NCF Nation: Greg Mattison
There are more than enough projects and plans to keep Harbaugh busy in his first month of practices at his alma mater. Michigan, coming off a 5-7 season, must replace its starting quarterback, leading tackler and biggest threat in the passing game.
Schedule: The team met Monday and camp will officially open Tuesday, making Michigan the first group in the Big Ten to get started. The Wolverines plan to take a week off during spring break next month and wrap up with the spring game on April 4.
What’s new: If you’re just tuning in for the first time in the past couple months, you may want to sit down. Nine of Michigan’s 10 coaches are new (former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the lone holdover). Jim Hackett, the athletic director who took over in November, is also still getting comfortable in his new role. The change in leadership has altered the attitude around campus, which was needed if the program is eventually going to pull itself out of its nearly decade-long funk.
On the field, Michigan has to replace its starting middle linebacker and a pair of effective pass rushers on a defense that served as the team’s bright spot last fall. Young and talented players have a chance to emerge this spring on the defensive line and in the secondary.
The offense struggled in 2014 (115th nationally in total yardage), but at least won’t have to go through a major personnel overhaul to fit the style of offense Harbaugh and his staff have used in the past. An experienced offensive line is new for Michigan. All five starters from a slowly improving group return this spring, which should provide a bit of stability amid wide-open battles for reps at almost every skill position.
Biggest question: Will a starting quarterback emerge from the pack?
Michigan’s top three options heading into Tuesday’s practice are junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone. Morris is the only signal-caller on the roster with game experience. Harbaugh promised the competition would be a “meritocracy” with everyone starting on an equal plane. Spring won’t likely end with a starter in place. The pecking order, though, should be more clear by the beginning of April. Any one of that trio can do himself (and Michigan’s entire offense) a big favor by separating from the others in the coming few weeks.
Three things we want to see:
1. How will the secondary shake out? More than 80 percent of Michigan’s defensive backfield was listed as a “DB” on the team’s spring roster rather than given a more specific role at cornerback or safety. That list includes redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was expected to be an instant impact player before injuries ended his debut season in September. Peppers intimated he would be moving to safety, and more experiments with position shifting may occur this spring while the staff attempts to put together what could become a very athletic secondary.
2. Progress in the running game. Stanford’s turnaround under Harbaugh was in large part thanks to an offense that closely resembled a battering ram. Michigan has the potential to take strides in that direction this season with big backs like Derrick Green (234 pounds) and Ty Isaac (240 pounds) leading the way. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno played a big role in upgrading the Cardinal’s offensive line. The speed with which he can push Michigan’s line in the right direction will be a deciding factor in the outlook for the Wolverines’ final record in 2015.
3. The Durkin/Mattison collaboration. Mattison remains on staff but hands the keys to his defense to 35-year-old D.J. Durkin, who most recently served as interim head coach at Florida. Durkin is a rising star in the coaching profession and is known for his aggressive mentality in play-calling. The potentially awkward situation of a former and current coordinator working together isn’t expected to be a big issue. Mattison was the consummate team player under Brady Hoke, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be under Harbaugh. It will be more interesting to see how the veteran and well-respected defensive mind meshes with the up-and-coming Durkin and what results they produce together on the field.
After a weekend in Ann Arbor in which Jim Harbaugh's staff flipped the commitment of Florida defensive end Reuben Jones from Nebraska to Michigan, Daishon Neal on Tuesday poured fuel on the warm embers of a budding Big Ten rivalry.
Neal, a defensive end out of Omaha (Neb.) Central, accepted a visit Monday from Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Committed to Nebraska since April, Neal wavered in his pledged after Bo Pelini was fired in November. As Neal worked to establish a relationship with Mike Riley's new staff in Lincoln, he flirted with Oklahoma and Oregon in recruiting, ultimately eliminating both.
This week, on the heels of his official visit to Nebraska, Neal received an offer from Michigan.
Then on Tuesday, he reaffirmed his commitment to the Huskers in a radio interview with Sharp & Benning in the Morning on Omaha's KOZN 1620-AM.
In the process, Neal and his father, Abraham Hoskins Jr., ripped the Wolverines.
