Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The learning curve is accelerated at Michigan this spring, and not only on the offensive side of the ball.
Granted, the offense remains young and thin at quarterback, but most players are in their second year running Rich Rodriguez's spread. Wolverines defenders, meanwhile, are installing a new system under new coordinator Greg Robinson.
"They're a little bit ahead of us," linebacker Obi Ezeh said of the offense.
Before Tuesday's practice, the defense needed to catch up.
So less than 30 minutes before taking the field, Robinson unveiled three or four brand-new blitz packages for his defenders. Then he gave Rodriguez the green light to move forward with the offense.
"They were like, 'Learn this stuff and then let's go out and run it,'" Ezeh said. "We started off real shaky, but toward the end of practice, everybody started coming together and it looked really good. So I like the attitude, that never-quit attitude that we're trying to develop here."
Ezeh senses a renewed attitude for a unit that, despite some solid performances in September and early October, ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (28.9 points per game) and ninth in yards allowed (366.9 yards per game). Michigan's offensive futility under Rodriguez drew most of the attention last fall, but the defense turned in one of its worst statistical performances in team history.
Coordinator Scott Shafer resigned after only one year and took the same job at Syracuse, where Robinson served as head coach for four years before being fired and coming to Ann Arbor. Robinson is Michigan's third defensive coordinator in as many years, but his plan for the unit isn't totally foreign to the players.
"It resembles a lot of the stuff we were doing with coach [Ron] English, so some of the older guys did it before," Ezeh said, referring to Michigan's defensive coordinator from 2003-07. "I got the feeling that it's going to be blitz-heavy, so I'm excited for that."
One of the big questions entering the spring concerned Michigan's defensive alignment under Robinson.
"It feels like a 3-4," Ezeh said, "but sometimes we do a 4-3 look."
Michigan is using several players in a hybrid defensive end-linebacker role, including junior Marell Evans, sophomore Brandon Herron, sophomore Steve Watson and freshman Anthony LaLota, an early enrollee. Senior Stevie Brown, who started all 12 games at safety last season, is being used as a safety/strongside linebacker.
The Wolverines hope the moving parts and the more aggressive scheme generate increased pressure from players other than star end Brandon Graham, who recorded 10 of the team's 29 sacks last fall.
Getting off the field is also a priority. Michigan finished seventh in the league in third-down defense (38.8 percent), which didn't help with an offense that ranked last in conversions (27.3 percent) and 10th in average possession time (27:38).
"When you're out on the field for that long, you're giving the opposing offense more and more opportunities to expose your weaknesses," Ezeh said. "Basically, we had to come to the realization that we could only control what we could control. Toward the end of the season, what really was starting to get us was getting teams off the field on third downs. We'd be really good on first and second and then somehow, they'd find a way to convert.
"That really kills morale."
Morale has been boosted this spring, and Ezeh wants to keep it there. One of few bright spots for the defense last fall, he earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and led the team with 98 tackles, seven for loss, and an interception.
As team leaders like nose tackle Terrance Taylor depart, Ezeh prepares to step in.
"I'm going to have to, and I feel ready to embrace that role," he said. "I'm ready for whatever comes at me, and I just want to be able to lead these guys and show these guys that we can be a good defense, no matter how many young guys we've got out there."