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Posted on Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 6:30 a.m.

Analysts say subpar talent is the root of Michigan's defensive problems

By Dave Birkett


Penn State running back Evan Royster bursts past Michigan tacklers Obi Ezeh, (45), and Jonas Mouton on Oct. 24. Penn State had 396 total yards against Michigan.

There’s no quick fix for what ails Michigan’s defense.

Several analysts who’ve followed the team this year say a glaring lack of talent, not scheme or coaching, is the reason the Wolverines rank last in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense in conference games.

“I just don’t think they’re as talented as they need to be,” ESPN analyst Shaun King said. “I think they play hard, but I think the skill guys right now they’re playing against are better than the defensive personnel they have.”

King, who played for Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez at Tulane, said the most obvious weakness is a lack of athleticism in the secondary.

“I don’t think they play the ball very well in the air,” King said. “But again, I think that’s because I’m not sure how good they are across the board back there.”

Michigan (5-4, 1-4) has shuffled personnel looking for the right mix in its defensive backfield. Only right cornerback Donovan Warren has started every game at the same position this year.

Boubacar Cissoko, who started the first four games at left corner, was kicked off the team last month. Troy Woolfolk moved from strong safety to cornerback to replace Cissoko. Walk-on Jordan Kovacs switched from free to strong safety to replace Woolfolk. And Mike Williams starts at free safety, but has missed time with injury and proven to be a liability on passing downs.

“They’re having difficulty matching speed,” ESPN analyst Lee Corso said. “You get them in the open field and they’re having a tough time. And that used to be Michigan’s forte. They just don’t seem to have speed and quickness on defense.”

Big Ten Network analyst Chris Martin, who’ll broadcast his third Michigan game Saturday against Purdue, said the secondary has played like “part of the hospital burn unit,” and its problems are compounded by issues up front.

Michigan ranks ninth in the Big Ten with 16 sacks and has one of the smallest defensive lines in the league.

“I think their inability to get pressure up front has kind of caused them to pressure a little bit, no pun intended,” Martin said. “Now it’s like they’re working so hard to get to the quarterback and get sacks, they’re getting gashed on run plays.

“I think some of that is talent, I think some of that is inexperience, but I also think some of it’s schematic. Michigan does a lot. (Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson) gives them a lot of formations, a lot of looks, a lot of movements and sometimes it can be paralysis by analysis when they’re thinking so much that they don’t play fast and sort of maximize their talent.”

Ray Bentley, who worked the Michigan-Indiana game and played seven seasons of linebacker in the NFL, said Robinson “does a great job" scheming defenses.

"But he doesn’t have the building blocks to work with," Bentley said. "They lack talent. I think they play hard, but everybody plays hard.”

According to one talent evaluator, defensive end Brandon Graham is Michigan’s only high-level NFL defensive prospect. Warren projects as a "later"-round draft pick, and Mike Martin is “a good college player” who “might have a chance at the next level,” the evaluator said.

“This isn’t a knock on Lloyd Carr, but that cupboard was pretty bare that Rich inherited,” King said. “He walked into a kitchen without any food in it.

“When I look at their overall roster they don’t have the same kind of players that Penn State, that Ohio State have on defense right now. There are no Sean Lee-, Navorro Bowman-type players right now. They got to be able to get some.”

Penn State and Ohio State, not surprisingly, lead the Big Ten in every major statistical defensive category.

Michigan, meanwhile, is allowing more rushing yards (161.8 vs. 136.9) and total yards (382.1 vs. 366.9) per game than it did last year, when it gave up the most points in school history.

Still, ESPN and ABC analyst Matt Millen, who’s broadcast two Michigan games this year and will work a third Nov. 21 against Ohio State, said Michigan has overachieved as a team this year.

“When they started the season everybody was saying if they could just get to a .500 season that would be a good year,” Millen said. “Well they’re way past that. That’s a good football team. People have forgotten that, and they’ve been playing with the same guys and trying to find the right combinations all season long and you’re still getting people in and out of there.”

Bentley said Michigan might end up a bowl team - the Wolverines need one win in their final three games to qualify for the postseason - but “I don’t think they’re close to closing in on a Big Ten championship.”

“I think they're three or four years from that,” he said.

King said a turnaround could happen sooner. He said Rodriguez is "frustrated" by Michigan's recent struggles, but has prioritized recruiting better athletes on defense.

"He understands he has a really young team on offense and he’s got to get better players on defense," King said. "And that’s not any secret.”


Dave Birkett covers University of Michigan football for He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.



Fri, Nov 6, 2009 : 12:08 a.m.

