The offensive side of the ball isn't the only one seeing a big change in scheme and coaching for Michigan. The Wolverine defense will be coached by the same staff, but each coach's position focus has changed, and Michigan will also be shifting to a bigger reliance on over fronts rather than the 4-3 under which has been the defense's base set.
Michigan faced a number of different spread teams a year ago and issues with the defense were continually exposed. The hope among the coaching staff seems to be that these changes should make Michigan's defense more versatile and able to stack up against the variety of different spread looks that will be presented over the course of the coming seasons, while still providing a solid front against pro-style offenses.
The nuts and bolts of this shift on the defensive line are based on shifting the strength of the line toward the strong (read: tight end) side of the offense rather than away from it as the 4-3 under did. The old under front moved the weakside DT over the backside guard while shifting the strong side DT into a nose tackle role. Meanwhile, the strongside defensive end became almost a DT himself, lined up over the strongside offensive tackle and bracketed by the Sam linebacker on the edge of the line.
The over front moves the Sam linebacker back off the line, shifts the strongside end outside the tight end and moves the DTs over so that one is in a 3-tech position to the strongside (over the guard) and the other is shaded to the weakside over the center. The formation looks more like what Michigan State has run in recent years up front, and could give Michigan greater flexibility up front.
Does Michigan have the personnel for this shift?
There are differences in what an over and under front asks a defensive lineman to do. One of the biggest changes is at the strongside defensive end spot. An under front requires a bigger, stronger end capable of being folded inside over the tackle. The SDE in the under front functions almost like a defensive tackle. Meanwhile, the weakside defensive end is more a true pass rush threat off the edge.
Shifting to the over front changes this balance. Now, the strongside and weakside ends are much more similar in responsibility. This move should greatly benefit Brennen Beyer, who shifted to the SDE role last year despite being smaller than ideal for the position in an under defense.
Michigan's issue now could be a lack of true outside rushers. The Wolverines invested recruiting efforts into bringing in a number of DE/DT tweeners like Matt Godin and Chris Wormley — players who were big enough to hold up inside, but might be too big to handle contain responsibilities on the end of the line. Michigan has, in essence, doubled its need for what in the past was WDE types. It already has Beyer, Taco Charlton, Frank Clark, and Mario Ojemudia as players with that type of profile, but will need to find more players capable of handling the new duties outside.
Meanwhile, Michigan is replacing Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black on the interior. Last year Michigan didn't have great depth at tackle and subsequently was pushed around in the run game against certain teams (cough, Ohio State, cough). This spring is about bringing these young tackles along in hopes that Michigan can have the kind of established depth it wants at the position this fall.
Who Do We Know
The aforementioned Beyer was a pleasant surprise last year filling in for Jake Ryan at the Sam position, and when Ryan bounced back Beyer wouldn't be moved out of the lineup that easy. The coaches obviously trust him and he flashed as much of a knack for pass rushing as anyone else on the roster last year ago (which is not much). Michigan also has the benefit of bringing back Frank Clark. Clark never made the leap that some expected, but he provided a solid year of play on the outside that got better as the year went on.
Inside, Michigan has to wait to get back Ondre Pipkins, who is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered during the season. While he won't be available, eyes will be on Willie Henry, the soon to be RS So. that flashed a lot of potential last year.
The Next Big Thing
On the outside, Michigan will be looking for big things from Taco Charlton. The sophomore has been on campus for over a year now and has the size and athleticism to make a difference either inside or out. He will mostly be used as a DE, but could shift inside on passing downs as he did last year at times.
Further inside, Michigan will look to both Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. to provide depth along the line. Both players got rave reviews in the bowl practices and bring solid size and skills to a line needing depth. Poggi has been getting some time at SDE while Hurst should start as more of a tackle.
Other Names To Watch
Matt Godin - Continually praised by the coaches, he played early last year but lost time. Is big enough to play DT, but does he have the athleticism to play on the end?
Tom Strobel - Looked to be working into the rotation last fall but was relegated to the bench by the time games started. The change in focus at SDE should help him find a role.
Chris Wormley - Is he finally just a DT?
What Does It Mean
Michigan should be solid along the front line once again, but an organic four man pass rush is still missing. By changing the focus of the SDE Michigan is attempting to set its line up to better rush the passer. It can work if Michigan can find enough of the right players to play on the outside.
Meanwhile, Michigan needs to find more capable tackles for the interior after losing two from last year's roster and being unsure of the status of Pipkins. With a shift in the linebacking corp behind them, DTs being able to execute up front will make the learning curve for those linebackers easier.
Michigan's biggest defensive issue a year ago was a lack of pressure with four rushers. The shift to an over front could be a big help to this as long as Michigan has the right players.