Preview 2011: Five Questions On Defense

Submitted by Brian on September 2nd, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs, the quarterbacks, special teams.

1. How does the shift back to the 4-3 under fit the personnel?


left: stack no blitzy. right: 4-3, though an even 4-3, not the under

Better than the 3-3-5-type-substance but it's not going to be a huge difference. Fits:

  • BETTER: Roh (LB/DE to WDE), Demens (MLB to MLB with guys in front of him)
  • SAME: RVB(DE to SDE/DT), Martin (NT to NT), Heininger (DE to SDE), Gordon (spur to SLB), Jones (WLB to WLB), Gordon (FS to FS), cornerbacks
  • WORSE: Kovacs (bandit to SS)
  • Craig Roh and Jibreel Black were men without a position last year. Though Roh actually help up pretty well when he moved to the DL late, he was still miscast as a DE in a three-man line. Black just got crushed. This year both will be playing weakside DE, where they can get after one tackle.

Kenny Demens will be shielded by two senior defensive tackles, allowing him to flow to the ball like he did against Iowa. Michigan set of small, quick WLBs is better suited for the 4-3 since it will be harder for opponents to get a hat on them.

The major negative is not finding a way to keep the two safeties near the LOS. Both are effective blitzers who are a little dodgy in a deep half.

2. How big is the coaching upgrade? Will the transition hurt more than it?

The Mathlete's numbers suggest a coaching change is a drag on the improvement of very bad defenses worth about eight spots. It seems flabbergasting that that could be the case for this specific situation, however. dnak438 found a GERG effect of approximately negative 30(!) spots. While you should take that with a grain of salt because the sample size there is extremely small, each grain adds to a pile threatening to eclipse the Schwarzschild radius. Going from Greg Robinson not running a system he knows to Greg Mattison teaching exactly what he's taught for a zillion years has to be a positive even in the short term.

What causes that drag? Probably a system change. How long has Michigan been running its current system? Six games. They've probably got more experience running the under than the 3-3-5.

Then there are the position coaches: Adam Braithwaite was a grad assistant promoted to LB coach without the usual stops at East Nowhere State. Tony Gibson was reputed to be mostly a recruiter. Bruce Tall seemed pretty good but in his place Michigan has Hoke, Mattison, and Jerry Montgomery. That's an upgrade across the board.

3. Why is everybody so suicidal when the personnel doesn't look entirely doomy?


doug karsch interviewing popular perception about the defense. via firstbase

Slap me for saying this but the starting lineup isn't that scary save for two spots: SDE, where walk-ons Will Heininger and Nathan Brink are backed up by Nobody At All, and WLB, where four cats are fighting in a sack. You know what they say about WLBs: if you've got four you don't have any.

The rest of the line is Martin, Van Bergen, and Roh. Demens is promising at linebacker and they've got a couple of good options at SAM. And the secondary isn't awesome but Avery/Woolfolk/Kovacs/Gordon looks like it could be below average, which will seem like heaven. This year's edition of "Are You Experienced?" sees Michigan move towards average. There's still a gap, but it's narrowing. The Decimated Defense series also sees its Michigan number creep towards sane.

So why is everyone, including myself, afraid of going 7-5 this year with just about everyone back everywhere?

Well, there's depth. Once you get past those starters its scary. There are three backups I wouldn't wince upon seeing enter on the field: Black, Jake Ryan, and Carvin Johnson. I guess Brink fits in there as well but only because he'd be spotting another walk-on. Everyone else on the line has been beaten out by Brink and Heininger, I have little faith in JT Floyd, and even if Marell Evans was injured at Hampton he's done little in four years of football. When injuries happen the dropoff will be severe. It won't even take injuries for the defensive line to wane in effectiveness. Modern football rotates the DL. Michigan has a choice between tired starters and ineffective backups.

