Michigan has a new coaching staff, one that has a track record of winning with their own respective styles. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has sculpted his own art-form of a defense through his coaching career that isn't easy to interpret. Especially for opposing offenses. Not only is Durkin the defensive coordinator for Michigan, he's also the linebackers coach and will be working extensively with the group. Durkin was a linebackers coach at Bowling Green and Florida as well.
When it comes to the linebackers, scheme is important as to how many are on the field, what they are asked to do, and many other variables. What Durkin does well is not pigeon hole his players into a specific and expected scheme of play in the eyes of their opponent. Different formations, alignments, and tactics are used to give his team the best chance by being unpredictable without being completely reckless.
Intricacies Of Durkin's Scheme: Pass Rush, Run Defense, Pass Coverage
Durkin has worked with some great coaches. There is no doubt they left an impression on him to further develop his own philosophy, taking things he liked from their schemes and implementing parts into his own defense. When a coach is open minded, good things can happen, playbooks become more diverse, and winning tends to happen. Durkin has worked with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, Urban Meyer at Florida, while also serving as Linebackers coach for Florida when current Atlanta Falcons coach and former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was the coordinator of the Gators. Being around coaches of that caliber can make even a great coach greater, and a coach with a wealth of knowledge become even richer.
Durkin runs a 3-4, 3-3-5, with 4-3 also mixed in. After looking at tape from the Gators this past season, their play and game flow of defensive calls remind me of the San Francisco 49ers defensive scheme (under Harbaugh). Expect to see Michigan mix the defense up, but also expect to see 3-4 under be the base defense in 2015.
Under Durkin the defense should become more physical, and any tough nosed defense must have a strong group of linebackers. At Florida last season, Durkin put together a defense that had 30 sacks (37th nationally), ranked 5th in total defense, 13th in run defense, and 11th in turnovers gained with 30. Pressure, attack, contain, and take away are all verbs to describe the layers of Durkin's attack, and the mindset his linebackers will have to possess to be successful in his system.
Getting to the quarterback is ideal in Durkin's scheme. But he will not overcompensate by sending the house and leaving the defense exposed to big plays without safety help. The pass rush will come from the outside linebackers most of the time, with the middle linebackers staying put in coverage or keeping their eyes in the backfield to defend the run. Don't expect many blitzes right up the gut from the middle backers. The outside linebackers will normally blitz from the edge and try to get around a tight end or offensive tackle. However, different stunts are used in Durkin's to allow the outside linebacker to come to interior of the defensive line, into a gap the offensive line didn't expect, and boom... a sack happens. When Durkin decides to send an overload blitz (sending two linebackers from the same side), it usually occurs from the blindside of the quarterback. While sacks will be had this year, the terminology "bend but don't break" applies to Durkin's defenses, as he knows his team can wear the offense out and not taking unnecessary risks to do so.
In pass coverage inside linebackers will be expected to cover tight ends, as Durkin likes to run man coverage. For the outside linebackers, their main job will be to not only rush the passer, but to also fill throwing lanes on the edge in hopes of swatting the football for a block. I'd equate this strategy to giving a defender some space in basketball when you know you are in a good position to block his shot once he puts it in the air.
Run defense success makes the pass rush even stronger because the opposing offense becomes more predictable. Durkin's Michigan defense can make a name for itself in this regard and I see them being highly successful week one of year one. A balance of aggressiveness and containment is what makes up the run defense. The inside linebackers must have good awareness and instincts, knowing what holes they must cover and filling space laterally as the linebacker tries to get north. For the outside backers, containing the edge is key. The OLB's can't over-pursue and leave the edge vulnerable to a big gain. If the OLB can make the tackle and is in good position to do so, then the obvious answer is make the tackle. If there is doubt the tackle can be made, there is no need to be over aggressive as long as the runner isn't getting up-field, containment is key until a teammate gets there to help.
"We want to be tough, blue-collar team. We want to play with unbelievable effort and enthusiasm in what we’re doing. That’s the way I coach. That’s my personality." Durkin said that in 2013 when he first became defensive coordinator of Florida. A tough, blue-collar linebacker group would be a great thing to see in Ann Arbor this fall. Effort and enthusiasm leads to players flying around sideline to sideline, and when hustling happens, turnovers and success are sure to follow.
To watch Durkin's scheme in action, check out this game in 2014 against Alabama, which features sacks and turnovers: