New Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson wants 'the best tackling team in America'
ANN ARBOR - No matter which teenage quarterback is handed the reins of Michigan’s spread offense, the most important person on the sideline this fall might be new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.
Fresh off a less-than-steller four-year stint as Syracuse coach, Robinson, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coordinator with the Denver Broncos, has been charged with making Michigan’s once-feared defense respectable again.
After seven months on the job, and with fall practice slated to begin Monday, he’s cautiously optimistic the pieces are in place.
“We still got some growing to do,” Robinson said last month. “I’m not trying to hedge my bet or anything like that, it’s just, let’s be straight up, we got work to do. But I’m not concerned now. We’ll get our work done and we’ll be ready to go when we play Western Michigan.”
Since replacing Scott Shafer in January, Robinson has overseen a dramatic shift in scheme and philosophy.
Gone is the traditional 4-3 defense, and in its place Michigan will use more odd-man fronts this year. Though Robinson rejects pigeon-holing terminology, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez described his new base defense as “a pro 3-4.”
Regardless the name, the Wolverines will be more aggressive this year - long a staple of Robinson’s defenses in college and the NFL - and with two new hybrid positions, better able to match up athletically.
“We kind of want to put the offense on their heels,” Robinson said. “We want to make all 11 of the offensive players think. So our style will be one that we’ll try to make them have to work as the ball is hiked. They’re going to have to work to know what’s happening, and I think that’s important.
“You can be a real generic-type defense, this is what we are and this is how we play. I just don’t think that’s real aggressive in the sense of, if we’re playing Western Michigan, our style will probably be a little different than when we play somebody else that’s a different style. We’re going to game plan the team that we’re playing. In our minds, we’re going to make them have to earn it.”
Too often last year, teams had their way with Michigan’s defense.
Under Shafer, who was forced out last December (and, in a weird sort of college football trade, is the new defensive coordinator at Syracuse), the Wolverines gave up the most points in school history (347) and ranked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnovers forced and yards allowed.
“You saw some games for a half or three quarters we’re right there and all of a sudden all heck breaks loose in the fourth quarter just based on a couple plays,” Rodriguez said. “Good teams don’t give up those kind of plays at all.”
Despite beating Robinson’s Syracuse teams by progressively bigger margins during his time at West Virginia - the Mountaineers won 15-7 in 2005, 41-17 in 2006 and 55-14 in 2007 - Rodriguez said he hired Robinson, in part, because his teams were always so fundamentally sound.
“I don’t know if they were always the most talented, but they always played hard,” Rodriguez said. “I watched their film when they played Notre Dame last year, they beat them at the end of the year. Here it was they were having a tough year and those kids were playing their tails off and played, just looked like a sound, well-coached football team on defense.”
Linebacker Stevie Brown, who’s on his third defensive coordinator at Michigan, said Robinson is the most detail-oriented coach he’s played for, even going so far as to stress a tackler’s shin angles.
“He wants the basics done and he wants them done right,” Brown said. “And whenever you get the basics done right, that’s when you can start getting innovative and start doing some different things here and there. He wants us to be the best tackling team in America and he stresses that every single day.”
If they can master that most basic element of defense, Robinson said there’s no reason the Wolverines can’t make up for some of their other shortcomings.
Just five starters return on defense this year, and depth is an issue on the line and in the secondary, where several true freshmen are expected to play.
“The biggest challenge for us, really, is to develop depth in this defense because it’s young,” Robinson said. “I believe you got to play 18 guys, at least. And I don’t know that we have 18 that are truly ready to play today. I don’t know about that.”
Still, Rodriguez likes the progress he saw during spring practice and anticipates better results this year.
“That’s certainly the expectation,” he said. “We’re going to be less experienced, but I think even though it’s a different system defensively it’ll be a lot of the same methods and fundamentals that the position coaches are teaching and now the second year will take hold.”
Dave Birkett covers the University of Michigan football team for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org