ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan defensive line calls itself the heart of the team. But after a season in which the unit registered only 22 sacks it kind of seemed like the Wolverines’ heart was on life support.
“The thought of it, it’s like a sick feeling that comes about myself,” defensive end Frank Clark said.
Stanford led the nation in sacks with 57. Tulsa had 53, and Arizona State registered 52. Michigan didn’t even make the top 50 nationally for sacks, while four other Big Ten teams did -- Penn State (T-15th), Ohio State (T-28th), Indiana (46th) and Nebraska (48th).
Historically, the Wolverines are a very good team at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Being outpaced by teams like Indiana (which won just two Big Ten games last season) is not something that will stand.
So when defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery left at the end of last season, head coach Brady Hoke and defensive line coach Greg Mattison decided that they would take over the line themselves and they’ve seen advancements.
“I think some of the game work that Coach Mattison has done with them and the pass-rush stuff that he's really done a great job with them, teaching the techniques,” Hoke said. “You see that coming. You know, there's some guys that obviously have some very good ability who have been very good pass rushers, but as a whole I think there's a lot of improvement."
The team threw itself back into the fundamentals and focused on becoming a better line as a whole and individually. Clark said the team is watching game tape constantly and showing improvement.
“From spring to now, I believe we’ve become a way better pass rushing team, especially with the four-man pass rush,” Clark said. “You’ve got some guys in there, especially some of the younger guys who want to step up and they’ve become guys who have bought in to that four-man pass rush mentality.”
The team hasn’t set goals for how many sacks they’d like to get this season or how many they’d like to finish with after their first scrimmage this Saturday.
And it has been a little difficult for the Wolverines to truly count that number considering Michigan is going through camp with its quarterbacks in a non-contact agreement with the defense.
With so little depth at the quarterback position the Wolverines are doing their best to keep Devin Gardner healthy. While the no-contact rule has been helpful for the quarterbacks, it has been frustrating for the D-line at times.
Even when they break through, they can only run past Gardner or his back ups, Shane Morris and Brian Cleary. But, Clark said the team is keeping track in their own ways, knowing when they could’ve or should’ve had a sack.
“I’ll let DG know, I tap him on the behind really hard or come back after the play and let him know. I whisper in his ear, ‘I’m coming back,’ ” Clark said. “I tell Taylor [Lewan], I say it to him a little bit.”
The Wolverines will be hungry to actually hit a quarterback by the time the season opener rolls around at the end of August. However, whether this “heart of the team” will be pumping fully or in need of a surgeon remains to be seen.