Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is in the midst of an arms race in the Big Ten, where conference titles hinge on the points of capable offenses but are claimed with the arms of suffocating defenses—the blueprint for such success lies 65 miles to the northwest of Ann Arbor in East Lansing.
Known for innovative and unique coaching tactics, Harbaugh doesn’t need to copy or mimic anyone’s styles or methods. However, he’s a football guy to the core. He knows what works, too. Coach Mark Dantonio's defensive staff has something going at Michigan State worth—at the very least—emulating in some way.
Given the proper conditions, Harbaugh is capable of constructing something powerful and dynasty-esque with Michigan’s defense.
With coordinator D.J. Durkin, D-line coach Greg Mattison and secondary coaches Mike Zordich and Greg Jackson, the Wolverines’ already top-15 defense could easily transform into a truer national power this fall.
Or in other words, just like what has happened at Michigan State. Credit Harlon Barnett for building the secondary, Ron Burton for the D-line and Mike Tressel for the linebackers. Success was no accident; it was indeed a true team effort.
Let’s face it, like the rest of major college football, the Big Ten is a league predicated on the idea of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Dantonio’s teams have been aided by offense, but they’ve enjoyed their place atop the Big Ten for one reason, and one reason only: defense.
And believe it or not, the Wolverines, at least statistically, are almost there. They finished with the No. 7-ranked total defense in 2014, one place better than the No. 8-ranked unit from Michigan State.
Of course, comparisons can get dicey, and some can qualify as stretches of the human imagination. But in this case, Michigan isn’t light years behind its in-state rival.
Harbaugh can have his cake and eat it, too. He’ll get his quarterback and offense while his staff crafts the rest. He’s assembled an all-star group designed to win today.
Until proven otherwise, the Spartans are superior to Michigan across the board. That’s what consistency does for a program. But Dantonio did it the hard way, from the bottom to the top. Harbaugh’s essentially stepping into a ready-made situation, complete with a familiar cast and nationally relevant defense courtesy of Greg Mattison.
Dantonio didn’t manufacture his top-tier defense overnight. It took time; he needed a year to lay the groundwork and more time to further develop his plan. His results were quick, though. In 2008, his second year as the Spartans’ head coach, he snagged his first win over Michigan, 35-21.
Sure, getting 35 points from the offense helped expedite the process, but Michigan State’s defense sealed the win by forcing four turnovers and holding the Wolverines to just 84 rushing yards. Michigan scored three touchdowns, converted just three of 12 third-down attempts and finished with 252 yards of offensive production.
Most of Michigan’s six losses during the past eight years have been similar—all caused by a relentless group of quarterback-sackers, pass-interceptors and fumble-causers.
Fortunately for Harbaugh, defense hasn’t been much of a recent concern for the Wolverines. They need to tighten up in spots, mainly the secondary, but they’ve been steady since 2011. Despite giving up 34 and 35 to the Spartans during that span, they have somehow avoided being thoroughly embarrassed on the scoreboard. A team with a pulse on offense could have easily kept most of the six losses much closer.
Although some have felt like 56-10 throttles, the Wolverines’ average margin of defeat has been 19.6 points in each of the six recent defeats. That’s a credit to Michigan’s defense. Once assisted by a capable offense, the Wolverines will eventually grow stronger and beat teams in a similar manner, maybe even Michigan State.
That’s what happened for Dantonio, whose fortunes changed once his D-line, linebackers and secondary aligned. In addition to having the No. 8-ranked total defense in 2014, his team also touted the No. 11-ranked total offense. Simply put, there is a harmonious, defensive-inspired balance in East Lansing.
Specialists Can Help
Former coach Brady Hoke had the right idea: Get Mattison on the job. As it turned out, Mattison outlasted Hoke, who was ousted this past winter, and has continued molding monsters in Ann Arbor.
In 2011, Mattison inherited the No. 118-ranked total defense in the nation. By year’s end, he had the makings of a top-25 contender.
A pillar of the program, Mattison knows how to develop and identify talent. On Tuesday, he went on the road to visit Rashan Gary, a 5-star defensive tackle out of Paramus Catholic in New Jersey. The 6’4”, 270-pounder epitomizes the type of pass-rushers that have accentuated Michigan and Michigan State defenses during the past few seasons.
Securing those types of talents is one way of keeping up with the Dantonios, but not entirely necessary. The Spartans have often produced without big-name talent.
