"Well, it’s good to see everybody again. That at least means they kept me for another year and you guys are all healthy."
What are your specific goals for the next few weeks?
“The number one goal is to get better at everything we do in this defense, one practice at a time. I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again, we’ve got miles to go. It starts all over again. The race started when we started winter conditioning. The race heats up when we start practice. If we don’t improve on every phase of our defense, in each one of those you’re going to fall backwards. The schedule we play, you can’t take a step back in any way, and not improving is taking a step back, and that’s what these guys have got to do.”
What have you seen from Will Campbell’s conditioning and that of everyone else?
“I think we’re blessed here because I believe we have one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. For us to be out there and watch what Aaron has done with those guys, I think he would have been frontrunner of us getting to be better. He’s pushed them. What I’ve been able to see legally when I could be out there, it looks like they’re responding. They understand this is Team 133. Boy you’ve got what you all said all along: the bar at Michigan is as high as it can ever be, and that’s what it’s supposed to be and you have a lot of work to get up to that bar. I see that when I’m down there every once in a while. I see them working to do that.”
You aren’t where you need to be with numbers on O-line and D-line. How do you deal with that?
“That’s the head coach’s job. I don’t get into that very much. We have to deal with what we have. That’s one thing you find out about college: you can’t go trade one guy for two other guys somewhere. Whatever we have right now, we’ve got to put those guys as if we’re playing them tomorrow, put them in the best position and see if you can’t get them to the level that we want to get them at. I think that’s what we’re doing with some of our guys. Who would be the best at this position and let’s put them there. You don’t ever want to go into a season and say we have a really good freshman coming in, because freshmen are still freshmen, especially in this program. What you have in that room right now, that’s who you better plan on playing with. Anybody that steps it up is a bonus. We’ll always play the best players, so if a guy coming in from a high school that we just signed is the best player, then he’ll be the best player, but he’s got to earn that.”
Can you talk about the decision to move Craig Roh?
“We did a lot of thinking about that, and Jibreel is the same thing. I want to always have a very very fast, disruptive defense. That’s what you always need to have, especially up front. Craig Roh has played some very very good football here. Craig Roh will be a better football player moving into a 5-technique than he would be out on the edge where there’s a lot of open spaces. Jibreel Black the same thing. IF a guy can get big and strong, which I believe they can, and talking to Aaron I believe that can happen, now you become faster when you move an edge player inside. Now there’s competition with Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark at the outside position. You want to be able to put your people in the best position but have competition when you’re doing it, and I think that’s what’s happened so far.”
When did you start making those decisions?
“Right after the season was over with. Again, when the season is over, what you do is say, ‘Okay, now let’s look at next year, how can we be as good as we can be? What’s the best way for this defense to be as good as we can be?’ and again, taking what you have in that room. That’s what we did. We felt that that was the best to get the best players on the field at one time.”
Were those decisions based on what you saw throughout last season?
“Yeah, as a coach, what you do is when you’re watching a player and you’re evaluating him and you see him make a play and you might say, ‘Boy, that was hard for him, but he made a good play.’ He may not have had to work quite as hard had he been at this position, so in the back of your mind you’re saying he’s still the best you have for that time, but now when we get an opportunity maybe we’ll move him. Maybe we’ll see if we can’t get him in a position where it’s not quite as hard for him to do what he just did.”
How much do they have to learn with those new positions?
“The one thing that I’ve been happy with was last year was very difficult. When I look back and think in terms of our players, the first time we put in the defenses they looked at me like I was trying to teach them German or something. They just go, ‘What are you doing?’ I remember the first practices we had a ready list that I wanted to get taught, and I think again in the next practice I said, ‘Cut that down in half and we’re going to go backwards and do this.’ This year, in putting in what we want to work on this spring, the players just look at you and go, ‘Got it. I understand that. This is what we have done.’
