Greg Mattison

Mattison has seen both sides of the UM-ND rivalry

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Saturday isn’t just another game for Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

“I know it’s a huge rivalry for everybody involved in it,” Mattison said. “It’s Michigan. It’s Notre Dame.”

He knows because he’s spent eight years on the opposite sideline, coordinating the Irish defense under Bob Davie and then staying on staff under Tyrone Willingham to coach the defensive line.

“I had a great 8 years there,” Mattison recalled. “I got to see my family through school and my daughter in college, so that made it a really good deal.”

Mattison left Notre Dame when the Willingham era ended, landing with Urban Meyer in Gainesville, part of a coaching staff filled with Davie lieutenants. From there, he became a perennial thorn in Irish fan’s side, winning several one-on-one battles for high-profile recruits, and drawing the ire of Irish fans by allegedly using some negative tactics about all things under the Golden Dome to win.

Mattison’s three year run at Florida was a successful one, but he jumped to the NFL to join John Harbaugh, a friend and coach he’d worked with early in his career under Harbaugh’s father Jack. Mattison ascended to defensive coordinator after Rex Ryan was hired as head coach of the New York Jets.

While Mattison was coordinating one of the NFL’s best defenses, ESPN.com’s Michael Rothstein of Wolverine Nation nicely chronicles Mattison’s unlikely return to the college game, a move he made only because of the man asking.

The NFL taught Mattison more about disguising blitzes and coverages and about how best to pressure the quarterback with schematics. It forced him to become more varied in his playcalling. For the first time, he didn’t have to teach as much as he had to call the right scheme.

“He was a very good coach here,” said safety Tom Zbikowski, who played for Mattison at Notre Dame and with the Ravens. “But with his personality and just him as a human being I think he works very, very well with young men. I think he can relate to them well and be a figure that somebody needs at that time of their life.”

Mattison learned a lot. But his best friend called. He had just been hired as Michigan’s head coach. Did Mattison want to come?

Back to college, back to Michigan, back to Brady Hoke he would go.

Hoke tasked Mattison with fixing a Wolverine defense that had falling apart under Rich Rodriguez. He’s already gotten off to a quick start in his other forte, recruiting, with 15 of the 23 recruits already committed to Michigan set to play defense. Now he’s got to get his defense ready to take on one of their biggest rivals, after it took a few lumps in its debut against Western Michigan.

When Mattison sat down with the media earlier this week, he discussed some of the difficulties his defense had against a Western Michigan unit that played an up-tempo, hurry-up scheme.

“The thing that happen is the kind of thing you worry about happening,” Mattison said about his unit’s opening drive. “When you had so many guys that hadn’t played a lot football you probably had the toughest scenario you could get because it was a very fast pace. They were switching personnel groups in and out without us really being able to decide and see what they were.”

No disrespect to Bill Cubit‘s Broncos, but when Tommy Rees took the helm of the Irish offense after halftime last Saturday, the Irish moved at a tempo that made Western Michigan look like it was running out the clock.

Mattison countered WMU’s early success by bringing pressure, forcing turnovers from the Broncos after it was clear that Michigan couldn’t get to the passer in its base defense.

“We won’t sit back and play zone coverage until we have the ability to get a rush with a four-man front,” Mattison said. “It’s not fair to that secondary or that underneath coverage. If we get in a situation like that we’ll always try to do what’s best for the defense. I’m not going to say I’m a guy that’s going to say he’s going to go out and blitz every down, but when it dictates it, then I think you have to.”

If there’s a situation that dictates it, Saturday evening is it. With Rees moving the offense up and down the field in the second half, Mattison knows he’ll need to protect a secondary that’s still lacking in depth.

If there’s a counter-punch to be had by Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff, it’s a running game that can be the biggest offensive asset Notre Dame possesses. Lost in last Saturday’s defeat was Cierre Wood‘s performance, a dynamic effort as a runner, who also made big plays in the passing game as well.

Mattison understands that while Rees, Michael Floyd, and the Irish’s other aerial weapons can hurt Michigan, they’ll need to make sure Wood doesn’t take over the football game.

“We have to be able to stop the run,” Mattison said. “Any time a team runs the football on your defense, you can’t have a great day.”

Brian Kelly made the change to Tommy Rees in large part because he knows Rees is undefeated when he has both a run game and passing attack at his disposal. If the Irish are going to get their season back on track in front of 110,000 fans in Michigan Stadium, they’ll need to have both.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.