"They made one bad statement," Hoskins said of the Monday visit with Mattison, "and it ruined them. They said without football, Daishon wouldn't be able to go to Michigan -- like we couldn't afford to send him there or we couldn't get him [academically eligible].
"Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house."
Neal said Mattison "basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face."
Listen to the full audio here.
A few things strike me:
- Mattison and the Michigan coaches cannot respond until next week, when Neal signs with Nebraska. And by then, the Wolverines will have more important topics to address -- like their own class.
- Interpret Mattison's purported comments as you wish. He wasn't necessarily insulting Neal. It's a fact Michigan is selective in the admission process and it helps a student's cause to receive a football scholarship. I doubt his statement was related to finances.
- This feels a bit like Mattison walked into a trap in Omaha. Did Michigan really stand a chance here? Neal had an excellent visit to Nebraska over the weekend, by his own account, and the Huskers benefit from a victory -- perceived or real -- over Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in recruiting.
Most notably, less than a month into the Harbaugh era, things are going just as well as hoped.
We all know Harbaugh is going to make a run at Urban Meyer and Ohio State in the way he targeted USC's Pete Carroll while at Stanford.
Of course, Harbaugh will get under the skin of Michigan State fans.
A little bad blood with Nebraska is an excellent side story. It makes sense, too.
Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis coached for Harbaugh with the 49ers for the past four years. Harbaugh's son, Michigan tight ends coach Jay, worked as an undergraduate assistant for Nebraska's Riley at Oregon State.
Harbaugh, in fact, played late in his NFL career for Riley with the Chargers.
The Huskers and Wolverines figure to coach with similar philosophies and covet many of the same recruits.
In fact, they're battling for another. Tight end Matt Snyder of San Ramon, California, a Nebraska pledge, visited Michigan last weekend.
Home visits from both schools to Snyder are scheduled for this week. Expect a little more sparring.
Now, if only the Big Ten could do something about that four-year wait until they play again.
Among the eight hires Michigan has made official so far, including strength and conditioning coach Kevin Tolbert, six of them have experience as an NFL coach. Two others who haven’t been announced but are already on the recruiting trail for the Wolverines (running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley and tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh) also come directly from pro locker rooms.
When the full staff assembles in Ann Arbor, Michigan is expected to have 43 total years of NFL coaching experience. The staff will also have at least three members who played in the league for more than a decade. Their combined backgrounds should create some instant credibility with the current Wolverine players and a hard-to-duplicate advantage during the next few weeks of recruiting.
Thursday marked the first day that college coaches could visit prospects on the road since Harbaugh was hired in early January. He and his coaches have less than three weeks to fill out a recruiting class that right now has only six committed members, the lowest number of any Power 5 team. VanHaaren said initial reaction from recruits has all been positive and expects that to continue when prospects start to visit campus this weekend.
A lot of that positivity is thanks to name recognition. Harbaugh is in a unique position among NFL coaches who return to the college game because he wasn’t fired from his job with the San Francisco 49ers; he had success there. High school seniors saw him in the Super Bowl two years ago and most still know about the job he did at Stanford before leaving for the NFL.
“Every recruit knew who Jim Harbaugh was. It was a big splash,” VanHaaren said. "When Michigan hired Brady Hoke four years ago, the first strike again Hoke was that no one really knew who he was. That’s not the case this time around.”
Some of Michigan’s coaches have found a way to incorporate their NFL experience into recruiting pitches. Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, for example, often shows recruits highlight film of star players like Terrell Suggs or Ray Lewis from when he worked as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator. He explains to the recruits that Michigan wants to use them in its defense in some of the same ways. That visualization resonated with many of the players that Mattison has helped bring to Ann Arbor in the last four years.
Recruiting is often seen as a sticking point for coaches jumping from the NFL to the college game. Will they want to put in the energy to court high school kids? Are they adept at evaluating talent so early in the stages of development? Coaching veteran Frank Verducci said that angle is overplayed.
“If you’re personable and you enjoy meeting people that’s half the battle in recruiting,” he said.
Verducci, currently at Northern Iowa, has worked in the NFL, CFL and college football during his 30 years as a coach. In 2009, he joined the Notre Dame staff after more than a decade in the NFL. He said the biggest challenge in returning to recruiting was getting up to speed on the technology kids use to communicate. Most of Michigan’s staff has been away from the college game for less than five years and should have less of a learning curve in setting up their Instagram and Twitter feeds.
