games) and incoming four-star freshman Junior Colson.
There are always transition costs with scheme changes. It stings that one of them may hit hardest at a position where the team has virtually no experience beyond the starting duo.
Hidden Yardage Puts Them In Bad Positions
The defense forced only three turnovers in 2020 while the offense was quite fortunate to only cough up six themselves. This isn’t about fumble luck; go through the near-interceptions in Michigan games last year and, well, they tend to come when the winged helmets are on offense.
Meanwhile, departed punter Will Hart had a weirdly terrible start to the year and was replaced by Brad Robbins, who’d previously lost the job to Hart because of his own problems with consistency. Robbins will now compete with incoming freshman Tommy Doman.
Michigan still punts from the pro-style formation, which prevents teams from finding the same punt-blocking exploit the Wolverines seem to have discovered in spread punt alignments but allows more space for returns. In the return game, the electric Giles Jackson will suit up in the Big House this year—but for week two opponent Washington.
Michigan finished 79th last year in Net Field Position—the offense’s average starting field position minus the same number for the defense—according to Football Outsiders, and it could’ve been significantly worse. This defense needs every edge it can get; that includes help from the offense and special teams it’s far from guaranteed to receive.
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