Michigan Football Preview 2017

2017 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 43 of 179

42 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2017 FOOTBALL PREVIEW BY CHRIS BALAS R ome, Italy, April 2017 … the gladiator pit. Michigan's football team had already enjoyed some sightseeing and educational ex- periences, taught a bit of American football to refugees and eaten at some outstanding restaurants, well on their way to an incred- ible experience overseas. But as most who know him know by now, no Jim Harbaugh-led trip is complete without some "good, healthy, honest competition." So after a few days of getting to know the lay of the land, he and his team enjoyed a paintball war before moving on to some simulated sword fighting. It was there that defensive coordinator Don Brown added to his growing legend. The walrus-mustached coach with the thick New England accent had always backed up his talk — specifically, "solve your problems with aggression" — on the football field; now he was given the opportunity to apply it in a different scenario, going head to head in a wooden sword fight battle with passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton. His defensive players looked on in anticipation, as if they knew what was coming … and they were right. Within seconds, their 61-year-old leader had vanquished his opponent with several "blows" to the midsection, driving Hamilton backwards with each thrust. His players went nuts, hoisting him on their shoulders and screaming in celebration. In just a few seconds, their coach had proven he was all about living everything he'd been teaching them. *** Brown had already offered a glimpse of his personality and intrigued reporters with his in-your-face style when he was first introduced as Michigan's defensive coordinator, replacing now-Maryland head coach DJ Durkin in early 2016. Several months later, during one of the Big Ten Network's shows, analyst and former NCAA head coach Gerry DiNardo made the mistake of calling Brown's defense "high risk, high reward" — and it was then that reporters saw the full Brown Effect. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," he said, shaking his hand at the group. "That's a bunch of baloney. "High risk? No. Come on. We just don't throw this stuff against the wall. Come on … we're not doing that. We're looking at formations, personnel groups, and we lean to be on the aggressive side. Whether you're running or passing the ball we're going to have the ability — when we dictate — to come." In other words, take the fight to the opponent, not the other way around. Everything he calls will have been studied thoroughly, he said, to the point that they'll have run it at least 100 times in practice. Then he got in one reporter's face in demonstrating the press-man principles he teaches his players, picking up thousands of YouTube views in the process. A sheepish DiNardo met with Brown one- on-one this spring, at which point the Big Ten Network showed the footage … and DiNardo with his foot in his mouth. For once, Brown took his foot off the gas. "That was way out of proportion," Brown said, kindly, when DiNardo apologized. "We are [high risk] to some degree. If you deem pressure high risk, we are. "But obviously, you've got to do a great job of evaluating protections, personnel groupings. So we think it's a little less high risk because we spend the time necessary to kind of hopefully put our guys in the best position possible in those scenarios." Rather than high risk, high reward, Brown again turned to his familiar adage, saying he'd prefer the phrase he's coined over the years. "Solve your problems with aggression. That's the line in our locker room," he said. "We want our guys to realize that it's going to be an aggressive mindset. "We're going to play the games on the balls of our feet. We're not going to be a read-type defense. We're going to penetrate, attack and knock them back. That's the way I want our guys to play this tremendous game." They'll almost always bring five rushers, he said, and even when they bring four it's often disguised with a purpose. There are times quarterbacks will face six or even seven defenders coming after him. But everything is done for a reason. There were several moments last year, he noted, when they were able to confuse quarterbacks trying to run the read option. "For example, we're in a spread run play," Brown said. "Let's take the zone read where the quarterback is reading the defensive end. All of a sudden the defensive end is in the 'B' gap [between the tackle and the guard], and here comes the outside linebacker to take his spot in the twist piece, and we're bringing the backside linebacker from the other side. "We actually had several occasions last year where we were able to get that linebacker free and the quarterback is reading the onside defensive end. He's getting hit in the back because he's reading the end and doesn't know the available backer is coming. We're trying to not give him a clean, easy read." There are times, too, in which his theories are tested and his team has to adapt. No opponent will ever get him to change his philosophy, however, even when things aren't going well early in a game. U-M fell behind by two touchdowns early to Colorado and gave up big plays on defense before rallying for a 45-28 win. "Colorado, we struggled in the first quarter of that game and we just kept the foot on the gas in the second quarter, kind of played our way back in and continued on in the third quarter," Brown said. "That was your big test, right there, because we gave up a 70- yard pass early in the third quarter. That was a game where you could be tested where you say, 'Oh, we've got to be careful. We don't want to pressure here.' "I think that was a scenario that we needed to put our foot on the gas to prove we could fight our way through it. That, I thought, was a turning point for us last year." From there, it only got better. They forced Rutgers to punt 16 times in a 78-0 road win and didn't allow a first down until the fourth quarter. They allowed only 125 first downs in Big Ten play, compared to the 172.3 conference average. In all games, they led the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.1 points allowed per THE AGGRESSOR Don Brown's Attacking Defense Has More Than Met The Hype Brown's defense ranked first or second na- tionally in seven categories, including first downs allowed (186, first), third-down con- version percentage allowed (.210, first), total yards allowed per game (261.8, first) and red zone trips allowed (28, first). PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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