Of all the people I expected to see at the conference the person I knew the least about was Michigan Safety/Linebacker Stevie Brown. Brown has always been somewhat of an enigma to me. You never see quotes from him in the papers. His post game comments are usually buried in the resulting stories. His on field presence doesn't lend itself to easy characterization. Where Donovan Warren carries himself with a swagger, Brown has always had an unassuming, businesslike quality to his movements. Going into his fourth year at Michigan, Brown is learning his third defense and a brand new position. He's gone from Safety to Hybrid linebacker, he's come in for praise and for criticism, but really, we don't know much about Brown.
Stevie Brown will take your football now, thank you.
Consequently, I spent the majority of my time Tuesday sitting at Stevie's table, asking questions and listening to his answers to other people's questions. Just like with Mark Ortmann, you can't help but come away impressed by Stevie Brown the person and the football player. In person, Brown is a very amiable young man. He smiles easily, answers questions directly, and shows the character and accountability we've always expected from Michigan athletes. One of the best things about talking with Brown was his willingness to answer specific questions about Michigan's different defensive and offensive units. His good humor and insight into the team provided a glimpse of a tight knit group of players that seem to truly beleive they will be in the hunt for a Big Ten Championship this year. Hopefully, after reading this, you'll come away as impressed with Stevie as I was.
On the Position Change to Hybrid Linebacker:
Brown admitted that the switch from Safety to the hybrid position has been a significant change. But several weeks into practice and with time to study and learn the position, he feels he's got an excellent sense of what he needs to do and where he needs to be. The biggest thing, at this point, seems to be Brown getting his gap assignments down pat. In practice, Brown told us that his fellow linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton will tell him he's doing well, but "wait till that 330 pound lineman comes at you" and we'll see how you're doing then.
On the other hand Brown said there are some significant advantages to the new hybrid position that he likes a lot. In particular, Brown said that by being closer to the line, "I get to blitz a lot more now." It should be noted he was smiling when he said that. Brown also mentioned that by covering the slot receivers, like Roy Roundtree and Terrence Robinson, he's had the ability to hone his one-on-one coverage skills.
On Greg Robinson and his Previous Coaches:
Brown offered a considerable amount of praise for his new Defensive Coordinator, Greg Robinson, describing him as a man he has "great respect" for. One of the other things he said is that Robinson is a great guy and a "great person to learn from." Brown also cited Robinson's experience as a reason for his and the defense's quick acceptance of Robinson into the fold.
When asked, Brown mentioned he was looking forward to facing his old defensive coordinator Ron English when Michigan squares off against Eastern Michigan. English was Brown's primary recruiter and the two still maintain a good relationship weven with English at Eastern. Brown is very confident that English will turn around the Eastern program.
(More Stevie Brown awesomeness after the jump...)
On What's Different This Year:
I asked Stevie specifically about the communication breakdowns and missed assignments from a year before, and what was being done differently this year to prevent that from happening. Brown told me that one of the biggest changes has come from the players rather than the coaches. Stevie mentioned that during 7-on-7 practices, the defense didn't like how things were going down. So Obi Ezeh, Donovan Warren and Brown looked at one another and said this has to get fixed. As a result the secondary and linebackers started getting together to go over film, position assignments, and breakdowns in an effort to clarify things. Brown said the group goes in together, watches film, and reviews their assignment successes and failures. This film room communication has paid off as the group is now commincating better on the field. As a result, Brown told me the back seven is now on the same page. From an outsider's perspective, the fact that the coaches aren't involved in this at all is a testament to the dedication of the players and their desire to get things right.
On a personal level, Brown said his mental preparation has changed considerably from last year. Going into 2008, Brown admitted that he learned his position and did his own thing in terms of mental game preparation. This year, he wants to know everything. Brown told me he's studying film and the playbook to the point that he is starting to know everyone else's position and assignments almost as well as his own. He's not affraid to talk with the linemen, linebackers and secondary to know what exactly is going on in every play. Talking with Brown I got the impression all this extra effort is really going to pay off for him, and for Wolverine fans, this season.
