The Maryland football team has its new head coach: Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. To get the lowdown on Durkin's coaching philosophy and his time at Michigan, we reached out to Drew Hallett, the excellent football editor for SB Nation's similarly excellent Michigan hub, Maize N Brew. Follow Drew, and check out his team's work.
With that, let's get to it. What about this D.J. Durkin fellow?
TT: Michigan's defense posted very nice numbers this season under Durkin. I assume you're satisfied with the job he did as defensive coordinator?
Hallett: There are no rational Michigan fans dissatisfied with D.J. Durkin's brief stint as defensive coordinator in Ann Arbor. For most of the season, Michigan had the nation's best defense by many metrics. In a five-game stretch from Week 2 to Week 6, the Wolverines allowed only 2.8 points per game, became the first FBS team to shut out three straight opponents since 1995, and surrendered only 150.2 yards per game and 2.64 yards per play. They were downright dominant during that time and even had a good outing against Michigan State's high-powered aerial attack.
However, the unit dropped down to No. 2 according to S&P+, which adjusts for opponents, because it revealed some cracks as injuries wore the defensive line thin before it faced the two best offenses on its schedule: Indiana and Ohio State. The Hoosiers and the Buckeyes both had spread offenses with talent at the skill positions that could push the tempo and lock in mismatches on the field. That's what both did, using an assortment of zone stretches and outside zone to slice through a gassed defensive line on the ground to reach a so-so linebacker corps that no longer was protected. Accordingly, Indiana and Ohio State combined for 676 rushing yards and 6.2 YPC against Michigan. That, simply, is terrible, and I would have liked to have seen Durkin make better adjustments.
But, overall, how can I complain?
TT: If there's been any dissatisfaction with Michigan's defense under Durkin, where's it been?
Hallett: I griped about it in my answer to your first question, but his adjustments to Indiana and Ohio State's outside zone runs were ineffective. I can't put that all on D.J. Durkin because the loss of two key starters on the defensive line midseason -- including a third in the preseason -- was too much to overcome. Nonetheless, I was worried when he didn't try to put more men in the box when Indiana ran it 17 straight times and was baffled by his decision to go with a three-man front against Ohio State. Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett steamrolled right through it.
Maryland hires D.J. Durkin
TT: As best you can tell from watching the Wolverines, what should Maryland fans expect schematically on defense?
Hallett: I didn't study much film of D.J. Durkin's time as a defensive coordinator at Florida, so I can answer only as to what I saw this past season at Michigan. The Wolverines ran a 4-3 with a BUCK, which is a hybrid weakside defensive end-outside linebacker. The BUCK will set up on the line like a WDE, but he often will remain in a two-point stance like a LB. This allowed Michigan to have some flexibility up front, particularly on obvious passing downs when Durkin would have the BUCK stand behind or right next to the nose tackle to create new blitzing and stunting lanes for the pass rush. And Durkin didn't use lots of exotic blitzes to create pressure.
He mostly relied on stunts and twists up front to do that. Behind the defensive front, Michigan was in lots of nickel to combat spread offenses and put Jabrill Peppers on the field as a hybrid-space player. While Michigan would throw in some Cover 3 from time to time, the Wolverines mostly were in a Cover 1 press man. Durkin simply believed that Michigan had the defensive backs that could jam receivers at the line and execute trail technique afterwards. He wasn't wrong because the secondary, led by Jourdan Lewis, ranked first in yards allowed per pass attempt and opponent passer rating.
Though Durkin will adjust his schemes to his personnel, I'd expect something along these lines.
TT: Michigan is blessed with some really great defensive backs, notably safety Peppers and cornerback Lewis, who probably give the aggressive Durkin more of a cushion than he'd have at Maryland. Do you think Durkin's system can work without five-star talent?
Hallett: I do. D.J. Durkin was a defensive coordinator for three seasons -- two at Florida, one at Michigan -- and coached top-10 defenses in each season. And, though Michigan and Florida recruit very well, it's not like the only players on those defenses were five-star recruits. Michigan's most consistent lineman this season was a former walk-on in Ryan Glasgow. Its best linebacker, Desmond Morgan, was a former three-star prospect. Plus, other defensive backs that weren't as heralded as Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers all experienced significant improvement this season. It's hard to give you a firm answer, because Durkin wasn't around long enough to see how his recruits blend into his defensive scheme, but I doubt that his schemes work only with five-star talent. Of course, I'm sure they work much better when he has that talent.
TT: As a Michigan man - and therefore someone who has a stake in the Big Ten East - how do you feel about Durkin now coaching elsewhere in the league? Is this is a big deal to Michigan - losing him in the first place, and particularly losing him to a league opponent?
Hallett: Losing D.J. Durkin is a big deal only because it happened after his first season at Ann Arbor. Given the success he had as a defensive coordinator at Florida and Michigan, his prowess as a recruiter, and that he's only 37 years old, Wolverine fans knew this day would come at some point not too far down the road. However, this is sooner than expected, and it leaves Michigan scrambling to find a new defensive coordinator that can coach similar schemes because Michigan's defense has the talent to be excellent for the second straight season.
And it's hard not to trust that Jim Harbaugh, who's had six assistants become head coaches in just five seasons as a college football head coach, will find a suitable replacement.
As for losing Durkin to a divisional foe, it's fine. I wish him the best of luck at Maryland -- not too much, though -- but I think he has a tough road ahead of him. I say that not because Maryland doesn't have the resources or environment to win, but because the top of the Big Ten East isn't going away anytime soon. Plus, Maryland's biggest issues were on offense this season. I'm curious how Durkin will rectify those.