Even so I still can't work up the same sense of bowel-crippling panic I had last year when I believed the secondary would tread "horrible, polluted, razor-blade-filled, despair-laden water." Let's poke around at


2010: Black, Gordon, Gordon, Johnson, Avery, Talbott
2011: Maybe Ash


2010: 4-3 under, 3-4, 3-3-5
2011: 4-3 under


2010: Third year running
2011: Hell no


2010: Rubbing a stuffed beaver in your face
2011: Navy SEAL tridents

Michigan wasn't just rocking an underclass two-deep, they were rocking a freshman-heavy two deep. This could work out! For a given definition of work out!

4. What is with Will Campbell? Isn't the situation at SDE just horrible?

Man, I don't know about Campbell. Maybe his center of gravity is just too high. Maybe he'll never learn technique in the same way Mike Cox can't remember to run into the hole.

The situation at SDE is caused by whatever it is with Will Campbell and will not be encouraging. Heininger was already a non-entity in the passing game and that was 28 pounds ago. And who the hell knows about Brink? I'm guessing Mattison is just trying to get that spot to hold up against double teams in the run game and will rely on Roh/Martin/Van Bergen to get the pass rush. If they can do that it's a win.

Can they do that? Why do I ask myself unanswerable questions? 

5. Well?

Michigan will be much, much better this year. How much better depends on:

  • The health of key, irreplaceable pieces. These are Martin, Demens, Van Bergen, and the starting corners.
  • The improvement of last year's freshmen. Avery, both Gordons, and Black all have the potential to leap forward Darius Morris style.
  • Nathan Brink. If Michigan's unearthed something here that not only makes SDE acceptable it means the guys he beat out are potentially serviceable.
  • Craig Roh. He could be anything from Tim Jamison to James Hall.

The first bit is unknowable but I can hazard guesses on the latter three: two of the four freshmen above will be startlingly good. Two will be meh. I'm guessing Thomas Gordon and Avery are the former. Brink will not be as bad as everyone feared but that SDE spot is going to be averaging +2 for the season, which is bad. Roh will be in the 75th percentile of his range, a fringe All Big Ten guy.

When I wrote that the D should improve but "not enough" I didn't account for a GERG/RR effect that is real. They'll be better than 82nd in advanced metrics this year by a long shot.

Now, behold the greater-thans and less-thans!


  • senior Mike Martin with ankles > Mike Martin
  • junior Craig Roh playing his actual position >>> linebacker Craig Roh
  • junior Demens >> sophomore Demens/Ezeh
  • sophomore Cam Gordon > freshman Gordon/Gordon/Johnson
  • Woolfolk >>> Rogers
  • sophomore Avery >> freshman Avery/Floyd
  • T. Gordon/Johnson >> Gordon/Vinopal


  • senior RVB == junior RVB
  • Kovacs == Kovacs
  • Heininger/Brink == Banks


  • Jones/Hawthorne/Herron/Morgan << Mouton

It's going to take two years to dig out of this hole completely but I think the defense will rebound more effectively than stats and conventional wisdom suggest.

Last Year's Stupid Predictions

Fumbles recovered double to ten.

Michigan recovered seven.

The secondary is actually better than last year's secondary because long touchdowns are less frequent. It will still be very bad.

First sentence: false. Second: true.

Mouton is much better, leads the team in TFLs and sacks, and is still incredibly frustrating.

Very accurate. Mouton led the team in tackles (117), was in a three-way tie for TFLs (8.5, Kovacs and RVB tied) and had two sacks. RVB (4) and Banks (3) beat him but not by much in a pathetic year for sacks.

Mike Martin is great and should get first-team Big Ten recognition, though he probably won't.

This might have actually transpired if he hadn't gotten laid up with high ankle sprains. Before he was chopped down against MSU he was playing very, very well.

Mark Moundros holds on to the starting MLB job all season.


Michigan manages a modest improvement in yards allowed, getting up to the 60-70 range nationally.

Not so much: Michigan dipped to 110th.


More accurate than anyone thought possible.

