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How Michigan’s ‘no-star’ defense has been one of the most successful in recent memory

Superior coaching has led Michigan to maintain its elite status without clear-cut All-American stars.

Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

When the critics were forecasting a downturn for the Michigan Wolverines in 2022, they unanimously cited the departures of Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Dax Hill to the NFL. Even the most optimistic Michigan fans believed the defense would take a step back.

The reality has been almost the exact opposite. Michigan ranks No. 3 in overall defense, No. 5 in scoring defense and No. 3 in rushing defense. These are the marks of a stout, physical unit that prides itself on consistency and bowing up when the sledding gets tough.

Nicknamed the “no-star defense” by head coach Jim Harbaugh this past offseason, this outfit has taken the Big Ten by storm and will play a pivotal role in determining the final chapter of the 2022-23 campaign.

The mastermind

At the epicenter of this phenomenon is the coaching staff, especially defensive coordinator Jesse Minter. Hailing from the Baltimore Ravens organization, he was tasked with maintaining the NFL style of defense his predecessor, Mike Macdonald, established the season prior.

Centered around adaptability, sound fundamentals and discipline, implementing the Ravens’ defense to the college landscape has paid dividends.

The results

In many respects, Michigan was the perfect destination for this system. Without a clear star on the defensive side of the ball, schematics became more important. Two points best illustrate this.

First is Michigan’s second-half score differential. Over the entirety of the Big Ten season, Michigan has outscored its opponents by 163 points in the second half. In big games — Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue — Michigan outscored its foes by a 98-to-15 margin, nearly a 21-point advantage per second half.

Minter is a virtuoso at diagnosing strengths and weaknesses on the fly, and a mastermind at putting his plans for improvement into action. Michigan’s claim to the title of the best second-half team in the nation is largely attributable to the schematic and diagnostic work of Minter during halftime.

Then there is the red zone defense. Discipline and coordination reign supreme in this crucial part of the field. While Michigan’s stats in this area aren’t off the charts, they do match up well relative to a possible national championship opponent.

The Wolverines allow just a shade under 80% of its foe’s red zone possessions to result in points. Georgia, on the other hand, surrenders points on 60.7% of its opponents’ trips to the red zone. However, when we look at the percentage of opponent red zone trips that resulted in touchdowns, that differential between the Wolverines and the Bulldogs is cut substantially. Georgia allowed foes to score nine touchdowns on 28 red zone attempts, and Michigan has given up 11 on 29 tries.

The stat lines are virtually identical. Given that Georgia has more five-star athletes on that side of the ball, the reasonable conclusion is the Michigan coaching staff has excelled in getting the most out of their players.

Minter and his cadre of top-notch assistant coaches are to thank for the success of the 2022 Wolverine’s defense. The second-half dominance the Wolverines have asserted all season long originates in the analysis and strategizing undergone on the defensive side of the locker room at halftime. And the ability of the defense to prevent red zone touchdowns bespeaks the discipline and mental fortitude instilled in the players by a top-flight coaching staff that has vaulted Michigan into the College Football Playoff.

By the time the last pieces of confetti fall in the late hours of Jan. 9, some stars will have been born. But if that confetti is maize and blue, the stars of the formerly no-star defense of the Wolverines will be shining the brightest.