Experience makes a difference, despite the groans such a point elicits from a victory-ravenous fan base. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison now has it among his troops - and it's time to play. Freshman Jabrill Peppers doesn't fit with the "experienced" tag, but that hasn't lessened the excitement about him. The young defensive back just has something about him, Mattison noted.
Mattison stressed how much it will mean to feature a host of starters back, experienced depth at a number of spots, etc. It's a different ball game, he pointed out.
Asked what a Michigan fan might notice on Saturday about the defense, compared to last year, and the veteran defensive coordinator said it starts with veterans knowing what they're doing.
"I would expect him to see guys playing at a faster pace, because they're older, more experienced," Mattison said. "People don't realize that even though you're a sophomore and you're playing, you're still really young.
"I was looking at some tape this summer of the Notre Dame game. It was right in the middle of the game. I stopped the tape and I counted, and there were 10 across with two years or more left at the time. You don't ever think of that as a coach, but now when you see them a year older, you see the things you used to coach so hard with them, they do naturally.
"I would think you would see a lot freer, a lot more aggressive defense. Guys just doing it, rather than thinking, boy, he's got to do this perfect, or he's got to step this way perfect."
Not only have they been perfecting their thinking, they've been perfecting their physiques, Mattison insisted. They're much more ready to compete at a number of spots.
"We're stronger," he insisted. "I feel we have one of the very best strength-and-conditioning coaches in the country. Aaron Wellman just works so hard with our guys. If you could see the pictures we see of the guy when he's a freshman and the guy when he's a junior.
"You think, you've got to be kidding. It's not the same guy. It's a different person. That's the way it is on the football field, also. The guy who did play as a freshman, the guys who did play as redshirt sophomores, are now men. They're three years, at least, under Coach Wellman.
"They're three years in the Michigan program. You really feel like you're going to see a lot stronger player. Frank Clark is a great example. He came here at 219 pounds, as a safety. Today, he's 275 pounds.
"You could say that about a lot of other guys on that defense. They've worked really hard with Aaron and worked really hard in the program."
While some are talking about Michigan's linebackers as a strength of the 2014 Wolverines, the new linebackers coach (Mattison) is looking forward - literally - to his old position. He likes what the Wolverines feature up front.
"I'm looking forward to the defensive line being a big strength for this team," Mattison said. "We're so deep. We're three deep at almost every position, of guys who have played in big games.
"Guys will go through and say, 'Who is the starter?' Well, the competition is so great in practice, our guys know from day to day, there will be a different starter if you don't live up to your expectations. It's not something that's punishment. The bottom line is, what did you do on film?
"At the three technique at tackle, you've got Willie Henry, you've got Matt Godin, you've got Chris Wormley. The nose position is the same way. You can go right down the line. These are all kids that we've recruited, who have bought in and worked so hard.
"Now they're all competing. When you compete every practice, you come out doing it how Michigan's supposed to do it. That's how it used to be. At Michigan, it was always that you never really had a job. You just had to make sure you were doing it the right way every day, because there was somebody right behind you that is really, really good."
Not that his spot should suffer too much, Mattison noted.
"At the linebacker position, we've got great depth," he said. "Same story. We've got guys who have played and started a lot of games. You can only start two or three of them, depending upon the personnel grouping, at one time. There are guys just standing there waiting for their opportunity.
"We're in a good place with that. They all understand that this defense, and everybody in this defense, wants it to be the best it's been. To me, that's very evident. It's not the little petty things, that 'I need to be playing more.'
"I'm sure they think that, some of them do. You want to play. But you want this defense to be special. So wherever the coaches put them, and whatever their role is, that's what they're going to do."
In short, it's time to make it happen, Mattison noted. Brady Hoke and his crew have been importing the raw materials, and there are enough to start manufacturing a serious threat on the defensive side of the football.
Asked if this would mark the best defense he's put on the field in his second go-around at Michigan, Mattison hesitated, out of respect for former players. Then he found a way to express that confidence.
"That's what I'm planning on," he said. "That's what we're working for. I never want to say anything against Mike Martin and his group. They did some pretty neat things.
"I just like this group. But they have to do it every day, and I have to do it every day, our coaches have to do it every day. This is just the start. I will say, we really have pieces now, and it's time we put it all together."
"Jabrill has come in and bought in right away," Mattison assessed. "He's bought into the scheme, to try to do exactly what Roy [Manning] and Curt [Mallory] are telling him to do in the back end. He's played tremendously fast, and played with great confidence.
"He's a very confident young man. Now, there are always things you have to work out. You've got to work out making sure you're doing it right every time. Make sure you're focused every time.
"Every practice, he comes out with great energy. He loves to play the game of football, and he loves Michigan. Everything he's done in practice, he's everything we thought he would be."
Mattison says Michigan's coaching shuffle on the defensive side of the ball has worked out well. He thinks it will pay dividends throughout. Him coaching the linebackers, with his eyes in the middle of the defense, is where he wants to be.
"I thought long and hard about it," he said. "In today's football, you're going to make a lot of adjustments during the game. A lot of them are spur-of-the-moment, where you have the right thing to do, but all of a sudden that team does something different.
"You need be able to tweak a blitz, or be able to bring pressure, or be able to change something. I just felt, being with the defensive line, you're not with two-thirds of your defense at all times. All the other times I coordinated, I was always with the linebackers. I just felt that was that was the best way to go."
Michigan's secondary should also get a major boost, with more individual attention, he advised.
"I also felt that in today's football, with so many spread offenses, you need two guys in the back end," Mattison said. "That was really a big part of it. There are some times you have six defensive backs out there. You can't ask one person to coach six guys, that are all a little bit different. That was something important to do.
"It's been tremendous. Each coach accepted it with open arms. It was nothing to do with how it was being coached. It was about making our defense better.
"Mark Smith has done a tremendous job with our defensive line. I see tremendous growth in them. Obviously, I'll always watch the defensive line, because I've been with them for a long time. I'm really excited about them.
"To see Roy and Kurt in the back end, that was really needed. That was really something we had to do. They give so much more individual attention. Let's just hope we don't screw up the linebackers. That's the biggest thing."
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