Verducci said overall the way you interact with players is a bigger difference between the two jobs than the way you acquire them. He compared to the pro level to more of a democracy and college to a “benevolent dictatorship.”
“You’re much more of a mentor [in college],” he said. “You’re trying to not only show them how to play football, but you’re dealing with everything from freshmen in their first semester away from home to seniors who are getting ready to go into a life and a career without football. You try to mentor and guide those kids much more than a guy in the NFL.”
Ultimately, he said, the same ability to teach, communicate and motivate are what makes a coach successful on any level. An NFL background may give Michigan’s coaches an initial benefit of the doubt among current and prospective players, but they have to continue to earn their credibility like anyone else as time goes on.
Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam says the game meant more to him than winning the Heisman. Michigan assistant Greg Mattison says it still feels as if it all happened 10 minutes ago.
Twenty years ago today, the No. 7 Colorado Buffaloes shocked the nation -- and the Big House -- when they rallied from a 12-point deficit with less than three minutes left to beat the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines on a last-second, 64-yard Hail Mary. The college football world will forever remember the play as the Miracle at Michigan.
Wolverines players were beside themselves. Linebacker Jarrett Irons says he never thought they would lose the game. Defensive back Chuck Winters says one Michigan assistant just “went off” on players in the locker room and had to be pulled away.
No one thought the play was possible. Buffaloes quarterback Kordell Stewart evaded a three-man rush and then hurled the ball nearly 70 yards, before one wideout tipped it and wideout Michael Westbrook pulled it in.
Those interviewed say they’ve never experienced anything else quite like that in their lives. Said ABC sports commentator Keith Jackson: “It’s part of your soul the rest of your life.”
Click here to read the oral history of the Miracle at Michigan, from the time before the catch to the actual catch, immediate aftermath and long-term impact.
Michigan's offense continues to spin its wheels this season, and things aren't peaceful for the Wolverines' defense, either.
Late in the first half of Saturday's game against Utah, Michigan defensive end Frank Clark sacked Utah's Kendal Thompson for a 13-yard loss. But the big play was somewhat mitigated by a 5-yard sideline interference penalty on the Wolverines.
Apparently, Mattison was at fault as cameras caught Hoke admonishing the veteran defensive coordinator to "get off the f---ing field." Mattison didn't take kindly to the rebuke and fired back at his boss.
Fun times in Ann Arbor.
Homesickness is a common ailment among freshmen football players across the country, but it hit Mone harder than most. Making the 1,600-mile move east to Ann Arbor was a difficult decision. Not only was he leaving behind his tight-knit Tongan family, but he was also leaving them with the heavy responsibilities he shouldered for many years.
Since the start of junior high Mone has been largely in charge of caring for his older brother Filimone, who was born in Tonga with health problems that have prevented him from walking, talking or fending for himself. Bryan, seven years his brother’s junior, hustled home from football practice throughout high school to feed Filimone, change his diapers and help move him around the house. The family jokes that Mone’s first foray into weight training was lifting his brother.
The family moved from Tonga to California to Utah in search of the resources they needed to help Filimone. The silver lining for Mone was finding football. He landed at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, a school that has produced a handful of NFL draft picks including five-time Pro Bowler and fellow Tongan Haloti Ngata. Two other Highland alums -- Utah starting defensive end Nate Orchard and Michigan fullback Sione Houma -- will be on the field Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached Ngata during his time with the Baltimore Ravens, tells Mone he sees similarities between the two players. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mone has played all three games and has made four tackles so far for the Wolverines. He has helped to add a new element of depth to the front lines of a top 10 defense that is allowing an average of 80 rushing yards per game this season.
"The sky is the limit for him," Mattison said. "You don’t think he’s the youngest of all of them. He just got out of high school, and all the sudden he’s here starting or playing a lot for the University of Michigan."
Mone finished his high school career as the top-rated prospect in Utah. He chose to pass up scholarship offers to stay close to Filimone and the rest of his family because he thought Michigan gave him a chance to help them more in the long run.
"We come from nothing, and they're my motivation," Mone said. "At first I was planning to stay home, but I trust the coaches here. Academic-wise, I knew I'd be able to get something."