On the Safeties:
One of the truly fun things to talk with Brown about was the status of the safety position going into this season. I asked Stevie to give us an impression of the four guys that likely will man the position going into this year: Troy Woolfolk, Mike Williams, and Vladimir Emilien. Brown was effusive in his praise for all three. But when asked who was the big hitter, Woolfolk and Williams quickly absorbed the conversation. In describing the two young safeties, Brown said,
"Both of them don't have a care in the world, they will run and just knock you out."
Again, it should be noted he was smiling when he told me this. According to Brown, Woolfolk thrives laying people out in coverage or going deep. Williams sounds like a run support frieght train, and was described as a "big hitter coming downhill."
Vlad Emilien came in for priase as a great cover safety. However, a name I wasn't expecting to show up in the conversation was Jared Van Slyke. Van Slyke is a transfer from Southeast Missouri State University where he played in a single game and threw a single pass. Here's the blurb:
2007: Played in one game as a backup quarterback ... saw action in relief at Samford ... rushed one time for four yards ... lone pass attempt was intercepted.
Van Slyke was basically an unrated quarterback recruit that's been shifted to safety since he transfered. The fact that Brown is mentioning him is impressive, and at least on my end, hopeful.
Honestly though, our coveration focussed on the big hits. Stevie told me that while Woolfolk is great downhill hitter and that Vlad and Jared sure as hell aren't going to shy away from popping someone, Williams love for dishing out pain stands out.
"Just being around Mike, I know how Mike is, and he will never turn down a hit regardless of who it is or how big they are."
On the Schemes:
Brown was fairly tight lipped on the types of schemes that the defense will run this season. When he mentioned he get's to blitz a lot more, he greeted my follow up question with a "I'll do whatever Coach ask me to do" type answer. One thing that he pointed out is that he doesn't feel this defense is going to shy away from smacking the run game around. Pointing to the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys in the 3-4, he told me that this defense is well desgined to stop the run based on the speed of its personnel. Further, when playing a traditional two back offense, Brown told me that everyone on the team has experience playing against those sets and there won't be a lot of changes because the personnel already know what to do.
On the Departures:
Best line on the ridiculous comments from people on their way out the door:
"Did you go to the Michigan I go to?"
On the State of the Team:
This is a very, very close group of players, freshmen to seniors. Brown made clear that the team hangs out together, gets meals together, and clowns around together. And it's not just the players. The Coaches, whether it's through encouragement or getting the players together for a meeting, invite everyone to participate. On and off the field. Whether it's mentoring a younger teammate like Greg Mathews does with the younger receivers, or cracking a joke like Roy Roundtree, these guys genuinely care about one another. Rodriguez has done what he claims, fostered a team with a sense of community and family. It was really cool to hear this from Brown.
On the Receivers:
Facing off against the slot and wide receivers all day will give you an excellent perspective on what everyone is capable of. Because of this, Brown offered great breakdowns of some of Michigan's receivers. The guy that kept coming in for praise was Brown's roommate, Greg Mathews. The thing that stood out to me in discussing Mathews wasn't his size, or his hands, but just how smart the kid sounds. He just seems to get it, the it that makes for great leaders and players. He understands the routes, the technical aspects of the position, and most importantly, isn't too important to mentor the younger players. Brown gave a great anticdote about the younger receivers constantly calling Mathews to talk about plays and routes, and Brown heckling him all the while that he needs to turn his phone off. You knew what to expect from Mathews going into the season, but his off field awesomeness is great to hear about.
