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Posted on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Tough love: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is molding a thick-skinned Michigan defense

By Nick Baumgardner


Ryan Van Bergen (53) and the rest of the Michigan defense is allowing 20 fewer points, 61.5 fewer rush yards and 61.3 fewer pass yards per game than last year's unit.

Melanie Maxwell |

When Greg Mattison first sat down for a meeting with the Michigan football team's defensive players prior to spring practice, he drew a line in the sand.

You could be a baby rabbit or an armadillo. One group plays, the other watches. There is no in between.

"You can't have skin like a baby rabbit in our room now," Mattison said. "If you do, you won't make it."

During that initial meeting, the first-year Michigan defensive coordinator flashed photos of both a rabbit and an armadillo to drive home a point. One has a soft coat and can't withstand much punishment. The other is known for its armor-like exterior.

Though it took some time, the lesson in mental endurance finally seems to be sinking in.

"That was our first meeting in the spring, he sat us down and said you're going to either have baby rabbit fur or armadillo skin," Michigan junior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "And my first reaction was 'God, this guy's going to get on us. I better have armadillo skin.'


Greg Mattison

"For a lot of people (adapting to criticism) is pretty tough. That's something I've always been used to, you use the criticism and learn from it."

The once laughed-at unit Mattison inherited in the spring seems to have vanished into thin air.

Under former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson last season, Michigan allowed 35.2 points per game. Under Mattison this year, the Wolverines are yielding 15.2 points per game. Michigan is also allowing 61.5 fewer rush yards per game, 61.3 fewer pass yards per game and five less first downs per contest.

Last season, teams converted third downs at a 43 percent success rate. This year, the number has dropped to 36.84 percent. In the red zone a year ago, opponents succeeded 85.96 percent of the time. Mattison's helped knock that number down by nearly 20 percent.

And following Michigan's defensive dominance in a 31-14 win at Illinois last week, an emotional Mattison finally declared his unit a true "Michigan defense."

The stats and production are telling, but how have they improved so drastically?

Mattison says it's a player's game, and they're the ones on the field making things happen.


Come back to at noon Thursday for a live chat with Kyle Meinke. He'll recap the Wolverines' win at Illinois, discuss news that emerged this week and preview the game against Nebraska on Saturday.
The players, though, tell a bit of a different story.

"These coaches have been such a blessing," Michigan junior defensive end Craig Roh said. "Just the keys they give us, the technique and the corrections and criticism, it's all really good.

"I don't like to look at last year, but I just know these (current coaches) are really good."

Earlier this season, Roh said he had an epiphany after Mattison told him his play wasn't good enough. Not only had Roh never heard that from a coach before, but more importantly, he'd never been given a clear explanation of how to get better.

No one hides from criticism in film sessions with Mattison and his defensive staff. Players say if you've made a mistake, you're going to hear about it. You're going to be criticized and then you're going to be singled out as the film rewinds over and over and over again.

But once that process ends, the teaching begins.

"First they rip you, but then they tell you what you did wrong," Kovacs said. "And you know that they have your best interest in mind and they really care about you and they really care about the program.

"It's easy to play for guys that just want you to succeed."

It's also easy to play for coaches with the NFL track record Mattison has.

"This guy was coaching (Baltimore Ravens linebacker) Terrell Suggs," Roh says. "If he coached Terrell Suggs, I should probably listen to (what he has to say)."

Mattison says the tough-skinned mantra doesn't start with him. It comes from first-year head coach Brady Hoke.

As quick as the coaching staff is to bluntly point out a player's mistake in order to fix the problem, Hoke's just as fast to correct his staff in similar situations.

"It's never personal, but I don't care if you're a four-year starter and All-American, the bottom line is, if we see (a mistake) on film it's going to be corrected and it's going to be addressed," Mattison says. "And Brady does it with the coaches. You better not have a skin like a baby rabbit around him, because he'll tell you if you didn't do a good job.

"But that's all you ever want when you're working. To be told what you can do to be better. That's the way it is."

Mattison says players and coaches now have a simple understanding when it comes to handing out criticism. It's never personal, and it's always done in an effort to help the team and the program move forward.

No coddling. No secrets. No excuses. No rabbit fur.

Just a bunch of armadillos figuring each other out, and turning a once porous defense into a true Michigan unit.

“If you’re going to be on this defense, you’ve got to have tough skin,” Roh said. “I didn’t know what that meant at first, but I’ve learned slowly.”

Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan sports for He can be reached at 734-623-2514, by email at and followed on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.



Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 9:31 a.m.

This is an excellent article. I am proud of the attitude are team has. Michigan pride is showing boldly, and that is why recruits want to come here. Go Blue!


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 2:35 a.m.

Now if we can find a mattison for the offense. Imagine what this year could have been with the same level of improvement on offense. We more than likely would be undefeated.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 7:39 p.m.

lindor, you are correct if you include the W. MI game (which the NCAA does not in their official stats because the game was stopped). We actually have an offense that is scoring 34.7 PPG this year and not 32.5 ... so we are scoring MORE pts. per game than last year. (just in case you're interested 57-44-6, rufus, MCC members,...) Go Blue !


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:58 p.m.

I can't help but think Mr. Van Bergen is getting a bit more of that "tough love" this week in practice after his comments about the defensive line being one of the best in the country. Whether it's true or not is irrelevant. It's just not the kind of talk Hoke and staff seem to want to hear from the players. Mattison rightly expressed pride in the defensive play against Illinois. He rightly offered the highest of praise, saying they were a true "Michigan defense." That's a team-oriented statement. And it leaves open the need for continuing improvement. While we can all appreciate youthful enthusiasm for a job well done, Van Bergen's comments struck me as a bit premature. My sense is Mattison cringed when he heard of Van Bergen's comments. Mattison knows where Van Bergen's weaknesses and flaws are ... and my hunch is in practice this week Mattison is reminding Van Bergen and the defensive line that while they're definitely good, they're not done improving.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 11:32 p.m.

And Mr. Hoke weighs in regards to Van Bergen's comments: Hoke's response: "We have two games left to show that." "Swag, confidence? I think you've got to have confidence," Hoke added. "But I know one thing: If you're going to say it and talk the talk, you'd better walk the walk." +1 to Hoke.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 3:36 p.m.

Michigan under Rodriguez and Hoke vs. Big Ten 2010 (Rodriguez): Offense 31 ppg / Defense gave up 39 ppg 2011 (Hoke): Offense 33 ppg / Defense gave up 17 ppg - Under Hoke, thus far, Michigan is better on BOTH Offense and Defense in the Big Ten. - Michigan's defense would have to give up an average of 105 points (or a total of 210 points) to BOTH Nebraska AND Ohio State to equal Rodriguez's 2010 defense. (Not going to happen.) - Michigan's offense would have to score an average of 25 points (or score a total of 50) against BOTH Nebraska AND Ohio State to to equal Rodriguez's 2010 offense. (May prove a difficult task, but if Michigan only scores aveages 14 points in these games, they still are only scoring a field goal less (or 28 ppg) than the coveted Rodriguez run-spread. Food for thought! Go Blue!


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:31 p.m.

@ Lorain, I must correct myself, they'd be 2-8, but my point is about the same, it would be a debacle of a season! @BFH, Defense does win championships! And considering the recruits Michigan will be bringing, there is no telling how much better it could get! Go Blue!


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:11 p.m.

I completely agree with you Rude...if our defense is a paper tiger like last year we probably miss a bowl game. Defense wins championships


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:10 p.m.

They mean a lot to me, and most fans who appreciate winning, for if Michigan were giving up 39 points per game, they'd currently be 1-9. None of us want that.

Lorain Steelmen

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 4:51 p.m.

Rude, the defesive stats don't mean much to me. If the M defense doesn't play lights out, the then next two games, Hoke will lose both games. None of us wants that.

Dick Bobb

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 3:23 p.m.

Everyone who loves the Michigan Wolverines has to realize that the entire athletic department, from top to bottom, is undergoing a huge change in philosophy and direction of the football program from the Rich Rod days. Compare it to when Bo took over back in 1969, after 10 years of virtual mediocrity with "Bump" Elliott. We're now blessed with both Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke running the show and what appears to be a real hardnosed. "Tough Love" coaching staff the kids can relate to. They too are experimenting and trying to find the best balance of player personnel they inherited. So you whiners quit whining and true Michigan fans give them a chance to do their thing without a lot of arm chair quarterbacking and second guessing. The Michigan pages of the Bleacher Report say we're on our way up with recruiting more 3 and 4 star skill position players, so let's let it play out and see what happens especially, like MRunner73 says, in the next two BIG home games!


Thu, Nov 17, 2011 : 7:08 p.m.

Lloyd Carr "went to sleep several years prior to retiring" Final 2 seasons: 20-6, 13-3 in the Big 10


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 11:50 p.m.

I agree enthusiastically except for the part that those who whine aren't true Michigan fans. They're different than me, finding fault or a chink in the armor at every chance, but I believe they are still Michigan fans.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 7:48 p.m.

"I always looked at him as a mediocre coach" A 122-40 record at UM (including 1 NC and 5 Big Ten titles), and most UM fans, and the vast majority of his colleagues in the coaching profession, and the college football hall of fame ALL disagree with your opinion.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:49 p.m.

@LS -- Brandon is definitely a departure from the much more quiet Bill Martin. The jury is still out in my mind about his marketing. I didn't like the throwback uniforms either. Do that once a year (at most) but that's it. Otherwise gimmicky. As for Carr ... I'll grant he went to sleep several years prior to retiring. I'm not personally convinced some of the "undermining Rodriguez" stories are true ... and I'm not clear on what the other side of that story is ... but that's just me. My dislike of Rodriguez burns so bright I wonder about my objectivity about Carr.

Lorain Steelmen

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 4:48 p.m.

I hope Brandon succeeds, but right now I see him struggling to 'market' the 'brand'. I did NOT like the road uni's at msu, and I worry, that he will 'sell our tradition', if you know what I mean. It'll hurt to see all this cheepened, for the almighty buck. Regarding Hoke, I like the guy, and he seems to be off in the right direction. It is too soon to know if he'll succeed here. I remember the Bump Elliott days, nice guy, but not a motivator. Bo was a drastic change, to say the least. Rodriguez, it seems, is destined to be the 'scape goat' for the deterioration of the program under Carr. It is difficult to overcome the press, when you become a favorite target. Say what what you will abut Carr, either good or bad, as a coach, his greatest asset was his political skill. He played the alumni and the press like a fiddle. I always looked at him as a mediocre coach, opinionated, who undermined his successor. When anyone attacks the program, as he did, I lose a lot of respect for him.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 3:40 p.m.

Dave Brandon, Coach Hoke and Coach Beilein are going to bring Michigan athletics back to prominence! Is it safe to assume you're an alumnus from 1960? It seems a lot of fans from that era are skeptical of Dave Brandon, so I'm happy to hear a comment from one who is on his side! Michigan has to make some changes to keep up with times, if Michigan is to stay relavant. That said, Dave Brandon is protecting the core values and essentials that make Michigan Michigan. I couldn't think of a person I'd rather have in charge of Michigan Athletics. Go Blue!

Lorain Steelmen

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 2:45 p.m.

Decent article, but really nothing we haven't undestood before. I definitely like the approach. I tinnk the idea is to make the practices more intense than the games...sounds like 'ol Bo! But the key here, is to demonstrate what the fix is, and how to implement that fix. The kids will take it the rest of the way. Let's see how they do on saturday. Personally I can't wait for this game. My hope is that UM makes this a 'statement' game, a 'signature' game, if you will...BIG TIME. Looking at individuals is always flaughed, but here goes. I would be interested in poster's observations about, Will Campbell, Craig Roh, Quenton Washington.....this year. These guys will need to step forward next year as graduations take their toll. Your thoughts...


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 6 p.m.

What's our depth at DE look like for next year? Who might compete for those spots?


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:28 p.m.

It would surprise me if Will Campbell, Craig Roh and Q Washington do not step next and show significant improvement. There will be stiffer competition at these positions next season is my guess so they risk moving down the depth chart if they fail to improve.

Lorain Steelmen

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 4:34 p.m.

My observations as well. He seems to be moving around, but I don't see many sacks or TFL's. I think he is a great kid, and is reported to be a great student, but so far, his speed, hasn't offset his smaller size. I have similar concerns for Campbell. I realize he's a 'project'. Seems to be getting a fair amount of PT. Ditto for Washington, who came in as an O-lineman.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 3:37 p.m.

I haven't heard hardly a word about Craig Roh for several games. I've been trying to watch his play from the end position. I can't tell if he's slipped back into ineffective or if they're double-teaming him at the edge.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 2:12 p.m.

This coaching staff appears to be the kind that can balance tough criticism with genuine care for the players. You can sense from the player interviews these guys are prepared to walk through walls for Hoke and staff. We'll start seeing stories about players who've graduated talking about how their experience with Hoke and staff shaped their lives for the better. They'll speak with genuine gratitude for what Hoke and staff did for them. Recruits will sense this attitude in the coaches and the players. The recruits that desire to work hard in such a system will gravitate to Michigan. Hoke was a very good hire.

