Michigan season preview part II (the defense): Greg Robinson is in for quite a battle



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.

oldmanofthesea_3502Both 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.080911_clausenmichigan

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.”

Powered by


  1. I think you’re missing a whole lot about the upcoming Michigan defense which projects to be nearly the same horrifying toss-up that last year’s offense was. For starters, however, let’s discuss Robinson. Your comparison to Santiago falls flat here:

    “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)”

    The problem with saying Robinson has had no success as a head coach is besides the point. The success he’s had at the defensive coordinator position in both college and the NFL speaks far more heavily to how he will succeed at Michigan. Head coaching and defensive coordinating are two remarkably different things. If you succeed at one, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll succeed at the other. Also, the 3-4/4-3 debate is one that you largely skipped. The players and even Robinson have openly stated that we aren’t really playing a 3-4 (we don’t really have the personnel to do so; no NT, specifically). M will be employing something of a 4-3 under. A good breakdown of it can be read here: http://mgoblog.com/content/what-it-its-it.

    As far as the soul crushing youth and inexperience of the secondary, well, you may need to take a peek at the depth chart again. Sure Cissoko and Warren are the prohibitive starters, but we’ll be starting a true freshman at safety, and basically everywhere you look on the 2-deep in the secondary, you’ll come up with a true freshman, which is to say, particularly foreboding youth. If my memory serves me correctly, there may even be a walk-on in the secondary 2-deep.

  2. I think the comparison holds true. Neither men had recent success but it doesn’t mean they are incompetent over their entire careers. It just means that they don’t look too good right now. I wanted to address his past coaching experience but for reasons of length I decided not to address it.

    I agree with you that coaching and coordinating are two completely different animals and just because he was a terrible head coach doesn’t mean he’ll be a terrible coordinator. But, for me personally, his past success doesn’t give me that much confidence. I’m certainly guilty of having a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality so maybe I’m not being fair to him. But those Broncos Super Bowls were over 10 years ago. His NFL defenses after that weren’t that noteworthy. His one season at Texas he was co-defensive coordinator and I’m just cynical so I’m going to say he can’t take all the credit for what was a solid defense.

    As far as the 3-4/4-3 debate, I appreciate the MGoBlog article. They don’t have the personal to run a true NFL style 3-4, yes, but we may see it from time to time. I guess the point I was trying to make was that with little depth along the D-line (at least in terms of players listed as D-lineman) it’s not going to hurt to have a defense with just has three down men and everyone else shifting based on the situation. That’s what the article implied and I agree with it.

    As for the secondary I painted too broad a brush when I should’ve just referred to Cissoko and Warren as the only two players who may be enjoyable to watch in the secondary. But I never gave the secondary a ringing endorsement either. If anything I was just woefully optimistic.

  3. paulmbanks says

    I like Jose’s comparisons…i think they’re very solid. When making a comparison like this, it’s hard to have everything sync up exactly. Getting as close on so many points as he does…is all good with me.

  4. Eh, it’s a moot point, and one that isn’t necessarily worth arguing, but the analogy just doesn’t hold true… it’s not even really that close. It’s nit picking, but to be skeptical of someone for recently doing something badly when he’s a proven candidate for the job he currently has is like blaming a duck for not being a chicken, when all it ever should’ve been was a duck.

    I just need Robinson to quack and waddle around and avoid getting shot in midair only to be held up by his lifeless feet by a priggish, cocky 8-bit dog.

Speak Your Mind