The terminology is there. They don’t have to worry about who is Curt Mallory and who is Jerry Montgomery. These guys have just went through the war with them. They say this is what you’re supposed to do. If Mark Smith says this is what you’re supposed to do, [they say] ‘Okay, gotcha.’ The learning curve and believing in what is taught and them knowing that this is the kind of defense we’re going to play and this is what is expected, all those are kind of gone. I know they hear it all the time from us. Once they know that defense, then they can understand why they should do little subtleties to allow them to play better. Instead of just saying, 'On this defense I line up as a 3-technique. Well why do you want me to tighten down?’ Because something’s coming from the outside. ‘Oh I got it now.’ All those kind of things in a very short time, in two days that we’ve had them, I’ve been like that.
"This group of guys, I don’t know how good they’re going to be. I know how good I expect them to be -- one thing I’ve liked about them so far is they’re very willing to do what we ask them to do. They’ve been very coachable. Believe me, we could have 20 hours to meet with them and it wouldn’t be enough. But the next day they don’t seem to make the same mistakes or they understand what we just said to them. I’m excited about that. That means they’re really into it.”
How critical is the next month for Will Campbell?
“It’s critical for every guy on our defense. Will Campbell is a member of that defnese. I don’t look at Will Campbell and say, boy this is really critical for you. It’s really critical for Jibreel Black, and it’s really critical for Craig Roh, and it’s really critical for Kenny Demens. Every day he either gets better or worse. You might have heard that as a saying, but that’s the way it is here. So after a practice, we want to say, you didn’t get better, so you got worse. Or you got better, that’s a great sign. I don’t worry about the future of a guy. The future is being a Michigan football player and playing as good as you can play. After that, what he does will take care of his future.”
What specifically do you need to see from him this spring?
“Consistency. We need to see him play in and play out playing at a high level. If he’s had one good play, he’s got to put two together, and then he’s got to put three together. That’s it in a nutshell. He has shown that he has what you’re looking for for a play here, a play there -- now we have to do it consistently, and that’s everybody.”
Have you had guys in the past for whom the lights have gone on late in their careers?
“Oh no question. No question. That’s probably happened more than not that all of a sudden they become -- and here especially. Here at Michigan and maybe more than any place because as a senior you’re expected that. It’s so much in them that when you’re a senior that is your job. That is what you better do. Don’t come out as a senior and not improve. Don’t do that. That’s not accepted here.”
Who do you see as the leaders on this defense so far?
“It’s been too early. It’s been too early. I don’t want to say based on a guy running the drills we did in the winter conditioning, because we’ve all had guys who are great at yelling at winter condition and then when the pads come on -- until we see the pads come on and I see them hitting and executing when they’re beat up a little bit, we’ll know at the end of the spring. Even then, I’m not going to be able to say this guy is our leader because we won’t find out who our leader is until the game when it’s really down, until you’re behind. Who’s going to step up now? That’s when we’ll know, but I can’t tell you right now.”
Is it fair to see that Jordan Kovacs is in a position to lead this year?
“Kovacs was the leader last year, so we’ll find out this year. Nothing in this program is entitled. Nothing. I love him. Jordan Kovacs, I love him. Every day Jordan Kovacs has got to get better. Every day he’s got to go out there and see if he can’t become a better safety than he was last year.”
The secondary played well for most of the year but struggled in the last two games. Have you been able to identify what went wrong there?
“The one great thing for us as coaches that we’ve able to do in the offseason was we really got a chance to evaluate our program. These new coaches and these guys all had to put in an all-new defense -- everything was new to a lot of them, too. Now after watching it throughout the year, they’d come up with suggestions, and they’d say now, what if we did this, what if we did that? Like I told them, this is their defense now. This is the Michigan defense, so this is everybody’s defense now. I think we as coaches all understand the little things that will help rather than just saying this is cover 2 and in cover 2 you do this, for example. I feel like our kids have learned faster already too because of that. A lot of it’s the way you teach them. I think our guys, our coaches have done a great job of studying that. We’ve got to improve -- if you said that the secondary or the defensive line or linebackers were good, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say we did some things good, but it’s the same for us as coaches and as our program, you have to do it every play. Like you said in the Ohio State game, you can’t have that. You know my feeling on big plays: one of them makes you want to get sick to your stomach. We had too many of them at the end of the year, which means we have to go back and see why and get that all corrected.”
