DBs have familiar mantra

'Inside and in front' is drilled into corners, safeties under Mattison

Updated: August 7, 2012, 12:39 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

To preview Michigan's football season this year, WolverineNation takes a look at each position through the spectrum of the expectations of the position set by head coach Brady Hoke and the coordinators -- along with those who have played the position at Michigan in the past.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The command sounds more militaristic -- or at least something a cranky fan would yell to someone standing in front of them than an actual football strategy.

But to understand secondary play at Michigan and what is expected of the Wolverines' defensive backs, Jordan Kovacs shrunk everything anticipated out of them to one simple four-word phrase.

"Inside and in front."

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioBlake Countess learned what Greg Mattison wanted quickly enough to start as a freshman.
The meaning, he said, is his goal and that of all of his teammates. Defensive backs must keep opposing offenses inside of the boundaries the cornerbacks and safeties set and in front of them at all times. Some of this is universal among all defenses -- no one wants to get beat -- but the strategy behind it is part of why Michigan's defense is successful when run correctly.

"Coach Mattison's expectation of a defensive back is to keep the ball inside and in front," Kovacs said. "And don't give up big plays. That's it. It makes being a defensive back sound so much easier than it is.

"That's his expectation. And if he calls on you to blitz, blitz like a madman."

Mattison's expectations for defensive backs are a little more nuanced than that, with separate rules for cornerbacks and safeties based on the inherent differences between the positions. Kovacs' general assumption, though, remains.

For cornerbacks in Mattison's aggressive 4-3 defense, the first priority is to play run defense and be physical when they do.

"You need him to be a run player. The number one thing we do is stop the run first," Mattison said of his corners. "The second thing, and maybe the first, is you can never, ever, ever give up a big play. The corners and the safeties are the last line of defense.

"So either by rotating or playing back, they can never allow a home run, pass or run. Then the next part of it is they have to be able to be great pass defenders. They have a big job, but it's a job that's not right in the fray a lot of times."

This isn't to say pass coverage at Michigan is less important than facing the run, but as Mattison explained, when people think of the secondary, pass coverage always comes up first, so the Wolverines' coaches do their best to emphasize both.

The main difference for safeties is while the overarching principle of secondary play with the Wolverines is to keep your man in front of you -- as a safety, that has to happen every down.

"The safety is the guy who can never let the ball be behind him," Mattison said. "You're the middle guy. Whether it's a run or a pass, that safety has to be on top of the football."

All of this falls into another expectation Mattison didn't discuss. For a cornerback or safety to really see the field, he needs to be intelligent. And be able to bring running backs and wide receivers down.

"If I can't tackle, I can't be on the field," former Michigan defensive back Chuck Winters said. "You can't cover everybody, but tackling was a must."

Part of that has to do with freshness, which is why Michigan might employ a different defensive backs strategy than last season. Where the Wolverines often kept the same group of four on the field for the majority of plays -- cornerbacks J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess along with safeties Jordan Kovacs and either Troy Woolfolk or Thomas Gordon -- expect to see more varying combinations this fall.

While Mattison will never rotate his defensive backs the way he does his linemen -- there isn't as much of a need for it when it comes to in-game fatigue -- he'd like to see more players see time for multiple reasons.

Even though it appears there isn't fatigue with defensive backs, Mattison has been around the game long enough to know there is. Michigan has the depth this season to rotate as well. Besides Countess and Floyd at corner, the Wolverines have Courtney Avery and Delonte Hollowell. At safety, Michigan is incredibly deep, with Marvin Robinson, Josh Furman and incoming freshman Jarrod Wilson -- who impressed coaches and teammates during the spring -- to push the starters.

So the chance for rotation is there.

"You don't do it as much, but you'd certainly like to be able to do that," Mattison said. "Because number one, you never know during the year who is going to get injured so you want a guy to be game-ready when he's ready. Number two, every snap you can take off a guy is there toward the end.

"It's not just that game, it's that ninth game. Your body takes a toll throughout a whole season and any reserve you can get in there, that helps you."

Michael Rothstein | email

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