Was the bust what you remembered it to be?
“Yeah. That was a great night. I was riding up there with my wife, and we were on the bus, and Fred Jackson was right next to me, and I said, ‘Fred, where was it? I can’t remember this.’ And when I got up to the hill right there and I saw it up the road, I said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this.’ That was a special night, a special night because that’s a special group of seniors. That was neat that that many people turned out to honor them, and they’ve earned that. I think that’s again another one of those things that separate Michigan football from a lot of other people and a lot of other places. It was a nice night.”
What does it take to keep a group from not sliding back for the bowl game?
“It’s always something that’s in the back of your mind, but I don’t think that’s going to happen with this gorup. This group is so hungry, and they already have talked about it themselves. That’s the good and bad about a bowl game. You’ll rememeber that one. That’s your last game. You always are going to remember your last game. It’s not about saying, ‘well, we had a good season and that was a bowl game.’ That’s not the case, especially when it’s a BCS bowl. These guys are focused, they’re doing everything that Brady’s asked them to do up to this point, which is the conditioning part of it. The practices that we’ve had to get them back going again, we’re real up tempo, and all signs show that that’s the same team that’s going to keep trying to get better and better.”
How has this season stacked up to the expectations you had when you took the job earlier this year?
“Well I don’t think I’d be telling the truth if I didn’t think they exceeded them. I think as the season went on, it didn’t exceed them because I started seeing that this group of guys and the job that Brady’s done and the way the staff worked, it was a great great situation, and these kids just keep trying to do everything you ask them to do. The interesting thing is forever here -- and it’s not a corny deal -- in our team room, it’s ‘team, team, team’ … and if you want to look at a great example of team, it would be this team so far. There may not be a lot of great, great players there -- there’s some really good ones -- but when they all did their thing and all worked together, and the offense picked us up, and there were games where we picked them up, and the special teams picked up both sides, that’s what a team is. That’s what you remember Michigan as, is team. As far as expectations, I think the thing they did do is they became a team. A real team. That always is a lot better than anything else.”
(more after the jump)
Did some of the defensive struggles in the Ohio State game provide you some teaching points going forward?
“Yeah, and to be honest about that, a lot of that was me. I do a lot by tendencies. There was one tendency that on the first possession, I think over five our six games, it was 30 runs and one pass or zero passes. So you’re going to call run defenses, and whenever you call a run defense, you kind of put your secondary in a little bit more of a bind. They ended up I think throwing the first seven first possessions. Yeah we’ll learn from it, and there are some things that we have to address, but it isn’t as much them as much as it’s maybe what you called. Whenever you call a defense, you hope it’s good against everything, but let’s be honest, there’s some things it’s better against than others. I think we kind of put our secondary in a tougher situation a couple times.”
Are you working on anything specific with the secondary to prep for the bowl game?
“No, our package is our package, and it’s pretty big. Like what we’ve done all year, we’ll go after we break down, and that’s what I’ve been doing today since I’ve been here is look what they do and then take from our package what would be best against them. It’s nothing that we’d throw out that we’ve done all year, it’s just you’re always going to say, ‘Okay, this is what our game plan is going to be this time.’ ”
Where do you think Mike Martin fits on the next level?
“I think Mike Martin showed a lot of the qualities that the NFL looks for, and that’s a strong, tough, smart, hard-nosed football player. I’m hoping that after this last bowl game that he gets everything he deserves. I’m sure he will. I feel very confident, and the only thing I can do is show them the film, and I know a lot of people will probably want to talk to me about him, and the sky’s the limit from me as far as him. I think he’s going to be an outstanding football player if he decides to keep playing.”
Back to the secondary, can you talk about where the competition is between Thomas Gordon and Troy Woolfolk now?
