With snow melting in Ann Arbor, football season is officially within sight again, especially with the upcoming Spring Game. Hundreds of fans and students will pack into a (probably) freezing and/or wet Michigan Stadium to get a glimpse of what football will be like under Jim Harbaugh. If only these poor cold and/or wet fans knew they could find out everything they need to know right here at Maize N' Brew!
As one of the most tradition rich football programs in the country, Michigan has a long history of success when it comes to really, really big men pushing against other really, really big men. While the offensive line has struggled the last few years, the defensive line has been a consistent source of success ever since Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen anchored a strong front four in 2011. Even though Michigan has lacked a true star since then, Mattison and company were still able to produce a unit that was No.15 against the run last year. The question now is, with Frank Clark gone, D.J. Durkin in and the change to a more varied defensive scheme, what changes?
Well at first not too much. D.J. Durkin has a history of utilizing multiple packages at previous jobs where he would frequently switch between 3-4 and 4-3 from game to game or even play to play. This multiple look, while less common, is hardly rare in the modern football era. After all, anybody who watched this year's Super Bowl saw Bill Belichick use everything from a 3-4 to 0-7 and vice versa. The idea is that by changing the scheme you make it harder for the offensive line to prepare and allow for versatility in your pass rush. After all, what benefit is there from telling the other team "we will line up like this always and forever"?
While that sounds all well and good it doesn't quite mesh perfectly with Greg Mattison's "we will line up in a 4-3 always and forever" scheme that's been around the last few years. As a result, we'll probably see more 4-3 than 3-4 the first year before Durkin gets his own recruits into the system, such as bulkier nose tackles or players who can play a hybrid defensive end and linebacker role. With that said, let's dive in and see exactly who will be playing up front for Michigan.
The Nose Tackle is key to the 3-4 scheme much the way the Middle Linebacker is to a 4-3. Great Nose Tackles like Vince Wilfork and new Detroit Lion Haloti Ngata are capable of swallowing up two offensive linemen on every play in an effort to clog up as much room as possible. Think of the Nose Tackle as that oversized load truck on a 2-lane highway you just can't pass. It's big, it's slow and you know that your car won't get that far by simply running into it. So who is this large, wide man for Michigan? Well several people actually.
The prime candidate appears to be redshirt Junior Willie Henry. At 6-foot-2 and 311 lbs. (up 18lbs since Durkin arrived) Henry is the perfect size to swallow up every running back, quarterback and lineman foolish enough to run his way. While, highly athletic (for a 300 lb. man) and quick off the ball Henry struggled to make an impact last season after a hand injury suffered during the game against Rutgers. In just 9 games and 6 starts though, Henry did produce 20 tackles, 3 sacks and an interception. As long as he remains healthy, Henry will likely be the starting Nose Tackle and a dark horse candidate for the All-Conference team.
Of course Henry is not the only man for the job, as Bryan Mone returns after a solid freshman season. The 6-foot-4 man out of Salt Lake City, Utah will look to build on the 5 games he played in last year as he continues to improve upon his already impressive mobility and speed. While Mone will certainly have to fight Henry for playing time, he offers additional depth on the D-line and could work well with Henry in two nose tackle schemes.
Finally there is Maurice Hurst Jr., a 6-foot-2, 281 lb. redshirt sophomore out of Westwood, MA. Hurst played sparingly his freshman year, seeing limited action in eight games but it was enough to give coaches and fans a taste of his abilities. While not as tall or as bulky as Henry or Mone, he has the upright quickness that could allow him to play multiple positions in Durkin's schemes.
All the chatter coming from Durkin and Mattison suggest that they are both really pleased with how these three have progressed. Assuming this is genuine confidence and not just coach speak, this could be an indicator that Durkin with be more comfortable running the 3-4 in his first year at Michigan. Look for 3-4 looks with Henry at NT and 4-3 with both Henry and Hurst inside during the spring game.
UPDATE: Much like every college coach outside of Brady Hoke, I too overlooked Ryan Glasgow. The redshirt sophomore nose tackle is coming off a breakout season where he started ten games and played in twelve. The walk-on brother of suspended lineman Graham Glasgow, Ryan brings his 6-foot-2, 297 lb. frame to the Nose Tackle table. The question with Ryan is much the same as all the defensive tackles, how will he deal with the 3-4? Given the small weight gap between himself and Henry, Glasgow will likely see more time in 4-3 sets while the bulky Henry will play the run stuffer in 3-4 schemes. The starters for the spring game will go a long way towards figuring out what this defensive line will look like come September.
The Defensive End is where things get a little more interesting. For starters, the 3-4 tends to put a little more pressure on the defensive ends in terms of playing the pass and the run. Often times a 3-4 defensive end will be asked to bluff the rush and play linebacker or vice versa. It is also a very selfless position, as defensive ends are often used to simply eat blocks and stuff the run, while blitzing linebackers look easy gaps to rush the passer. How Michigan's defensive ends deal with these changing roles will be key to Durkin's schemes.
The likely starter on the weak-side is Junior Taco Charlton who will hope to make more than just the All-Name Team this season. The 6-foot-6, 273 lb. man out of Pickerington, OH (home of Caris LeVert as well) brings NFL size and a high football IQ to the defensive end spot. After only playing in two games his freshman year, Taco played a strong nine games for the Wolverines in 2014. He accumulated 19 tackles and 4 sacks despite being behind Frank Clark on the depth chart for the majority of the season. Taco is capable of playing either side of the defensive line so Durkin will likely move him around often, but his primary role will be to rush the passer from the weak-side.
Next up on the list is Mario Ojemudia out of Farmington Hills, MI. The 6-foot-2, 252 lb. senior is coming off the best season of his career at Michigan and will likely see time at both strong and weak-side defensive end. Ojemudia offers a lot of experience having played in every game last season and 28 games overall. While Taco should have the inside track to be the team's primary pass rusher, Ojemudia will likely start for or log plenty of snaps at defensive end. I would look for a 3-4 or 4-3 look with both Taco and Mario at defensive end in a true third and long formation.
As for the remainder of the depth chart, Michigan has redshirt Junior Henry Poggi, Senior Tom Strobel and Senior Matt Godin. All three offer experience and solid size at defensive end, with a minimum height and weight of 6-foot-4, 270lb. Strobel and Poggi both saw the field in limited games last season and should provide valuable depth assuming one doesn't have a breakout season. Matt Godin's best strength is run blocking, making him a capable depth piece on the inside or strong-side of the defensive line.
So will it work?
Well the answer is probably... D.J. Durkin, Greg Mattison and Jim Harbaugh all have a history of great success when it comes to the defensive line so it would surprise me if these players weren't ready to perform come fall. I think the biggest questions revolve around D.J. Durkin mixing in more and more 3-4 looks. In general, multiple look defenses are more successful than a look defense when executed correctly, but it isn't always used because it is hard to execute. Not every team has the large nose tackle and versatile ends for the system to work, including (at this point) Michigan.
If the defensive tackles can handle the transition into a bulkier role, specifically Willie Henry, then the defense shouldn't miss a beat in run stuffing from last year to this one. As for the defensive ends, Taco Charlton will need to take a step forward for Michigan to have a truly fearsome pass rush while Mario will need to continue his solid performance. That being said, Durkin's multiple schemes put a greater emphasis on football IQ than raw talent. As long as the coaching sticks, Michigan's defensive line should continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.