Michigan football coach Brady Hoke has wasted little time trying to bring the program back to its roots, and so far it's been straight A's on Hoke's initial report card. The new head man in Ann Arbor has nearly rounded out his staff and has kept the current team together in the wake of Rich Rodriguez's firing.
Hoke's coaching staff will be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. That name may sound a bit familiar; Mattison was Michigan's defensive line coach from 1992-1996 and defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996. Previously he held a little gig you may or may not have heard of: defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens.
Working for the Ravens defense is the Mecca of NFL defensive coaching positions. Baltimore has had one of the league's best defenses for the better part of a decade, highlighted by their 2000 Super Bowl winning team that featured one of the best defenses in recent memory. How else do you think the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as a quarterback? Bear Bryant's famous phrase "defense wins championships" never rang more true.
That Ravens defense set records for fewest points allowed in a season and rushing yards allowed. While it was well before Mattison's time, not much changed under his watch. Mattison's defenses ranked in the top ten in his two seasons, never allowing more than 270 points in a season and averaging less than 17 points allowed per game each season.
His time at Michigan yielded similar numbers in his two seasons as defensive coordinator: his 1995 and 1996 teams allowed 170 and 184 points (in less games), respectively. Mattison's hire certainly hearkens back to the "three yards and a cloud of dust" era of Michigan football, when defense dominated and the offense was just there for the ride.
Speaking of the offense, Hoke brought offensive coordinator Al Borges along with him from San Diego State to help shape the team's new offensive scheme. Borges' track record isn't too shabby either, guiding Auburn's offense for four years, including their 13-0 season in 2004. Previously Borges helped UCLA average 31.9 points over a five-year span from 1996-2000.
In addition to his new hires, Hoke has brought back two critical components from the Rodriguez era that are sure to make Wolverine fans happy.
The first component is quarterback Denard Robinson. When Rodriguez was canned, there was immediate speculation that Robinson would transfer to another school. After all, Rodriguez had recruited Robinson to Michigan from Florida after no other big-time schools gave him a chance at playing quarterback. Robinson's speed and dynamic moves made him the perfect fit for the spread option.
When Hoke came in the general thought was that he would scrap the spread, resulting in a diminished role for Robinson. That may still be the case, but whatever Hoke said to Robinson during their meetings worked and the quarterback stayed. While Michigan's recruiting class may have been in shambles at the time, convincing Robinson to stay was just as good as getting a five-star commitment.
By keeping Robinson, Hoke avoided the mistake that Rodriguez made when Ryan Mallett left the team in 2008. A conventional pocket passer (and one of the top rated quarterbacks in the nation out of high school), Mallett was set to take over the reins of the Michigan offense after the graduation of Chad Henne. However, it was made clear that Mallett had no place in Rodriguez's fast-paced spread offense, forcing him to transfer. With no viable quarterback on the roster, Michigan tanked the following year. With Tate Forcier no longer on the team, Hoke knew that he couldn't run Robinson out of town and expect to have a chance at winning.
The second key component Hoke retained from the Rodriguez era is running backs coach Fred Jackson. Jackson has been with the Wolverines since 1992 and is the longest tenured coach on the Michigan staff. Jackson was the only member of Rodriguez's staff that Hoke retained, just like it was three years ago when he was the only member of Carr's staff that Rodriguez kept.
There's a good reason why different coaches are keeping this guy around all the time: he's good. Jackson has groomed four of Michigan's top six all-time leading rushers (Mike Hart, Tyrone Wheatley, Chris Perry and Anthony Thomas), and eight of the top 25, excluding Robinson. Jackson's backs own 13 of the top 25 all-time single season rushing yardage totals in Michigan history.
With a presumed return to a more pro-style offense, Jackson's role on the team gets an immediate boost. Under Rodriguez, running backs were used more as a decoy than as a real offensive weapon, as both Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw failed to make a significant impact this past season. Rodriguez leaned heavily on Robinson--some might say he overused him--to essentially become the feature running back.
Under a pro-style system, running backs will become a much bigger part of the offense. Looking to the future, when Robinson is graduated from the team, there's a good probability Hoke will try and recruit a more traditional passer to play the quarterback position. It's unclear how exactly Hoke plans on having Robinson line up, but even from the shotgun formation there is sure to be more emphasis on the running game, and not just from Robinson.
The more people see from Hoke in his first few days on the job, the more he seems to win them over. Dubbed as Michigan's "third choice," there were few that were thrilled when he was hired in the wake of the Jim Harbaugh/Les Miles circus. However, even recruiting, one area that many predicted he would struggle with in his first season, looks to be going better than expected. Michigan's class of 2011 was already in shambles when Hoke was hired, so there was little expectation he'd put together a solid group just three weeks before national signing day. But a week and a half after his hiring, Hoke has snared some good prospects, including four-star defensive back Raymon Taylor, who recently switched his commitment from Indiana.
Of course, the big question will be if Hoke can translate his successful first full week at Michigan into wins on the football field. Wolverine fans are starved for meaningful victories, namely "red-letter" games against Ohio State and Michigan State. The hirings (and retainment) of coordinators and coaches looks good on paper, but whether they can put it all together is an entirely different story.
So far, Hoke has the first part of the equation right.