Michigan and John Harbaugh are having a seriously impressive season going into their last outing against Ohio State at the Horseshoe on Saturday. The turnaround in Michigan’s fortune from the disastrous 8-5 2017 season is pretty incredible. In addition, the ‘Revenge Tour’ against Michigan State and the Buckeyes are similarly thriving with one more scalp needed. The offense for a change has been the main catalyst. While not at Heisman level yet; Shea Patterson has been solid with tailback Karan Higdon having his best year as a Wolverine.
Away from the offense’s contribution, Don Brown’s defense is still the same beast that has terrorized teams even during the last two years of underperformance. Fresh off his MVP year last year, Chase Winovich has taken his final season in Ann Arbor with renewed vigor. In addition, other pieces on the ‘D’ have prospered. Most notably, Devin Bush and Josh Uche.
However, is it the sheer talent on the team that is making this defense so good or is the work of Don Brown at defensive coordinator that has righted the Michigan ship?
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Perhaps only Nick Saban aside, no one can claim as much success or credentials as Don Brown in College Football. Brown is in his third year as defensive coordinator under head coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. During his tenure, his defense has ranked in total defense: first in 2016, third in 2017 and first during this 2018 season. Prior to this at Boston College, Brown again led the number one total defense in the country in 2015.
It’s clear that the ‘Dude knows defense’, and Michigan are seriously reaping the benefits. The defense may not score as many as others, but they are effective and are a key factor in Michigan’s resurgence to the top of the Big Ten. As well as the wider College rankings.
Chase Winovich has been the stalwart during this period, appearing in every of Don Brown’s Michigan defenses. His production has grown as he matured and grown on the football field. In addition to Winovich, serious NFL-level talent such as Cowboys’ 2017 number one draft pick Taco Charlton and 2018 draft faller Maurice Hurst Jr. have been through the system and thrived. This talent is indeed above the average for most college teams, but in comparison to ‘Bama or Clemson, it is just a drop in the option of their sizeable talent pools. Michigan may have had talent during Brown but whether this radically affected the ability of the team is questionable.
However, the 2018 season has been different. Winovich is still here, but he is the main attraction rather than the supporting cast. Devin Bush and Rashan Gary have replaced Hurst and Charlton. Both players are incredibly talented with 1st-2nd round projections for the draft but are not identical replacements. Pure linebackers cannot replace defensive-ends and defensive-tackles and the production has taken a hit as a result. Away from the linebacking corps, the star of Michigan’s 2018 team has no doubt been Josh Uche. And Uche has made some serious strides in addressing the gap left by Hurst and Charlton.
Uche had played in 10 games in 2017 but primarily appeared on special-teams and bit-part roles rather than commanding a starting or full-time position. Uche has shattered expectations this year, totaling 7.0 sacks and seriously challenging Winovich for defensive MVP of the season. Furthermore, the secondary and special team unit has been full of clutch play and standouts and it has only added to the effectiveness of the front seven.
2018 could be an extraordinary year for Michigan. A win against Ohio State all but assures Michigan a spot in the CFB Playoffs and who knows what else could happen. Perhaps the ‘Tide’ will finally be toppled from the top of the tree.
Unlike in years past, Michigan has not ridden on the back of the defense. With that being said, it would be a stretch to suggest that this Michigan defense is untalented. The talent, with no disrespect to Bush or Winovich, is certainly not what it has been in years past, and yet, they are still the number one ranked total defense in the country.
In Don Brown, Michigan has a defensive coordinator who is a special coach whose work with this young and fledgling defense is rather remarkable. While he is not the only reason for their defensive success, they should at the end of this year remind themselves that he is the catalyst as well as a leader for that top unit. Perhaps without him, the raw talent Michigan has at its disposal may not be producing the results that are currently catapulting them straight into the College playoffs.
As such his influence is crucial whether that be in the 2018 season or any season in the future.