The most often discussed non-NU assistant coach in this community is Michigan defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison. The one-year wonder turned the Wolverines laughable defense in to a top 20 product and was a key reason why Michigan went to a 11-2 Sugar Bowl winning season. I reached out to noted Michigan blogger, Brian Cook, of MGoBlog to get his take on how it happened in hopes that we could somehow glean some insights. Clearly there has been quite a bit of buzz, speculation and even hope that there would be some coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball, but Fitz put that notion to rest when Teddy reported early this year there would be no changes. So, hopes are tempered for vast improvement in 2012, but perhaps you’ll enjoy the anatomy of a transformation from one of our competitors.
LTP: Greg Mattison may very well be the most discussed coordinator in Northwestern circles. To paraphrase conventional wisdom among LTP readers, Mattison took a defense ranked 110th (total) and 108th scoring) and promptly turned the same unit with the same players he inherited in to a top ten scoring defense and top 20 overall defensive unit in 2011. How much of this turnaround do you credit to right talent, wrong previous DC vs magical pixie dust the former Ravens coach brought back to Ann Arbor?
MGoBlog: I think this is going to be bad news for the people who bring this up all the time in Northwestern circles, but you have to understand the epic clusterf— that was the Rodriguez-GERG (ed note: “GERG” seems to be a frustration moniker in honor of former DC Greg Robinson) regime before putting Mattison in context.
GERG was an idiot here coming off a decade of near-total failure* and Michigan was historically short on talent because of some dodgy recruiting in the late Carr era and bad luck. That’s a bad start. Now tell this snowy-haired hand model to deploy an exotic defense that doesn’t fit the personnel available and he doesn’t have the faintest idea how to run. That is a recipe for awful play unprecedented in the history of Michigan football.
Get rid of all that, bring in a highly-respected college and NFL coordinator, find yourself playing the worst Big Ten in a long time, and then weight the dice of the gods such that you recover 80% of available fumbles and you get Michigan’s amazing year one transition. I highly recommend it as long as you can get those pieces.
*[He did a decent job in his single year as Texas DC. Since his D was as good as the guy who preceded him and the guy who followed him, that doesn't seem like anything other than momentum.]
LTP: Most of us saw a few Michigan games, but likely didn’t pay enough attention to the “D” from a schematic standpoint and definitely did not compare it to 2010. Help us understand the strategic changes that were made.
MGoBlog: As mentioned above, Michigan transitioned from a not-good, but not-that-terrible 4-3 under in GERG’s first year to the amazingly bad 3-3-5 in his second back to a 4-3 under with Mattison. So not only was Michigan’s defense better suited for the D Mattison likes to run but most of them had already had experience in the system.
The other bit of Mattison’s system is an acknowledgement of the realities of college football: the nickelback is as much of a starter as the fourth defensive lineman and Michigan has a dedicated package for the spread. This represented major progress over not only Rodriguez coordinators but Carr-era spread flailings you are intimately familiar with*. You probably have children’s books about them.
*[Here it's worth noting that Northwestern shredded Michigan pretty good in Evanston. The D's recovery in the second half was mostly fortuitous turnovers and lack of opportunity resulting from those turnovers and Michigan's offense marching down the field. With the poor performance against OSU, the new D's efficacy against the spread is still uncertain. At least they're not doing transparently dumb things like previous regimes have.]
LTP: Now that Brady Hoke and Mattison have turned things back to “normal” in Ann Arbor and the talent level is back to top 20 level, how do you expect the defense to change in 2012 or stay the same?
MGoBlog: I don’t think the talent is back to top 20 level, honestly, and expect a regression as the defensive line makes a painful transition to youth that DL are not often prepared for. Also they are not going to recover ALL OF THE FUMBLES again. I’d be delighted if they ended up treading water this year.
As far as scheme, Michigan should remain consistent for the first time in a half-decade (seriously). This will help mitigate what promises to be a fierce regression to the mean.
LTP: You know Northwestern as well as any opposing team blog out there. We had a horrendous year on “D” and were flat-out confused at times in the secondary. Our secondary appears to be the weak link heading in to 2012 and questions abound on the other units. What would Greg Mattison do if he magically got traded to Northwestern as the DC?
MGoBlog: I don’t mean to be rude, but probably sigh expansively and recoil in horror. Even as Northwestern has transformed itself from punching bag to quality opponent the secondary has remained a huge weak link because there is no scheme you can run that turns the kind of athletes Northwestern has back there into playmakers. You can get away with a couple guys like Sash/Kovacs/Leonard here and there but at some point you have to be able to cover guys one on one.
It is possible Northwestern could be better organized back there. Michigan fans *hated* former DB coach Tony Gibson for presumed incompetence and their POV seems validated after the secondary got absurdly better in a single offseason. We kind of think that’s a position coach issue, though.
LTP: Fans have turned the heat up on DC Mike Hankwitz and long-time DB coach Jerry Brown in Wildcat Nation. What’s the coaching perception among Michigan fans. I find it hard to believe your demanding fans are actually content with every coach.
MGoBlog: We are still in our honeymoon phase after an 11-2 debut season that exceeded expectations just about everywhere. In general you are correct in that there are always a couple assistants on staff that the fanbase is discontent with. Right now Michigan is limited to longtime RB coach Fred Jackson, who seems to have no eye for talent.
But the thing is… it seems like the guys Michigan fans didn’t like haven’t gone on to do much and the ones they did are moving up in the world. So it may not be that the complainers are totally wrong. Two-time Michigan offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is assistant (to the) offensive line coach in the NFL. This is not an accident.
LTP: Any other nuggets of hope you can throw our way from a once horrific defensive team to a team that is mired in a pretty bad run on that side of the ball?
MGoBlog: I truly believe that the offensive system Northwestern implements is the best one you can implement. Given the rest of the conference’s renewed dedication to MANBALL (save OSU–don’t talk to me about that), it’s one that will allow Northwestern to play over their talent level for the foreseeable future.
As far as defense goes… I don’t know, man. The Mathlete did a great study on our site suggesting that you can overcome guru-disapproved talent on offense with chemistry and scheme (see: Northwestern) but that you have to have the talent on D or you’re not going to be very good.
Northwestern’s managed to find hidden gems on the line with regularity and has done decently at linebacker. Unfortunately for them, that secondary seems like the one place smarts and clever coaching can do little about.
LTP: Thanks for the time Brian. We have envy of your turnaround. Let’s hope we’re not having the same dialogue on our end next year at this time.