By: Will Burchfield
Don Brown knew his young defense would be fast and athletic this season.
He couldn’t have predicted it’d be so savvy, so collectively alert.
The Wolverines surprised their defensive coordinator in Saturday’s season-opening win in which they held the Florida offense to just 192 yards and three points.
“We’re smarter than I thought, to be quite honest with you,” Brown told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “Our guys take great pride in doing things the right way.”
No. 8 Michigan returned just one starter on defense this season, but that didn’t stop Brown from installing a number of complex schemes in training camp. The Wolverines proved well-read in their first test.
“We’re playing a lot of concept and in some of those pieces there’s some pressure scenarios where it’s all gapped out. With guys in the wrong gap bad things happen, so it’s important that the guys function as a group. For whatever reason,” said Brown, “it just seemed like we got off on the right foot and played well in execution.”
Aside from a couple of long passing plays, Michigan held Florida in check from start to finish. No, the Gators aren’t expected to be a strong offensive team, but Brown was impressed with the fluidity of his defense, particularly in the secondary.
“It’s all got to function together. Everyone’s got to do their job and there’s a lot of communication. I think the communication on the backend was the thing that struck me,” Brown said. “But I’ll be honest with you, I felt going into it that we would communicate well because in practice you could see the communication get better and better on a daily basis.”
Up front, the defense was all but impenetrable. Florida gained just 11 yards on the ground, engulfed by a swarm of Wolverines on nearly every rushing attempt. Michigan racked up 11 tackles for loss.
“Our ability to run to the football as a defense was probably the most striking thing on Saturday. We had five or six misalignments — not gross errors, but areas of improvement — but we certainly ran to the football to take care of any of the ill effects. I think that showed up in our stats in the run game,” said Brown. “The longest run from scrimmage was a QB scramble for 16 yards.”
Perhaps the best example of youth rising to the occasion was linebacker Devin Gill, who was thrown into the fire when Mike McCray — the lone returning starter on defense — got dinged up in warmups and missed the opening series.
Gill didn’t see any game action in 2016, but Brown felt he acclimated himself well in his debut.
“I think he graded out almost perfect. He didn’t even know he was starting until I grabbed him by the throat and said, ‘Hey, let’s go, baby! You’re up.’ Then we got Mike back for the second series and life was good again, that’s for sure,” said Brown.
The Wolverines’ impressive defensive showing on Saturday owes in part to how much Brown asked of them over the summer. He stretched them mentally, and they were limber in the season-opener.
“It was not an easy training camp for these young guys. Not pretty, very demanding, as Coach (Harbaugh) always puts together a camp where we’re going to develop character, we’re going to develop callous. But we challenged them on concept, not only from a four-down scenario but a three-down scenario as well,” Brown said.
They proved up to the challenge against Florida. Their next test will come Saturday versus Cincinnati.
Brown, who knows the height of their collective potential now, is expecting even more.
“Usually you can make your biggest gains between game 1 and game 2,” he said. “But in terms of preparation and execution of the plan and just watching our guys run around, I really felt good about our first challenge.”