U-M defense looks faster through spring

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Despite the weather feeling more appropriate for a late November Michigan-Ohio State matchup, the quality of play was clearly that of a team in spring ball.

Coaches were on the field and the stands were sparse. And the fact that it wasn’t a real game was only highlighted by the fact that the quarterbacks wore bright orange uniforms signifying the no contact on QBs spring game.

But there were a few times -- from one player in particular, early enrollee Taco Charlton -- that pressure broke through the offensive line and took down backup quarterback Brian Cleary.

“Freshman,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in the post-scrimmage press conference with a smile and a shake of his head.

Perhaps Hoke can shake it off because, even though it went against all efforts to keep all quarterbacks out of harm’s way, it showed that the Wolverines defense was in fact becoming faster -- one of the main goals of the spring.

And throughout their practices, coaches and players had said it felt and seemed as though Michigan was a faster defense, the increased speed a combination of personnel and multiple years of familiarity with the defensive playbook.

“I’m seeing us play faster,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said last week. “I’m seeing us play a lot faster than I remember my first year here. ... But when I’m standing back there watching it, I go, ‘Wow, this starts to look like we’re getting to the football better.’ ”

And that product -- one that did get to the football faster -- seemed to be on display Saturday, something that wasn’t always true last season.

And the problems with speed last season started up front. It was an issue that plagued Michigan at times and put too much pressure on linebackers and defensive backs. Highlighted by Charlton’s quarterback hurries/sacks, the front four’s pressure and speed was improved as a group Saturday.

“I think we’ve grown,” Hoke said. “I think we’ve got some young kids who have some ability, obviously, but I think with Greg and his passion and how he teaches it. ... The guys are excited about it. They know what we want to do and what the goal is.”

The D-line knows the expectation to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks falls on its shoulders. It also knows that much of the talk last season was how the front four wasn't fast enough or good enough.

“We take it personally,” defensive tackle Quinton Washington said. “That’s our job, every single play we have to get to the quarterback. ... We do take that personally and we’re working on it every day.”

And with the increased speed up front, Michigan’s linebackers and defensive backs had some pressure taken off their shoulders, which was an important development in the limited practice time this spring.

With linebacker Jake Ryan out until at least next October and defensive back Blake Countess out for spring ball, there is a lot of youth taking snaps.

But through the scrimmage, the youth at both position groups seemed to move faster, “flying to the ball,” as Mattison has said so many times.

Sophomore linebacker James Ross III was noticeable in this respect. He had his head and hands on many plays, and when he didn’t, he was on his way. He ran with the first group and split snaps and MIKE and WILL with Desmond Morgan.

“James has had a very good spring,” Hoke said. “He’s a good football player, he has great instincts. He has good burst and movement to the football.”

With increased pressure from the front seven, fewer stops had to be made in the secondary. There were a few big passes that quarterback Devin Gardner snuck through, showing there is still a lot progress to be made on both sides of the ball.

At the end of the day it was a situation which heavily favored the offense, but the defense found a way to look impressive in just 60-odd plays. And much of that can be credited to the speed at which the defense played.

“We’re becoming a faster defense,” defensive end Frank Clark said. “We’re becoming a better defense.”