ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Rashan Gary doesn’t like watching the film of Michigan’s final three games of last season. But he still watches.
It’s difficult, but it’s necessary.
The Wolverines had leads against Wisconsin on the road, Ohio State at home and in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
They lost all three games, getting outscored 57-0 down the stretch of those games.
“It’s hard to watch the last three games,” said Gary, Michigan’s All-Big Ten junior defensive end. “Me and [junior linebacker] Devin Bush were at the dorm watching games on YouTube and seeing where we went wrong. That one play messed us up. That second play messed us up. Small mistakes that we put ourselves in are the reason we lost.”
Michigan’s defense had a lot to be proud of in 2017, ranking third in the country in yards allowed per game (271.0), No. 1 in third-down conversions against (26.1 percent) and passing yards allowed (150.1), and No. 4 in pass defense efficiency (103.71). The Wolverines were far from perfect, however, as those last three games showed. The current version of the team finished up its third practice of the spring on Tuesday. The defense may not have the question marks the offense is dogged by, but neither players nor coaches are satisfied with how they performed last season.
So, how do the Wolverines get better in 2018?
Having 11 players back who started at least four games helps. That’s a stark contrast to last season when linebacker Mike McCray was the lone returning starter. It’s not as if players such as Gary, Bush, defensive tackle Mo Hurst and viper Khaleke Hudson hadn’t played before, but their previous roles were as backups and on special teams.
Michigan football starting experience on defense
Michigan lost just two starters from the defense last season — McCray and Hurst. It has 14 players who have started at least one game in their careers, including those 11 with at least four starts. Here’s a look at them:
|Player||Year||Position||2017 starts||Career starts|
|Chase Winovich||5th Sr.||DE||12||15|
|Noah Furbush||5th Sr.||LB||5||5|
|Bryan Mone||5th Sr.||DT||5||7|
Defensive coordinator Don Brown starts ahead of the learning curve this year in that aspect but it’s only a starting point for him.
“Every group is a new group,” Brown said. “Are they going to put the work in all 15 [spring practices] — they going to cut corners, or are they going to grind? Now, all indication that I can give you is that our guys are on this plateau going [up]. Sometimes you can tell if the room is with you or [whether] distractions and stuff [are] going on. We just don’t have that.”
Bush doesn’t look like a typical middle linebacker at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds. Ben Gedeon, his predecessor who is now playing for the Minnesota Vikings, fits that mold at 6-2, 240. No one doubted Bush’s speed or his tenacity but there were concerns about whether his body could stand up to the rigors of starting in the Big Ten. Those concerns have been answered.
That experience for Bush and the other returnees will be at the forefront of any improvement by the Wolverines.
The offense shoulders much of the blame for how the season ended. An inability to convert third downs, sustain drives or score points in the second half did not help the defense. It managed just 19 points combined in the second halves of those final three games. If there was any finger pointing from the defense, it didn’t show.
“We’re a team,” Bush said. “We’re going to win as a team, lose as a team. Defense can’t win a game. You can’t give the defense a win and give the offense a loss. We take that loss as a team as a whole.”
Gary said he’s excited to see what can happen with all the experience returning. He’s especially happy that fellow defensive end Chase Winovich is returning for his fifth season. Bush called them Thing 1 and Thing 2.
“Last year we would say we didn’t get to crack up everything we had,” Gary said. “This year will be only bigger and better things that’s already added. But I’m not going to say nothing about that, but I feel as a defensive unit coming back we have that little swagger. I know what you like to do, you know what I like to do so let’s go. It’s not ‘oh, we’re young’ or ‘we’re scared.’ There’s none of that. We’re ready to fly. We know what each other has to do and we know our expectations.”