“He loves to apply pressure, I’ll tell you that. Always handing that first punch out,” Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis told reporters at Big Ten media days about the team’s new defensive coordinator. “Dr. Blitz knows what he’s doing, man. That’s what he’s great at. That’s what he hangs his hat on and that’s what we’re going to do. And I’m pretty sure everyone knows it.”
Just where Michigan’s mustachioed defensive mastermind, who was brought in by Jim Harbaugh after D.J. Durkin left the fearsome defense he built in Ann Arbor to take the top job at Maryland, came by the nickname is unclear. Lewis says he didn’t coin it, and Brown’s former boss at Boston College, Steve Addazio, said with a chuckle that he hadn’t even heard it.
“Obviously I hate to lose him. I love Don,” Addazio told The Ringer. “We had a good three years here. You hate to lose your coaches, but in the same breath you hire good coaches and you hire good people and you also want them to have the opportunity to continue to grow and move up, professionally or financially.”
So when Harbaugh had to replace Durkin, he scanned the defensive leaderboards for a candidate. Brown led the nation’s top defense in terms of total yards, so Harbaugh started his search with the BC coordinator … and ended it there with a new Wolverines coordinator.
And, he hopes, a new best friend.
“I get a big smile about Don Brown every time I even hear his name. I feel like we’re becoming best friends,” Harbaugh told reporters. “I just met Don in December and then we’ve worked together since then. He’s a legend in my mind right now.”
Putting the famously excitable Harbaugh’s hyperbole aside, considering what Brown accomplished at Boston College — which has never been, and will never be, confused for Michigan — should thrill Wolverines fans. The Eagles finished first nationally in total defense (254.3 yards allowed per game according to cfbstats.com) and opponent first downs per game (13.8), second in rushing defense (87.17 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (15.3 points per game), and sixth in passing defense (171.2 yards per game) in 2015.
(Critics may point out that BC’s 2015 slate included games against FCS weaklings Maine and Howard, but even if you include only games against FBS teams, the Eagles finished in the top 10 in scoring defense, rushing defense, total defense, and tackles for loss. Advanced statistics agree: The BC defense was one of the best in 2015.)
The key to Brown’s success? Aggression. He believes that you should apply pressure, so that pressure isn’t applied to you. Often, that means selling out to disrupt the offense’s plan. Get to the quarterback or get burned.
BC sent so many defenders into the backfield that it produced four players with at least 14.5 tackles for loss (no other team had more than two). Yet the Eagles failed to land a single player in the top 20 in that stat — they didn’t have transcendent talents like Clemson’s Shaq Lawson (25.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks) or Penn State’s Carl Nassib (19.5 TFL, 15.5 sacks) inflating their numbers. Their best pass rusher, Matt Milano, led the team with 17.5 TFLs (tied for no. 21 nationally) and just 6.5 sacks (tied for no. 72 nationally).
And though the Eagles had been vulnerable to giving up big plays on the back end in Brown’s first few seasons in Chestnut Hill, by Year 3 they got the personnel and the scheme to the point where they were solid on both ends. In 2013, Brown’s first year helming the defense, BC gave up 47 passing plays of more than 20 yards (tied for no. 97 nationally); in his last year, it gave up just 29 (tied for no. 10).
Under Durkin, Michigan ran an aggressive man-heavy scheme that finished fourth in total defense (280.7 yards per game) and tied for sixth in scoring defense (16.4 points per game) in 2015. And while Chris Wormley led the Wolverines with 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks (tied with Willie Henry), that was the most tackles for loss a Michigan player’s had since 2012 (Jake Ryan, 16.5) and the most sacks since 2009 (Brandon Graham, 9.5).
Brown will switch from a three- to a four-man front, though he’ll vary that depending on the opponent. He’ll use more zone coverage in the secondary, in addition to the press-man philosophy Durkin employed last season. And he’ll continue to blitz. A lot.
Recalling an early conversation he had with Harbaugh, Brown laid his philosophy out: “I said ‘You know, Coach, I’m probably (bringing pressure) 65 percent (of the time).’ And he goes. ‘Nah, I hear 85.’ I think he knew what he was looking for.”
At BC, Brown’s boisterous enthusiasm established the phrase “Be a Dude!” as a rallying cry, in the locker room and during recruiting. He’s ported that over to Michigan, complete with caps-lock emphasis mirroring his booming cadence and confusing levels of guy- or dude-ness. (Allow me to translate the 61-year-old Massachusetts native’s terminology for you: Guy, yah definitely wanna be ah dude.)
And with players like the pass-rushing Wormley, the all-American Lewis, the do-it-all Jabrill Peppers, and the nation’s no. 1 recruit Rashan Gary at his disposal, the sky is seemingly the limit for Dr. Blitz in the Big House.