The Michigan Wolverines are going to be what they have always been under fifth-year defensive coordinator Don Brown (cue the comments section exploding below): fast and aggressive. But each season brings about new challenges and different wrinkles given the personnel that Michigan has to work with and the 2020 season figures to be no different.
Brown addressed this during Monday’s edition of the “Inside Michigan Football” radio program and spoke about how you have to adjust heading into each season with new faces cycling into the lineup.
“You start with your own guys and say, ‘okay, what are we good at?’ The things you’re good at, you want to make sure that you emphasize and play to your players strengths,” Brown said. “A year ago, we were probably a more three-down than we’ve been at any point since I’ve been here. We had several defenses since that were a little thin inside and we had Josh Uche. You’ve got to find ways to get those guys on the field — the Mike Danna’s of the world along with Kwity and Aidan Hutchinson. The Mike Dannas of the world — how do we get him going? How do we get Uche involved? That’s where you start is look at your own personnel. Then, the analytics come into play. What are you playing well? What aren’t you playing well? How’s the coverage support system, how’s that playing? You kind of put all that together and A. you plan the course for the year and then B. when the season is over, what are you going to look like next year?
“For example, we’re much deeper in the front four. I think we’ve got several guys that have matured there. We’ve got guys that are coming along. Now, you’ve got to reopen the playbook and say, okay, what plays to these guys strengths? I think we’re doing that and couldn’t be happier with the way the players have approached the learning curve and the things that we need to do to get prepared for this season, especially when it looked like we were out of it for a short period of time.
That second paragraph is a highlight here due to the fact that so many have voiced their concerns about depth on the defensive line — namely at the tackle spots — coming off of a year where Michigan needed more there. Carlo Kemp is a team captain and will be relied upon once again as a veteran presence, but the buzz coming out of Ann Arbor continues to be that the Wolverines are expecting to be deeper there.
“At tackle, Christopher Hinton, Donovan Jeter and this Julius Welschof and Mazi Smith, those guys have all put themselves in a position where you would be comfortable putting them in a game and knowing you’re going to get a quality effort,” Brown said. “Meaning they’re gonna know what to do, gonna know how to function and is going to go out and play hard and play fast. Also, Carlo Kemp, Jess Speight. A guy that has made significant improvement is Phil Paea. If I had to pick one guy up front that I’m excited, it’s this Julius Welschof. He is now 290 pounds and he runs exactly like he ran when he was 260. We’re seeing big things out of him. His ability to run and chase the football from the inside is kind of what we were hoping he would do a year ago, sometimes it just takes a little longer. (Michigan Football Performance Dietician Abigail O’Connor) has done a really good job helping him nutritionally and he’s playing at a high, high level. That’s kind of the guys that I see right now. We’ve got Braeden McGregor who is still coming off injury. Obviously, we haven’t seen him at his best to no fault of his own. We’ll get that done here as we continue to move forward.”
Brown has had defensive lines at Michigan that have been able to go as deep as eight or nine players at times, but he believes that this could be one of the deepest that he has had since he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2016.
“Yes. I think without question,” he said. “It’s a nice group because they all pull for each other. There’s not a lot of (selfishness). These guys cheer for each other, they root for each other. It’s a great room. I think (defensive line coach) Shaun Nua has done a great job cultivating it. We’re just anxious to let these guys go in a few weeks to see where we’re at. We’ve had a lot of work going since the middle of June and I’m just excited to see those guys play, that’s all I can say.”
Last season saw Kemp as the lone consistent presence at defensive tackle with a rotating cast of characters next to him. Michael Dwumfour (who transferred to Rutgers) could not stay on the field, Jeter struggled to find a role, Ben Mason had switched over there from fullback then switched back and Hinton and Smith were true freshmen still finding their footing. Jess Speight came on late in the year, but there was still a lot to be desired.
The position on paper appears to be in a healthier spot than it was last year. Now, we wait to see how it looks on the field.