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March 19, 2012Like last year, most will look at Michigan's defensive line this spring and believe its fate will depend on how senior defensive tackle Will Campbell performs. With veterans Craig Roh and Jibreel Black moving inside, however, and youngsters Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer moving to the rush linebacker position, it really will be up to each to carry his weight.
Campbell, a former five-star, was solid in winter conditioning, as were most of his teammates on defense, coordinator Greg Mattison said Monday.
"I think we're blessed. We have one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country [in Aaron Wellman]," Mattison said. "For us to watch what Aaron has done with those guys, I think he would have been the front runner of us trying to get them better. He's pushed them, and from what I've been able to see legally when I could be out there, it looks like they are responding.
"They are understanding this is team 133. The bar at Michigan is as high as it's ever been, and that's how it's supposed to be. You've got a lot of work to get up to that bar. I see that when I'm down there every once in a while. They're working to do that."
Campbell showed signs of improvement last year, especially in the Sugar Bowl, a game in which he improved each quarter. He won't make or break the line's production, Mattison emphasized.
"It's critical for every guy on our defense, and he's a member," he said. "I don't look at him and say, 'boy, it's really critical for you.' It's really critical for Jibreel Black and Craig Roh and [linebacker] Kenny Demens. Every day you either get better or worse. That's the way it is here. After a practice, you didn't get better so you got worse, or you got better, so that's a great sign.'
"I don't worry about a future of a guy. A future is being a Michigan player and playing as good as you can play."
It's still about consistency for Campbell, he continued, just as it was last year. Mattison has seen several players blossom late in their careers, though, and has similar high expectations for the former five-star.
"We need to see him play in and play out playing at a high level," he said. "If he has one good play, he's got to put two together, and then three together. That's it in a nutshell. He has shown he has what you're looking for a play here and there, a couple there. Now he's got to show he can do it consistently. That's everybody.
"[Blossoming late] has probably happened more than not. Especially at Michigan more than anyplace, as a senior you're expected to do that. It's so much in them that when you are a senior, that is your job. That is what you'd better do. Don't come out there as a senior and not improve. Don't do that. It's not accepted here."
Veterans bring great attitudes
Both Roh and Black have approached their position switches with open minds, eager to learn and help at their new positions, Mattison said. Both should also bring a quality Mattison craves in a defense.
"I want to always have a very, very fast, disruptive defense," he said. "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 five technique than he would be on the edge where there are a lot of open spaces. Jibreel, same thing. If a guy can get big and strong, and talking to Aaron we think that can happen, now you become faster when you move an edge player inside. Now there's competition with Brennen Beyer and Franks Clark at the outside position.
"You want to be able to put your people in the best positions, but have competition when you're doing it. I think that's what's happened so far."
They made the decisions immediately after the season ended and after studying film. Some of it was evident during the season, as well.
"You'll watch it and say, 'that was hard for him, but he made a good play,'" Mattison said. "'He may not have had to work that hard had he been at this position.' In the back of your mind, you see he's still best you have at that time, but when we get an opportunity, maybe we'll move him. Maybe we'll see if we can't get him at a position where it's not quite as hard to do what he just did. That's what you're always evaluating as a coach.
"You look at next year and think, 'how can we be as good as we can be?' again, taking what you have in that room, and that's what we did. We felt that was the best way to get the best players on the field at one time."
Time will tell whether or not their theories are correct. Spring ball, though, will be a good, early measuring stick.
"It's not like the pros. We have to deal with what we have you can't trade one guy for two other guys somewhere," he said. "Whatever we have, we have to put those guys like we're playing tomorrow at the best position, see if you can't get them to the level we want to get them at. I think that's what we're doing with some of our guys - seeing who would be best at this position and put him there.
"You don't want to have a whole bunch of guys at one position, and you don't ever want to go into a season and say, 'we've got a really good freshman coming in.' Freshmen are still freshmen, especially here.
"What you have in that room right now, that's who you'd better plan on playing with. Anybody who steps it up is a bonus. We will always play the best players, so if a guy coming in from a high school we just signed is the best player, he'll be the best player. But he's got to earn that."
"The one thing I've been happy with is last year was very difficult," Mattison said. "The first time we put in defenses, they looked at me like I was trying to teach them German or something just, 'what are you doing? The first practices we had a ready list I wanted to get taught. The next practice we said, 'cut that by half - we're going to go backwards and do this.'
"This year in putting in what we want to work on this spring, players got it. They understand. This is what we have done. The terminology is there. They don't have to worry about who is Curt Mallory, Jerry Montgomery. These guys have gone through the war with them. If they say this is what I'm supposed to do, if Mark Smith says this is what you're supposed to do, okay, I got you. The learning curve in them believing in what is being taught and knowing this is the kind of defense we play, what is expected, all those are gone."
Once they know the defense, then they understand the little subtleties that help them play better and faster, he added.
"This group of guys, I don't know how good they'll be I know how good I expect them to be," he said. "One thing I've liked 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."