- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It didn't take long for Greg Mattison to get the attention of his new players at Michigan.
"Within the first five minutes," Wolverines defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said, "all the guys on the defense bought into him, were going to listen to him and were going to take his criticisms."
Most coaches don't have it so easy. Then again, most coaches don't leave one of the NFL's best defenses to coach one of college football's worst.
Mattison had a pretty good gig as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator. But when a chance to return to Michigan surfaced, he left Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and others to oversee a defense that had reached historic lows in the past three seasons. The Wolverines finished 110th nationally in yards allowed (450.8 ypg) and 108th in points allowed (35.2 ppg) in 2010, last in the Big Ten for both categories.
"I never would have left the Ravens for any job but Michigan and with coach [Brady] Hoke as the head coach," Mattison said.
Mattison had instant credibility among his new players.
Van Bergen lists the Ravens and the Steelers as his favorite pro defenses to watch. Even Michigan offensive players like receiver Darryl Stonum point out Mattison's connection to the Ravens and to recognizable stars like Lewis.
"You'd have to be pretty close-minded to not realize he had something great at Baltimore," Van Bergen said. "He was in a situation he didn't necessarily have to leave ever. For him to come here, to say this program means more to him, it shows he's got an emotional tie to what this program can do. It's not just a job for him. It's a passion."
Mattison doesn't spend much time discussing his time with the Ravens. Instead, he often tells the players about his previous stop at Michigan as an assistant from 1992-96.
He first coached the defensive line before serving as defensive coordinator in his final two seasons. In those two years Michigan held 19 of 25 opponents to 20 points or fewer and never allowed more than 30 points.
Mattison takes over a unit that allowed 34 or more points in nine games last season, hemorrhaging 65 against Illinois and 52 against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
"I don't even think about what’s happened [recently]," Mattison said. "We're here for a reason, and on my side that's to get Michigan defense to a level that's accepted by Michigan defense."
What is that level?
"The winged helmet means excellence," Mattison explained. "It means toughness on defense. It means swarming to the football on defense. It means celebrating together when a good play is made. In our room, it means you don't run the football on that defense. Anything that is your benchmark on defense, that's what the winged helmet stands for because it always has stood for that.
"Nothing aside from being exactly right is acceptable."
Mattison's first step to restoring Michigan's defense takes place up front. He has installed his trademark 4-3 defense, a system he shaped under previous Michigan coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr and others.
Michigan will use more defensive linemen and most likely bigger defensive linemen than it did in recent seasons, a necessary change after the 2010 season. Size is already a focal point in recruiting.
"When we went against Wisconsin, we were giving up 60 pounds up front," Van Bergen said, referring to a 48-28 loss that Wisconsin closed out with 29 consecutive run plays. "There were teams that outmanned us because of their size. We never overcame that."
The linemen received plenty of attention this spring. Mattison and Hoke, who have both spent most of their coaching careers with the defensive line, spent much of their time working alongside line coach Jerry Montgomery in practice.
"They've got three sets of eyes on them every play," Hoke said. "We ought to be able to be a little more physical at the line of scrimmage."
Other defensive position groups also are responding well to the system.
"I love everything they're bringing in," linebacker J.B. Fitzgerald said. "It feels like Michigan to me."
This spring, Mattison has focused heavily on third downs and red zone performance, two areas where the Wolverines struggled in 2010, ranking 95th and 87th in the nation, respectively. He also stressed finishing plays.
Players are instructed to chase the football on every play, even after the whistle.
"If there's a ball on the ground, even if it's an incomplete pass and Denard [Robinson] overthrows it by 60 yards, all the defensive linemen are running to that football, and we're going to pick it up and bring it into the end zone," Van Bergen said. "[Mattison] emphasizes, 'If you go full speed through the whistle, good things will happen for you.'"
After three years where mostly bad things happened, Michigan's defenders, especially seniors like Van Bergen and Fitzgerald, are ready for a change.
"Those seniors on defense have heard enough about where we've been," Hoke said. "They have a lot of pride. When you have that kind of pride, you want to be accountable to the team and to the tradition of playing defense here."
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