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Can New Coaches — And A New Vision — Fix Michigan’s Defense?

Like anyone going through an identity crisis, Michigan football has had to make some changes. It’s tough to hang your hat on defense in today’s version of the game, but the Wolverines had done so under aggressive former defensive coordinator Don Brown, who took over for the 2016 season. The early returns were immediate and impressive … until they weren’t. 

Out with the old, in with the new. Brown is gone after a fairly disastrous 2020 season in which the Michigan defense dropped off a cliff, finishing 36th among Division I FBS teams in SP+ — a far cry from its usual top-10 performance — and contributing to the team’s 2-4 record. Head coach Jim Harbaugh shook up his coaching staff by hiring four new defensive coaches, including Maurice Linguist, who will serve as co-defensive coordinator. Linguist spoke with FiveThirtyEight as spring practice began in March to discuss defensive trends in college football and Michigan’s defensive identity.

Three months after joining the program, Linguist is continuing to evaluate what the Wolverines will look like on defense. But he’s not rushing it. “The easiest thing to do when you walk into a new job situation is to say OK, everything you guys did was wrong and everything I tell you is right and we need to blow up everything that you did,” he said. “I think that’s not the most efficient approach sometimes.”

Maurice Linguist with the Cowboys in 2020.

James D Smith / AP

That may be frustrating for Michigan fans who were out on Brown and his old-school approach. But consider Michigan’s former defense a hammer — a useful tool when you want to bludgeon opponents with myriad blitzes and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

Perhaps the most recent peak of this approach was a four-game span in 2018 against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Rutgers in which Michigan allowed a combined five offensive touchdowns. Everything looked like a nail to Brown’s Wolverines, who blitzed quarterbacks on just over 40 percent of dropbacks during those four games.

But it became apparent that Michigan needed a more multifaceted tool in a 62-39 loss to Ohio State at the end of that regular season, a loss that crushed its playoff hopes. Over and over again, the Wolverines played man coverage, whether it was behind a blitz or disguised at the snap — and over and over again, they got lit up on crossing routes just like this one.

The defensive performance showed that, against elite offenses, Michigan didn’t have the answers. To be fair, this certainly isn’t just a Michigan problem. Defensive coaches across the country are coming to grips with the fact that shutout defense is largely a thing of the past. 

There are, broadly speaking, two spectrums that defenses can fall: too simple or too complex. With coverages, Michigan was certainly more of the former, especially early in Brown’s tenure, as the team played man-to-man defense almost exclusively. Though his tendencies eventually became more balanced, Michigan remained one of the most man-heavy teams in college football. Even as Brown tweaked his squad’s identity, its play only got worse. So as is often the case when you get beat up on one end of the spectrum, Michigan could flip to the other. 

Is it worth building an inflexible defense made to shut out the Michigan States at the expense of being ill-equipped to respond to what Ohio State can throw at you? That’s the existential question facing the Wolverines. 

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“They had a system down that they felt strong about and playing a lot more man-oriented, and that’s definitely going to be a part of what we do,” Linguist said. “But there’s layers to having a great defense and just the perspective that we’re going to be bringing in. You don’t have to just live in one thing to be successful.”

Linguist, whose most recent stop was in Dallas as the Cowboys’ defensive backs coach, said all he did to his PowerPoints was change the logo. The language and terminology remains the same. But will that be too much of a swing for his college athletes?

The Cowboys’ scheme in 2020 was criticized as being too complex, and Linguist’s former boss, Mike McCarthy, said Dallas “went in with too much volume.” The Cowboys have since brought on Dan Quinn, whose single-high safety defense, honed during his time with the prolific Legion of Boom in Seattle, will take Big D’s D back to basics (although deficiencies on defense were part of the reason Quinn lost his head coaching job in Atlanta). And so the cyclical nature of the game goes. What gets one team beaten could be the answer to another’s problems.

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“At the end of the day, you’re asking yourself, are we putting the kids in the best position to be successful?” Linguist said. “Are we asking guys to do things that they’re capable of doing? And then do we have answers for whatever the situation that may arise? So that’s kinda the perspective that you approach anything that you do — we just happen to be doing it with football.“

Linguist will be asked to shore up the back end of Michigan’s defense while fellow co-defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald takes the lead up front. Macdonald most recently coached for the Baltimore Ravens under Harbaugh’s brother John, so expect the Wolverines to stay plenty blitzy. Linguist was clear that he wanted the defense to keep an aggressive mentality, and it will be up to the defenders behind those blitzes to hold up.

Whether the scheme they’re playing is simple or complex, the other piece of Michigan’s defensive woes lies in the talent department. The Michigan defense had five players taken in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL draft. Since then, the program has only had five more defensive players picked that early, and it isn’t expected to add more than one in the 2021 draft (defensive end Kwity Paye). Conversations about the scheme are one thing, but to get where Michigan wants to go, the bottom line is talent acquisition and development. The Wolverines have fallen short in that department.

“Part of the coaching is beating guys in the recruiting world, [which] gives you a better chance to beat ’em on the field as well,” Linguist said. “Nothing’s guaranteed, but getting the right players in, the guys that you want — and I got ’em here — maybe it’ll give you a leg up.” 

To say Michigan’s defensive coaching staff is experiencing a youth movement after the 65-year old Brown left is putting it mildly. Only one of the five defensive coaches, defensive line coach Shaun Nua, will be 40 years old when the 2021 season kicks off and the average age on that side of the ball is just over 36. That skews far younger than the average age of an FBS on-field coaching staff, which in 2020 was closer to 43 years old. Perhaps it’s an attempt to kill two birds with one stone — can younger coaches bring both new schematic ideas and recruiting prowess? 

Michigan will likely not flip the switch and turn into playoff contenders in 2021. (Quarterback play has held the offense back on the other side of the ball, though at least the modernization of that scheme began in 2019.) But significant strides in recruiting after a full cycle, combined with the coaching changes, could be enough to buy this staff another year to keep working on the Wolverines’ identity.

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Richard Johnson is a freelance media personality based in Brooklyn. The Gainesville, Florida, native is a college football lifer who recently fell back in love with the Jacksonville Jaguars and regrets it every day. He appears as an analyst on the SEC Network show “Thinking Out Loud,” and his work has appeared in For The Win and the Washington Post, among other places. He also co-hosts the “Split Zone Duo” podcast.