Greg Mattison had a message for Michigan's young defenders when Sunday afternoon rolled around. It had nothing to do with the proficiency or bottom-line excellence with which the Wolverines performed against Northwestern.
That's because the numbers themselves were ugly. It had everything to do with being Michigan veterans, and what such entails.
Mattison's boss, Brady Hoke, gets Michigan. Mattison gets Michigan, and articulates it as well to younger players as anyone who has passed through Ann Arbor in a long, long while.
That's why, even in the midst of some frustration over Northwestern rolling up 31 points against his defense, Mattison wasn't in a tearing-down mood. He kicked it into teaching mode, right down to the youngest freshman on the roster.
The defensive coordinator knows he'll have more talented rosters in the future, even if he won't acknowledge it. Talent will never be enough, in his eyes.
"I told every young guy to listen more intently than you've ever listened to what I'm going to say right now," Mattison recalled. "I told them what that senior class did at the end of that game, that's Michigan football.
"You can do anything you want. You can be the most talented freshman or sophomore in the building. You can be anything. But unless you play with that resolve, and unless you believe like they believed, then you're not Michigan.
"When I was all done, I said, 'Trust me. Learn from what that group did there.' Again, it's not pretty. It's not our expectations to play like that. We've got to play better than that. But that part of it was Michigan. That's what every freshman should learn."
They can learn, he suggested, from watching Kenny Demens, the fifth-year senior linebacker who has struggled at times to the point of losing his job for stretches. Even during the Northwestern game, Demens labored from behind at times, along with the rest of the Wolverines.
In the end, when Michigan needed a play, Demens brought the hammer, and nailed shut a win in overtime.
"Kenny is a Michigan senior," Mattison assured. "He's what this senior class is all about. It's a bunch of guys that have bought in, a bunch of guys that have worked extremely hard. Nothing has come easy for them.
"They just keep coming back and believing every game. There were times that Kenny - like other guys in that game - didn't play great. You'd love every player to play a great game the entire time. But you know what? Not just those last two tackles, there were probably two more tackles he made leading up to that.
"Right at the end, when you needed somebody to do something, he did it. Not that he tried any harder. It's that he kept doing what he was asked to do, and did it like a senior. That's why it's really good when a guy like that gets a chance to make that play at the end. That's what keeps you coming back."
The younger players can learn from senior defensive tackle Will Campbell, who was lost when this coaching staff arrived. Campbell described himself as "lazy" and not understanding the opportunity before him, despite five-star status as a prep performer in Detroit.
He languished, and eventually, he changed.
"When I first got there, whoa," Mattison recalled. "I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. But you know what, it's a whole process. It starts with [strength and conditioning coach] Aaron Wellman. That comes through Brady.
"This group has become more and more Michigan every single day they're here. These guys, you would never know what happened to them before. It doesn't matter. It's what they are today. They're something to be proud of."
The freshmen can certainly learn from senior quarterback Denard Robinson, even though he's on the offensive side of the ball. Mattison holds a special fondness for No. 16, and simply admires the way he's always gone about his business.
That makes it tough, watching Robinson watch football.
"It's really hard," Mattison said. "Denard absolutely loves this program. He absolutely loves football. He loves his teammates. To see his actions when he wasn't playing is why you think even more of him than you could ever possibly think.
"He truly is into that game. He truly is trying to lead when he's not out on that field. It just keeps reinforcing how fortunate you are to have a Denard Robinson. You want everything possibly good that could ever happen for him to happen. That's how you feel by being around him."
Mattison has a whole list of veterans he'll miss, ones he'll point to for the younger players to watch carefully.
"Craig Roh getting that sack," he said. "He was close to a couple of others - if we would have contained it, he would have gotten them.
"Jordan [Kovacs], Will, you can go right down
I don't want to talk about many, because I might forget one. All of them are that way. That's what I've seen in these seniors.
"Last year's group and this year's group
it's never perfect, but they just keep coming back. Today when we put in the game plan, they'll all be, 'Okay, we're going to do this.' They'll buy into it. They'll study it. That's what makes them special."
And that, he hopes and expects, is what will eventually make Michigan's youngest players great. Or, as Mattison would put it, what will make them Michigan.
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