Aug. 18, 2011
By Leah Howard
As much as Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have transitioned jobs over their respective coaching careers, each agrees that for their units to reach their expectations, this camp will be tough to do. Yet, neither stops pushing their side of the ball to reach that level.
"Don't get me wrong, you still push for it," Borges said following Tuesday's afternoon practice. "I'm not going to accept mediocrity, and neither is any other coach on this staff. As they get through the transitional growing pains, you just have to do as little damage as possible. They can't turn the ball over or do things that lose you the football games until they really get it. But they're going to get it. I'm not exactly sure when, but I've been fortunate in the places I've been that we've gotten it eventually. You just don't want to kill yourself in the process. Growing pains can't be catastrophic."
Fall camp is a time for frustrations. One practice may be two steps forward. The next, a step back. And until the Wolverines get into sync and start playing regularly with the same group of guys, Borges says, it's inevitably going to be a little rough around the edges.
"I don't know when it's going to happen," he said. "I fully expect it to happen this year. That's what we expect on defense. That's the only thing we accept on defense, is to get to that level. You never know when that's going to happen. I will say the guys are trying to work to get there. Now whether the work good enough right now, I can't say yes to that. But I can tell you they are trying to get there, and it's our job as coaches to keep pushing them, keep teaching them and keep trying to get them to that level."
That level, says Mattison, is the Michigan level, which he defines as playing with great technique, tremendous effort and being very physical. If the Wolverines are able to play with those three attributes, they'll be playing Michigan defense the way it's always been played here in Ann Arbor.
Both coordinators have repeatedly praised the Wolverines for their willingness to work hard and adapt to change.
"That's all I ask," said Borges. "If we tell a guy, 'Do this,' we want to feel good about the fact that he's trying to do what we're telling him to do versus just nodding his head. The kids have been very receptive to what we're trying to do. It's different, and sometimes change can be met with resistance. But unless I'm naïve, I don't see much of that."
"Our practices are hard," said Mattison. "They have to be. You see a different guy every once in awhile getting past that hump. And we have to get that entire defense, to when they get ready to break and get ready to give in, that they go past it. You see more and more of the guys getting over the hump. That's been rewarding."
N O T E S
While the depth charts are still sorting themselves out on the field, a few positions are being solidified as the season opener against Western Michigan on Sept. 3 is 15 days away.
The offensive line, Borges stresses, is all about chemistry, communication and working as a unit. The Wolverines will benefit from four returning starters from last year's squad -- junior/sophomore tackle Taylor Lewan, senior/junior guard Patrick Omameh, fifth-year senior center David Molk and fifth-year senior tackle Mark Huyge. Senior/junior guard Ricky Barnum is the fifth projected starter. He played both guard positions and left tackle in a reserve role in 2010.
"We've got five guys," said Borges, "but the depth chart is always in pencil. If you don't play, we'll take you out of there in a second. We have some kids that are playing pretty good up there. You'd like to find five guys that are good enough to play every single game, that can communicate with each other on a consistent basis and know exactly what the guy next to them is going to do."
Molk pointed to familiarity among the offensive line as one of its greatest strengths. They know how each other plays, how each other works and how to collectively work together.
"We've got a lot of experience there [on the lines]," said Molk. "They are two areas that our going to be anchors for our team. I have no issue with that. Put more pressure on us; put everything you want. If the offensive line was the only thing judged to win a game, put it on me and we'll win."
The man lining up behind Molk is no question. Borges has thoroughly enjoyed tutoring junior quarterback Denard Robinson.
"He's kind of a kick to coach," smiled Borges. "He's upbeat all the time. I get on him sometimes, but he looks at me like I have 10 heads. He's awesome. He's been so receptive from the time we got here. He's accepted what we wanted to do, and he knows that we've got his best interest and the team's best interest at heart. He's fun to coach. He is a unique talent."
Three defensive players in particular have drawn positive marks from head coach Brady Hoke. At the moment, he has penciled in a few veterans as starters.
"I think (Troy) Woolfolk has had a nice camp, I think (Mike) Martin has had a nice camp, (Jordan) Kovacs has had a nice camp," Hoke said.
