Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison knows his front wall will have to be at its best against Alabama's collection of behemoths. Mattison talked about some of Michigan's moves toward improvement in that area today.
The U-M DC acknowledged that inserting 6-4, 300-pound redshirt junior Quinton Washington into the nose tackle spot and sliding 6-5, 308-pound senior Will Campbell over to the three-technique involved working toward the top combination.
"We're trying to get the best four guys to be available to play inside," Mattison said. "Q has had a real good camp. Will has had a good camp. You kind of interchange those two, to see who makes that defense better. In other words, one of them playing at a three [technique] and one of them at nose.
"With so much trading and shifting, they both have to play the same position, when they slide over. It gives you an opportunity to hopefully make yourself stronger, rather than having a true nose, and that's all he can play."
Meanwhile, Mattison noted, his entire front has worked diligently in preparation to slow down the Crimson Tide. One of their biggest tasks this fall involved laboring to get a good four-man pass rush established.
They've made strides in that area, Mattison assured. At the same time, going against a quarterback with Denard Robinson's capacity to escape a rush throws a different wrinkle into evaluations.
"We've worked hard at it," Mattison noted. "The hardest thing is, you don't know if you're getting pressure or not, because the guy who doesn't tie his shoes all the time just takes off running. You go, I don't know if that would have been successful or not, but against him, I don't think it will be.
"That's one of the hardest things we have to judge on defense. We do want to be a pressure team. When you're pressuring, if a guy like Denard is taking off, it makes it look like that's not a very good defense sometimes.
"You can't gear everything towards stopping Denard. As a defense, we always talk about the fact that we have to get ready for the season. We can't worry about what he's doing to us."
Mattison needed to adjust his thinking when he initially arrived to join Hoke's staff, he admitted.
The defensive coordinator noted: "The first time we brought blitzes on Denard when I first got here, I said, 'Whoa, you don't see that in the NFL.' I said, 'Well, we're going to keep blitzing. The officials or Brady will blow the whistle and you say to the official, 'He would have been tackled.'
"But you look at it on tape and you go, 'I don't think so.' That's something we have to work through. That's something that on defense we can't get shell-shocked or nervous over, what you would do against Denard. Denard can make you look really stupid."
A number of opponents might insist Alabama can do the same. Mattison is wary not just of the Crimson Tide's offensive line, but of several other position groups.
"They obviously have great speed at the wide receiver," he said. "Anybody in the SEC will always have great speed, but Alabama shows that.
"They have a tight end who is 280 pounds. He's a returner, with 20-some starts in his career. He's obviously a very established football player who can also catch the ball.
"Whoever they put at running back, whoever the running back is going to be, it's Alabama. That guy is going to be the next guy.
"The offensive line is a very, very strong point. The quarterback is a very, very good football player. But the other guys are very good players, also. You're just going to have to play the way we play, and make sure everybody is doing their job."
• Sophomore defensive end Brennen Beyer came on strong at the end of fall camp, following a slower start, Mattison reported. The 6-3, 252-pounder was listed third on Michigan's initial depth chart of the season.
"That group of three right there is never etched in stone," Mattison said. "Brennen Beyer started out camp not really playing as fast as I wanted him to play. The last week, though, he showed signs of being the Brennen Beyer of the spring.
"You're going to see him play a lot - there's no question about that. We've got a group right there where, in an opening game, you don't know how many plays you're going to play. You've got to have guys who can go in there and especially at that position. There is a lot more running there.
"As a defensive lineman at times, and a linebacker at other times, you've always got to run the farthest to be able to chase the ball down. The conditioning part of it - he has to be a guy that can run."
• Despite Michigan's offense still running a lot of spread-formation action with Robinson at the helm, the Wolverines still prepare to counteract tough, straight-forward rushing teams, the DC reassured.
"Brady does a tremendous job at this," Mattison said. "If you're at some programs where you run a spread offense, your defense has the capabilities of becoming somewhat softer, because everything goes sideways. Brady, from day one, established that we are going to have periods where we go against typical, Big Ten, hard-nosed offenses, so we could always keep our edge.
"As we get into game weeks, we go less and less against our offense and more and more against the team we're playing."
• Mattison has everyone's attention this week, he noted.
"We will be coaching right up until that kickoff," he said. "We'll be coaching right through that ball game. One thing I do believe, and I've noticed it the last three or four days - our players seem to be a lot more intent on the little things.
"Maybe it's because we've had these freshmen that are not in class anymore. The whole team has kind of been together now, all of us, and not just parts of us. I've noticed a game-week type atmosphere, where when you bring up little things that can possibly help them, they seem to say, 'Okay, I got that. Yeah, I see that.' Instead of, oh, this is just another thing Coach is trying tell me. I do feel that a little bit."
• Freshman linebacker James Ross caught Mattison's eye in fall camp, although the DC wishes he'd have had more time with all of U-M's frosh.
"I liked his physical play," Mattison said. "Again, I would have loved to have had James Ross for three weeks. Wow. He has made some plays, and then he has made some freshman mistakes, some freshman not checking, some freshman not communicating. I look at that as a guy that's only been here a week. We look at him getting better and better, as he's with us the whole time."
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