A promising future didn’t make the transition to life away from home any easier. The self-proclaimed "mama’s boy" enrolled a semester early at Michigan and struggled to deal with the distance at first. He called often to make sure his family was managing to take care of Filimone without him, and so that his brother could hear his voice.
"(Filimone) does understand his surroundings and his atmosphere. He can sense it. It did get him down a little bit," said Latu Lauhingoa, Mone's older sister who has helped pick up some of his caretaking responsibilities. "Every time Bryan calls, he wants to talk where Filimone can hear. We would just put the phone to his ear and, oh my gosh, would he smile."
Mone leaned on Houma, his current and former teammate, for support during the spring semester. He also started to develop close relationships with his fellow defensive linemen. Coaches and veterans of that unit say they have bonded more this year than in any previous seasons. Mone called them his new family. When asked if he had any particular mentors that have helped him get settled on the field, he rattled off the names of 10 fellow linemen before taking a breath.
The defensive line was heralded this offseason as a strength that would need to be an anchor of this Michigan team if it was going to rebound from a 7-6 season a year ago. The final decorating touch to their position group meeting room, which was renovated in the spring along with the rest of Schembechler Hall, is a sign that assistant coach Mark Smith hung this summer. He made all of the players sign it as an oath of sorts when they returned for fall camp in August. It reads: "I am committed to my brothers."
Among a group that universally agrees it has grown closer in the past year, no one understands that concept of commitment quite like Mone.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.
There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.
But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.
As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.
“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.
“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”
Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.
“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”
Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?
They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.
“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”
One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.
The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.
“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”
Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.
Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.
“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
"If I'm not in that role next year, then I'll feel like I have taken a step backwards, which just cannot happen," he told ESPN.com. "So that's definitely a goal in the back of my mind. Last year is over and done with, but moving forward means taking the next step."
While Countess had a solid 2013, finishing tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions, he knows he still has room to improve. And the Wolverines could be asking more of him as they try to tighten up their defense this fall.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made becoming a better blitzing team one of this spring's priorities. Michigan gave up far too many big plays in 2013, in part because it didn't do a great job bringing pressure and in part because the secondary struggled to contain wide receivers. Mattison hopes his front seven can do a better job getting to the quarterback this fall when he dials up a blitz. That means the corners have to be ready, too.
"That's where we're at now in our defense," he told reporters last month. "As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get more pressure, we've got to play more aggressive on receivers, tighten the coverage up."
Countess said he's spent a lot of time this offseason working on press and man-to-man coverage. It's a more aggressive approach than some of the zone coverages he's played in the past, and he relishes it.
"All DBs love to play press," he said. "I've never met a DB who says, 'Nah, I don't like to get up there and press.' It puts you close to the receiver, and if we give the receiver space, that's what [he wants]. So it puts you in a better position to make plays.
"A lot of guys played press all throughout high school, and then they get here and are forced to play a little bit more zone than they may have in high school. So it's kind of like getting back to what we've done in the past."
The Michigan cornerbacks have a new position coach this spring, as Roy Manning is now overseeing that group after coaching outside linebackers last season. Manning, a former Wolverines linebacker, has brought some new ideas on technique, Countess said. But his biggest contribution so far might be his attitude.
"He played here, so he knows what it means to play here," Countess said. "He's pushing us. He's done a great job of staying on top of us."
Countess is also trying to take charge of the secondary as he enters his fourth year in the program. He and senior cornerback Raymon Taylor are now the veterans of the group, and they'll need to lead guys like sophomores Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas. Heavily hyped recruit Jabrill Peppers arrives this summer and could play anywhere in the defensive backfield.
"I'm helping out a lot more with the younger guys this spring than I have in the past," Countess said. "I'm here to get the younger guys settled, because that's the future. The cornerback position has a lot of guys who have had significant snaps and game-time decisions so that's going to create a lot of competition."
Countess and others had strong moments last season, but the secondary as a whole didn't deliver as much as hoped for Michigan, which finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. There's no sugarcoating the performance in Ann Arbor.
"You have to look at it as a team, and as a team we were 7-6," Countess said. "That's not good enough at all. We definitely didn't play well enough as a team and looking at our position, we didn't play well enough. I don't think anybody on the team, as far as their positions, are happy with the outcome."
