- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This is the first installment of a weekly interview series with a Big Ten coach or player that will appear on the blog from now until the end of spring practice.
First up is Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who joined Rich Rodriguez's staff last month after four seasons as Syracuse's head coach. Robinson has previously served as defensive coordinator for three NFL teams as well as Texas in 2004. He takes over a Michigan defense that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (28.9 ppg) and ninth in yards allowed (366.9).
I caught up with Robinson this morning between house-hunting trips in Ann Arbor.
This is probably a good time to be in the housing market, right?
Greg Robinson: It is. The problem with that is I've got one to sell in Syracuse [laughs]. We're trying to get it all solved.
How has it been transitioning back to a coordinator spot after being a head coach and overseeing an entire program?
GR: It's less to do, but at the same time, you're diving back in full throttle, which has been great. I'm back doing what I know pretty well.
You were pretty honest after things ended at Syracuse about how the journey for you there wasn't finished, there were still things you wanted to do. Has it been helpful to get back into it, getting ready for spring practice and another season, or is it still a transition?
GR: No, I'm glad that I'm here and I'm glad I was able to do it quickly. I needed to move away from what I was doing. That was frustrating for me at the end because I felt like we were beginning to show what we could be down the road. I knew what was coming back. The core of the team was coming back, and really, the guys who were the biggest players on the team were younger players.
But getting away from it and getting back in has been very helpful. Being here is exciting, and it's really where my thoughts are now. I work hard to maintain that, but it's moving forward. I can't sit there and dwell on what could have or should have been.
What has your schedule been like the last few weeks as far as meetings?
GR: Most of the time has been spent with the assistants, just kind of pecking away and getting on the same page with things. But also, just getting to know the players, that's the biggest thing. I've had a chance to study some of their film, I've had a chance to visit with 'em and talk with different guys. All that is very important, just establishing relationships, really. I don't know if I've met with every guy, but I've touched base with just about everybody.
As far as studying the film, anything stand out to you?
GR: I'm just trying to formulate some opinions as far as athletic ability. I'm not worried so much about scheme and those kinds of things as trying to see how people would fit in what we're doing and what we're attempting to do. That's really what it is, trying to get a feel as best you can of what the talent level is and how you can utilize different people.
You talked last month about not getting too wrapped up in 3-4, 4-3, alignment stuff. Is there a time where you'll start formulate that, or are you going to wait to see how guys look in the spring?
GR: No, we'll have a plan going into spring ball. You don't just go out there and play. We'll have the ability to be a four-man front and the ability to be a three-man front. I've done that, really, since I was at the New York Jets to the Denver Broncos to the Kansas City Chiefs to [University of Texas] and at Syracuse, where we have had some hybrid-type players who can play defensive end or linebacker. We'll continue to do those types of things. Then, as you get to working with people, you realize some strengths that maybe were unnoticed that you could take advantage of, and then you work hard to work those kinds of things into the scheme.
Who are the guys you've identified to be the hybrid-type players?
GR: I'm not going to get into all those names right now. We haven't been on the practice field yet. We have some people there, but before I make a commitment of who's what, I want to see them. I don't know if I can get into the personnel stuff.
You mentioned talking a lot with the other defensive assistants. As a guy who didn't hire any of those guys, how has that process been with a new staff?
GR: I've been very pleased and I feel very comfortable with the group that we're working with. Bruce Tall, the defensive line coach, and Tony Gibson, the secondary coach, those guys have worked together a number of years. Jay Hopson is a guy that's been around their program. I'm very fortunate to have a group of guys who really know football. I like their foundation of fundamentals as well as understanding schematics and things like that. Our graduate assistant group is a good group to work with. Really, I've been very comfortable and I look forward to getting out on the practice field.
As far as Rich, how have those discussions gone and where are you two in terms of philosophy?