Here we go again. Blame the defense. Don't get me wrong, Michigan's secondary is the worst I have ever seen it. However, when special teams and the Offense can't hold on to the ball and make plays, a young Defense eventually gets tired. The defense this year is actually much improved this year in how the make tackles. Last year Michigan had a case of the turn over blues. It doesn't seem much better this year. Dropping the ball on kick off returns repeatedly is pathetic. Part of the turns overs could be attributed to unexpectedly having to break in a new center by pulling a guard. Some of you guys are kidding about Tate right? Tate is one of the few bright spots on the Offense. Denard is quick, but he is an unreliable passer. Plus Denard has a case of the fumblelitis. As a Quarterback, you can't do much if your line stinks, and the rest of the team is dropping balls. Further, coaching is to blame for 1) turn overs, 2) the over all game plan, and 3) not teaching the basics (like how not to project your assignments). Great Coaches like Ohio State's Tressle design a game plan around the available talent, not the other way around. I also do not get the fascination with the West Coast Offense. It is great in places like California where the weather is always dry. Here in the Midwest, most of the season is plagued with bad weather. A fast style Offense that relies on being able to get rid of the ball quick isn't necessarily best suited for our climate. When it is raining or snowing, hard nosed offense is the best way to go. Going to the air is unreliable. Michigan has to much money not to rebuild it's program, but I am not impressed with Rodriguez. If there isn't significant improvement next year, I suspect he will be gone. Michigan's fan base's patience has only so much patience. We can live with a 8 win season. A 6 win or less season three years in a row won't make it.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 9:09 p.m.

There a multistage fix that starts with getting a new coach


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 5:56 p.m.

djuninho - they did, with talent that went on to the NFL or otherwise is no longer here. saginaw - 2006 - that would be the season that they had talent, except they still lost to OSU in a close but high scoring game, and then were blown out (in the secondary) by USC in the Rose Bowl. My point is the secondary problem dates back at least to the 2006 team you bring up, and it was not solved by Carr/English recruited classes in 2005, 2006, or 2007 (2007 being mostly Carr recruits, but having some shared responsibility with Rich Rod). Bottom line is it is a problem. It will likely be next year, and Rich Rod and Greg Robinson better land some talent to close the gap in this next recruiting class.

Do Better

Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 5:44 p.m.

I do not understand how u fans say rich rod has brought down the program because has I read different post I see nothing but UM losses in big games. I guess if you go 9-3 every year in the big ten that is what u call being a elite program and you wonder why the nation laughs at big ten football


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 5:02 p.m.

@ maizenbluenc: You bring up the losses that occurred under English's watch... that's fine, but at least they took care of the Big 10 portion of the schedule and didn't lose to the MSU's, PSU's, and Illinois' of this world...


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 5 p.m.

Now Ron English has a legitimate excuse that he inherited a bare cupboard at EMU... they wouldn't have fired their previous coach (and the one before that) if they were winning MAC titles...


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 4:32 p.m.

Haven't read all the comments, but I know one thing that keeps coming up is talent--and particularly on WTKA, they will point to how many players who would be playing for Michigan now have left one way or the other. I have a hard time completely buying that, because why would Michigan ever be in a position where having some of the roster leave means what's left is mediocre? How did recruiting get that low? The roster now suggests that a LOT of subpar players were recruited to Michigan. What is the reason for that??? Very hard to believe. Also, while only one of the "analysts" comments points to scheme or coaching at all...I mean, get real. Who is going to say with their name on the comment to the media "Rodriguez's staff is not doing a good enough job in this area"? Unless you're talking to Lane Kiffin or maybe Mark Dantonio, no is going to come out and be that "classless" unless they're anonymous. Michigan does seem schematically confused on defense at times. They don't always seem to know what a team's tendencies well enough before they face them. The whole team seems to fall into a black hole after losing a couple games under RR. Everyone says the right things to the media, but it doesn't come out on the field--on the field, they look like they quit in games. And speaking of falling deeper into despair after that sense, no, Michigan has not overachieved. We are over.500 technically, but look at the schedule. Michigan was playing better at the beginning of the season...if they were playing the same way, the defense would still be weak but they'd be able to do just enough to beat Illinois and Purdue...and the offense certainly would be able to hang with those teams. Once again, I find myself commenting and pointing out that, hey, the defense is not the only problem at this point--the offense is moving backwards.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 3:09 p.m.

The athletes were considered elite when they got here. They developed when Carr was coach. The only thing that's changed is the coaching. When you see elite athletes like Mouton and Williams playing like horses---, that's the coaching.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 1:30 p.m.

