During his two-plus seasons at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez often has mentioned the numbers game on defense, a game that the Wolverines have been losing.
Rodriguez isn't talking about numbers of points allowed or yards allowed, although it's all connected to the larger problem the Wolverines' defense has endured. Michigan simply hasn't had enough capable players to succeed on that side of the ball. And without the numbers, or adequate depth at certain positions, the defense has plummeted. In the last two seasons, the Wolverines have finished 67th and 82nd in yards allowed, and 84th and 77th in points allowed, respectively.
High attrition has certainly played a major role, and of those who left, many were top defensive prospects. Recruiting also has played a significant role, much of it before Rodriguez's arrival, as Michigan signed small classes with not enough defensive recruits. Mgoblog has a great breakdown of the problems here and here.
Heading into a pivotal season, can Michigan survive the numbers situation on defense?
"It's still limited, to an extent, this spring," defensive coordinator Greg Robinson told me earlier this month. "Now there's going to be 14, 15 guys walking in the door [in the summer]. How many can you count on as freshmen? Time will tell that. Craig Roh played as a freshman [in 2009].
"So it can be done."
Michigan's incoming freshman class will be a huge factor in the defense's results, one way or another. Unlike past classes, the 2010 crop is both sizable and filled with defensive players.
Cornerback Demar Dorsey, the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit according to ESPN recruiting, will contribute right away as long as he qualifies for admission. Other defensive recruits like Cullen Christian and Marvin Robinson also are good bets to see the field this fall.
"We may have some young guys come in this fall and provide some competition, which is a little scary when you're talking about true freshmen," Rodriguez said. "But we want to play more people defensively and offensively."
Several defenders who stepped up this spring also should help in the numbers game.
Safety Cameron Gordon, a converted wide receiver, was arguably Michigan's top spring performer. The coaches also singled out linebacker Kenny Demens, cornerback J.T. Floyd, Teric Jones, defensive linemen Adam Patterson and Renaldo Sagesse and others for their play. Redshirt freshmen like Cameron Gordon and safety Thomas Gordon drew more attention during the spring session.
"You notice them," Robinson said, "and that is good. It's just the numbers aren't there yet. There will be a real infusion in August. We're going to get it done, but I know where the work is. It's about developing young players as quickly as we can. You've really got to count on 18, 19 guys, so the depth is what we have to establish."
Robinson admits Michigan never truly had adequate depth in 2009, and the results showed.
"We lacked depth, we lacked maturity at times," he said. "But that's last year. It doesn't really matter. There's no reason to be putting rose-colored glasses on it. At the same time, can it be an improved defense? Yep. It's the year 2010 and it's the 131st defense to perform here at Michigan.
"And doggone it, we're going to find a way to be better."