Michigan completed spring practice with its annual game Saturday, and by most accounts, the defense looked outstanding. Of course, coordinator Greg Mattison was far from satisfied.
"We're not a Michigan defense yet," he said. "The effort, the belief in what we believe in, the work ethic, the pursuit to the football -- that's there. Now being strong, being physical every play, being better at technique … when they put that with their wanting to, then you're going to see something closer to a Michigan defense.
"They're really trying. For the first time, every man in there knows what that means when you say we have to be a Michigan defense."
Mattison has repeated over and over again his desire to create a pass rush with just the front four. On Saturday, that defensive line recorded five sacks (unofficially), including four from weakside rush ends Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton.
"We worked very, very hard on our pass rush," he said. "The thing about pass rush is that it is a phase of football you can work on all summer. Like catching passes, throwing passes. You can't go out and hit a guy but you can improve pass-rush technique better than anything else.
"You can practice on the blue bags. You can do your footwork, work on your hands, your finishes, all the little technique that it takes to be a great pass rusher, where you don't need a guy across from you.
"The next phase is in fall camp and going one-on-one with a live person, but your footwork and hands and get-off should be much improved by then."
Mattison was asked whether the secondary stepped up this spring in lieu of its disappointing performance in the Outback Bowl, when South Carolina threw for 341 yards and four touchdowns, including scoring plays of 31, 32 and 56 yards, but illustrating his point even more, the veteran coach came back to the line.
"Pass rush is part of the secondary because if a quarterback has time to throw, unless it's a three-step drop, that's on the whole defense," he said.
Michigan's front seven had a strong showing Saturday, with its linebackers showcasing their potential to be impact players. Sophomore James Ross III had two tackles for loss (again unofficially) and appears ready to step into Jake Ryan's void.
"James is a tough kid, a fast kid, and strong," Mattison said. "You don't look at him and see a guy that big [at 6-1, 223 pounds], but he has a lot of the things you look for in a smaller-sized linebacker that allows him to compete as well as he does.
"He has to keep doing the little things. Understanding his pass drops. He has to get as strong as he can. He has to work harder than anybody. We don't talk a lot about added body weight. [Strength and conditioning coach] Aaron Wellman is the best there is and he'll decide where we need those guys weight-wise, but he needs to work extremely hard in the weight room."
Junior Desmond Morgan, meanwhile, continued to build on his experience, moving over to MIKE (from the WILL) and demonstrating the skills to anchor the defense.
"Desmond had a very good spring," Mattison said. "He showed what we're looking for from a linebacker position, being more vocal, getting everybody set, his footwork has improved a great deal, his strength; he's just starting to understand more and more every day what we expect from a linebacker.
"The next step is to become a better blitzer. He has to beat someone one-on-one. But I would say Desmond is one of the guys you would look at that you would say he had a good spring every day."
Finally, at strongside linebacker, junior Brennen Beyer started with the ones ahead of fifth-year senior Cam Gordon after moving to the SAM only three weeks ago, but Mattison said not to read much into that.
"A flip of the coin," he noted.
"Brennen had a really, really good spring. You're taking a guy that spent a whole year as a rush end, and is looking to be a rush, and is looking to have his hand on the ground, and in one play moves to SAM linebacker. He's a smart football player. An intense football player that will do everything you ask him to do.
"He and Cam compete every day, and a lot of times at some positions two guys make one. The ability for two guys to function and be really, really successful in their time on the field make it so they're one person. That's what they're doing right now with those two.
"Brennen is a very, very intense, strong player. He's very intelligent. Cam is a very athletic player. Can run really well and has become a leader as a senior, and now it's just more understanding of what the SAM position is."
In the secondary, junior cornerback Delonte Hollowell got a run with the ones, much to the surprise of the 15,000 fans (and media) that showed up.
"In this program, you're evaluated every day in practice, and the thing Brady Hoke does such a great job of, is we have competitions in practice," Mattison started. "How you react in that competition is going to decide who's going to earn the right to play the next day.
"That depth chart can change from day to day, and Delonte had shown great improvement, worked hard. Does that mean he has that position? No. It just means he showed that if he does it the right way, then we'll put the best player at that time in that game."
True freshman Dymonte Thomas also impressed, and could win the nickel-back role this fall.
"That position for our defense has to be able to be a blitzer, and he really shows that is something he'll be able to do very well," Mattison said.
"He's a very conscientious young man. For a guy that should be at his prom and to pick it up like he did … Dymonte Thomas had a very, very good spring for a young freshman.
"He's definitely physically ready. He's very, very fast, and he's a young man that it's not too big for him. You correct him and he doesn't go in the tank. He immediately says, 'What do I have to do?' and very seldom does he do it wrong again.
"Based on the spring, you see a guy that is headed in the right direction."
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