- Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer
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Greg Mattison knew that if he had an opportunity to return to Michigan, he would take it. His long-standing relationship with the Harbaugh family and the Wolverines’ new staff is making his transition with the team a smooth one.
Mattison said he fielded a few offers from NFL teams when Michigan fired Brady Hoke in December, but decided to see what would unfold at the school where he has now spent 10 years as an assistant. The veteran defensive coach’s ties to Jim Harbaugh’s incoming staff made him a natural fit as the lone holdover from Hoke’s group. His ties to Michigan’s current players make him an important asset for the new coaches as they get to know their team.
“Greg is a great coach, great person, great friend,” said new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. “Obviously he’s been here a while. He knows these guys really well. That’s an opinion I trust and I’ve trusted for a long time.”
Durkin and Mattison first worked together on Notre Dame’s staff in 2003 and 2004. Mattison said their friendship developed there and has continued as Durkin rose from a graduate assistant in South Bend to a coordinator destined for a head-coaching job in the not-so-distant future. That relationship made it easy for Mattison to hand the coordinator title he held under Hoke to Durkin.
“D.J. Durkin has done a tremendous job,” Mattison said. “There is no question who’s running the defense. He’s doing a super job of it. Not one ounce of that.”
Mattison's connection to the Harbaugh family started in 1982 when he worked with Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan. More recently, he served as a defensive coordinator for John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens for three years.
Mattison’s sole focus this spring has been the defensive linemen, who are going through a transition of their own. The four-man front Mattison used in his defense will be complemented by a 3-4 look next season. That leaves a handful of players learning to play the nose guard position for the first time in their college careers. Mattison said he has been impressed with the three guys – redshirt junior Ryan Glasgow, sophomore Bryan Mone and redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurst -- taking on that challenge.
The defensive line is a return to Mattison’s coaching roots. He worked with linebackers in past years at Michigan, but has spent the majority of his career working closer to the line of scrimmage. He said he was happy to be back in that comfort spot where he feels a coach can have a lot of influence on developing players.
“I’ve done it for so long that sometimes you say it’s kind of enjoyable just to take these four guys and see how good they can be,” he said.
Mattison’s knowledge about the current roster has been a help for his fellow coaches as they try to learn more about their team in a short time. Four years around the players gives Mattison the background to confirm or deny his colleague’s first impressions.
He said he hasn’t had to serve as a go-between on the other end of that spectrum -- guiding players through a getting-to-know-you period that can sometimes be tricky during coaching changes. Due to their experience and reputation, the new staff garnered instant respect from a team hungry to improve on its 5-7 record from a year ago, Mattison said.
Players say there is definitely a difference between the coaching styles used by their former and current coordinators, but that hasn’t let to any issues halfway through spring practice.
“[Durkin] talks a lot more than Coach Mattison,” senior linebacker Joe Bolden said. “Well, talks, I should say he raises his voice. I think his blood pressure might be a little bit higher. Coach Mattison was a little bit more relaxed that Coach Durkin. They’re both good coaches and both intense guys that show it in two different ways. It’s great having both of them around. It’s like having two defensive coordinators.”
Mattison wanted to make it clear that there’s only one defensive coordinator at Michigan, and he’s very excited about the man who holds that title.