The guys that drew the most praise from Brown were the the slot receivers/ninjas that he has to line up against every day. In particular, Brown gave Roy Roundtree a ton credit. "Tree" as he's called, runs great, crisp routes and possesses great speed. While Brown and Roundtree are good friends off the field ("Tree's a funny guy"), in practice they compete exceedingly hard against one another. Brown told me that one of Roundtree's greatest assests is his release off the line of scrimmage. Roundtree seems to constantly beat the the bump and keep defenders hands away from him. This mixed with an expanding repetoir of moves, head fakes, and other deceptive practices makes Brown think "Tree" is going to be a great contributor for Michigan this year.
Another slot receiver that came in for praise is Terrence Robinson. Brown referred to Robisnon as "one of the quickest stop and go people I've ever had to cover." Robinson's speed and quickness are hard to match anywhere on the field, so mixing Roundtree and Robinson into the offensive stew this season could be really, really exciting.
On the outside, though Brown isn't covering these guys anymore, Michigan's got some speed. I asked Brown about Darryl Stonum and was pleased to hear his response. Brown said Stonum's doing everything right. He's always been fast, but now it seems that he's developing a better understanding of the position. Something that stood out to Brown was the manner in which Stonum is now actively seeking out input from the more senior receivers and becoming more involved in learning his position. Frankly, if Stonum can implement even half of the technical aspects of being a Michigan receiver, compared to his speed... man... we're in business.
On the Defense as a Whole:
In talking about the defense this year, Brown was exceedingly positive withouot being a "rah rah, we're going to shock the world." There's a quiet confidence to his demeanor that seems to say, "I know you're writing us off, that's fine, we'll use it as motivation." He doesn't verbalize that, but you can see it in how his eyes move as he answers a question or in the way a little smile cracks at the corner of his mouth when he responds to a question about this year's preparation.
Listening to Brown it's pretty clear that the unquestioned leader of this defense is Obi Ezeh. As the middle linebacker, Ezeh is calling the show. And he's doing it vocally. Ezeh knows the assignments, knows everyone else's position, and makes sure everyone is in position for the plays. Brown told me he expects a big year from Ezeh. In the secondary, Brown also pointed directly at Donovan Warren as the secondary's leader. Speaking of the secondary, Corner Boubacar Cissoko was described as one of the fastest, quickest players he'd ever seen. Brown told me that on some of the plays "Boob" makes, Brown has no idea how he got there.
On the Defensive Line, Brown gave Brandon Graham the props we've all come to expect. But Brown also made sure we knew just how good Mike Martin is. Martin was described as someone who is going to create a lot of havoc on opposing defenses. With another year under his belt in Camp BARWIS, Brown told me that Martin is "just huge" despite being one of the youngest starters on the team. Brandon Herron also got a lengthy mention as someone who can move sideline to sideline, and as someone who is just made for the DT/DE 3-4. Brown said Heron is going to surprise a lot of people and have a great year. Matched with Will Campbell, who Brown told me was surprising fast ("Big Will can run!"), he thinks this line is going to be something special.
The Take Away On Stevie Brown:
Honestly, I could not have been more impressed with Stevie Brown as a person and as a football player. Brown really understands the team and family aspect of the game, and seems to be active in making that ideal a reality. After talking with him at length, I'll admit there is some guilt on my part for being so hard on him this past season. He's a tremendous kid. But he'll be the frst person to tell you that being a nice guy doesn't excuse you from knowing your assignments and making tackles.
I think the transition to Rover/Hybrid/Deathbacker is going to be a good one for Brown. He's always seemed more comfortable in run support than in coverage and the added support of being able to take the chances as a hybrid on the slot guys, to be able to blitz, and to have four to five other guys behind him, will be very freeing for him. I also think that Brown understands what he has to do now. Rather than just knowing his position, he wants to know everything. This type of dedication will not only better prepare the team on Saturdays, but make Brown more confident, sure, and mentally tough as he lines up.
Over the last two years, Stevie's been picked as a break out player for Michigan. Third time's the charm Stevie. We're pulling for you here at Maize n Brew.
Also check out: Big Ten Media Days, The Take Away on Michigan Football: Part I, Offensive Lineman Mark Ortmann