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Wolverines do quick math

Inspired by coordinator, the defense has some of nation's best numbers

January 01, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The transformation of the Michigan defense began last winter, out on the golf course.

That's where players gathered for early morning conditioning, determined to get lighter and faster.

"It was cold out there, and the grass was wet," defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "That was the toughest run ever."

The Wolverines' new defensive coordinator, Ron English, sometimes showed up to yell encouragement. English is the type of coach who yells a lot.

"But he wasn't just yelling to be yelling," safety Jamar Adams said. "He was trying to accomplish something."

It was the start of a nearly yearlong process that has resulted in Michigan playing against USC in the Rose Bowl with its defense eager to buck an age-old stereotype.

"Just the perception that the Big Ten is more physical and slug-it-out and all that stuff," English said. "I'm not going to speak to the past, but I think this team can run."

Led by All-Americans Woodley and cornerback Leon Hall, the Wolverines offer a season's worth of statistics as evidence they have shed the big-and-slow archetype.

This fall, they sprinted into opponents' backfields often enough to be tied for third in sacks and 10th in tackles for loss. Overall, their defense rates seventh in the nation.

The question is, can they match quickness with a top-flight Pacific 10 Conference opponent?

"I think speed is on our side," USC center Ryan Kalil said. "One of the things they have is a lot of big guys, a lot of tough guys, and guys that we'll have to isolate and move around."

Offensive tackle Sam Baker also suspects the Trojans are faster, but adds: "I don't know by how much. Their big guys can move."

The Wolverines realized a change was in order after last season, which ended with a 7-5 record and a loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.

Players say they committed to running and working in the weight room, watching the scales. Meanwhile, the coaching staff underwent a makeover.

English, who had been the secondary coach, accepted a job with the Chicago Bears. He was a player favorite, young and energetic, so Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr hired him right back, promoting him to coordinator.

English broke the news to his unit after a workout.

"It was a relief," said Hall, the cornerback. "You don't want to see a guy like him leave because he's such a great coach."

With his players getting in better shape, English slimmed down the defensive playbook.

Films of the 2005 season showed a team that surrendered big plays because of small mistakes. He trimmed the number of defensive calls and tried to keep formations that related to each other, "maybe one person or a couple of people will have a different assignment," Hall said.

The reads also changed.

"We react to the play without hesitating," linebacker David Harris said. "We don't think too much."

English preached this notion of "less is more" with characteristic passion.

Built lean and broad-shouldered, a former safety at California, the Pomona native can be alternately ferocious and funny, often delivering tirades with a comic bite.

"The players get a good laugh out of it," Woodley said, "as long as you're not the one he's yelling at."

His message quickly took hold.

"I remember during spring ball it seemed like a whole new defense," offensive tackle Jake Long said. "They were running around and hitting you in the mouth. There were blitzes we'd never seen before."

In the fall, opponents noticed the same thing.

Vanderbilt scored once in the opener. Notre Dame managed only four rushing yards and Penn State went backward, finishing with minus-14 on the ground.

With players swarming to the ball, Michigan was collecting sacks and interceptions and scoring off turnovers.

"They were without a doubt the best defense we've played all year," said Iowa quarterback Drew Tate after his team lost, 20-6, in late October. "How physical they are, their size, their speed -- we haven't seen anything like that."

By the end of the regular season, Hall led the secondary to a dozen interceptions and Woodley -- a converted linebacker who runs small for the line -- had 11 sacks.

Still, the Wolverines know that skeptics persist.

The team's gaudy defensive statistics were amassed, for the most part, in a conference that has never been known for high-scoring games.

In the regular-season finale, against an Ohio State offense with speed, the Wolverines were burned for big plays on the ground and in the air, losing, 42-39.

"We didn't execute," Adams said. "That was very much out of character."

But it leaves the defense having to prove itself against USC in what figures to be an evenly matched game.

The front four must keep pace with the Trojans' mobile offensive line. Hall and the secondary must contain a dangerous receiver tandem, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.

It's no secret what the Wolverines need to do, English said. Since the Ohio State loss, he has returned to basics, to the same concept he introduced last spring.

Given the speed of the USC offense, he said, "It's going to be critical that we play fast."



Dominant defense


Statistically, Michigan has one of the top defenses in the country. Statistics are by yards or number, with national rank:

*--* Category Per game Rank Category Per game Rank Total defense 254.08 7 Sacks 3.42 3t Rushing defense 43.0 1 Tackles for loss 7.33 10t Passing defense 211.1 74 Turnover margin +1.04 2 Fumbles recovered 1.1 25 Interceptions 1.0 54



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