GR: We spent a lot of time talking about those things early, when I came in. I have a good feel for the things he believes in as a defensive football team. I don't think we're very far off in anything philosophically. I can adapt to anything that he has interest in. Philosophically, we're on the same page. The things that are really important to him, I feel very comfortable that I can satisfy those kinds of things. It comes down to effort, philosophical-type things.
As we've talked, I know that there's nothing that's a red flag where I say, 'This is something very different in the thinking.' I just go about my business.
Has it been similar to working with other head coaches?
GR: I haven't been on a practice field [with Rodriguez] yet, but I've been very fortunate. I worked for Mack Brown, I worked for Dick Vermeil, I worked for Mike Shanahan, I worked for Pete [Carroll], I worked for Terry Donahue. No one was exactly the same as the other. Worked for Monte Kiffin. Rich has his way, but I know this: he's a good football coach. And I don't mean just as an offensive football coach. I like his style as a head football coach. Just being around him here, the things I was expecting to see from him, I'm seeing first hand.
Every relationship is a little different, but I look forward to developing our relationship as time goes on here.
When you looked at your options after Syracuse, was he the biggest reason that drew you to this job? Or
was it just Michigan and the tradition and being in the Big Ten?
GR: It's really all of the above. I had avenues that I could have really looked into that didn't necessarily appeal to me that might have been very appealing to other people. I could have gone the way of the NFL, I could have stayed in college. But I saw this opportunity was here and I weighed it. I've competed against Michigan, from way back in the 80s to obviously the  Rose Bowl a few years back. I know what this program is all about. I know the history and the tradition of the program.
On top of that, it was Rich Rodriguez coaching here. I respect Rich, and on top of that, I like him. I thought, 'I'm going to contact him because I think that this is a good situation that I think I can do well in. It can be a wonderful situation for my wife and I, because it's a great program with a fine football coach.'
You mentioned last month about building the attitude on defense. Are there things you do early in spring practice to form it? What needs to go into it?
GR: I would never imply that I'm trying to make something different than what things were. I'm just going to coach defense the way I know how to coach defense. I know this: This defense will not be outhustled. We will fly around, we will hit, we will play together as a group. You'll sense an enthusiasm about them that they really enjoy playing together. As we get to know the athletes that we like, their talents, we'll be a very tough defense to deal with.
I know you don't want to get too much into personnel, but overall it's still a very young team at Michigan. You lose some guys on the defensive line. As far as working with young guys, what are the pros and cons being a new coordinator to the program?
GR: I just think in all cases, be it the secondary, the linebackers and the D-line, you have to walk before you can run. We have to establish a fundamental foundation. That's paramount. And I take great pride in going back to my days at UCLA and Louisville. I was coached by Jim Colletto as a position coach, who was at UCLA from way back with Red Sanders and Tommy Prothro. It was always about fundamentals. Jim was a great coach of fundamentals, and I was raised that way.
I spent eight years in that UCLA program, and I really believe that's a foundation in anywhere I've ever been that we have to be fundamentally sound in the way that we play the game and how we function. The fundamentals are really important. We have to emphasize those this spring. At the same time, you want to give them some tools to use as far as schematics are concerned, where you can tax the offense.
We want to put the offense on their heels, but you've got to be careful because when you have young players, they can only absorb so much at a time. That's something you have to have a feel for and see where you're at and keep stepping back as a staff and evaluating where are we at this time and go from there.
Does this situation remind you of other ones you've been in before in terms of coming in to a team that struggled the year before and wants to get back to what it's known for doing?
GR: My last experience before Syracuse was at Texas, and that's exactly what the situation was. At Texas, they had kind of grown stale and year before I got there, they struggled on [defense]. In Kansas City, I was walking into a situation that was similar to that as well. In Denver, they were the worst defense in the league when I went in there, and in two years, we were the No. 1 defense in the AFC.
They're all different, but I do think that this one is a situation where it just didn't click. That's really paramount for us as a staff defensively to get on the same page and get rolling.
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