- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Detroit Lions reporter
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- At first it sounded blasphemous, but Michigan safety Thomas Gordon meant it with complete sincerity.
Michigan's defense was a good unit last season. It was a veteran group with a strong group of leaders and an elite defensive line. It was a group that went from being one of the worst defenses in the country under former coordinator Greg Robinson to one of the country's top units under Greg Mattison.
Yet right now, after a spring ball in which Michigan had to shuffle its defensive line after losing three starters to graduation, Gordon thinks they are already better. Not at this point last spring. Better than they were at the end of last season. Period.
"We have our days where we look day and night from last year," Gordon said. "We know we can make bigger strides and have a long way to go, and that's why we have fall camp."
Day and night? As in Michigan's defense last season was ahead, right? No.
"Yeah. A lot of people have more of a feel for the defense and feel a lot more comfortable out there," Gordon said. "They are just playing faster."
In some ways, he has a point.
The Michigan secondary, which featured an easily read interception by Blake Countess on a Devin Gardner pass Saturday, is deeper and more talented than it has been since before Lloyd Carr retired. The linebackers have, save for middle linebacker Kenny Demens, a bunch of youthful potential in sophomore starters Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan.
And the defensive line held up well enough when the first unit was in.
Demens was particularly impressed with how Michigan handled zone coverage Saturday -- something the Wolverines didn't play a ton last season.
Overall, they stifled a Michigan offense that played most of the day without starting quarterback Denard Robinson, who was a spectator so the coaching staff could further evaluate reserves Russell Bellomy and Gardner.
"I wouldn't say (that the defense is ahead of the offense)," Demens said. "They have their days, we have our days competing.
"I feel like today was our day."
There is, though, still work to be done. Hoke is concerned about how the middle of the defense -- both the linebackers and the tackles -- will hold up both in their aggressiveness and how physical they are. There are still major depth concerns on the defensive line.
"You are only as strong as you are down the middle, and that's going to be our whole deal this year," Mattison said. "We'll be fine outside. Jake Ryan had a good spring, Cam Gordon, you can see, he's going to help us.
"So our outside, we're going to be fine. It's inside."
That inside starts with Will Campbell and Jibreel Black -- who Mattison said needs to add weight to his 270 pounds but who burst through the first-team offensive line a couple of times Saturday -- up front and then Demens behind them in the middle.
But what Michigan showed Saturday was a hopeful step, especially since both the offense and defense were fairly plain in their calls.
Mattison estimated he ran four different defenses, which isn't a surprise for a public spring scrimmage. He instead wanted to see what some of the younger players could do in a stadium full of people for the first time.
"I don't know if we're way ahead," Mattison said. "I wanted to see how they were going to play under the gun, and I know Al (Borges) didn't call a lot of stuff either. We wanted to make it really a hard-nosed (game).
"I think this group wants to be really good."
What happened Saturday, he said, was indicative of what has taken place all spring. For the Wolverines, this could be construed as a good thing.
For Michigan to take the next step from re-emerging program to national power, it needs its defense to be able to join the offense in a progressive step forward.
It just needs to add to what it started last season, and already the Michigan players feel they are ahead of that.
The defense put its best foot forward in the spring game, causing turnovers and generally harassing the Wolverines' offense.