Michigan's defensive coaching changes weren’t really of the major variety, but they could be enough to tilt the odds in its favor this fall.
Perhaps the most notable swap, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke relinquished his control of the D-line, leaving Mark Smith as the sole mentor for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's front four.
Hoke, who enters his fourth year as the man in charge in Ann Arbor, said the following in April about the change, via ESPN’s Brian Bennett:
Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 [in 2013] on every front you can. That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.
It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.
In February, Hoke addressed the same topic through a prepared statement, via MLive.com’s Nick Baumgardner:
Everyone on the staff and the kids are really excited about these changes. Greg [Mattison] and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle.
When you look at Mark's [Smith] experience on the defensive line, then being able to split the secondary, where you have five positions and 20-plus guys, and with the way offense and passing has changed in college football, I think it balances our staff on that side of the ball.
Before this goes any further, it’s worth mentioning that Team 134’s defense wasn’t in need of an entire overhaul, just a few minor tweaks; and in all likelihood, the adjustments on Hoke’s end were to maximize Mattison’s personnel, which finished 2013 as the No. 13-ranked total defense, per NCAA.com.
Curt Mallory (Safeties)
Formerly the coach of the entire secondary, Mallory now heads the safeties, which means that he’ll have the duty of grooming incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers. But then again, guiding the 5-star phenom will be the job of everyone—he’s capable of playing several positions on both sides of the ball.
But forget Peppers for a second, because before welcoming the high-flying kid from Jersey, Mallory already had a solid set to work with: Jarrod Wilson (6’2”, 202; Jr.), Dymonte Thomas (6’2”, 191; So.), Delano Hill (6’0”, 205; So) and several others.
In 2013, the defensive backs were either on-point or off-kilter, evidenced by the groups' No. 7 ranking among Big Ten passing defenses (230 yards). In fact, 23 of 28 touchdowns surrendered by the Wolverines were through the air. But 15 of 17 picks were by corners and safeties.
Consistency, no matter where or from what coach, is the key for the DBs. There doesn't need to be any repeats of Allan Robinson-esque punches to the gut.
Roy Manning (Cornerbacks)
In 2013, Manning, a former Michigan letterman (2001-04), coached the outside linebackers. This year, though, he’ll be asked to dictate to the corners, who are led by one of the top cover men in the nation, Blake Countess (5’10”, 183; RS Jr.), and a physical, sure tackler, Raymon Taylor (5’10”, 182; Sr.).
This shift is interesting, to say the least. Now that he’s taking on the far-reaching members of the secondary, Manning’s stepping into relatively new territory. However, due to coaching stops in Cincinnati and Northern Illinois, the former linebacker has gained experience coaching on both sides of the ball. The fact that he’s moving to a new position shouldn’t be an issue.
Manning, who played four years in the NFL, adapts to new surroundings, which is something he discussed during a recent radio interview with WTKA-AM Ann Arbor (via Baumgardner of MLive):
Coaching is creating change, that's what coaching is. One of the most important things, I was honest and up front with those guys. It was 'I'm going into a new position, I won't have all the answers (right now), I won't say everything the way maybe they were used to in the past,' but I told them it was a growing process.
I just kept stressing 'I'm going to hammer you guys, be on you guys and be demanding.' The corner position is so much about mindset. That's why my personality marries with the position well, I think. It's literally 'game on' every single play. You can't take a play off. You can't be lackadaisical.
Greg Mattison (Linebackers)
Mattison has been orchestrating college defenses for more than 15 years—he also spent two years with the Baltimore Ravens. His professional pedigree is a major advantage in terms of recruiting, and it certainly helps with the college guys—they want to get to the NFL, so having a guy with NFL experience to teach them how to get there serves as a great motivator.
Back in early June at Sound Mind Sound Body in Detroit, Mattison couldn’t resist praising his defensive line. But he also mentioned that the linebackers were coming along nicely, waiting to show off their skills this fall. Among those mentioned were Joe Bolden, who “had the best spring of any player,” according to Mattison, who’s entering his fourth year as DC.
As one of the catalysts, Bolden, a 6’3”, 225-pound junior, will be counted on to raise his level of play while Jake Ryan, who was moved to the middle, eases his way back to comfort in the wake of an ACL injury suffered in spring ball 2013. With Mattison so excited about Bolden, it’s fair to assume that the rest of the position group is eager to take the field and show that it can excel with its senior leader.
However, rest assured that Ryan will return to his old, dominant self this season and accentuate a rock-solid corps that includes the likes of James Ross (6’1”, 225; Jr.), Ben Gedeon (6’3”, 236; So.) and, among a few others, Desmond Morgan (6’1”, 225; Sr.).
Mattison's a defensive genius. Having him hover over the linebackers isn't a good thing, it's a great thing.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81