Sam Webb: Coach, I imagine from the outside looking in, after you have a couple of defeats, just getting a win, just getting that good taste in your mouth, doesn’t matter how it looks, a win is a win. Is that about how it is?
Mark Smith: “I don’t think there is any doubt Sam, especially for the coaches and kids, there is a lot of time invested and a lot of effort put into preparing for games. When you don’t win or you don’t succeed, it is disappointing. I don’t think there is any doubt that getting a win last week and doing it the way the kids did with great play in overtime and getting us into overtime, I think it picks everybody’s spirit up.”
Sam Webb: The last few weeks, we’ve talked to Brady Hoke and he talked about the defense doing a great job of keeping the team in the game. You’ve faced two offenses that can really tax a defense. Nebraska with speed to the outside, they do the option stuff, same thing with Northwestern. Let us back up a little bit and talk about Nebraska and what you saw from your guys in that game. You held Nebraska to a season low point wise.
Mark Smith: “One of the things that week and for the entire defense, not just the linebackers, the kids did a great job of preparing. You think back with the time they spent looking at the opponent, how they practiced, the speed they practiced with, the intensity level, I think first and foremost you start there. If you have a great week of practice, I think you have a chance to succeed. Looking back at that week, the kids really invested and they were really in tune to what the Cornhuskers were trying to do and executed the calls. Coach Mattison had a good game plan put together.”
Sam Webb: We saw Desmond Morgan knife in and make some plays, the same thing with James Ross. Desmond has been pretty consistent it seems with his presence throughout the year. It feels like, it seems like we’re hearing and seeing more from James Ross here in the second half. Is that true? Is that what you’re seeing as well?
Mark Smith: “I think it is very true. James is a very talented player that when he is focused and he is in tune to what we’re trying to do and what the opponent is trying to do against us. He’s a kid that has playmaking ability. The biggest challenge for him and for me is that as coaches is to make sure that we consistently get that out of him. I do think Sam over the course of the last couple of weeks, he has played very well.”
Sam Webb: What has been the difference? Is it just repetition? Is it familiarity? What is that tipping point, what was the switch if you will that you’ve seen.
Mark Smith: “I think it is James flipping the switch. I think there were some games where he did nor I felt that he played as well as he should. He is a very prideful kid that wants to play his best and wants to win for Michigan. I think the improvements first and foremost starts with his mental mindset of preparing to play better. I think he has done a good job of that, as has Joe (Bolden) and Des(mond). They’ve all put the time in and it is hopefully showing on the field. I’m never totally happy with what they do, but I think they are having a little better success in being where they belong.”
Sam Webb: I don’t want to take Desmond for granted, but I feel like we’ve seen that consistently from him all year. You just mentioned that other guy, Joe Bolden, he is a guy that we’ve noticed some suddenness from him over the past couple of weeks as well. Is it the same thing with him as it was with James, that it is him flipping the switch?
Mark Smith: “I think it is. Joe has always been a kid that has prepared well mentally. He just comes from that background, being from a football family with his dad and his uncle. People forget because it seems like James and Joe have been here a long time, it is just there second year playing. They played in a sparing role last year, a backup role. They played a little bit, but not a consistent starter and that kind of thing. So I think this has just been a growth year for them. When you look at Desmond, this is his third year of starting. You would hope that he would be the bell cow back there a little bit and the guy that is really leading the charge. I think just the more they’ve played, the better they’ve gotten.”
Sam Webb: Last time I sat with, I think it was prior to the Indiana game. You talked about those are your three guys that you count on the most week in and week out, but you had to start getting some more guys in there. You said, I’m going to cut the umbilical cord when it comes to Ben Gedeon. We saw him in that game, he got some snaps, made some plays. What have you seen him in the weeks since? What do you think of Ben’s progress this year?
Mark Smith: “I think Ben is progressing fine. I know that hasn’t translated to seeing him a lot on the field. It is not because he hasn’t practiced well and he hasn’t prepared well or any of those things. We’re into the thick of the conference season and we got into November and I really want to make sure that the guys on the field are giving us the best chance to succeed. With the experience that the other three have had versus what Ben has had, at this point I felt that it would be better to go with the three man rotation rather than rotating four or even five in there. He is progressing well and he is going to be a very good football player here. He is a good football player. He helps a lot on special teams right now and has a bright future here.”
Sam Webb: The focus is obviously on those guys who are in the rotation most, but from time to time, maybe we get a chance to see on special teams or we hear from other guys about some of the other guys and in how they are progressing. Royce (Jenkins-Stone), Mike McCray, what about the guys who are a little deeper on the depth chart, how are they doing for you?
