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Steve Clinkscale on how Michigan’s defense can make history

The co-DC breaks down how experience and talent can be built upon to take Michigan’s secondary to new heights this fall.

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

Perhaps one of the groups with the greatest amount of buzz is Michigan’s secondary. With a lot of key pieces back for another chance at glory and new additions joining the ranks, they have the makings to go toe to toe with anyone in the country. Co-Defensive Coordinator Steve Clinkscale joined Jon Jansen this week on In the Trenches to discuss the strides of the secondary and how to utilize their expansive depth to their advantage come this fall.

A combination of experience and blocking out the noise has led to a marked improvement even from this spring. For the majority of the guys, they have at least two years in Michigan’s current defense and that has let them focus more on the fundamentals heading into this season. “In the system we run now, definitely most guys have at least two years working in this defensive scheme and its terminology. Everything we have tried to stress and improve upon, they have heard it for several years now,” Clinkscale shared. “It’s a big bonus for us so we can continue to elevate our game.”

Those concepts have further expanded what the defense can achieve. The players already have innate skill and knowledge of the system, so now they can build on some foundational assets. “The guys when they are understanding the scheme and the system, they are able to focus more on the effort, the angles of the ball, the pursuit, do a better job of tackling and takeaways, and a much better job communicating,” Clinkscale said.

The union of these two concepts, according to Clinkscale, will help take the defense to further heights. “I think their physical nature, married up with understanding the game, formation and tendencies, will continue to help us elevate,” he shared, “They have taken ownership, they want the rest to elevate with them.”

There are a multitude of ways to experiment with this link between the experience and the physical power the secondary possesses to be ready for game action come fall. “I think with everything it is reinforcing with video, with practice, showing the opportunities that will come in the game,” Clinkscale explained, “A lot of times we show the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent, a lot of times we show them all the strengths and how good they are. To give them the opportunity to make the plays and see how they get better has been the biggest thing for us.”

The other side of the coin is being mentally ready for the ups and the downs of a season, but according to Clinkscale, that is something the secondary hasn’t shied away from. They recognize that they are going to be called and have to face whatever outcome that may arise. “They are working harder to be mentally sound,” he shared, “There is no place to hide here anymore, you have to produce, you have to play, you have to continue to be a great student for us.”

He continued, “Everybody has to compete and work. We want to see who is going to do everything we ask as far as effort, tackling, defeating blocks, covering, being willing, and being able to execute.”

A dynamic secondary

Experience also calls for the emergence of leaders. One of those guys is Mike Sainristil, someone who returned with more to prove. He’s the type of player that will go where told and do what is asked because he recognizes that it is for the betterment of the team. “You have Mikey Sainristil, who can play corner, safety, and nickel, wherever you ask him to. He’s definitely the catalyst to that group, helping those guys improve their game,” Clinkscale said.

He added, “(Sainristil) is going to hold you accountable. He is a lot more focused, he is about his business. He knows he can’t do this by himself, so he is bringing people in.”

Then there are guys like Will Johnson, who’s innate talent has earned him recognition and high expectations. While the hype could get to anyone’s head, Clinkscale shared that Johnson doesn’t let that phase him. Clinkscale notes the effort that Johnson puts in day-in and day-out is proof that blocking out the noise will lead to continued growth.

“He will tell you he can improve in every phase. He never forgets any time he has been beat, whether that’s practice, walkthrough or in the game,” Clinkscale said, “He wants to be a dominant player every snap. He is a great zone coverage guy, keeping his eyes, he’s got good instinct. His biggest thing is seeing how he works, he feels like he has a lot to prove.”

The secondary is dripping with potential because of the hunger to be better. With immense depth and talent across the board, they have all the makings to be one of the best in the country. “Like last year, you had all the pieces, it’s what type of legacy you want to leave,” Clinkscale explained, “We are manufacturing right now, building on it, the defense feeds off offense, we all feed off special teams. The coaches, if we can put it all together, the defense can continue to make history.”