Don Brown: 'Our Guys Will Be Ready' For OSU
Michigan Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown sat down with host Jon Jansen on this week's In The Trenches podcast. Brown discussed U-M's defense and what has allowed it to bounce back from the Wisconsin game and be so effective in recent weeks. He also talked about preparation for Ohio State, and more.
Brown talked about how enjoyable it is to coach this year's U-M defense.
"It’s a great group," he said. "This is a lot of fun. You’ve got athleticism at all 11 positions. We’ve got some guys that we can plug in there in our sub packages that are just exciting to watch.
"The nice thing is, we’ve got a very intelligent group that you can throw scheme at them, you can throw concept at them and they have a tremendous understanding of what we’re trying to do so it’s not a frustrating thing during the practice week where you’re fighting for your life trying to get the guys right. After Tuesday, going into Wednesday, our guys got it figured out."
The Wolverines defense has shown the ability to showcase their speed when running and pursuing the football.
"There’s a theory that I’ve fooled around with," Brown said. "People call it pursuit and so forth. But, I’m calling it ‘converge.’ And the reason I call it converge is this reason — if your defense is coming to the ball and let’s say the ball was run to the right, and for example, there’s three guys coming, you don’t have have enough guys converging to the football. We’re looking for the box to have four guys, two high, two low, two from the inside, two from the outside and then, all of a sudden, the converge piece is the guys that aren’t supposed to get there, but they better get there, and they understand it.
"They take great pride in it. They all want to be in the picture at the end of the play and we’re getting a lot of that type of play from our guys, and they’re excited when we show those plays on Sunday and Monday. The only highlights we show are converge and run to the ball highlights."
Following the Wisconsin game, the run defense has tightened up and has become a force to be reckoned with.
"I just think it’s the players, their attention to detail," Brown said. "We had some missed fits, we were a little loose with our fits in the Wisconsin game, especially in the first half. Our guys said that ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ They’ve taken it to heart and without question, that’s probably our biggest area of improvement as a defense, is the ability for guys to trust where their help is coming from."
Brown admitted that the 35-14 loss at Wisconsin was a tough pill to swallow, but he's proud of his team's response.
"You’re going to take that game and two things are going to happen: 1) [Your guys] are going to sink into mediocrity or 2) they’re going to utilize that as energy, emotion and just the improvement necessary to move forward," Brown said.
"These are Michigan football players. They’re going to move forward. They have no choice. And, I'm proud of the way we’ve performed over the last six weeks. I think we’ve played three top-20 teams, so it’s not like it’s chopped liver. All we can do is play the schedule, who’s in front of us. I’m just happy with our response, our energy, our effort and our laser focus at practice."
The pass rush has been no slouch either. U-M is tied for 15th in the country with 29.0 total sacks as a team.
"The great thing is we function out of the four-down scheme and we function out of the three-down scheme and then we function out of what we call the ‘exotics,'" Brown said, raving about his team's versatility. "We put guys on the field in places where we know they’re going to have a chance to be effective. When you can come through those three avenues, you can get pretty complex by week five, six, seven, because your guys can build. We’ve stayed within our philosophy and our concepts, so there’s definite building blocks for the guys so they can learn and function at a high level."
U-M is currently on a bye week and has Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State remaining on the regular season schedule. The Wolverines fell 62-39 to OSU last season, and Brown was asked what his defense needs to do to compete with the Buckeyes come Nov. 30.
"I think we just need to stay true to form," Brown said. "I think we’ve done a good job of giving our guys stuff on a week to week basis where they’re probably wondering, ‘Why are we practicing this play? Why are we practicing that play?’ So, we’ve done a good job of keeping their hands in it without really telling them their hands are in it. But, they know.
"It’s another year, it’s a different group. They better be careful now because we’re hitting our stride too. This is a two-way street, and I know our guys will be ready in three weeks."
• Brown raved about how Jim Harbaugh has setup the bye week for the players.
"I think we’ve got a lot left in the tank," he said. "I love the way Coach has setup the bye week for the players. It’s an opportunity to work on our fundamentals, but it’s also an opportunity at this time of year to get your body back right. And, it couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We had a number of players on Saturday that were really put to the test because they were playing nicked up. Now, nothing major. I told Cam McGrone, ‘You’re the middle linebacker in the Big Ten. You’re going to be sore.’ Forget about it, you’re going to be sore.
"We have to get ready for the stretch run and we have to use the bye week to do that, especially fundamentally. Sometimes, what gets left to chance is … during a game week, you’re running plays in practice and the timing of your fundamentals gets cut. This week, Coach is right back to giving us extended periods for individual, and that will really help us grow as a football team."
• Senior linebacker Josh Uche's development over the years has impressed Brown.
"This guy, I recruited as a freshman when he was at Columbus," Brown said. "Then, he was a scrawny five technique, played defensive end and all he did was rush the passer and everybody was happy because, at the high school level, he was a terror. Then, when the Michigan opportunity arose for me and he followed me here, the great thing about him was, he took it serious with his body and now he’s 250 pounds, he’s a legitimate 3-4 outside linebacker. That’s what we’re trying to do is legitimize him so he can play in coverage, blitz gaps, stop the run, cover the pass and emphasize what he does the best, be the best pass rusher in the country."
• Brown said that targeting calls on senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson took a toll on him in 2018, but that he's bounced back and is playing at a high level this season.
"I think that really hurt him because I think that was two targeting penalties back-to-back," Brown explained. "I really think that impacted his ability to be aggressive. He was more concerned about staying in the game and doing things right out, which every human being on this planet would. I think he’s back playing free and easy. I think we’ve really challenged him mentally, which you need to do with him because he likes it. Some guys get nervous about having all these responsibilities, and some guys thrive in that area."
Two second-year players have stood out to the defensive coordinator: sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and redshirt freshman linebacker Cam McGrone.
"The sky is the limit [for Hutchinson]," Brown said. "We’re playing him some at nose and at some of the inside positions when we get into our pass rush stuff. The reason for that is he has the ability to turn the corner and force the offensive linemen to ricochet as such a fast rate. Some simple patterns that we’ve been really good at have shown up on a week-to-week basis because offensive lines continue to have problems blocking it. It’s his ability as the inside, interior rusher that speeds everybody up.
"[McGrone] is a young player, so he does make occasional errors, but we’ll live with those errors because usually, he’s playing at such a high level from an energy and speed standpoint, he can make up for his own inadequacies. This guy here now, he’s just coming into his own. He’s finding out what it is to be the middle linebacker in the Big Ten, so he’s dealing with his body being sore and things like that, but boy, I’ll tell you, I couldn’t be more happy with the way this guy has played."
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