This Year's Stupid Predictions

  • Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
  • Kenny Demens leads the team in tackles with Northwestern-MLB-type numbers.
  • Brink is a legitimate player, better than Greg Banks was last year. The biggest source of pain on the defense is the WLB.
  • Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
  • Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
  • Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
  • Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.



September 2nd, 2011 at 11:49 AM ^

I'm 100% sure you're confusing your Gordons.

Thomas was not a FS last year at any point, he was a spur.

Cameron was a FS for a large portion, a Spur at the end.

So, no Gordon is going FS--->FS. The only Gordon who was a FS last year is our current SLB. Our current FS now was a Spur last year.

It compounds in your scouting comment that both safeties (Kovacs and Thomas Gordon) "are effective blitzers who are a little dodgy in a deep half". While this may prove to be true, Thomas Gordon has never taken a visible snap at FS in his Michigan career - we have no scouting report for him. That comment would be true of Cameron...but he's not a FS anymore.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:51 AM ^

The prediction of "Jones/Hawthorne/Herron/Morgan << Mouton" can only be half right.  Mouton looked like a stud in some games, while in others he was blowing assignments all afternoon.


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:03 PM ^

I also think the D will benefit because of changes in the offense but the "slowing the pace of the offense" issue is a canard.  Maybe the Hoke says it as a placebo/way to elimiate excuses for our D, but Oregon's D is just fine with what is arguably the fastest playing Offense in the NCAA.  


September 2nd, 2011 at 1:51 PM ^

And Mattison agrees as well. His position is (paraphrasing) "The defense's job is to stop the opponent in 3 plays - if we're tired on D it's because we aren't doing our job. Why shouldn't the goal of the offense be to score as quickly as possible?"


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:22 PM ^

This is the big reason to think exponential improvement is possible.  Each guy playing better is good in and of itself.  But that guy playing better makes life easier for the guys around him as well.  If Woolfolk can cover a guy a little longer than Rogers did last year, that gives the line more time to rush the passer.  If an improved Avery can hold his own on the other side, the QB has one less place to go with the ball.  If RVB and a healthy Mike Martin can control the action in the middle, Kenny Demens can run free and crush people instead of fighting off linemen. 

Those kinds of improvements are going to happen at virtually every position on the field, no matter what system the coaches decide to run.  Any schematic/instructional upgrade (which almost always tends to be overrated by fans) is just gravy.

Blue in Yarmouth

September 2nd, 2011 at 12:19 PM ^

I don't know why, perhaps it is the practice buzz about that position group and the guys fighting over it, but I am irrationally optimistic about that position this year. For whatever reason I think Jones is going to do really well at WLB.


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:29 PM ^

One of the things I'm most interested in seeing tomorrow is the play and positioning of the cornerbacks. Either because of poor talent or a bad system (likely both) CB's last year played so far off the line of scrimmage they were off the TV screen sometimes. I want to see if they are still 8-10 yards off the LOS. If so, I'll be concerned. If they play within 4-5 yards to the LOS I'll feel better knowing quick hit passes are not as likely and that Mattison obviously feels somewhat confident that our CB's can handle playing that close.


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:58 PM ^

This might sound weird and defeatist, but this season is all about the losses.  A 7 and 5 record where we hang close for those 5 losses and I'm a happy camper.  It's a sign the team is "getting it", but they're just not quite there in terms of experience with the system.  

7-5 like last year where we get dismantled by every ranked team we play and I'm back to drinking tequila from the bottle at half time.  

Crush the OOC schedule, take care of mid tier B10 business, and still be in every game when the 4th comes around and I'll feel good about the future (escpially with that stud recruiting class next year).  


September 2nd, 2011 at 2:00 PM ^

Howard Griffith: "You don't mean that."

Borges: "No, I don't"


Note to Kevin Wilson: That's what Indiana football will do to you. You've been warned.


September 2nd, 2011 at 8:58 PM ^

Our defense is going to be legit this year...... Practicing physical day in and out toughened them up for sure....... And 4 d lineman man frees up the lbs...... I think we are going to be 10-2!!!! You heard it here first and only!!!