Michigan sophomore running back Chris Evans has noticed the difference in practice this spring. After spending his first year of college football running into one of the nation’s best defenses, Evans says this spring hasn’t been much different. In fact, he thinks the new group of Wolverines might have a step or two on last year’s team.
“They’re just faster to the ball,” he said Saturday after the team’s spring game. “They’re all together. As soon as you bounce something, the DBs are darting. I feel like they’re faster.”
Ten starters from last year’s defense are gone. All of them landed some version of an all-conference honor at the end of a 2016 season in which Michigan held its opponents to 14.1 points (second in the FBS) and 261.8 yards (tied for first) per game. Experience and depth will both take a hit as Michigan tries to gear for a run at a championship in Jim Harbaugh’s third season in Ann Arbor. Defensive coordinator Don Brown & Co. are hoping they can make up for the difference with speed.
Brown came to Michigan a year ago and inherited a group of seasoned veterans, many of whom will be NFL draft picks a couple of weeks from now. His “solve your problems with aggression” approach to attacking an opponent’s backfield netted immediate results but took time for players to fully understand. Senior linebacker Mike McCray, the lone returning starter, thinks that an extra year of familiarity with the playbook has been a big part of the acceleration this spring.
“We’re going after it, we’re not afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think we were afraid to make mistakes last year, but now you can see that because we know the system, we’re just out there playing. We don’t have to think as much.”
Beyond the handful of midyear enrollees, who are still “swimming” in new information according to Brown, many of the players who are stepping into new starting spots were at least able to get their feet wet in games during 2016. The expected starters at defensive line all played as regular rotation players last fall. Newcomers in the back end of the defense such as Khaleke Hudson and Tyree Kinnel, who combined for 10 tackles and a sack during Saturday’s spring game, were special teams mainstays a year ago.
While the list of ready-to-go players may not be as deep this time around, Michigan’s upperclassmen say the jump from being part of the rotation to being the main guy at a position hasn’t been very significant.
“For me, it feels the same,” defensive lineman Mo Hurst said. “I was in for big situations in games [last year]. It feels basically the same.”
Hurst and others said they’ve noticed a steady increase in athleticism on the recruiting trail since the new staff arrived at Michigan more than two years ago. Those top-10 recruiting hauls will have to start paying major dividends this fall, especially in the secondary. The unit that finished last season with the best passing defense in the nation didn’t rotate nearly as much as the defensive line. Brown said he was impressed with how the new wave performed on a bigger stage during the spring game.
McCray saw the same thing. He said that a lack of experience wasn’t going to be an acceptable excuse for the defense this season and so far it hasn’t been slowing them down.
“If you can play, you can play,” he said. “You can see, you can just tell at practice. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell we’re playing faster.”