The improvement, they hope, begins this spring. And a great place to start is with arguably the top returning cornerback in the Big Ten.
Brandon urged patience with the program, mentioned coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban in his post and praised defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, whose job, at least to the outside, always appeared safe. Noticeably absent from the post was offensive coordinator Al Borges, who, along with offensive line coach Darrell Funk, has been the subject of increasing criticism as Michigan's offense sunk to historic lows in early November before reviving itself last Saturday against archrival Ohio State.
Hoke doesn't have a blog (am I the only one who wished he did) and isn't nearly as verbose as his boss, but he also expressed some public support for his staff Monday during an appearance at Detroit's Ford Field.
From The Detroit News:
Hoke was asked if he's happy with the staff and anticipates having this staff in 2014.
"Yeah, I anticipate the staff [returning]," he said.
When pressed and asked if he does not expect any changes, he responded simply.
"Correct," Hoke said.
He was asked again if this is a "we'll-see situation."
"No," he said.
Like every coach, Hoke will conduct evaluations with his staff following the season. Not surprisingly, Brandon will be a part of those. So it's possible changes could come following Michigan's bowl appearance, but don't hold your breath.
There's no doubt Hoke is loyal, and loyalty is a fleeting quality in today's pressurized world of college coaching. Florida on Monday fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis, and other programs either have made or will make significant staff changes.
Michigan's offensive woes and season record aren't nearly as bad as Florida's, but both programs are supposedly big time and face pressure to win championships. Brandon's counterpart at Florida, Jeremy Foley, also had to give his head coach a vote of confidence in recent days. What do the two approaches say about the culture of the programs, the leagues they play in and the standards they set for performance?
Hoke and Borges were united in their offensive vision at San Diego State, and nothing has changed at Michigan. They want to restore a pro-style offense built around the power run. But for various reasons -- personnel types, youth, lack of development -- it hasn't happened yet. Michigan's offense had negative net rushing totals in its first two November games, couldn't score a touchdown in regulation at Northwestern and racked up just 158 yards at Iowa before exploding for 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 yards against Ohio State.
The Wolverines seem to be at their best with quarterback Devin Gardner moving around and ball-carriers attacking the perimeter, rather than between the tackles. That hasn't been the long-term vision, but the plan could come into focus next season as young linemen and young running backs mature.
Borges is a smart coach, but he's also a journeyman coordinator. He had different jobs each season from 2000-04 and hasn't been at one stop for longer than five years since a seven-year stint at Portland State from 1986-92.
Like many coaches, Hoke believes in staff continuity, which is often a top indicator of success. We've seen plenty of examples in the Big Ten, including the long-tenured staffs at Michigan State and Minnesota picking up the slack when head coaches Mark Dantonio and Jerry Kill stepped away because of health reasons.
Northwestern attributes much of its recent success, at least until this year, to the staff remaining fully intact. Coach Pat Fitzgerald plans to keep it that way despite a highly disappointing 5-7 record. But Fitzgerald isn't at Michigan. He doesn't have the same external and historic demands as Hoke does, or should.
Does the patience/loyalty shown by Brandon and Hoke show that Michigan is different (in a good way), avoids knee-jerk reactions and wisely plans for long-term success? Or does it show Michigan talks like a big-time program but struggles to make the hard choices needed to compete at the highest level?
I'll admit it's a tough one. We'll probably get our answer in 2014.
1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.
Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...
2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.
Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.
3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.
It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.
4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).
Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).
Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.
Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.
5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.
The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.
Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.
But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.
"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."
The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).
The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.
The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.
Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.
Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).
The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
- Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
- All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
- Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
- Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
- The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
- Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
- Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.
The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
Many college coaches, even those at traditional power programs, concern themselves only with the present and the future. Michigan's Brady Hoke puts the past on a pedestal.
Hoke's players know what the numbers 134 and 42 mean -- Michigan enters its 134th year of football and boasts 42 Big Ten championships. They know about the program's national titles and award winners. They see the Bo Schembechler quotes, the Big Ten banners and the legends lockers dedicated to program greats.