“Well, it’s continuing. Again, it’s continuing because the good news is we’ve got 10 or more real strong practices. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s day to day, and every guy’s got to do his job, and if a guy is on the bubble or he’s not on the bubble, that’s what practices are for, to find out who got the nod today. I think the good thing, too, is you say you have 11 starters, but sometimes when your depth gets better, you really have 13 or 14 starters. You saw that a lot in our defensive line where guys would rotate. You see it with our backers some, and that’s a good sign when you can rotate guys in there and not just because of staying fresh, but because they’ve earned the right to be in there.”
Are you surprised the defense has exceeded expectations because of the number of freshmen you played?
“You kind of hope for that. I think if you’re at a great school like Michigan, the difference between your senior year when you graduate from high school and when you’re in a college season is not that much different. There’s not a magical year where you say, okay, this guy, now you’re ready to play. Some guys are ready to play earlier and some guys are ready to play when they’re juniors. The guys maybe because of lack of depth and things like that were forced to play a little earlier, and they responded very well, and that’s a real credit to their coaches that said all of these guys that are on this defense are part of this defense, so let’s get the best players ready to play. We never said, ‘Hey this guy’s a freshman. Let him sit back a while.’ Same thing in practice, we talked about if a guy starts showing up in practice, you go, ‘Hey this guy’s about ready to play now,’ and then you just plug him in. The next part is just picking up the scheme and all that. I think our guys have done a really good job of that. In average programs what happens sometimes is if you’re a young guy and you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you don’t focus, so when it’s your turn to play, you might be ready physically but you’re not ready mentally. These kids have stayed focused. I think our coaches have demanded that.”
Are there some guys like Quinton Washington you might take a closer look at during bowl practice?
“Um, well Quinton is a great example. But he’s been a guy all along that is a step away from being in there. I’m trying to think of -- you saw Beyer come on. That was good. I think you see Mike Jones starting to come on more. There’s where you get more linebackers maybe when you have Hawthorne who played a lot earlier and you have Desmond and you have Mike. Those are who I’m talking about. Those kind of guys, Delonte Hollowell gets a lot of reps in practices. I think anybody that travels, you expect them to be real close to being able to play.”
What have you seen from the evolution of Desmond Morgan?
“Well I see him becoming a pretty good linebacker. He’s always been very physical. He’s a real willing football player, and now he’s starting to make the transition of -- you don’t just run into the guy every time, your job is to make the tackle. He’s started to figure that out. Before when you'd tell him something, it was kind of like he’d look at you, and you’d explain it and he’d get it. Now you just have to say it once, and he goes, ‘I got it. I should have done this.’ That’s the experience part of it. There’s nothing like being in the game. When you’re in that game now, then you really start getting it. He’s been a real Michigan football player. He’s been a guy that’s gotten better and better and better. He’s got great pride. He wants to be very good.”
With the amount of youth on the team and having to deal with lots of mental distractions, how much do you have to talk to them about that?
“Oh yeah. We’ll talk a lot about that. This game is about going there to win. That’s the difference, I think. From day one, it came from the players to the players, and it came from the coaches to the players. It isn’t just the coaches harping on [the point that] bowl games are a reward, and you can have fun, but the reason you go to a bowl game is to win. The reason you go to a bowl game is you’ve earned the right to have 15 or so practices to get better. And that’s what we talk about more than everything. Okay this is the next practice, now we’ve got to get better today. Everything we do in bowl preparation is to get better, and now let’s see where this defense is after all these bowl practices.”
Do you have guys like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen sit out some reps so that the younger guys can get more practice?
“Yeah. Always at the end of the season, your veterans don’t need every rep that everybody else gets. So we did that starting probably four weeks ago, where you’re going to try to cut down on the number of reps for an established senior that is giving everything every second, and that’s what these guys have done. If a guy starts looking for that, then you probably give him more reps that he’s supposed to get … And we also build in a youth practice. Brady’s done this, where you have a set number of plays where it’s going to be your young guys versus your young guys, so they get really extensive reps, and that’s a way for you to evaluate them on film, for them to run your defenses rather than the scout team all the time, and that’s built in.”
