By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There will be a need for speed Saturday night (Sept. 6). The Michigan defense will be focusing on stopping Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who can beat you with his feet as well as his arm. And every split-second of reaction time and foot speed will help.
Golson has sprinter speed and the quickness of a basketball point guard, which he was at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High. Golson led the football and basketball teams to state titles. And he also led Notre Dame to the BCS championship game two years ago before sitting out 2013 with a suspension for academic violations.
This is an accomplished quarterback with big-play capabilities. And he hit the ground running in the season-opening win over Rice, throwing for 295 yards and two touchdowns and running for 41 yards and three touchdowns.
"It will be a big test for us -- definitely a big test," said Wolverines' defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "The quarterback has a big arm and their receivers are fast and explosive."
Golson, now a senior, has made great strides.
"He's becoming a complete quarterback in my mind," said Mattison.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said reserve quarterback Brian Cleary and freshman quarterback Wilton Speight "have given us good looks" as scout team players portraying Golson this week in preparation for the game at Notre Dame Stadium.
"When you are playing an athlete," said Hoke, "you need 11 players getting to the football."
And that's where the improved speed of the Wolverines on defense comes into play.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, a dual-threat himself, noted that when asked to describe the difference he has seen in the defense after playing against them during training camp and in practices.
"They go fast to the ball and are more aggressive," Gardner said. "They are a lot faster this year. Everyone gets to the ball. They are going to make a big splash this year."
Mattison agreed that his defense is faster, noting his players have gained both mental and physical speed with maturity and experience.
"They are men now," Mattison said. "They play faster when you have experience. They played bigger, and they played faster (in a 52-14 win over Appalachian State on Aug. 30). That's why I'm excited about these guys."
Junior linebacker Joe Bolden said, "The mental side of the game leads to the physical side, and allows you to play faster. And it helps to anticipate what play they might run in certain situations."
Senior linebacker Jake Ryan, who Mattison said is making a considerable difference after moving from the outside to the inside of the defense this season, agreed with Bolden.
"It's just that our whole defense has bought into getting to the ball," said Ryan. "And that's all about playing your technique and fundamentals."
Those two words -- technique and fundamentals -- are Mattison's mantra. Doing all the little things right add up to precision, which becomes improved speed both in terms of reactions and running more direct routes to ball carriers.
Better team speed and assignment efficiency allows Mattison to "press" more with his cornerbacks, Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, and trust that they can get the job done where one-on-one coverage is concerned.
"We just need to keep competing and be aggressive," said Taylor. "That's our mindset this year."
And they will be tested by Golson and his fleet receivers. Five different Fighting Irish players had receptions of 25-plus yards, and Will Fuller had a 75-yard touchdown catch.
Freshman nickel back Jabrill Peppers, who Hoke said will play after sitting out the second half of the opener with an ankle injury, also is a great asset to the secondary. The five-star recruit has been turning heads with his coverage ability and toughness.
"It wasn't too big for him," Mattison said. "This guy plays very, very aggressive."
And he can learn from the upperclassmen, Countess and Taylor, and from cornerbacks coach Roy Manning. Hoke and Mattison opted to have two secondary coaches this season, and now Curt Mallory specializes in working with the safeties. That allows for more one-on-one coaching and more rapid improvement in players.
Mattison doesn't try to hide his enthusiasm for what they can accomplish.
"I really trust these guys," he said.
Mattison's trust has allowed him to be more aggressive in his game plans, and he hopes the improved speed continues making that a successful approach.