A senior/junior safety, Kovacs started all 13 games at strong safety in 2010 and has 21 starts at the position in his career. Martin has started 24 of the last 25 games at defensive tackle, missing one game in 2010. Woolfolk started all 12 games as a defensive back in 2009 prior to missing the 2010 season due to injury.
The Wolverines coaching staff has also been impressed with junior/sophomore defensive tackle Nathan Brink.
"He's played like a Michigan football player," said Mattison. "I hate to talk about a young man, because I think when I do that they go right down in the tubes. But this guy has come out every day as tough as he can. He listens to coach [Jerry] Montgomery on every word. When he tells him to step a certain way, he tries to step a certain way, and he's really, really physical. I think he was probably 250 [in the spring], we said get to 265. When he was coming to report, I yelled, 'What do you weigh?' He said, '264' and I told him to drink some water and sure enough he started drinking water. Now I think he's 267 or 268. He's a guy that if he keeps doing what he's doing, Michigan people are going to be very happy with him. In the spring, his toughness showed up and he was only 250 at that time. But his want-to and toughness stuck out like crazy. And that's what we want -- 11 guys that play with that kind of attitude."
Michigan coaches are not ready to name a starting running back, and probably won't be for a while. But Borges says he's getting a little closer, and he has been pleased with the improvement he's seen since spring ball.
"We've had some really nice inside and outside runs," he said. "Michael Shaw, Stephen Hopkins, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michael Cox, Vince Smith, all of them have shown some great flashes. I think we've demonstrated -- one time or another -- that we can hit a few home runs back there, too. The good news is they've all shown up and in some instances, a real improvement over spring."
In addition to a featured running back, Borges wants someone who is adept in third-down situations.
"It's an interesting role," he said. "You've got to be able to protect [the quarterback], and you've got to be able to run precise routes and catch it when we throw it to you. Some of the guys are better protectors than they are receivers, and some are better receivers. You just have to find that one guy. I think we've got a couple candidates who fit that mold."
In addition to the competition at running back, the starting linebacker corps is far from settled.
"That position, I love how those guys are playing, at times," said Mattison. "At times they're playing with such energy, such speed, and such explosiveness. One day, I'll go 'Wow, that's what we're looking for.' And then the next day, he may have not as good of a day and someone else will step up. That's a battle right now and it's a good battle to have."
The Big Ten Network visited Ann Arbor and Michigan's practice Thursday as part of its 2011 Football Preview Tour. Gerry DiNardo, Howard Griffith and Dave Revsine were in attendance. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET on Monday, Aug. 22.
Griffith took a break from watching practice to weigh in on a few topics. Michigan's attention to defense stood out to him.
"It's no question that there is an emphasis on the defensive side of the football, watching them go through one-on-one drills in pre-practice," remarked Griffith. "There is obviously a concerted effort to make sure things are right on that side of the football."
And the ever-popular topic of how Denard Robinson looks in the Al Borges-led offense elicited an interesting opinion of the threat the junior quarterback could present in 2011.
"This is my second time seeing Michigan. Whether he's under center or in shotgun, he's a tremendous athlete. I saw him do some things today; not many people in the Big Ten or in the country are as quick as he is. I think he has the potential this year, as crazy as it might sound, to have more explosive plays from the line of scrimmage than he did last year because it's still going to be difficult to defend him, particularly when he's under center and he breaks out."
Informed that Griffith was a standout NFL fullback who once blocked for U-M's Tim Biakabutuka while with the Carolina Panthers, Robinson asked if Griffith would block for him at practice. Griffith joked that Robinson didn't seem to need any extra help creating space after watching practice Thursday.
Former Michigan linebacker Sam Sword (1995-98), a Saginaw, Mich., native was in attendance at practice Thursday. Sword is eighth on the all-time career tackles list at Michigan (377).
Frank Beckmann, the voice of Michigan football radio, also took in practice as he prepares for season number 31 on the headset.
"About this time of year I always get excited," said Beckmann. "I temper it until camp starts and then I get to see them a few times and I get juiced up and I start looking forward to it."