By H. Jose Bosch
As I look ahead to the upcoming regular season and Michigan’s defense, I can’t help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Greg Robinson, Michigan’s new defensive coordinator, is not too different from the novel’s protagonist, Santiago, a down-on-his luck fisherman.
Both men are old, both haven’t had much success (Santiago had gone over 80 days without catching a fish while Robinson lost nearly 80 percent of his games as Syracuse’s head coach) and both are in for an epic battle that will test their physical and mental mettle.
OK, so maybe Robinson won’t be as physically taxed as Santiago was but the task at hand is just about the same.
With the defense under its third coordinator in three years, running an efficient system may be just as difficult as hauling in an 18-foot marlin over the course of three days. Robinson is switching the main scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and it remains to be seen if this will help or hurt the defense.
On the plus side, the three down lineman give Robinson more flexibility with a defensive line that lost defensive end Tim Jamison and defensive tackles Will Johnson and Terrance Taylor. Brandon Graham, who was voted the team’s MVP, is coming back and his 20 tackles for loss last season was second in the nation. With him leading the charge the line could be, at the very least, as effective as last season.
The linebackers are in better shape and the fourth linebacker spot will be filled by Stevie Brown, who will be a LB/S hybrid. Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh are back as is JB Fitzgerald, who has 12 games experience and eight tackles from last season. This will be defense’s biggest strength.
The secondary loses some experience but there aren’t any spring chickens at the top of the depth chart. I’m personally excited to see how Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko do in their second seasons. And maybe with the extra LB/S hybrid wrinkle, the secondary can do a better job covering ground than last season.
Like with just about any defense, the key to success will be in the trenches and whether or not Michigan can stop the run and rush the pass. Also, a major factor in Robinson’s ability to turn things around may not even be in his control. The offense could determine how successful the defense will be.
Last season the offense went three and out on so many drives that the defense barely had time to breathe before they had to go out on the field again and usually in bad field position. The defense still underperformed, but it wasn’t being helped out.
If Michigan’s offense can get generally better field position than it did last year, Robinson might have an easier time turning around what was an inconsistent unit last season. But, if the offense has another off year, Robinson can’t use it as an excuse if his unit also plays poorly.
Aside from the head coach, the defensive coordinator has been the loneliest coaching position recently. Since Rich Rodriguez is supposed to be an offensive guru, the defensive coordinator has and will continue to come under much more scrutiny.
My hopes aren’t sky high for the defense. They won’t be horrible (they have too many good athletes for that to happen) but they’ll be far from the dominating defense of 2007.
If you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea, you should. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but Santiago’s epic battle with a marlin is a great metaphor for Robinson and his defense this season. Rather than reeling in a large fish, Robinson will have to reel in a defense that was very inconsistent last season.
I can just see Robinson during the season opener, arms crossed, watching his defense from the sidelines and having the same feeling as Santiago when he first hooked the big fish:
“Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either of us.”