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July 2, 2009

Michigan looking to fix disappointing defense

ANN ARBOR, Mich. New Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is oblivious to the loud noises coming from next to his office.

Construction workers are whirling about on a major renovation of Schembechler Hall, but Robinson is too busy staring at his TV screen.

He isn't watching game film from 2008. What's the point, Robinson figures? He wasn't in charge of last season's defense, which struggled mightily. Instead, Robinson wants to form his own opinion of the players, so he studies cut-ups of spring practice.

"Watch this," says Robinson, who pushes a button on his remote, showing a big defensive lineman getting run over. "We can't have that. It's my job to decipher if the players were informed, uninformed, misinformed last year. We are trying to figure out who can and can't play for us.

"We have a lot of work to do. But we'll get there."

"There" could be contending for a Big Ten championship, something Michigan hasn't won since 2004. The last time the Wolverines went four seasons in a row without at least a share of the crown was 1993-96, and the program responded in a huge way by winning a share of the 1997 national championship.

No one is thinking BCS title this fall with the program coming off a stunningly horrid 3-9 season that saw college football's winningest program miss the postseason for the first time since 1974.

"I don't think you ever anticipate 3-9 bad," says Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who is entering his second season on the job. "I didn't even back in my first year at West Virginia."

But the ugliness stares Rodriguez in the face. Robinson's, too, as he continues to watch the TV screen and jot notes. If everything had gone hunky-dory during Rodriguez's debut, Robinson wouldn't be sitting here.

Every college football observer expected Michigan's offense to founder last season as Rodriguez's spread-option offense was installed; the personnel wasn't a good fit for Rodriguez's scheme. But the defense? The defense was supposed to be a typical tough Michigan defense. Most felt a veteran unit with eight starters back would help keep things afloat while the offense found its legs.

It didn't happen, and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer was asked to leave, eventually landing as defensive coordinator at Syracuse - where Robinson had been coach last season.

History lesson
Since winning the Big Ten championship in 1964, Michigan never has gone five seasons in a row without winning at least a share of the Big Ten title. The Wolverines had a 13-year title drought from 1951-63 before winning that 1964 crown. If Michigan fails to win at least a share of this season's title, it will be the school's longest title drought since that 13-year skid.

There have been just 16 losing seasons in the history of Michigan football, which began in 1879. The Wolverines' 3-9 mark last fall was the school's first sub-.500 record since a 4-6 finish in 1967 under Bump Elliott.
Now Robinson is in Ann Arbor, trying to rehab a defense that wasn't helped by an offense that was even worse than expected (109th in the nation, at 290.8 yards per game). Turnovers were a huge problem, as Michigan ranked tied for 104th in the nation in turnover margin. All those turnovers put extra pressure on the defense, which couldn't handle it. The Wolverines ranked 67th in the nation in total defense (366.9 ypg), and the scoring defense was the worst in school history (28.9 points per game, 84th in the country).

"I thought defensively we'd be better," Rodriguez says. "I don't know if it was because the offense was ineffective that it put pressure on the defense. We just didn't play as well defensively as I thought we would.

"But there never is just one reason why you lose. We had so many unforced turnovers. I mean, we just dropped the ball. The Notre Dame game, we didn't even give ourselves a chance. Some areas, we were going to struggle regardless of what we did."

One head coach who faced the Wolverines last season thought the talent was there.

"I still think they had the players," says the coach, who asked to remain anonymous. "I thought their front seven was very good, but the secondary wasn't what I expected.

"I don't know if they really knew what they wanted to do philosophically. Scott is a 4-3 guy and Rich is a 3-3 guy [WVU ran a 3-3-5 set under Rodriguez]. There was a time when Rich was letting Scott do his thing, and then had him do some others. They never seemed to be on the same page."

That shouldn't happen this season. Robinson brings impressive credentials to Ann Arbor. While he struggled in four seasons as coach at Syracuse (a 10-37 record), he has forged a stellar reputation as a defensive coach. He was a longtime coordinator in the NFL with the New York Jets (1994), Denver Broncos (1995-2000, including helping the franchise to Super Bowl titles in 1997 and '98) and Kansas City Chiefs (2001-03) before returning to the college game in 2004 to run Texas' defense.

A porous unit
Where have you gone, Charles Woodson? And you, too, LaMarr Woodley? Michigan's defense looked more like Eastern Michigan's last season. In fact, it was one of the worst defenses in school history. The Wolverines set a school record for average points allowed per game at 28.9. Here is a look at the worst scoring defenses and total defenses in Wolverines history.
Ten worst scoring defenses
Year Ppg Record
200828.93-9
196223.8 2-7
195823.42-6-1
200423.29-3
199422.38-4
200721.49-4
199920.610-2
200220.410-3
200520.37-5
200019.19-3
Ten worst total defenses
Year Ypg Record
2000389.910-3
2008366.93-9
1982366.88-4
1994362.08-4
2002347.710-3
2005345.27-5
1984343.26-6
2004336.29-3
2007335.7 9-4
1999333.0 10-2
"It wasn't so much scheming, even though there were some philosophical differences," Rodriguez says of last season's struggles. "A lot of it I didn't feel the chemistry was there between the defensive staff and most of the players. I thought that was important. I said, 'Greg, this is what I want. I need someone who can help and develop the chemistry among the staff and defensive players.'

"For whatever reason, it was missing last year. I thought Greg had the personality to do that. That was as important as anything. He is a positive guy and has a lot of experience. We need someone to bring all of the defensive assistants' minds together, and I thought Greg was the guy to do it."

Robinson will alter Michigan's scheme. He personally will coach a new position the Wolverines call "spinner," which is a hybrid linebacker/safety. Some longtime Michigan watchers compare the "spinner" role with the "wolfman" position that Bo Schembechler used.

This season's "spinner" likely will be senior Steve Brown, who started 11 games last season at free safety and one at nickelback. He'll be responsible for covering slot receivers and tight ends, as well as running backs. On running downs, the "spinner" can become the eighth man in the box.

The changes haven't stopped there. Robinson also has opted for a flex look along the line and wants to be able to morph from a four- to a three-man look. There also is a new position up front called the "quick," a combination end/linebacker. Sophomore Brandon Herron and junior Marell Evans look like the "quick" guys rangy speedsters who are adept at playing in space. The idea is to inject more athletic ability to better deal with the wide-open offenses that have confounded Michigan most of this decade.

The front seven looks like the strength of the unit, thanks to big-play end Brandon Graham and linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton. And cornerback Donovan Warren is a good building block in the secondary.

"There are a lot of tough kids who want to be good in the worst way," Robinson says. "And I think the players will do what's demanded of them. I say that to our coaches and players all of the time: If we demand it, they'll do it.

"We have been very specific in what we are looking for in the area of effort, and we have gotten a great response. I have been very impressed."

He and Rodriguez will be even more impressed if it carries over to the field this fall.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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