"The defensive effort reflects a RichRod choice to loose with Tate rather win with Denard." Give me a break. Denard can't constantly pass and has a really bad habit of turning over the ball. Until that is corrected he won't be the starter. Defensively there were comments about RR keeping the previous staff. Beyond the D line coach, who I believe is at Central today, that would have been a mistake. Defense beyond the line was dismal Carrs last year. Today UM has a couple of problems. Secondary as it was before RR is too small and does a poor job covering. As the article indicates too many schemes that these players just cant handle. No containment which is execution and primarily coaching. The should go back to basics with less schemes and more concentration on containment.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:49 p.m.

Keep in mind too that UM had a Defensive Coordinator had been around for a number of years, not this merry-go-round we have today. defense is about reaction in instinc, our guys are thing too much about the new defensive scheme each year


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:42 p.m.

Any one remember 2006? 2006 was a short three years ago. We had a GREAT defense. What happened? How could a Michigan program change so much, and it started under Lloyd?


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:37 p.m.

I too must admit that the talent on defense leaves much to be desired, I also have to agree with the post on 4 defensive coordinators in 4 years is a major problem too. Let's give Robinson a chance to work with the defense. To turn around next year and try to learn a whole new system again is only going to hurt ourselves


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:30 p.m.

I really don't think that Mary Sue has a clue about big time college football. MSU had this problem with Peter McPherson. We need a President that really understands how important this is to everyone.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:26 p.m.

This a great article! Defense is the key.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:22 p.m.

People KEEP mentioning Ron English. Has anybody checked to see what he has done for EMU?


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:15 p.m.

Before next season arrives, I encourage all my fellow Michigan fans to take off those rose-tinted glasses. With games at ND, at PSU, and at OSU, I think we are looking at an 8-4 season right in the face and I would be okay with that. Please no 10-2 predictions as I see every single pre season!


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 12:02 p.m.

Yes. Let the man be juged by his body of work by the time his contract is up decide then, tell then give him a chance we all know it takes more then 2 years to do all the things that need to be done in a system.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 11:43 a.m.

"Well, I'm not saying the cupboard is bare, but.."..has to be the silliest thing that Shaun King could say. These players were recruited by Michigan, whether by LC or RR, as well as by other big time programs. It is difficult to know how they will all turn out, but you can't tell me that Michigan across the board has worse talent than Toledo, App State, Illinois, NOrthwestern, etc. Even PSU doesn't know who they are getting all the time. While the talent may not be up to Charles Woodson standards, these analysts seem to be giving RR a pass when it comes to coaching them. And I must ask: Who is the person who decided to bring in Scott Shafer last year? Who got rid of all of the old coaches? Who has been working with the same secondary for 2 years running without any improvement? And re: injuries and players kicked off the team--all teams have to deal with this. These are just excuses. Yes, it hurts that Molk is not playing currently, but you don't hear other coaches complain when their players can't play (look at Okla State with their stud receiver, etc). Rod knew when he took the job that it would be impossible to get his players in immediately but he continues to make excuses. If he was unwilling to deal with transition, then he should not have left his home, West Virginia. All we Michigan fans are looking for someone to lead, and all we are getting are losses and excuses to any meaningful competition. What we got was a whole lot less so far. How many years does he want us to wait to attain the same level that he replaced? Does anyone honestly believe that he will lead Michigan to better records than what we had?


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 11:34 a.m.

Look, the bottom line is, our team does not have the leadership that it needs to come back from adversity. In the first four games we basically had a defacto leader in Forcier, he was playing out of his mind and the team fed off of it. The truth is he should not have had to be the leader of this team (at least not as a freshman). Our defense does lack talent, but it does have a great D coordinator behind it and it plays incredibly hard, but it lacks that player who brings leadership. I think Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren are incredible players, you just never see them leading the team on the sidelines. I am sorry, there is just no way that one goal line stand should cost you the game or even a 99 yd touchdown drive following it. The fact that we could not come back from that shows there are no Mike Harts on this team. For anyone that has ever been on a team, we all know that there are somethings that coaches just can't do, that is inspire ON the field. They can inspire in the lockerroom and the practice field, but that only takes them so far. I believe we are on the right path and, in future years, we will have the leaders to bring us out of adversity.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 11:24 a.m.

