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April 4, 2013The Michigan defense suffered a setback earlier this month when redshirt junior outside linebacker Jake Ryan injured his ACL.
Although Ryan was projected to be one of the Wolverines' biggest contributors next season, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is not changing his philosophy as the unit moves on without him.
Junior defensive end Brennen Beyer, who saw time at the SAM position during his freshman campaign, has moved back there to help bolster the depth behind projected starter Cam Gordon.
And, so far, Mattison has been happy with what he has seen.
"I am fine with who we're playing with. You can't do anything about it," Mattison said. "Hopefully, our program is getting to the point where you look and the next guy is waiting for that turn. I have been very pleased with how Cam has worked at the position, and Brennen Beyer, it's a great thing that he played at the position as a freshman.
"He's a vey intelligent young man, a prideful kid. He moved over just like nothing, and has been doing a good job. You have the two of them that are as one. We go on and keep going."
The Beyer move was possible, because Michigan is starting to build a level of depth along the defensive line and in the linebacking corps that it has previously not enjoyed.
With Gordon and Beyer at SAM, the Wolverines still have plenty of reliable options at rush end: junior Frank Clark, sophomore Mario Ojemudia and true freshman Taco Charlton, who has made an immediate impact among the coaching staff.
"With Brennen, the reason we moved him to SAM linebacker was to spread to wealth, so to speak," Mattison said. "Before, you had Jake, and we've always trusted Cam, and then we had Brennen, and you can only really play one of them at a time.
"We said Brennen was a perfect candidate to put his hand down and be more of a pass rusher. He was bigger and stronger, and Jake had already proved himself at the position. Now because of the need and the numbers we had - you have Frank, Mario and Taco at that position - we can spread it out and try to get the best players on the field."
Both positions are working, by Mattison's estimation, on pass-rushing techniques more than they ever have before.
Without Ryan, the team's leading returner in sacks (4.5), the defense - especially the rush ends - will have to provide more pressure than a year ago.
"We're trying to get pressure with a four man front," Mattison said. "You're definitely seeing improvement, but that is a combination of us not being very good at all last year. We're taking steps, and we're going to be better at pass rush. That is going to be a trademark of this defense before we're all done, and when that happens, who knows.
"I know one thing: in a passing situation, if they're blocked one-on-one, they have let the defense down. We have never approached it that way. We have brought pressure a lot, and now we're saying, 'It's your turn now. We're going to do it this way.' That gives the linebackers and secondary a little more relief and allows them to play their position a little better.
"I'm excited about it, because we're working really hard at it. There are techniques they're using that they have never been coached on before, because we have worked so hard on stopping the run. We said, 'OK, we can do that now. But we have to become better pass rushers.'
"Taco is the prototype of what you're looking for. Brennen Beyer has probably improved more than anyone. I worried about him a year ago, rushing the passer. This year, he's the fastest guy off the football. Inside, Quinton Washington, Ondre, Willie - all of them are trying to do what we say to do. Every one of them has improved up to this point. I envision the day when it's third down, and you had a defense that says, 'Coach, don't blitz. Let us get there with four men.' When you have that, then you have your defense where you want it."
Clark, in particular, has been impressive so far. Mattison said he has "loved" what Clark has been doing thus far this spring.
"I think he thinks about football day and night. He wants to be a really good Michigan football player," Mattison said. "One thing about Frank Clark - and all of our guys - is that we're aren't going to be undisciplined. You want ghuys to make plays, but they have to make them within the scheme of the defense. Because someone else is getting hung out to dry if they don't."
On Charlton, Mattison added, "If you're 6-6, 265 and you should be going to your prom, and you're here practicing football at Michigan, you're going to like that. You always want strong, tall, athletic guys. He is very strong for his age, and he was a great basketball player. Now you have to get the mental part. He is one of the guys that doesn't understand that at Michigan, you run to the ball hard every play. He sometimes thinks he's going hard, but that's hard from where he was a year ago, not hard from where this program is."