Many of the current Wolverines hadn't put on a helmet and pads in their lives the last time Michigan won a national title in 1997, but they know what the program was like because coaches like Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both Michigan assistants during the mid-1990s, tell them about it all the time. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk, who had no ties to Michigan before arriving with Hoke in 2011, often shows his players tape of former Wolverines stars Steve Hutchinson, Jake Long and Jon Jansen.
Senior linebacker Cam Gordon was 6 years old when Michigan won the national championship and 13 when the Wolverines claimed their last Big Ten title (2004, co-championship). But he hears about the glory days from coaches like Mattison and new outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who played for Big Ten championship teams in 2003 and 2004.
"I do remember the stories about Michigan," Gordon said. "Before they even stepped on the field, the game was won."
The constant history lessons taught inside Schembechler Hall don't stem from an unhealthy state of nostalgia. Hoke wants his players to understand the standard at Michigan. He's also extremely blunt about the fact that the Wolverines have yet to meet it.
Hoke guided Michigan to 11 wins in his first season and ended the seven-year losing streak against archrival Ohio State. He has yet to lose a game at Michigan Stadium. He has pulled Michigan out of the fog of the Rich Rodriguez era. Recruiting is undoubtedly on the upswing, and Michigan looks more like its old self on both sides of the ball.
But Hoke's tenure to this point, by his own barometer, has been a failure.
"We didn't get it done," he said of the 2012 season, when Michigan went 8-5. "We were still in a second year of changing a culture and changing a philosophy to some degree, offensively and defensively and the whole scope of what we try and do as a team. But still, at the end of the day, this is about winning Big Ten championships. We have 42 of them, and we need to start on our 43rd."
Hoke's message is heard loud and clear from the team's best player on down.
"The standard at Michigan is a Big Ten championship every single year," All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "That's the minimum. Everything else is a failure. The Sugar Bowl, the BCS game, that was awesome. It was such a great experience, Bourbon Street was cool, New Orleans was cool -- failure. Outback Bowl, close game, lost in the last 20 seconds -- failure.
"Those are all games that are failures. The only way this team would be happy, would be satisfied with one season, is if we win a Big Ten championship."
Things weren't that way when Lewan arrived in 2009.
"The main goal was to make it to a bowl game," he said. "I don't know if that's how it's supposed to be at Michigan. I don't know how much my opinion counts, but I think it should be a Big Ten championship every single year. These coaches have done a great job of preaching that.
"We're not going to settle."
It has been nearly a decade since the Wolverines could call themselves league champions, their longest drought since a lull between 1950 and 1964. Every year that passes without a title means Michigan moves a little further away from the great times, a little further away from regaining the mystique Mattison and others preach about.
Talking about a winning culture in the past only goes so far without establishing a winning culture in the present. It's why much of Michigan's offseason work has been from the neck up.
"There were times where we were down in games and we came back and won the game based off our mental toughness," wide receiver Jeremy Gallon said. "And there were times in games where we didn’t come back, and it was our lack of mental toughness."
Defensive tackle Quinton Washington said Michigan worked on breaking "mental barriers" this spring, one of which is playing better away from the Big House. The Wolverines dropped three road games (Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State) and two neutral-site contests (Alabama, South Carolina) last fall.
"We didn't play well on the road," Hoke said. "We didn't play with the toughness that it takes. We learned a lot in the bowl game about us as people, especially the guys coming back, good and bad."
Hoke has a Sun Tzu quote displayed in the weight room that reads: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. The goal is for the Wolverines to enter games with the same mindset as their predecessors.
Many think the Michigan mystique is dead, but Hoke's players are driven to revive it.
"If they don't fear Michigan," Gordon said, "then obviously that's something that we're going to have to change."
Beginning this fall.
"Anywhere you go in the world, everyone knows Michigan," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Anywhere in the nation, as far as college football, everyone knows Michigan. For the last couple years, we haven't lived up to those expectations. This next season, we have to.
"It's time. There aren't anymore excuses."
Ryan is the team's top returning defensive player, having led the Wolverines last year with 88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. We named him to our 2012 All-Big Ten team and rated him No. 17 in our Big Ten postseason player rankings.
There have been success stories of athletes recovering quickly from torn ACLs. The most notable one is Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing last season after suffering his ACL tear on Christmas Eve 2011.