We just need to make progress these last 3 games and hopefully win in our bowl...if we get there. I want to see Tate have a great last 3rd of the season so he can build some confidence and that goes for all our freshman. However...the biggest problem for this team is the obviously the defense. No pressure on quarterbacks, which it makes it tougher on our secondary. Our secondary is already terrible and is out of position on almost every play. Our defensive line is too small and is hard to stop the run. Our linebackers are below average. We can't tackle. There is no silver lining in our defense. They are bad in every single position. Praise DEFENSE RICHROD. Defense wins championships!!!


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 11:21 a.m.

djuninho - I agree Rich Rod coming in a firing all the coaching staff and then hiring back only Jackson was the wrong way to do things. I agree that Rich should have considered keeping some of Lloyd's coaching staff as a bridge to retain Big Ten competitive coaching knowledge. Of course we are assuming that they (Ron English in particular) wanted to stay, and was a personality fit with the rest of the staff. I don't have any insight there... I am just pointing out the two sides to that equation. While we are at it, you are talking about the same defensive coaching staff that lost to USC (embarrassingly), lost to App State (embarrassingly), lost to Oregon (embarrassingly), lost to Ohio State (repeatedly), gave up 37 points losing to Wisconsin, and 35 points in the win over Florida. Ron English and staff weren't the patent saints of defense... That said, I agree Rich Rod and his staff carry some of the blame, particularly in recruiting this past class, and in the failed scheme experiments (ala the Purdue game last year).


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 11:12 a.m.

Two glaring issues on D: inside linebackers and safeties. I would venture to say our current CB's are serviceable (Woolfolk) to good (Warren). Ezeh and Mouton have been dithering around the lines of mediocrity for 3 years now. I disagree with the statement about the D line. I actually think they're playing well and the front four are getting good pressure on the QB. They're the lone bright spot on D. It's nice to hear analysts back up what many believe to be severe talent deficiencies in the back 7.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 10:43 a.m.

Posters keep talking about hidden agendas. The only hidden agenda I see at Michigan is the agenda of winning games. And that agenda seems to be very hidden.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 10:33 a.m.

Coaching has something to do with it... RR inherited 8 starters on defense last year and promptly went 3-9... he shouldn't have fired Ron English and all the defensive assistants (for what reason too? They had just beaten Florida and harassed Tebow all day long... but of course RR never even bothered to watch the game film from that victory until months later!)... RR is getting what he deserves... Rita, we ain't in the Big East anymore!


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 10:17 a.m.

I agree with what 81 Wolverine is saying. I believe recruiting has suffered since 2005 because of the constant turnover in Defensive coaching (DeBord => English => Shafer => Robinson). This is why we need to give Robinson a few years to stabilize defensive system and recruiting before yelling for his head. As for Tate: the loss of Molk, and inconsistent availability of Minor, Brown, Hemingway, and Odoms, not to mention Tate's AC joint sprain have really hampered us. Add Freshman learning curve, and we get what we should've expected. The good news is: when he's on, the kid can make things happen. That bodes for a brighter future next year. By the way both of these problems existed by the way before Rich Rod arrived in Ann Arbor. Key injuries impacted the '07 season in a major way. Our safety and secondary play was a glaring weak spot against USC in the Rose Bowl, App State, Oregon,... It's not the defensive or offensive scheme; it is bench depth of skilled players. Only time, hard recruiting, and experience fixes the problem.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 9:39 a.m.

Can't disagree with this article and some of the assessments. Poor recruiting and turnover at the linebacking position has left the cupboard completely bare. Ezeh is our best player, and he's mediocre at best. Mouton is a converted safety - not a true linebacker. And Leach is undersized and inexperienced. I don't know why Fitzgerald and Demens aren't playing more. And I don't think that recruiting 190 pound linebackers (like at least one guy in the last class) is going to help much. Safety and cornerback are also tremendously lacking due to position switches, attrition, and poor recruiting. They've brought some good-sounding players in the last few years, but we haven't seen the result on the field yet. Poor coverage is killing us. The other problem is our D-line (other than Graham) is undersized and gets pushed around too much. Occasionally Martin and Van Bergen make plays, but not enough. Plus, we apparently don't have the depth to bring in fresh guys. It's going to take several years and a lot better recruiting to resurrect this defense and bring it back to Big Ten caliber.

True & Blue

Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 9:18 a.m.

Wake up folks; Tate will be throwing the ball to Gardner next year.


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 7:55 a.m.

Repeat: What's wrong with the offense? Bsed on the last several Big Ten games, I do not expect Tate to score more than two touchdowns the remainder of the season and not one point against Ohio State. The defensive effort reflects a RichRod choice to loose with Tate rather win with Denard. The hidden agenda prevails!


Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 7:50 a.m.

And what's wrong with the offense?