Michigan uses defensive wrinkle

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It looks like a nickel, but it isn't. To some, what Michigan has done defensively from time to time this season would appear to benefit opposing offenses.

It doesn't. It is all part of the plan for the Wolverines.

Against run-heavy teams which try to spread the field -- notably Purdue and Illinois and potentially Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State coming up -- Michigan has spread its defense kind of like a nickel formation. Instead of bringing safety Thomas Gordon down or inserting Courtney Avery into the lineup, though, the Wolverines have stuck with their same base 4-3 personnel.

Instead, Michigan shifts a linebacker -- usually Jake Ryan or Kenny Demens -- over a slot receiver to take on either a receiver or a tight end as part of a plan from coordinator Greg Mattison.

"At first, when he started making me do it, I was uncomfortable with it," Ryan said. "But I kind of progressed and got better at it and knew what to see when a receiver is coming out or going out, what to take."

It is not a formation Michigan uses all the time, but over the past month it has become one of the package shifts the Wolverines have employed with some frequency.

This wrinkle was something the Wolverines started to implement during the spring, cornerback J.T. Floyd said, tweaked on their own during the summer and then reinforced during preseason camp.

Mattison decided to work on this schematic option for multiple reasons.

• Mattison had concerns about teams trying to run on Michigan out of the spread, an offense which would usually have multiple defensive backs on the field. Instead, it gives Michigan a surer tackler in either Ryan or Demens.

• With a potentially young -- or in other cases older but inexperienced -- defense, not shifting players in and out on every play could help settle them. Add to that, Michigan will sometimes face spread teams that like to run the no-huddle, so this could keep them prepared.

"Those are the biggest reasons," Mattison said. "And then our depth. ... Really, if your guys understand what to do, sometimes it is better to have your guys who are playing all the time in there instead of in and out all the time."

The Michigan linebackers most embody what Mattison was looking for, so he has had Demens and Ryan line up outside on different receivers, depending on what number they are assigned in the scheme based on the spread.

In a recent game, Demens would move out when the "three" receiver would move outside. Ryan would move when the "two" receiver would head into the slot or to the outside.

It has forced Demens and Ryan to become more adept in pass coverage, so when a team does throw out of the spread, Michigan is not at a disadvantage.

"It's more just schematic things," Demens said. "The coaches feel comfortable with putting me out in space or if it is in the box, it is just part of the scheme, just to get the right guys in the right location to make a play."

The shift of sorts does not change assignments for the rest of the defense. Floyd and Gordon said their roles remain the same. So did defensive end Craig Roh.

The only other change is when Demens moves outside, Michigan's third linebacker, Desmond Morgan, will sometimes move to the middle of the field. Even then, his responsibilities do not differ all that much.

"As far as bumping, game-to-game it's a tendency type of thing," Morgan said. "As far as my role, it doesn't change my role that often."

What it does, though, is give opposing quarterbacks one more thing to prepare for when facing a Michigan defense that is one of the toughest in the Big Ten.