Last year with Jesse Minter at the helm of the defense, the Vanderbilt Commodores tied for dead last in team sacks, according to official NCAA statistics, coming in at 118th overall. Minter’s squad didn’t perform much better in total yards surrendered per game either.
Stats like these are jaw-droppingly poor and have provided the frothing Buckeye faithful plenty of fodder for ribbing given the recent successes of their new defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles. But as usual with blather that emanates from Michigan’s southeastern neighbor, this isn’t the whole story. Setting aside the obvious fact that Minter will have a much higher caliber of athlete at Michigan than at Vanderbilt, several figures from last year give room for optimism.
Addressing the frequent comparisons between himself and Mike Macdonald at a recent presser, Minter allowed the media an insight into his defensive worldview:
“We look at the game similar, but we’re different people. He might have looked at things a little more front to back. I look at — as a DB coach my whole career pretty much — seeing things from the back to front,” Minter said.
It’s clear that Minter’s vision for the defense starts with the secondary; Vanderbilt’s interceptions total bears this out. Without a single blue-chip recruit at cornerback or safety, the Commodores racked up 13 interceptions last year, good for 33rd in all of college football and tied for fourth in the SEC. For comparison, the Wolverines snagged just eight aerial takeaways, claiming a tie for 93rd in the nation.
Digested in tandem with Vandy’s horrendous sacks total — nine all season — this is quite the feat. On film, the zone-heavy defense divined by Minter put his secondary in a position to capitalize off miscues and errant throws against vastly superior competition. Vanderbilt was by no means a defensive juggernaut in 2021, but in Minter’s area of expertise — and greatest impact — the Commodores produced.
Why should Michigan fans be pleased by this? Look at the two most hated rivals: Michigan State and Ohio State. Without Kenneth Walker III, the Spartans will undoubtedly be a pass-first outfit with a turnover-prone quarterback in Payton Thorne, who tossed the 23rd most interceptions in the country last year with 10. Similarly, Ohio State’s spate of top-tier wideouts and Heisman-favorite CJ Stroud will look to the air to exact revenge upon Michigan (as long as it doesn’t snow). With another stout performance from Michigan’s secondary, Michigan may win in Columbus for the first time since 2000.
Minter’s scheme can also grow along with the young talent Michigan has brought in on the second level. The star potential of freshmen Keon Sabb and Will Johnson could begin to soar once they get the right amount of seasoning in this system.
3rd Down Defense
The Big Ten prides itself on being a grown man’s league, and nowhere else is a team’s mettle tested more than on third down. Stunningly, the 2021 Vanderbilt defense allowed a nearly identical percentage of third down conversion to that of National Champion Georgia (35.7 to 35.6), good enough for 33rd and 34th in America, respectively. Situational awareness and gamesmanship determine whether a drive continues or sputters, and Minter has the coaching acumen to kill drives.
At this point in the preseason, it might be a bit overzealous to say this year’s Michigan defense will be better than last year’s. However, what can be gleaned from Minter’s Vanderbilt tenure does not bode all doom and gloom for the Wolverines.
Stats don’t predict the future, but they can give insight into the thought processes of a coach. Expect the secondary to play a larger role in the generating impact plays on defense this fall, and don’t count the Wolverines out on third down as Big Ten season heats up.
Unlike a season ago with David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson in the spotlight, with Minter running the defense and no clear cut star along the defensive line, Michigan very well could lean on the secondary to generate big time plays in 2022.