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Thursday, September 1, 2011
Michigan's defense finally gets fresh start

By Adam Rittenberg

Troy Woolfolk has been around Michigan football all his life, and he knows the hyperbole that often follows the Maize and Blue.

Woolfolk, a fifth-year senior cornerback for Michigan, heard the big declarations about the direction of the program after season-opening wins in 2009 and 2010.

He issues some words of caution entering Saturday's opener against Western Michigan.

"I have a problem with people saying, even if we win this next game, that Michigan is back," Woolfolk told ESPN.com this week. "We have to earn that right, every game, to say Michigan is back. So I won't be proud until the last game. If we win all the games, that's when I'll know we're finally back."

Troy Woolfolk
Troy Woolfolk could lean on his father, Butch, himself a former Michigan star, when it came to dealing with injuries.
Woolfolk's attitude is refreshing. If the grand proclamations about Michigan after the past two openers proved true, Tate Forcier would be a Heisman Trophy candidate and the defense would consistently keep opponents out of the end zone. Obviously, neither of those things panned out.

What Saturday's opener represents is an opportunity for Michigan's defense to start the process of returning to its traditional form. The Wolverines not only veered off track the past three seasons, they totally derailed, finishing no better than 77th nationally in points allowed and bottoming out in 2010 by finishing 110th nationally in yards allowed.

While many will be watching electric quarterback Denard Robinson and his transition to a new offense Saturday, the more significant developments will take place on defense. New coach Brady Hoke and his staff, led by veteran defensive guru Greg Mattison, have spent the past few months repairing one of the nation's worst units.

The product is far from finished, but it will finally be on display.

"Michigan is known for defense," said Woolfolk, who returns Saturday after missing all of last season with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle. "The past years, we didn't live up to that, but this year, we should be able to play sound, good Michigan defense."

Any potential Wolverines turnaround starts with the defensive line, the area in which both Hoke and Mattison specialize. Hoke likes his rotation, which is led by team captain Mike Martin and senior end Ryan Van Bergen, and also features a bulked-up Craig Roh, Jibreel Black, Will Heininger and massive tackle Will Campbell, who the Wolverines hope can finally reach his potential.

"We've got some multiple alignments that we can put out on the field," Hoke said, "and that's going to help us in a lot of ways, help us keep fresh so we've got guys in there who are fresh all day long."

Hoke added that he wants to see his defenders "playing with a fanaticism."

Woolfolk also mentioned we'll see more intensity from a defense that finished 98th nationally in sacks in 2010.

But the critical question is whether Michigan can limit the fundamental meltdowns that led to so many big plays and extended so many drives the past few seasons. Even in last year's 30-10 opening win against Connecticut, Michigan's defense had breakdowns the Huskies simply couldn't exploit.

Better teams did, and the results weren't pretty.

"Those major breakdowns are due to [the need to be] a student of the game," Woolfolk said. "You have to actually know the defense and try to go in, even after practice, to study film and truly understand your position. Once you can do that, it will cancel out the big plays.

"Mistakes are going to happen. The thing we like to focus on is not making the same mistake."

Michigan hopes a more experienced secondary can learn from the past, especially Saturday against a high-powered Western Michigan passing attack led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2010.

The lone positive for a Wolverines secondary ravaged by injuries and other personnel issues is that younger players got their feet wet -- and quite often their backsides burned -- in games.

"Courtney Avery, he played as a true freshman," Woolfolk said. "Terrence Talbott, he played as a true freshmen. So we have a lot of sophomores who played their freshmen year. Plus, we have me and J.T. [Floyd] coming back, who have also played a lot.

"We have a lot of experience, so the secondary should be fine."

It will take more than a strong performance Saturday to determine whether Woolfolk is right, but the opener marks a new beginning for a defense that craves one.

"I've seen it," Martin said. "I've been there every single day. ... It’s something you can’t hide. Every single day I can say we're getting better."