April 21, 2014

Borton's Blog: Depending on defense

It's time to revisit the Hoke Files, Brady Hoke's roundtable discussion with select media outlets on Friday. On the menu today: Michigan's defense, and why it has a chance to be better.

We already discussed in this space Michigan's intention to play a more aggressive, man-coverage defense, and Hoke's confidence in the growth of his veteran cornerbacks, allowing the Wolverines to do so. But Hoke insists the overall experience gained and changes to the coaching alignment will play a role.

Again, the disclaimer: the head coach cautions this isn't a good team yet, and isn't close. But when asked if he thinks the U-M defense could buy some time for the Wolverines' offense to come around, he wasn't scoffing at the notion.

"We've got so much more depth at every position," Hoke said. "But quantity isn't what you need. It's quality. I think the quality of the depth [is good]. You've got some seniors on that side of the ball. You only have one senior on offense.

"You've got Jake [Ryan] and Frank [Clark] and Desmond Morgan, Brennen Beyer, Ray Taylor … guys who have played a lot of football. They're ahead, and I do think because of the quality of young guys within the program, especially those who played a year ago, I think the defense is going to be very active. They could help us along the way."

Hoke believe the Wolverines will see a strong step forward in the secondary, with coaching duties split between Curt Mallory (safeties) and Roy Manning (cornerbacks).

"As we looked at it and evaluated, the coaching moves have been really a positive," Hoke said. "They can really help the back end, because that's where, with spread offenses and those things, your dime and your nickel packages, with the two guys back there, you get a little more consistency in the coaching.

"From the bowl game, I would suggest we're fundamentally a little more sound. That's part of what happened with Roy having the corners all the time, and Mal having the safeties all the time. The movement with Greg [Mattison] being in the middle of the defense, coaching the 'backers, has been really positive."

Hoke also likes how the linebackers have been moved around, with Ryan in the middle, James Ross playing outside, etc. He's been pleased with Mark Smith's coaching efforts up front with the defensive line.

But so much of his hopes appear to be residing with a sounder secondary. He likes having veteran cornerbacks in redshirt junior Blake Countess and senior Raymon Taylor, with young talent in sophomores Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling gaining invaluable experience last year.

Lewis really came on this spring, and incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers is expected to make an immediate impact.

"Jabrill is probably a little ahead of his time in some ways," Hoke said. "[Receiver] Freddy Canteen is kind of the same way. Yeah, as you're putting the depth down, you're looking at your base packages, your sub packages and those things.

"You're looking at maybe some nickel. He's a safety or a corner, but we're looking at starting him the nickel position and seeing how he comes in and does."

There's no question Michigan needs a reboot on the defensive side, regardless of what wonders new coordinator Doug Nussmeier can work with the offense. The Wolverines finished No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense during Hoke's sun-kissed first season as head coach, with seniors such as Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen leading a crew that hung together well and allowed just 17.4 points per game.

Even without those two and other veterans, the 2012 group wound up 19th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 19.8 points per game. Still a top-20 defense, such that Michigan should win far more than it loses.

Last year - and in part this became exacerbated by Michigan's offense hitting a brick wall at times - the Wolverines plummeted like a fat man without a parachute. They wound up No. 66 in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering 26.8 points per game.

That might be acceptable in a Rich Rodriguez defense, when the goal was to score twice that many, but it's anathema to Hoke's down-and-dirty philosophy of shutting teams off. A move back to the top 20 probably gives the Wolverines double-digit wins in 2014, depending on a number of other factors.

There's a lot of road between where the Wolverines sit and that hoped-for destination. Hoke has enough veterans ready to shift to a higher gear that he's dreaming big as well.

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