Is there a Big Ten offense that Virginia Tech reminds you of, or is there anything they do that you’ve seen this year?
“I don’t know, I can’t think of one specific [team] -- they’re a good offense. They’re a very good offense. They’re -- I think you’d say everything starts with running the football. They’re going to try to run the football. They’ve got a very very good running back. The quarterback is a bigger taller quarterback that what we’ve seen. He still has mobility, but he’s a big guy that likes to throw it and is strong when he runs it. They’ve got wide receivers. Maybe the biggest thing is their wide receivers are probably bigger than a lot of wide receivers we’ve played against. They’ve got some big strong wide receivers. It’s just a good football team.”
Is San Diego State a good comparison?
“This guy’s a lot more mobile. This guy, even though he’s not a scrambler first, he will take off running. Big tall guy with a strong arm, throws it effortlessly. Looks like he’s got good distance with his throws. He’s a good quarterback.”
Are you familiar with Frank Beamer?
“Well, all the years I’ve coached, they’re one of those programs that’s a very very good program. He’s going to be really good on offense. He’s going to be really really really good on defense, and his kicking game is what he’s been known for. You don’t win 10 games a year for as many times as he has without being a really good program. That’s a very good program.”
Speaking of quarterbacks, from your perspective how has Denard evolved this season?
“Denard is, Denard is -- I don’t know what the word would be -- he’s unbelievable in my mind. He’s done such a fabulous job this year of just being a winner. It’s almost like everybody here is spoiled because if Denard doesn’t break a 70-yarder then Denard’s not doing well. But just add it up afterwards. There’s a reason why the running backs are gaining so many yards. Obviously everybody is focused on Denard. Denard is -- we probably wouldn’t be in this bowl game. The things that I said about him the first day I got here after spring practice, they’re even better. This guy is something special.”
You’ve talked about specific benchmarks and goals for the defense throughout the season. How well have those goals been met?
“We met them a lot of the time. I don’t know the exact numbers, but we never met them all the way. The statistics or the categories that we have that decide whether we were really really a good defense are about eight or nine of them. I don’t think we ever hit every one of them. But more and more the ones that decide winning or losing, we’re getting a lot closer. There’s a day I think every coach looks for, but there’s a day I’m going to say every one of these goals were met. That’s what you look for.”
What kinds of numbers are you looking at for those?
“Points per game you put as a set number. 17 or less. I remember a time when I first started coaching when it was seven. Really. And it’s just really the way offenses have changed. We want to be great in the fourth quarter. We don’t want any scores in the fourth quarter. That’s always big. 33 percent or better on third down. Red zone you want to be 50%. Long runs or long passes, you want to hold them to two of each of those. Those are just a few of them off the top of my head, but they are all the ones that if you look through all of those and if you take care of those, you’re usually going to play pretty good defense that day.”
Was there a collective A-ha moment for this defense? Was it the Illinois game?
“To me, I think the first time I really saw them be a true Michigan defense would have been Illinois. And then, because of who you play -- and I thought that was a pretty good football team when we played them -- I think Nebraska was another example of that. The things we’ve talked about all year. When you start seeing more of it, then you know. Then you know. If you give up a big play, that makes it all not good and that kind of thing. You’re always looking for perfection, but you don’t always get it.”
Hoke said linebacker was a position with a lot of competition. What are you seeing there?
“Well there’s so many guys there that have played. Hawthorne’s played a lot of football, Desmond’s played a lot of football, Mike Jones has really come on. There’s a lot of guys that have shown that they’ve played. You could even look at Brandon Herron in the early part of the season before he got hurt. Cam Gordon is back healthy, so he’s doing some things. The thing you have to try to do is find a way when they have come back and they do look good enough to win with is again try to get them in there in certain situations.”
When you took this job and saw the statistics from last year, did you ever scratch your head and think it would take a long time to turn this around? Can you evaluate your coaching?