"I know he will attack his rehabilitation just like he does everything else and will be back when he's ready," head coach Brady Hoke said in a statement.
Linebacker also looks to be Michigan's deepest position. Hoke told ESPN.com last week before Ryan's injury that "we feel a little stronger at that position" and that he expected great competition. Desmond Morgan, who started at weak side linebacker last year, had been working out at the middle linebacker spot to allow him and rising star James Ross to play at the same time. The Wolverines also have sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, senior Mike Jones and incoming freshmen Mike McCray II and Ben Gedeon to compete for snaps.
However, most of those guys -- with the exception of McCray -- profile more as middle or weak side linebackers, and lack the size to play the strong side spot that Ryan occupied. That puts more pressure on senior Cam Gordon -- Ryan's backup -- to play a bigger role. Gordon has appeared in 33 career games, and Hoke praised his winter workout efforts in his interview with ESPN.com last year. But Gordon has yet to show that he can be a star or a major disruptive force the way Ryan has been. Make no mistake about it: this is a big, big loss for Greg Mattison's defense.
The Wolverines have plenty of time to figure out some answers, but it remains to be seen if they can find anyone to fill the playmaking shoes of Ryan. It's the first real negative of the offseason for Michigan, which got great news when Taylor Lewan returned, when Devin Gardner got his extra year of eligibility, and of course on signing day.
Time will tell how well the team will fill in for Ryan, or whether he can return at all for 2013. But until then, the guy with the flowing golden locks and penchant for making impact plays will be sorely missed.
Mattison and the school have agreed to a three-year contract extension through the 2016 season. The 63-year-old Mattison is entering the final year of his original deal with Michigan after returning to the school from the Baltimore Ravens.
"Michigan is such a special place, and it's exciting to know I'll have the opportunity to coach at the greatest program in college football for the next four years, and hopefully long after," Mattison said in a prepared statement. "Part of the reason I came back here is because I wanted to work with Brady [Hoke] again, and every day I'm thankful I made that decision. There's not a better coach or man to work for. But right now we're focused on this year, and we're working every day for these kids."
Mattison has put Michigan's defense back on solid footing after the worst stretch in team history on that side of the ball. The Wolverines went from 110th nationally in defense the year before his arrival to 17th in 2011 and then to 12th last season. Michigan has finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense in each of the past two seasons with Mattison at the controls. Mattison was a finalist for the Broyles Award (nation's top assistant) in 2010.
Terms of Mattison's new contract weren't disclosed. Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant with a salary of $750,000 (tied with Ohio State's Luke Fickell). He's expected to coach the defensive line as well this season after Jerry Montgomery's departure to Oklahoma.
"We're excited Greg will remain at Michigan for the next four-plus years," Hoke said in a statement. "What he's done for this program, our defense and for our kids on and off the field over the last two years, he's the best there is."
Michigan fans won't argue.
It's likely Michigan will be Mattison's final coaching stop, as he'll be 67 when the new contract runs out. He has been defensive coordinator at Florida, Notre Dame, Western Michigan and with the NFL's Ravens.
The Wolverines are down to two as Montgomery has accepted the same job on Oklahoma's staff, sources have told ESPN RecruitingNation's Tom VanHaaren and Jake Trotter. Montgomery is the first assistant to depart Michigan since Hoke took over before the 2011 season.
Neither team has made an official announcement about Montgomery, but Michigan defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins tweeted about the coach's departure Saturday, thanking Montgomery and wishing him luck at OU. Montgomery will replace Jackie Shipp, the Sooners' longtime defensive-tackles coach who wasn't retained for 2013 .
Montgomery did a solid job for Michigan both on the field and on the recruiting trail. He certainly had security in Ann Arbor, but the move makes sense if he can grow professionally more with Oklahoma. After all, both Hoke and Mattison are heavily involved with Michigan's defensive line; Montgomery might have more autonomy with Oklahoma. Would he have been the top choice to succeed the 63-year-old Mattison as coordinator? Perhaps, but Mattison shows no signs of slowing down, and Hoke certainly could find a coach with previous FBS coordinator experience.
Montgomery briefly accepted a job with Indiana 2011 before joining Michigan's staff. The former Iowa Hawkeye also has coached defensive line at Wyoming and Northern Iowa.