After losses, Wolverines hope to rebuild defense

They put the pads on for the first time Tuesday, but Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English sounds like he's had his on well in advance of spring practice.

That's what happens in Ann Arbor when 11-0 and a No. 2 national ranking melts into 11-2 and a No. 8 finish after losses in the two biggest games on the schedule.

It takes a flak jacket to get a coach through the winter when he believes his team made progress, but to fans and perhaps even the players, it feels more like regress.

"I spoke to our guys the first day of spring ball about that very thing," English said. "I've told them, 'It's not what people on the outside think. It's about your character and the respect we have for each other.' We know we improved last year. I can't get caught up in what other people say, and neither can our players."

A year ago at this time, all the questions were about whether English could get a Michigan defense that consistently evaporated in the fourth quarter to finish its work and stop surrendering comebacks.

Now the questions are about whether English can keep his unit from collapsing like a third world economy in the two biggest games of the year.

Is that improvement? Sure, it is.

But is that good enough?

Anyone who watched Ohio State and USC walk over the Wolverines can answer that one.

A carnivorous Michigan defense that limited opponents to 12 points per game through 11 weeks allowed 42 points against Ohio State and 32 in the Rose Bowl loss to USC.

The 231 yards the Wolverines permitted in their first 11 games more than doubled in both defeats, with OSU compiling 503 yards and USC 439 yards of total offense.
The Buckeyes frolicked for 7.2 yards per snap, while the Trojans went for 6.5 yards per snap.

It was as if Michigan's four first-team All-Big Ten performers -- Alan Branch, LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Leon Hall -- all left in mid-November to get the jump on preparing for the NFL draft.

English, though, doesn't see the way the 2006 season ended as the utter failure others have labeled it.

"I look at those situations different than a lot of people," he said. "In the Ohio State game, we had a chance to win. We're down by four points with six minutes left and then [officials] make a helmet-to-helmet call [resulting in an OSU first down] that could have gone either way. Otherwise, we're off the field and we've given our offense a chance to win the game.

"We struggled in the first half against Ohio State, but we adjusted and came back and made plays. In the Rose Bowl, we struggled at the end of the game. But we're playing against talented teams there.

"To me, it's about attitude and effort. You're not always going to get the results you want. You'd obviously like to win those games, but we didn't. So we go back to work and try to change it this year."

The NFL defection of Branch a year early, along with seniors Woodley, Harris and Hall, leaves English with fewer established pieces for 2007.

Jamar Adams, Brandent Englemon and Morgan Trent are the veterans in the secondary. Up front, there's Terrance Taylor, and linebacker Shawn Crable also returns.

Otherwise, English won't give many details, "because I don't know every guy well enough."

Junior college transfer Austin Panter (6-3, 240) is already enrolled and could provide an answer at linebacker.

Carlos Brown, who came to Michigan as a running back and was the emergency backup to Chad Henne at quarterback last year, is switching to cornerback his spring.

But the biggest change is in the man coaching the defensive backfield. Vance Bedford, who directed Charles Woodson and Co. in Michigan's 1997 national championship season, is back for the first time in nine years.

"He's got some good young guys to work with," head coach Lloyd Carr said of Bedford. "Sometimes, you have a coaching change and he sees things differently, because he doesn't have anything to judge it with. He hasn't been here. He likes the guys he's coaching. He sees good potential there."

So does English, whose task is to pull off the same reclamation project Ohio State managed a year ago when the Buckeyes lost nine defensive starters from 2006, yet held up well until the national championship game.

"At places like Michigan or Ohio State, you're always going to have talented young guys who are hungry to play," English said. "Our attitude is, 'We're Michigan.' We're going to play a certain way.

"We've lost players before. We've lost All-Americans since I've been here. The bottom line is, the expectation is for the position, not the individual. I expect us to move on. Don't misconstrue. I loved every one of those guys we lost. But I understand one thing: "They can't help us any more. We have to put in the work and earn it on the field. And doing that starts in practice."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.