What specifically do you need to do better in order to eliminate those big plays?
“I think it’s technique. I think it’s just being better at your technique, being more focused. A lot of times big plays come from busted assignments, then that means we better make sure if a guy was confused on that, then let’s get it corrected. All those are the kind of things you see happening in the second year, where we’re all together on the same page. The guy out there playing, the coach, and myself. That’s my job.”
What are you looking at from Thomas Gordon?
“I’m looking for him to play a lot faster. I’ve told him that straight out. I love Thomas Gordon. He’s a great young man that has ability, but he must play faster. He must play more reckless. I think sometimes guys worry about are they fast enough, can I do this? Well yeah, you have to be able to do it. If you’re going to be out there, you have to be able to do it. He knows it. We’ll see during the spring if he does play faster.”
What do you mean by ‘more reckless’?
“Take a shot. That goes with what I mentioned about knowing the scheme. I think sometimes when you’re a safety coming down like he does, you kind of hesitate because you don’t want [the other guy] to run by you. But there’s sometimes you can go hit that because you’ve got a corner and another safety playing behind you, so if you miss, somebody else will make that play. I think after yesterday’s practice, maybe he’s understanding that a little bit, maybe he’s saying, ‘I get it, I get it.’ Plus give yourself a little credit. You can run pretty well. Don’t think that everybody’s going to outrun you. I think that’s knowing yourself, knowing the scheme, and that’ll allow you to play faster.”
What have you seen from Jarrod Wilson?
“He’s young. I’ve seen that he’s a guy that’s got his books in his hand, and he just came from a class that he’s never seen before, and he saw some pretty girls probably, I hope. I do tell you this, I’m glad he’s here. I’m glad all those freshmen are here. I wish we could have our entire signee class come early. I can’t evaluate him yet. I can’t evaluate any of the freshmen yet, because they’ve had no pads. But I do like their attitudes. I’ll tell you that.”
Considering how much size you lost up front from last year’s team, how are you going to approach things differently? How much bigger can Craig Roh and Jibreel Black get by next season?
“First I thought you were talking about me losing weight. I thought, well I don’t think I’ve lost that much weight. I’ve been trying hard, though.
"Craig Roh and Jibreel Black are working really really hard at gaining weight and getting stronger. What’ll happen is if you don’t have Big Will and you don’t have Mike Martin and things like that, then the guys that fill in for them, number one have to play with great technique because you don’t have that buffer. And the other thing you might have to do is move them a little bit. If they are guys that aren’t as big, but they happen to have pretty good movement -- again, remember, you’ve got Jibreel and Craig Roh who were the outside guys that had to be fast. Now we’ve moved them in because maybe we thought that they could help, maybe we might want to move them a little bit, too. I think there’s thing that we can do, which we will do, to allow our players to play as well as they can play.”
Does it put an emphasis on Will, since he’s the biggest guy in the middle?
“Well there’s no added emphasis on him. My philosophy has always been you’re only as good as you are down the middle. You can’t have a great defense unless it starts at the nose, then it goes to the backers, then it goes to the safety. Any great defense I’ve ever seen is strong right down the middle. It obviously starts with the nose.”
How much is familiarity with the system going to help your linebackers?
“I think it’s going to make a lot of difference. Again, we made no bones about it: I think we have to improve at that position. One of the things we’ve worked very very hard at is our underneath coverage. I think that’s something we saw when we watched the tape, that we have to get better at that, we’ve got to get more eyes on the football. If you’re not the fastest player, then you better see that quarterback to gain a step. If you don’t, then you’re just going to get torn apart as far as not having enough speed. That’s been a big emphasis for us. Our underneath coverage is something that we’re going to work very very hard on.”
You mentioned Jarrod Wilson. How are Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden doing?
“No pads. I love them, but I haven’t seen them. This isn’t cross country. They can come out there and they can run like crazy. I love those kids, I’m just going to tell you I’m so happy they’re here, but they can be the best runners in the world, but if they won’t hit anybody, I won’t like them as much. We’ll wait and see when the pads come on.”