Mattison puts Michigan defenders on alert

March, 19, 2012
3/19/12
3:30
PM ET
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is happy to see some familiar faces this spring.

The Wolverines return seven starters and many other reserves who played roles in orchestrating one of the more impressive one-year turnarounds for a defense in recent college football history. Mattison remains grateful for their contributions.

[+] EnlargeJordan Kovacs
AP Photo/Tony DingSafety Jordan Kovacs is expected to be the leader of the Wolverines' defense next season.
He also guarantees them nothing for the coming season.

"Nobody has a right to any position," Mattison told ESPN.com on Monday. "It doesn't matter if you've started for three years, four years, one year. Every practice and every week is judged. We are always going to put the best football players on the field."

While this is a common refrain for coaches, who want to maintain as much competition as possible, Mattison finds himself doing more than paying lip service in spring ball, which kicked off Saturday. The scheme is no longer new. Neither are the expectations.

The learning curve for players hasn't so much been accelerated as it has been evened out. Other than three true freshmen who enrolled early and are practicing this spring -- linebackers Joe Bolden and Kaleb Ringer and safety Jarrod Wilson -- Michigan's defenders all have gone through a full year in the system.

"If a guy was a veteran, he would have picked up the new scheme at a certain rate," Mattison said. "If he was a younger guy, it would have taken him longer to pick up the scheme. Now, they've both had it, and there shouldn't be that learning factor that sometimes separates younger guys from older guys.

"Now it's who's playing the best and understanding the defense."

Mattison didn't shy away from using young players in 2011. Michigan started three freshmen -- linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan, and cornerback Blake Countess -- for much of the season. Although all three earned invaluable experience playing for a successful defense, they're not assured of anything in 2012.

Consider what Mattison had to say about the linebackers, a group that returns all three starters (Morgan, Ryan, senior Kenny Demens).

"Those positions are not solidified in any way," said Mattison, who stressed the need for the linebackers to improve in zone coverage. "Every day, those are evaluated."

The same standard is applied for veterans like safety Jordan Kovacs, who many expect to become the undisputed leader of the defense.

"I was really proud of what he did a year ago," Mattison said, "but it's the same thing, and he knows it, and it's why he's such a great young man. ... He knows he has to improve. He knows that if he just goes out there and plays like he did last year, that may not be good enough."

Kovacs will provide leadership, but Michigan needs more after losing standout linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Team 132 raised the bar on defense after it has sunk to historic lows.

But simply maintaining the level won't be good enough.

"That season, Team 132, is over," Mattison said. "Some of them had a big part in that, but they're 133. What are they going to be? Just because you played on that team does not mean you automatically will play on this team."

The reproving process is under way in Ann Arbor.

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