“Not until after this next game. Really I always look at it that way. And it’s really not my coaching. It’s our coaching. It really is. There’s no coordinator that goes in there and does it himself. You’ve got to have a head coach that allows you to do what you want to have done and back you on everything you’re doing, and you have to have assistants that are right with you on every step. So I think our defense, the Michigan defense, yeah, I felt there’s no way we’re going to be that way. There’s no way. I don’t mean that in negative towards what happened before. I just know when you measure the way we measure things, you have to make sure that doesn’t happen. I think our players, our coaches, and everybody all along has had a common goal to get this back to Michigan defense, and you’ve heard me say that a lot of times. We’ll find out after this ball game if we’re back. You’ll know exactly when we talk in the spring, we’ll say we have a long way to go and we have to start over.”
When you say ‘no way’, do you mean no way you’re going to get to this point or no way you’d be that bad?
“I’m not going to say ‘that bad,’ because I’m not going to judge what it was. I know what we have as a measuring stick for what a successful Michigan defense is, and I know what we’re going to try to do to get there, and we’re still a work in progress trying to get there. I don’t want to judge anything that happened before.”
So what did you mean by ‘no way’?
“If you’re looking at numbers, if you said you were going to be the 100th defense or the 99th defense -- that’s never been a goal of mine. That’s never been a Michigan goal. You figure that out. To me, I don’t go into a season and say, ‘I want to be the 50th defense, or I want to be the 20th defense.’ I want a defense that plays extremely hard, I want a defense that runs to the football, I want a defense that plays as a team, I want a defense that’s good on third down, and then all of those things are Michigan defenses. I don’t measure it by what numbers they are. You never go into a season when you’re a coach at Michigan and say, ‘I want to be this.’ ”
Have any former players throughout the season or at the bust approached you and told you that Michigan defense is back?
“Yeah guys that I was fortunate enough to be with the first time here have been great, like the Jarrett Ironses, the Josh Williamses, and guys like that. They know how we tried to do it then, and they know what is acceptable at Michigan, so they were excited because we were doing a lot of the same things they were doing. It was neat. That’s one of the big things. Again, if you coach at Michigan, you want guys that were Michigan defensive players to be proud of what your guys are doing now. That’s a big thing. Some guys worry about their stats -- you don’t need to do that. All you have to do is look at the guys that played here before. They’ll let you know if they think you’re a Michigan defense or not. That’s always been a legacy here.”
Is this among your most satisfying coaching stops?
“I don’t know if the word is ‘satsifying.’ I was maybe as proud as I’ve ever been for this team. As I said to you earlier, seeing how hard they’ve worked -- I keep going back to the first day out there on the indoor field and hearing coach Wellman say, ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again,’ and then in spring ball, ‘That’s not good enough, you have to do it again.’ They just kept coming. They just kept doing it. There’s a lot of guys that probably would have tapped out. Mike Martin and Ryan and Will Heininger and these guys, they just said, ‘Next day, okay, let’s do it again. Let’s go.’ That makes you proud, I guess is the word, to see them, to look in their eye and [see] how they feel about their defense. Again, it’s their defense. They’re going to leave someday and they’re going to be coming back, and now they can say, ‘Okay, coach, what’s this defense look like?’”
When you got emotional after the Illinois game, has that happened a lot this year?
“I think it’s just old age. I do. I probably have had more this year than ever because you get caught up with them. Again, for these guys to be able to finish it. Let’s finish the job now. They’re just real guys. These players are just real, real people that want to be considered a Michigan defense. And that’s it in a nutshell, and they have worked so hard to do that, and it makes you as a coach feel really really proud for them when you see it in them. Makes you pretty mad, too, when you see the ball over their head in the Ohio State game, too, but that part of it doesn’t game.”
That was your fault, though, right?
“Yes it was! Yes it was! I’ll go to my grave and say, ‘I won’t call that again in that situation.’”
I was just kidding.