Michigan hopes defensive shifts spark D

For the first time during Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, the Wolverines are going through major coaching changes. Offensive coordinator Al Borges was fired last month and replaced by Doug Nussmeier, and now the defensive side of the ball is seeing some changes, too.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will move his focus from the defensive line to the linebackers, secondary coach Curt Mallory will only coach the safeties while former outside linebacker coach Roy Manning will move back to the secondary and takeover coaching the cornerbacks. Linebacker coach Mark Smith will become the defensive line coach.

It’s not a huge surprise to see these moves considering how the defense stalled last season after making major strides in the coaches’ first two years in Ann Arbor. From 2012 to 2013, the defense saw an increase in opponent rushing touchdowns (9 to 14) and passing touchdowns (16 to 23).

The Wolverines didn’t make significant improvements in their rushing defense (3.8 yards per rush in both of the past two seasons) and saw increases in yards per opponent catch (increase of 1.3 yards from 2012 to 2013 season) and yards per play (increase of .4 yards).

Mattison, who took over the defensive line with Hoke when Jerry Montgomery left for Oklahoma, will now move over to working with the linebackers. The only other time in Mattison’s 40-year career that he worked specifically with linebackers was during the 2008 season with the Ravens, when he coached Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, who led the Ravens in tackles that season.

Hoke said it’s an opportunity for Mattison to run his defense from the middle, which shows a schematic shift from Mattison’s defensive focus, moving from the trenches to the linebackers, where Michigan arguably has the most talent and depth. This also gives Mattison the chance to have Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan, Ben Gedeon and so much other young talent in his meeting room daily.

Mallory will shift his focus from the entire secondary to just the safeties. For most of Mallory’s career he has coached the defensive backs. At Akron in 2010, however, he coached the cornerbacks while serving as the defensive coordinator.

With Manning making the move from outside linebackers to cornerbacks, he’ll be moving from one of the deeper position groups to one that struggled heavily last season. He’ll have experience in Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess but will work to further the development from Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.

The two coaching changes in the secondary will be interesting as it begs the question of who will be coaching Michigan’s mega-signee Jabrill Peppers, who was the No. 1 cornerback in the 2014 class but really could play anywhere in the defensive backfield. Hoke said on signing day that he just wants to get Peppers on campus before any decisions are made as to where Peppers will play, but that he’d definitely begin his career on the defensive side of the ball.

However, the most interesting move of all is Smith going from linebackers to defensive line. Smith hasn’t coached a defensive line since he was at Indiana State during the 2001-02 season, and he’s now replacing both the defensive coordinator and head coach as the leader of that unit. It was the Michigan position group that struggled the most last season. The defensive line was never able to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. During the 2001-02 season at Indiana State, the Sycamore defense allowed 3.7 yards per rush but recorded 24 sacks.

Smith will be able to work with a more mature Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, who’s expected to play on the line all season without bouncing from position to position. But he’ll also need to get contributions from younger players as well.

With the changes and shifts the Michigan coaching staff has gone through this offseason, it’ll certainly be a different appearance in 2014 even though the faces will mostly still be the same. But the coaches are hoping that these moves will help spark a defense that sputtered badly at times this past season.