Will Campbell, Michigan scrambling for answers to shaky rush defense
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan ranked 17th in the country last year in total defense, and was 39th against the run.
Through two underwhelming games this year, it is 83rd in total defense and 117th against the run.
Michigan (1-1) already has allowed 522 yards rushing heading into this week's game against Massachusetts (3:30 p.m., BTN). Only Nebraska, UTEP, Rice and Eastern Michigan have allowed more.
The Wolverines didn't allow their 522nd rushing yard last year until midway through their fourth game.
The stats are skewed, because Michigan has played only two games and they came against No. 1 Alabama and run-heavy, triple-optioning Air Force. Yet, the Wolverines are becoming increasingly concerned about their inability to get stops.
"We take that to heart," senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said Monday. "Me being up front and being a part of that front seven, that needs to stop the run, we take that to heart. We're going out every day trying to prepare ourselves to do better."
The breakdowns start in the middle of the defensive line.
Michigan was banking on Campbell, a former five-star recruit, to realize his potential after three ineffectual seasons. But he has struggled as a first-time starter, most pointedly with his pad level.
He is playing the position too high, which has caused him to consistently get blown off the ball. At one point, Air Force even seemed to target its runs at Campbell when he was in the game.
“He did some good things in there, but I think the consistency from a leverage standpoint and the pad level at times, he needs to play a little better," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
"One thing is William’s come to work every day and I’ve loved his work ethic, I’ve loved how he’s come in to lead. I expect he’ll keep improving.”
But pad level has plagued Campbell throughout his career. This isn't a new problem. Is it correctable?
“I think the only way you correct it is doing it every day right, and those good habits that you try and create," Hoke said. "I think with Will, playing defensive line maybe didn’t come naturally at first to him.”
Campbell is now being pushed for time by freshman Ondre Pipkins, who Hoke said is getting better every time he touches the field.
At nose tackle, junior Quinton Washington is inexperienced as a new starter this season, but also improving. He recorded five tackles against Air Force, up from just one in the opener.
“I think the more experience, game situation, I think they all tend to play better and at the same time they can see the correctable things that they need to do better,” Hoke said.
While Michigan's interior searches for answers, the ends might have found one in Frank Clark. The sophomore was suspended for the opener following an offseason arrest for allegedly stealing a laptop, but was terrific in his return against Air Force.
He finished with four tackles, and might have been Michigan's most disruptive lineman, despite coming off the bench. Two of his tackles were for loss, and he also had one pass breakup.
"He's a great football player, great athlete," Campbell said. "It opens up a lot for everybody else. Them worrying about him coming off the edge (is) giving us more room in the middle to work with."
The onus for shoring up the leaks in the rush defense doesn't fall exclusively on the line. Linebackers are responsible as well, and senior Kenny Demens has looked timid in the middle.
He was benched in favor of freshman Joe Bolden against Air Force, and the Wolverines' rush defense improved. Freshman James Ross also is challenging Desmond Morgan for the job at weak-side linebacker.
Michigan is scrambling, trying to find a combination that can be effective after allowing 848 yards of offense in its first two games. That includes inserting the freshmen Pipkins and fellow newcomer Mario Ojemudia up front, and Bolden and Ross at linebacker.
The good news for Michigan: UMass (0-2) ranks just 121st on the ground. It is averaging 1.35 yards per carry and 40.5 rushing yards per game, and scored only six combined points against UConn and Indiana.
The Minutemen's leading rusher, incidentally, is former Michigan tailback Michael Cox. He has 32 yards on 20 carries.
"We're just going into this game looking for the win," Campbell said. "A lot happened. It's in the past now, so we're just looking forward to playing UMass."