Take a look at Dantonio’s unheralded array of 3-star linebackers such as Greg Jones, or 2-star corners such as Darqueze Dennard, or 3-star tackles such as Shilique Calhoun—those guys were overlooked by everyone but had record-setting careers in college.
That’s a credit to development, which happens to be one of the strengths of Mattison, Zordich and Jackson. Mattison’s known at the NFL and collegiate levels, while Zordich and Jackson come heavily recommended by Harbaugh.
Zordich played 12 years in the NFL, some of which were spent with Jackson, who was a secondary coach with the San Francisco 49ers during Harbaugh’s reign in the Bay Area.
With Durkin, that combination of coaches gives the Wolverines a clear and immediate shot at defensive dominance—and soon.
With Durkin, there may not be a waiting period like the one Dantonio had with former coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Prior to taking the head coaching job at Pitt, Narduzzi was known for building hulls of battleships, not just defenses.
But even he and Dantonio needed some time: In 2007, the Spartans gave up 26.6 points per game. The next year, they decreased to 22.1 before shooting up to 26.3 the next year—that was the learning curve. In 2010, the Spartans surrendered 18.4 points per game, and since then, teams have found it incredibly difficult to score twice.
Building from the back also worked for the Spartans, who evidently knew they’d only be as good as their last line of defense. That’s why players such as Johnny Adams, Trae Waynes, Chris Rucker (both of them), Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond were so important.
Because of great defensive backs, the Spartans fronts and linebackers appeared to gain confidence by the week.
The Wolverines need help in their backfield, but they have pieces—big ones, too. There’s Jabrill Peppers, a redshirt freshman safety who’ll probably play corner, too; then there’s veteran corners Blake Countess and Jourdan Lewis headlining a group of vastly untapped talent; and there’s incoming freshman Tyree Kinnel, another versatile option at corner or safety.
Channing Stribling, Brandon Watson and Dymonte Thomas could end up filling similar roles for the Wolverines as Adams, Rucker, Waynes, Lewis and Drummond had done for Michigan State. There isn’t a chasm of talent levels between them.
Their fates will come down to coaching and system, both of which are prevalent at Michigan State and quickly developing at Michigan. But with Harbaugh’s staff, they could see similar outcomes.
Stingy defensive concepts aren’t foreign to Durkin. While at Florida this past season, he watched his defense intercept 14 passes and recover an SEC-leading 13 fumbles.
As stated above, head-to-head comparisons can get iffy, but Durkin seems to be cut from the same airtight-defensive mold as Narduzzi, Dantonio and Mattison.
Other than sustained success, Michigan State has enjoyed another advantage, and that’s continuity among coaches. Dantonio is accessible and flexible, which has likely contributed to his relationships with Narduzzi and staff members. Establishing something like that with Harbaugh would only make the jobs of Mattison, Durkin, Zordich and Jackson much easier.
A Like Identity
For Michigan, it’s not necessarily a matter of doing what Michigan State has done. It’s not about copying Dantonio to the letter or hoping to acquire one of Narduzzi’s old playbooks, either. It’s about using strategy that makes sense.
Whether by way of the 3-4 or 4-3, man or zone, Dantonio has a revolving door that never seems to stop. Where one goes, one follows, oftentimes doing better than the man he relieved. That’s recruiting, development and system working together at its finest.
Since taking over Dec. 30, Harbaugh has demonstrated a strong commitment to a genuine rebirth. He’s more action than talk, so that’s why he pursued Durkin, Zordich and Jackson, and that’s why he retained Mattison.
Statistics don’t always paint an accurate picture. Numbers can be easily skewed to fit a narrative. But in the case of Michigan’s defense, there is no need to stretch while comparing its potential to that of Michigan State.
Harbaugh’s staff can equal or better the Spartans in the near future, and there is concrete proof beyond one or two stat columns suggesting that his head start could pay off this fall.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability. Recruit information comes via 247Sports.
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The LSU Tigers' spring practice on Tuesday got a little chippy when teammates went head-to-head in the "Big Cat" drill.
Although the whole video is an entertaining watch, the most noteworthy part is when offensive tackle Jevonte Domond (No. 67) and defensive end Deondre Clark (No. 98) went up against each other at the 1:20 mark.
The two Tigers linemen battled in the drill for a few seconds, but the real action came after the whistle. Domond started by shoving Clark backward, and after the two traded a few shoves, the former appears to land a few punches on his teammate. Clark, meanwhile, ripped off Domond's helmet in the fracas.
Tigers players were able to separate Domond and Clark fairly quickly, and the team continued the drill without any additional issues from there.
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