Michigan's defensive deficiencies were marked in last year's disappointing, 7-6 showing. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Thursday improvement starts with limiting big plays and getting better linebacker play.
He'll be in the middle of it all - literally - throughout spring ball and beyond, coaching linebackers while coordinating the defense. Linebackers coach Mark Smith, meanwhile, moves to the defensive line.
"I'm personally really excited to be back," Mattison said. "I coached linebackers a long time. The reason we did this is for a lot of the years I've coordinated, you're right in the middle, always seeing what's going on with the defensive line and the back end. Last year we had to take it off film to see that, whereas in practice now you're doing parts where the secondary and the linebackers - you're there for the last part of it. The team part of it you're there for all parts of it."
Mattison and Hoke agreed that was the best course of action, along with moving SAM linebacker Jake Ryan inside to MIKE.
Here's the news and views report on that move and more:
News: Jake Ryan's move to the middle for his senior year is expected to pay dividends.
Mattison: "In most defenses you want to get your best playmakers and guys - you have to evaluate every year on your team, who are the guys that can make plays, the most consistent playmakers? My feeling on Jake is he's one of our best defensive players. He's got to get to the football and he's a really good blitzer.
"The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now, he was always out in the flanks. He was spread out, so if they're not running at them, your best player is not as involved in the game as he should be. Brady and I talked and thought it was the good move so he was right in the middle of everything."
Views: It's easier to scheme away from a SAM linebacker than a MIKE, and Ohio State proved it last year. That game, a 42-41 Buckeyes win, was probably the breaking point for a coaching staff that had watched its defense get gashed in the middle and give up too many big plays.
Ryan is Michigan's best defensive player, and he returns in great shape and health following his ACL surgery last year. His instincts for the position are plenty good, so it's not going to be completely foreign to him.
On paper, it appears to be a good move, though we'll see how junior James Ross (and others) does at the SAM.
News: Michigan is moving from an under defense to an over to put its defenders in better position.
Mattison: "We feel when we play an under defense, the person you call a defensive end is on an offensive tackle with a tight end outside of him. That's a lot of weight and size coming after a guy, where you've got to have a real big guy right there to be able to withstand that.
"We feel like some of our best football players, Brennen Beyer for example, he's better on the edge as a six technique. Last year he played a five technique in the Big Ten at 255 and played his heart out. To get our best players in that position, Frank Clark, Brennen on the edges, is better. If you go to an over, you have a six and a five without tight ends outside them."
Views: The other part of it - in the nickel with an extra defensive back, defenses are almost always in over, so they won't have to change from under to over when that happens. That should make things easier for defenders to become better at their positions.
Expect Mattison and Co. to be more aggressive this year, too. That will be an emphasis, from tighter corner coverage to more blitzes.
"It will all be a lot more aggressive," Mattison said. "That's where we are now in our defense. As we become more experienced, our philosophy may change a little more as we feel we can get pressure, can play more aggressive on the receivers and tighten the coverage up. That's a big emphasis for us this spring and as we go through the fall.
"The biggest thing is we need to be a better blitzing team. Last year people said we didn't seem as aggressive as were before. As a coordinator, I'm going to call them as long as pressures get there. The only thing a blitz or pressure does is gets people one on one. You can't get any more than that. You're trying to ensure somebody in the group is one on one, and then you've got to beat someone one on one. At times we didn't do a very good job of it."
Views: Very rarely did they do a good job of it, in fact. Defensive end Frank Clark wasn't the sack machine many expected, and the linebackers rarely got home. The lack of pressure made the secondary look average, at best.
There is young talent on this team, but the spring tenor among coaches seems to have changed. Expect a tough spring to round the defense into shape, and there is some young talent there. It's time to utilize it.
"I'm excited about this group because I looked out one day in winter conditioning and saw sophomore, sophomore, sophomore that had all played last year," Mattison said. "These are some good looking kids. I didn't always say that.
"To see these guys grow, getting bigger and stronger - in a lot of ways we have very good athletes and also guys who have played who have three more years left. That's very, very positive."
News: Roy Manning takes over this spring as cornerbacks coach with Curt Mallory coaching safeties.
Mattison: "He's a tremendous young coach. He was an outside linebacker her and I don't think he ever played running back in his life, and he coached Cincinnati's No. 1 offense for running backs in the Big East one year.
"If a guy is a football coach and has a passion like he does, is intelligent like he is, coaching is coaching. We wouldn't have made that move if we didn't have the utmost confidence that was what we needed to do."
Views: We know for a fact that Manning is a great recruiter and that his players love him. This one will be watched with a very critical eye, however, given what's at stake following a 7-6 season.