Former U-M safety and newly hired Big Ten studio analyst Marcus Ray knows a thing or two about a solid Michigan defense, having performed on arguably the best of all time. Today, he takes a look at the 2013 Wolverines and what he expects on that side of the ball.
On his general thoughts about defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's crew: "Number one, Greg Mattison's defenses emphasize two things. They're going to try to stop the run and not give up any big plays. When you look at all the plays they gave up against South Carolina in the passing game
there were at least three long touchdown passes.
"But I'm excited about this defense because of that, and how he'll address it. I know he can develop talent. The defensive line is probably going to be the strength of the defense.
"They are going to be able to attack people in waves, in layers. When you can rotate defensive linemen in every two plays and have fresh legs, then put packages together, it's great. Let's say you have a first-down group, when you expect the run, or a third-down set where you put your four best pass rushers in. Michigan is going to be able to dominate people up front, not necessarily with any one superstar.
"Michigan led the conference in scoring defense during conference play, which is a monumental thing, because defense is something that's starting to lag in the conference. Nebraska - they don't tackle anybody in a big game. Even Ohio State was giving up tons of points a year ago to almost everybody.
"What Greg Mattison has going on, with those young linebackers, is good. They have to replace the field general back there in Jordan Kovacs, and that's not always easy to do.
"[Thomas] Gordon is back there, and you have some corners who have played, but the secondary is an area of concern. I played there, and I understand that you have to have some special guys there if your defense is going to be really good. The defensive linemen can only do so much."
On what the return of Blake Countess means to the Wolverines: "It gives them depth, and experience. It also gives them competition at the position. It gives them a guy who was pretty good, who was probably going to have an all-conference type season last year. He goes down.
"As a coach, now you can probably do more things. With his injury, you had to play more guys. Now they're experienced, and he comes back. You can move him around, or pick another guy and move him around, because you have more bodies with more experience.
"He also brings enthusiasm. He's young player who is excitable. When you have that kind of talent on the field, it gives you a better chance to be successful."
On the possibility of Jake Ryan returning in mid-October: "He may get in for a few plays. That's going to be a judgment call by Brady [Hoke] and [head trainer] Paul Schmidt, on what's best for the team, what's best for Jake Ryan.
"I actually saw Jake this summer. I was at the building and we spoke for about 20 minutes or so. Here's the thing: he's a great kid with a great spirit. I'm thinking like, wow, it would be great to see this kid back out there.
"But for his sake, you don't want to throw him out there too soon. Is he really going to be able to dominate, be Jake Ryan, or is he just going to be another guy? To me, it's not a matter of when he comes back. It's how he comes back.
"If he's not ready to dominate, come back and be 100 percent in October, it's probably a long shot. Here's the thing, and I know Brady has thought of this. Michigan has to make it to November. If Ryan can hold off, get those four games in November, add a Big Ten title game, and go to a bowl game, he can still have a six-game season.
"He could wait until November, because that's when Michigan's season really gets serious. They could go out to Happy Valley and win, and hold Notre Dame off at home under the lights. But November, I think, is the perfect time for Jake Ryan to come back.
"There is some time in there for him to develop and get stronger. But if they rush it, it would be a mistake."
On the thought that Michigan can break through to the Big Ten championship game this season: "The conference is wide open. If you look at the Legends Division a year ago, there were four teams that had a legitimate chance of playing in Indianapolis. You have Nebraska who did go, and they got the brakes beat off of them because they won't tackle in big games. They're not very tough. They shouldn't even be called the Black Shirt Defense any more.
"Michigan had Ohio State. They were a better football team that day than Ohio State, but the offense didn't even leave the locker room in the second half. And Michigan loses at Nebraska when Denard [Robinson] gets hurt.
"Every team at the top of the Legends Division had a chance to claim that seat in Indianapolis, to punch that ticket. Michigan State loses five games by a total of 16 points. They came up on the short end of the stick on a fumble that really was a scoop-and-score, that would have won that ball game.
"Northwestern comes into Michigan Stadium and just gives away a game. Northwestern's defense gave up a lot of big plays at key moments, and they still had a 10-win season. They lose to Nebraska by one point.
"You're talking about Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State, and any of those teams could have been 11-1, playing in the Big Ten championship. They could have been 8-0, 7-1 in the conference, but they also could have been 4-4. Michigan could have lost to both Michigan State and Northwestern and been 6-6 at the end of November.
"When you go to the other side, with Ohio State, honestly, they were a 7-5 team, but the truth is they went 12-0. Ohio State showed everyone in the conference what it's going to take to win, and I think Michigan understands this. You have to win close games, and you have to be able to win on the road.
"If you're going to win on the road and in close games, you need toughness and talent. Some teams are tough but they're not talented, like a Northwestern. They have talent in spots, but not overall.
"Then there's a team that may be talented but is not that tough, like Nebraska. That's how the conference is built right now. That's why I think Michigan has a legitimate chance of winning the conference. But so does Northwestern, so does Michigan State. They lost a lot on defense, but on offense, Nebraska has more weapons than anyone besides Ohio State.
"Indiana can score more, but they have the toughest road schedule in the Big Ten Conference. There's Ohio State, and there's the rest of the Leaders Division. Penn State won't really be the same, because they lose all those seniors. Wisconsin will still run the ball, but they have only one game that really matters - at Columbus.
"Ohio State really only goes to Northwestern, and they play for all the marbles in Ann Arbor at the end. The Leaders Division is kind of set. But the Legends? Who is going to win on the road, and who is going to win the close ball games?
"That is who is going to play in Indianapolis, and I think with what Michigan did a year ago, it has an advantage. Northwestern and Nebraska had their shot a year ago. Now it's Michigan's turn."
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