Big Tex

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 2:01 p.m.

Well, they haven't beaten a ranked team yet, and they luck out and don't play Wisconsin this year, which would torch this D in all likelihood; let's see how they do in the next 2 games. If they get lit up by Nebby, then all this talk of a wonderful D improvement may be a bit premature. I think the D has improved, yes, but that's not saying much, since it was so horrendous. But is it a top 50 Defense? Probably not, but we'll definitely know more by Sat afternoon.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:08 p.m.

Hey Big Tex...check out the stats of your favorite college football team at Yes, Michigan has two very challenging games ahead of them still this season. BUT the turnaround in the defrense from just one year ago is amazing and perhaps unprecedented. Just a cpl of the FACTS and stats from currently is ranked 16th overall in defense when compared to 120 teams total. So that is far above your guess of 50...with two games left if we can hold both "Running" football opponents to less than 50 total points combined (OSU having a terrible offense) I don't see the Wolverines falling far from their current position. Plus one stat that definitely sticks out is that after 10 games Michigan currently ranks #1 in the country at stopping teams from scoring points when they get inside the red zone. Amazing turn around. Look up the stats and compare before you scoff this defense aside. And this is Greg Mattison working with kids that had no direction or proper teaching the past 3 years. Just think what the future has in store if Mattison gets kids 3 years experience at his skills. Let next year unfold and if this team proves that it can have a second year with a stout defense (that took 6 to 7 games this season to even find themselves) then I say that Mattison's salary should be DOUBLED!!


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 4:39 p.m.

How is Nebraska gonna light up the UM defense with a QB who can't throw? It will almost certainly be a defensive, field position game. Much like the Nebraska-Penn State game last week. Do you watch the games? Just watch the defense play...they play fast, aggressive and smart. They have done much more than just "slightly improve."


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 1:51 p.m.

Of course the offense could improve. Ball security is still an issue... but the '97 team only averaged a shade under 27 ppg. The reason they went 12-0 was due primarily to defense. Mattison has this year's defense believing in itself. JT Floyd jumped that route with no hesitation. Both he and Countess are showing signs of becoming lockdown corners. RVB is talking smack and that guy is typically the personification of humility. These players are maturing and growing with each passing week. Only one of the last five games has been a home game. This team is road-tested and hardened. The next two Saturdays in the Big House are going to be very interesting.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 1:43 p.m.

Mattison and staff have done a really amazing job with this defense. With basically the same players plus a few raw freshmen, they've created a good defense in one year. Cutting 20 points off the average given up per game is incredible by itself. No one expected the new staff to reach this point in their first year. I can't wait to see our defense in a few years when we have a lot more experience and talent.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 12:49 p.m.

I'm not sure what all these woes are about offense, the Michigan offense is producing just a bit under what it produced last year. 2010 Michigan scored 32.7 ppg and finished 7-6 2011 Michigan is scoring 32.5 ppg and will finish no worse than 8-5.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:33 p.m.

Your stats are close but not accurate. Redo the math on ppg.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 12:21 p.m.

Mattison's effect on the D has been so dramatic that I now expect Michigan to come out and stop its opponent, or make it really difficult for them to get points. Total 180 from last season when I expected the opposite. Now, if we can just get the offense producing better we'll be looking at 10 wins.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 9:37 p.m.

I know! I found myself feeling that a couple of games ago. Remarkable, expecting to get a stop.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 11:58 a.m.

The improved defense will be a key for these last two home games. If they can hold NE to under 20 points, Michigan should win. Ditto that for the OSU game. Michigan Defense: Keep up the good work and stay healthy. GO BLUE!!!


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:18 p.m.

57-44-6: keep chugging.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 12:14 p.m.

I don't know our offense is terrible


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 11:54 a.m.

I liked Roriguez's offense better...

Nic schweigert

Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 8:31 p.m.

Ya? And how about his 3 yea record and the defenst those three years?


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 5:25 p.m.

Look folks, 57-44-6 posts these things to garner reaction and is pretty darn good at it. A simple: "What ever" would suffice.


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 2:55 p.m.

When his offense played teams like Bowling Green and UMass or when it was up against teams like Ohio State?


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 1:39 p.m.

Um, did you notice this article is about DEFENSE?


Wed, Nov 16, 2011 : 12:21 p.m.

If you really liked it so much more than by all means please go and follow your favorite son. There is enough room under that same rock.