Mark Smith: “Royce is doing fine. Royce is kind of in the same boat that Ben is, but he has been here a year longer. Right now, his primary role to help this football team is in the kicking game and has done a good job of getting better from the defensive standpoint of the fundamentals, technique and the knowledge it takes to play the position. For Mike McCray, we’ve made the decision that Mike is going to redshirt this year. So I don’t think that is going to change with three games left in the season. Everything I can tell and I see from Mike McCray, when I do get a chance to get in there a little bit, we’ve got a good one there and I’m looking forward to getting him out there starting in spring ball and getting him mixed in the rotation and see if he can take somebody’s job away.”
Sam Webb: Let us turn the page, defensive effort against Northwestern, you kept them out of the end zone for all of regulation. Brady said, there are some things that we saw in overtime, the red zone in particular that we feel like we need to do a better job at. What did you see from your guys in the overtime situation because obviously regulation, the entire defense stoned them. In the overtime, what did you seen defensively particularly from your guys.
Mark Smith: “The one touchdown they did get during the game was during the overtime period and that’s when you really got to be at your best, when you get your backs against the wall like that and then you have to keep them out of the end zone. It was again, it was execution breakdowns as much as anything. I think some kids tried to do too much and they pressed a little bit. The good news is that they kept playing. No matter what happened, you know what, we’re going to go back out and we’re going to make this thing right. The kicking game as good as it was that day and the offense came around and was productive in overtime and did a good job. More so it comes down to execution in the red zone and we always talk about that being critical that you have no margin of error down there, so you’ve got to be real good and for most of the day, they were.”
Sam Webb: Coach Mattison dialed up the blitz more frequently and it looked like we saw some new blitzes in there. You’re guys were really involved in a lot of the blitzing that was done on that day. Just talk about your guys performance in that aspect of the game.
Mark Smith: “We’re always going to be a blitz team, even a little more so in the red zone. Once you get inside the 20, it eliminates some of the things that you can do in the open field as far as coverages because you don’t have as much room. You’re package becomes much smaller in the red zone. As far as the blitz package goes, I’m not so much sure that they were new blitzes as much as they were adjustments off of blitzes based on the formations that they gave us. The blitz package hasn’t really changed for a while, but it has adjustments built in that once they formate a certain way, different guys may be doing different things and I think that is probably what you saw.”
Sam Webb: Let us talk about Iowa. Not to say that Iowa is easier by any stretch, way or form, but do you like to see a team that is just going to line up and play traditional pro style, smash-mouth football. Is that something that you enjoy as a coach or does it really matter to you?
Mark Smith: “I like real football. I think our players like real football, not that the spread teams are not real football teams, but you’re talking about what football was and in a lot of ways still should be when it comes to playing the game. It is a major challenge. It is a totally different animal than what we’ve dealt with Indiana or Northwestern or even Nebraska. You’re talking about a downhill running football team that says you know what, you probably know what we’re going to be doing, but we’re going to try to do it better than you understand it and we’re going to knock you off the ball. It is a great challenge this week and they’ve obviously improved dramatically from a year ago. You can see that not in their record but also in how they are statistically running and throwing the football. It will be a great challenge for the kids and we’re looking forward to it.”
Sam Webb: When you scout Iowa and obviously you have a pretty good idea of what they are going to do, but who have you noticed on film, what guys have kind of stuck out to you and what are the keys for you guys defensively?
Mark Smith: “From an Iowa standpoint when I watch them, it is like night and day from a year ago with their offensive line. You can talk about the production of the running backs, but that all starts with the offensive line up front. You are talking about a quarterback that I think has been sacked I think six times the entire year. So first and foremost, you see a vast improvement with what they are doing with their offensive line play. Really it is a lot of the same guys that we faced a year ago. I think four of the five are back, but they are just playing at so much higher of a level and when your offensive line plays well, you have a chance to be successful on offense. They rotate three running backs in there, keep those guys fresh. The quarterback, a first year starter, very intelligent player that manages the game very well. Not that he can’t and won’t throw the ball, that’s not what I mean. He is a kid that gets them in the right plays and gets them in the plays that gives them the most chance to be successful. You can tell that just watching the kid that he has a lot of smarts and he is always going to get them in the best situation possible, but they are a very talented teams. You look at their wide receivers, they are long and big, they block well on the perimeter and they come off the play action pass and they cause a threat for you downfield. I’m not so sure there is a weak point and from probably the entire season, this will be the best group of tight ends that we’ve seen. Some teams will have one tight end that you think about, this team rotates three tight ends that all three are very good players. Not from the standpoint, okay they’re pass catchers or blockers, these three guys do both things very well. That is another key why they are a better football team this year than they were a year ago is that their tight end play is so much better.”
Sam Webb: It sounds like a tall order, but the defense has really, really been rising to the fore the last couple of weeks. So good luck again this week and getting the same thing done.”
Mark Smith: “Sam, I appreciate it and again like I said, we’re all looking forward to the trip to Iowa City. Obviously, we’d rather be playing in the Big House. Iowa plays football the way it needs to be played and you always love playing against teams that play the same way as you do.”