Hoke sets high expectations up front

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke likes to hear football. The sounds of linemen doing battle in the trenches bring to him the essence of the game. He wants to see the big men hit hard at the line of scrimmage and because of it, he wants his defensive line to be the best in the country.

So even though his Wolverines boast the best pass defense in the league (seventh in the country) and are No. 2 in the Big Ten in total defense (19th in the NCAA), he still isn't happy with the defense as a whole because the Wolverines aren't getting enough pressure up front.

"I think we keep searching as coaches for different ways to manufacture some pressure and at the same time have good coverage with it," Hoke said. "I think we're a work in progress with it."

Michigan's D-line has shown great improvements since its opener against Alabama. As the players have gotten a better feel for the game, taken more reps and learned to play with each other, their on-field play has elevated to the point that they have been able to show marked improvement.

In the Wolverines' first two games, they allowed an average of 266 rushing yards per game, but in the last three games Michigan has dropped that number to 87 per game.

But even with that growth, the focus will remain on the defensive line, because as the Wolverines have shown so far this season, as the line improves, it allows the linebackers and secondary to improve exponentially.

"We do need to get more pressure up front just with the four-man rush," senior defensive lineman Will Campbell said. "We don't need to blitz on every down to get to the quarterback. … We need to work on our pass rush more to get to the quarterback and give our DBs a better chance of covering."

The defensive backs have been able to do a better job of covering because of the D-line's improvements. With quarterbacks having less time in the pocket, they're more apt to make rushed passes, which allows the secondary to break up opponents' big plays and make big plays of its own. In the first three games the Wolverines didn't record a single interception. In the past two games, they've recorded four, which they've returned for a total of 89 yards.

The linebackers are benefiting, too.

"I think we're playing a little tighter on offensive linemen, which means we're getting our hands on them a little more," Hoke said. "That keeps the linebackers a little more clear."

Early in the season when the linebackers were forced to make stops on every play because the D-line allowed opponents to break through so often, the linebackers were being called upon to do too much and were being stretched thin. Now they're able to flow more naturally as they're not needing to make as many stops, which has allowed them to be more effective.

And while it's the little things up front that have gotten better, it has had trickle-down effects, allowing Greg Mattison's defense to make similar leaps and bounds to last year.

Campbell said the progress is due to the simple fact the Wolverines have been preparing better.

"We're communicating, we're getting in there and watching film together, we're doing everything together," Campbell said. "So we know what's coming and we know what to expect when we get out in our stance. That's probably the best part of what's helping us a lot, because of preparation and how we've been practicing."

And while Hoke sets a very high standard for his defense, he agreed with Campbell that the defense has allowed itself to perform well in games because of what it has done in practice on a week-to-week basis.

"They're taking what they're learning during the week from a personnel standpoint, from a formation standpoint … all those things that you want to teach as a coach that's going to help them," Hoke said. "I think they're doing a good job of that."